Stephanie Westbrook writing from Rome, Italy, Live from Palestine, 16 June 2009
Since Israel does not allow materials like concrete or steel into Gaza, many are unable to rebuild their homes after the devastating 22 days of attacks that ended in January. (Matthew Cassel)
While traveling throughout Gaza with a delegation of mostly US citizens organized by Code Pink, the absurdities of Israel's 24-month-long siege were ever-present. Upon returning home, a friend commented, "It must have been horrifying seeing all the destruction." And it was. The 22-day Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip (December 2008-January 2009) laid waste to this already ravaged and impoverished territory.
Gaza's landscape is dotted with piles of rubble of bombed out buildings, the twisted iron and aluminum of destroyed factories, once green fields reduced to sand and dirt by Israeli tanks, apartments with two-meter holes in the walls and toppled minarets of mosques turned to ruins. But as devastating as bearing witness to the destruction was, it was the absurdities of the total blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel and Egypt that really affected me.
Gaza itself remains frozen in time. Israel will not allow concrete and steel into Gaza, and as a result, nearly five months after the ceasefire no post-war reconstruction has begun. In only a few rare cases, cinder blocks have been used to fill gaping holes in the sides of buildings.
At al-Shifa hospital, the largest in Gaza, state-of-the-art isotope scan and radio therapy machines in the oncology department cannot operate because key supplies and equipment have been refused entry by Israel. A row of dialysis machines sat unused, lacking the required fluids.
As medical conditions in Gaza deteriorate due to the siege, many look for medical care abroad. However, the sealed borders prevent them from traveling. We met the director of an orphanage who already lost vision in one eye and was losing it in the other, but had been unable to obtain permission from Israel to travel to Egypt for eye care.
Power outages are regular occurrences. The Gaza power plant simply cannot keep up with the demand due to a lack of fuel, which is blocked by Israel, as is supplemental electricity produced in Israel. There are scheduled blackouts of 8 to 10 hours, as well as spontaneous outages.
While touring al-Shifa, the minister of health apologized for the heat in the room, saying their generator must be reserved for higher priority uses than air conditioning. Families are forced to carry their loved ones up the stairs because the elevators shutdown during blackouts.
The centers working to create employment opportunities for Gaza's women inevitably fall prey to the siege. Power cuts bring the sewing machines making dresses and linens to a standstill. Even the embroidery thread used to make traditional handicrafts must be smuggled in through the tunnels.
The siege has also taken its toll on the father figure. According to Dr. Hasan Shaban Zeyada, a psychologist with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, with almost 80 percent unemployment due to the siege, children see their fathers as unable to provide for them. This was compounded by Israel's invasion, when they saw that their fathers were also unable to protect them. As a result, children have started looking to other role models.
Another sector suffering due to the siege is education. At a UN vocational training center in Khan Younis, the library consists of roughly 12 bookcases, but only two had any books at all, with half being photocopied manuals. The textbooks destined for the center have been held up in a storage facility in Jerusalem; the Israelis have simply refused to allow them in. The vocational center is also unable to get the raw materials for their metal and woodworking courses.
Sharif, a university student studying business administration in his second year, is understandably proud of having top marks. His friends have nicknamed him "The Genius." Sharif was awarded a scholarship at Portland University in Oregon starting this fall. Unfortunately, the irrationality of the siege is likely to prevent him from being allowed to go. "If I don't get authorization [to leave Gaza] by August, there goes my scholarship," he explained.
A professor at Gaza's al-Aqsa University has been offered a position at the University of Manchester in England. However, Israel has denied him permission to travel. Professors are also unable to travel to attend international conferences. And students of the English department have a tough time finding native speakers with whom to practice the language, as getting into Gaza is almost as difficult as getting out.
Numerous projects for which funding has already been approved are currently suspended for the simple fact that the materials to complete them are not allowed in. Turkey has donated funds for a new university library and PalTel, the Palestinian telecommunications company, has allocated funds for an information technology center. But both projects remain in limbo, victims of the siege.
An official with the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) remarked that it is also a problem to get the actual banknotes in. UNRWA, which provides services to more than a million registered refugees in the Gaza Strip, is often only able to get money in to pay the salaries of their 10,000 employees, while money to fund projects is blocked.
Not only are Palestinians restricted in their movement in and out of Gaza, but also within. In late May, Israel began dropping thousands of leaflets near the border areas warning the people of Gaza not to come within 300 meters of the border or they would be fired upon. Farmers are forced to risk their lives in order to work their fields that fate has placed too close to the border. The same restrictions are imposed on Palestinian fishermen. The sound of shots pierce the silence nightly, as Israeli gunboats fire on fishing boats that dare to venture far enough away from the shore in order to catch fish to sell and provide a living for their families.
These are the absurdities that have become the norm in Gaza. But perhaps most absurd of all is how anyone can believe that Israel's severity in the closures, the destruction of the economy and social fabric of the Gaza Strip, will serve to convince Palestinians to place their trust in international law.
What we in the international community must do is to heed the call we heard repeatedly from the people of Gaza: work to break the siege so that they can take care of themselves.
Stephanie Westbrook is a founding member of US Citizens for Peace & Justice in Rome, Italy (http://www.peaceandjustice.it) and currently serves on the group's coordinating committee.