26 April 2009

A Report From Gaza



You can't get a more Senior Sinn Fein delegation than this one. The US appear to be using leading Irish Republicans possibly as part of a beginning peace process attempt. I hope the US plays fairly and honestly, and is not using Irish Republicans for a peace process that will never be fair for Palestinians. Last month in Washington Adams met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell about the Middle East. When Adams arrived in Israel to pass into Gaza, the Israelis banned him for entering because he refused to agree not to meet with Hamas (the elected government of Gaza!) Then, suddenly the very next day, Adams was immediately let into Gaza. This after a scolding to Israel by Blair and Mitchell. I posted about this the other day. Anyhow, I said I would follow up, and so am doing that now.

The following is a report of Gerry Adams visit to Gaza. as told by Richard McAuley a member of the delegation. Take a deep breath for some reality of what it is like there right now. This is just so devastating to read, truly devastating.

On 7 April, the Sinn Féin delegation – Gerry Adams, Richard McAuley, Ted Howell and Harry Thompson – visited the region for four days. Richard McAuley tells of their time in Gaza, including meeting the Hamas Prime Minister and Fatah and the PLO.

THE sights and sounds, the silences and smells of Gaza will stay with me forever.

There’s the father and mother standing in a hospital room waiting for their 13-year-old to die from bone cancer because the Israelis wouldn’t allow her to get the medical treatment she needed.

Then there’s the family living within a cave made from the twisted ruins of a bombed building after their home was blasted by Israeli shells.

The smell of burned timber in the hospital devastated by Israeli bombs.

The state-of-the-art radiation machine standing quiet because the spare parts needed for it to save lives cannot be brought into Gaza because of the Israeli siege.

The derelict ruined buildings with empty windows and huge holes punched through their walls.

From the moment we drove through the huge gates, under sullen watchtowers and between the enormous blast walls of the Erez Crossing, we knew we were going into a prison – a monstrous affair in which one and a half million people have been held in the worst of conditions by the Israeli siege.

The derelict landscape which greeted us on the other side of the Erez Crossing – from Israel into Gaza – looked like a scene from some apocalyptic movie. But this wasn’t the work of clever Hollywood designers and scenic artists or CGI experts – this was real. Real buildings, real workplaces, real homes, real farms, real schools, real hospitals. The hearts of real communities that had been bombed and bulldozed into rubble.

And within this landscape of twisted girders, collapsed buildings, of toppled walls and concrete blocks, human beings are trying to survive.

And good people in UNWRA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in the International Committee of the Red Cross, in MFS and Oxfam, in the Palestine Red Crescent Society and countless other NGOs and individuals are working exhaustively to help over a million refugees, many of whom are still stunned – shell-shocked – by the destruction around them.

Gaza was not the starting point of our four-day visit to the region but the 48 hours we spent there have left memories and images of despair and pain and of hope and courage that are unforgettable.

Gerry and I were in Israel and the West Bank two-and-a-half years ago. Then we were unable to visit Gaza because of insufficient time. Following the 23-day Israeli assault on that besieged territory over Christmas and the start of the New Year, Gerry was determined to visit the Middle East again, and especially Gaza.He wanted to talk to as many people as possible – Israelis and Palestinians – and receive as much information as he and we could absorb.


Watchtowers

support for the Palestinians
Irish republicans are in an exceptional position. Unlike most of those who are part of the enormous conflict resolution business around the world, republicans have experienced the reality of conflict and peace-making, and not just the theory.

Sinn Féin is for an end to:–
• The Israeli occupation of Gaza;
• The blockade and sanctions;
• The wall which steals Palestinian land and divides families and communities;
• The refugee camps.


With a new US President in Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring that the resolution of Palestinian and Israeli issue is a strategic priority for the new US administration, and with the appointment of George Mitchell as Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, Gerry believed that the time was right for a visit to the region and for the production of a report which might be useful to those likely to be involved in any new peace efforts.

Such an initiative appears likely. George Mitchell’s appointment has especially heightened interest in the Middle East into his role in the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement.

Last month, when we were in Washington, Gerry and I and Rita O’Hare spent over an hour with Senator George Mitchell, mainly talking about the Middle East. In our meeting with Hillary Clinton we also discussed this issue.

In this context, Gerry felt very strongly that a visit to the region at this time and a report containing observations and suggestions could be helpful.

Our first day in Israel
So, four of us – Gerry, myself, Ted Howell and Harry Thompson – travelled to Jerusalem on Monday, 6 April. We arrived in the early hours of Tuesday morning and a few hours later met Tony Blair, the British former Prime Minister, in the American Colony Hotel.

Blair is in the region representing the interests of the Big Four or what is known as the Quartet – the EU, the USA, Russia and the UN. Latterly much of his focus appears to have been on economic development.

With the long lead-in to the US elections last November and the Israeli elections of last month, and the negotiations underway between the Palestinian groups in Cairo, there has been a political hiatus in effect for some time.

The plan for our visit was that we would spend the first day in Israel. Trocaire funds a number of NGOs in southern Israel specialising in trauma counselling for families living in Sderot. This Israeli city has been the target for many of the thousands of primitive Kasssam rockets fired out of Gaza, The Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem had also arranged a number of engagements for us.

Following an hour with Tony Blair talking about the current situation in the region, we travelled to the Sderot Resilience Centre and met local activists as well as representatives of the Israeli Trauma Coalition. We were told that the rockets have killed up to eight people in the seven years of their use and injured many others.

By this point some of the media in Israel were reporting that we were to be refused entry into Gaza. The Israeli Government had asked for a commitment from Gerry that we would not meet Hamas. We refused to give such a commitment. Our position was quite simple – we would meet anyone who wished to meet with us, and especially democratically-elected representatives.

The Israeli Government had said that neither ministers nor officials would meet us. Apparently, this approach by the Israelis has so far succeeded in securing such a commitment from other delegations visiting Gaza.

On the kibbutz
From Sderot we travelled to the kibbutz at Kfar Aza (Gaza Village), where we met Shai Hermesh, a member of the centre-left Kadima party in the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset. Up to last month his party had been in government. Shai told us the story of Israel and its relationship, from his perspective, with the Palestinians. He brought us around the kibbutz and it was from there that we had our first real glimpse of Gaza in the distance beyond the barbed wire surrounding the village.

Hours later, back in Jerusalem, we met Rabbi Arik Asherman from the Rabbis for Human Rights group. They have taken a very strong stand against human rights violations by the Israeli Government and its agencies and have stood with Palestinian families whose homes have either been destroyed or are threatened with destruction. He brought Gerry to meet several such families in east Jerusalem.

Later again, we met with members of the Van Leer institute and it was during the evening that we received confirmation that we were to travel into Gaza the next morning. The Jerusalem Post was still claiming the next morning we were not getting in.

The Jerusalem Post was wrong.
We were on our way into Gaza – what Gerry Adams was to call “a huge, outdoor prison”.

PART 2 of Report from Gaza:

Erez Crossing
Bright and early on Wednesday morning we were on the road to Erez Crossing – the entry point into Gaza. At a nearby café we met John Ging, the United Nations director who was hosting our visit.

We drove in UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) vehicles to Erez Crossing. As we approached this massive border crossing I was struck by its similarity to Long Kesh. A high concrete wall stretched for miles with guard posts positioned along it.

The crossing itself, which is three years old, resembles an airport terminal but has never been properly used. It was built to accommodate up to 30,000 Palestinians crossing each day back and forward to work in Israel. But since its construction Gaza has been under siege so Erez sits largely unused, except for the occasional travellers, mainly UN and other NGO workers.

On this dazzling sunny morning it was four Irish republicans who made our way through it. After having our passports checked we were allowed to travel through in our UN vehicles.

The gates through which we passed from one air-lock to the next are massive metal things weighing tons. The concrete blast walls are enormous, and at the other side of this there is a 600-metre-wide no-mans land before you reach the ramshackle Palestinian border crossing.

There we climbed into armoured UN vehicles before beginning our two-day visit in Gaza.

Gaza
Our first stop, a short distance away, was the village of Izbet Abd Rabo, which was destroyed during the Israeli assault. There was nothing of value still standing. Nothing salvageable. And in the midst of this desolation Gerry held his press conference. He spoke first in Irish – which clearly took his media audience and interpreter by surprise.

Then, in English, he told them who he was and why we were in Gaza. He set the tone of the two-day visit by describing the Israeli assault as wrong and declaring that all people have the right to live in peace and safety and security. He made it clear that, while he was in no way accepting that the rocket attacks into Israel justified the Israeli response, he called for an end to them and to all armed actions by all sides.

And he stated Sinn Féin’s belief that dialogue, involving all parties, is essential to any peaceful resolution.

Gerry described the international community’s response to the plight of the Palestinians, and in particular of Gaza, as “shameful”.

An elderly and angry Palestinian woman confronted him. It appeared she thought he was with the UN. She had lost her home, her husband and a large number of family members in the Israeli bombardment and ground offensive. We met another family living in a cave created by the collapsed walls of a nearby building. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few mats on the floor.

After that it was off on a round of meetings that lasted until midnight. UNWRA brought us to the industrial area closeby, where thousands of workers lost their jobs when scores of factories were destroyed; to the American International School, flattened by Israeli rockets; to the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross; to a lunchtime meeting with civic society leaders, including human rights groups; to the Islamic University and a meeting with the heads of several universities in Gaza; and to the Al-Quds Hospital.

The hospital was one of those severely damaged during the Israeli air attack. We walked through destroyed hospital wards and listened to accounts from doctors and others of their efforts to provide medical attention to the wounded and dying in the midst of chaos and war.

We also met with Karen Koning Abuzzayd, who is the Under-Secretary General for UNRWA and who gave us a sense of the huge relief operation they run to feed and care for the needs of the almost one million, one hundred thousand refugees living in Gaza. It is an amazing enterprise involving a staff of almost ten thousand.

Meeting Ismail Haniyeh – Hamas Prime Minister
That evening we met with women’s groups. At 9.30pm, representatives of the Hamas Government arrived to take us at high speed through a confusion of darkened streets to a meeting with the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza. It was obvious that his colleagues remain deeply concerned for his safety and they took precautions to protect their leader.

He’s a big man with a warm smile and friendly demeanour who readily shook all our hands and urged us to sit.

Through an interpreter he welcomed Gerry and the rest of us. He spoke of the Irish republican struggle and of the Irish Peace Process. The Prime Minister explained to us the Hamas decision to stand in the elections of 2006, of their success and of the subsequent hostile reaction of Israel, the EU and USA. He told us of the human and economic cost of the Israeli blockade and of the recent air and ground offensive.

Gerry and he spoke about peace and how to achieve it, of the difficulties involved and of the possibilities arising from the appointment of George Mitchell. They spoke about Hamas’s attitude to Israel and the accusation that Hamas was for the destruction of the Israeli state and against peace.

It was a long meeting. Almost an hour and a half. When it was over we were whisked back to our hotel. I used the hotel internet to immediately issue a statement from Gerry explaining that we had met the Hamas leader. In it Gerry said:
“I was pleased to speak directly with Mr Haniyeh. I outlined to him Sinn Féin’s view that there should be a complete cessation of all hostilities and armed actions by all sides.

“I emphasised our opinion that dialogue, including substantive and inclusive negotiations, and a genuine peace process, is the only way forward for Palestinians and Israelis.

“The fact is that the people of Palestine and the people of Israel are destined to live side by side. I believe that most people want a peaceful accommodation.
“Following my meeting with Mr Haniyeh I believe that progress is possible. Mr Haniyeh told me that Hamas wants a peace agreement.


“As I have said consistently: there needs to be a dialogue between the people of Palestine and their leadership and the people of Israel and their leadership. That is what worked in Ireland.

“I believe that there is a duty on the international community to recognise the democratic outcome of the elections in Palestinian Territories. I believe that the people of Palestine and the people of Israel have the right to live free from the fear of threats, with human rights and in dignity and as equals.

“The citizens of Gaza are living in an open-air prison. They are being denied their human and national rights. This has to be rectified.”

The human cost of the siege
The next morning we were up early for an intensive round of further meetings. Local business leaders expressed their anger at the impact of the siege on efforts to stimulate jobs and commerce. The blockade means that no reconstruction of the damaged caused during the Israeli attack has been possible. The business and commercial life of Gaza is being strangled.

Other political meetings took place during the day with representatives from Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the People’s Party and others.

In the afternoon, we met the Hamas Mayor of Gaza and the City Council, Minister for Health Dr Bassem Na’im, and senior Hamas government officials, the Palestinian Legislative Council, including the Minister for Justice, and we visited Shifa Hospital.

The director of the hospital, which is the largest in the Palestinian Territories, gave us a quick tour and explained some of the grave medical and human problems confronting them. He told us that within minutes of the commencement of the Israeli attack in December around 140 bodies were brought to the front door of the hospital. The medical staff were swamped and there were so many bodies in such desperate condition that initially they couldn’t tell the dead from the severely wounded.

The director pointed to a half-finished building for much-needed intensive care units. It can’t be completed because the Israeli blockade prevents building materials coming into Gaza. During a tour of the hospital we were taken into rooms containing modern radiation machines for treating cancer patients that are lying idle because the Israeli authorities will not allow spare parts in.

In one particular hospital room we were introduced to a father and mother watching over their 13-year-old daughter who lay curled up on a hospital bed and will die shortly because she could not receive the treatment she needed for bone cancer. It was a heart-breaking experience.

The political meetings and interviews with the media continued again up to very late that evening. It was our last night in Gaza.

The next morning we were at Erez at 8am waiting to cross back into Israel. This time, however, the Israeli authorities would not allow us to use the cars. We had to walk through ‘No Man’s Land’ with our bags and baggage to the terminal.

There, a remote voice instructed us through air-locks and computer-controlled doors. Bags on one track to be scanned and X-rayed, and us into an enclosed contraption that whizzed around us to presumably detect anything illegal.

A long, deliberately dragged-out process that took two-and-a-half hours. A new experience for us but for the dozen or so NGO workers who travel back and forward every few weeks it was an old routine experienced many times. Some told us that they can wait up to 12 hours! I felt sorry for them having to put up with that nonsense but they took it in their stride – fair play to them.

Behind us, one and a half million people remained locked up in their huge out-door prison. The Israeli blockade allows a drip-feed of food and other resources. It’s all minimal. Barely enough to keep the place ticking over. Barely enough to feed people. The electricity network often fails. The sewage system is inadequate and is frequently on the point of collapse. People – children mostly – are dying because of inadequate medical resources or access to outside care. No substantial repairs have been carried out on damaged property, no homes being built, no factories being repaired and there is no sign of any relaxation of the siege.

It is a depressing, disastrous human crisis that looks set to get worse unless wiser heads prevail.

The Israelis seem determined to sustain the siege while the international community appears equally determined to stand by and allow this inhumanity to continue. It’s a disgrace but, worse, without a solution soon, it is a powder keg waiting to explode.

With 60 per cent of the population of Gaza under 18, the consequences for the region of this huge youth population isolated and trapped in a small confined geographical area and within a cycle of violence and poverty is obvious – or at least it should be. As Gerry warned:

“If allowed to fester and grow, in 20 years the world will look back at this time and remember Hamas as the moderates!”

And then we were out and on our way to Ramallah in the West Bank where we had a meeting with the Palestinian Authority.

We were now back on republican time – that is, we were running late. Later on still, we travelled to Bethlehem where Dr As’ad Abdul Rahman of the PLO Executive walked us around Al Duhasha, a Palestinian refugee camp established 60 years ago.

In the evening, we held discussions with members of the PLO Executive, including Rafiq Husseini, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Chief of Staff, and again Dr As’ad Abdul Rahman of the PLO Executive.

Back in Ireland
Saturday morning before Easter Sunday and we were on our way home.
Speaking on his return to Ireland, Gerry summarised the four days and outlined our next steps.

“I left the Middle East even more convinced that a process of dialogue between all of the participants is essential for progress.

“Democratic mandates must be respected and in any negotiation process there must be clear objectives set, within a fixed timeframe, if there is to be confidence that any new round of negotiations will be real.

“I believe that only a two-state solution which provides for the security and prosperity of Palestinians and Israelis, as well as national rights for Palestinians, can deliver a durable peace settlement.

“The response of the international community over many years to the political and humanitarian crisis in this region, and in particular to the plight of the Palestinian people, has been shameful.

“With George Mitchell travelling to the Middle East early next week there is a new opportunity opening up which must be grasped. But as that new initiative takes shape, the siege of Gaza should end immediately, all armed actions should cease and the reconstruction of Gaza, which the Israeli blockade is preventing, should begin.
“I intend to submit a report of my visit to Senator Mitchell and to the Irish, British and US governments and others with an interest in and influence on the situation there.

“Eleven years ago on Friday, the Good Friday Agreement was achieved. Many of those I have spoken to in recent days in the Middle East clearly take hope from that achievement. With political will it can be done in the Middle East also.”

1 comment:

planetmichelle said...

Palestine is not going to live along side Israel sure as a hen is not going to live along side a fox. If the U.S. was invaded by China the question from the Western allies would not be "how are they both going to live side by side on U.S. soil!" Whatever Mitchell is thinking it ain't gonna happen. The mission is another road to nowhere, a waste of time & money and Israel must love it because it just gives them more time and opportunity to kill and eat more hens. As it is Israel is a fat hog. Thanks America, keep working on it: "how to have your cake and eat it too." Fer sher.

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