It’s like a prison in many ways, surrounded by high walls on three sides, gun towers overseeing the free-fire stretch of scorched earth and rubble warning anyone, including farmers who once tilled the land, from getting close. On the fourth side, the west, the Mediterranean inexorably draws the eye to the horizon, but it, too, is forbidden. Fishers who long pulled their catch from its waters cannot venture more than two nautical miles from shore without being shot at from Israeli gunboats keeping close watch. So they fish literally right off the shore, a low-yield enterprise that, because it harvests an inordinate number of immature fish, isn’t good for the health of the fish population either.
Yet no matter how hemmed in they are by the Israeli blockade, the people of Gaza struck me on this, my fourth visit, as gritty survivors. Despite all their difficulties–and the combination of Israeli containment, international indifference and fundamentalist control make those difficulties serious and many–Gazans continue to laugh and play and love.
“Despite all the bad things you hear about Gaza, there is life here. People here pray and lead virtuous lives. They are happy, even living in Gaza with all its problems. This is their homeland, their loved ones are buried here. God is here, and it’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit that people here embrace and celebrate the life they have,” Father Jorge Hernandez told me in an interview for Catholic News Service. He’s the priest of the Latin rite Holy Family Catholic Church, Gaza’s only Catholic parish. There are only 206 Catholics left in Gaza, a land that Jesus, Mary and Joseph passed through on their way to Egypt. There are another two thousand some Orthodox Christians and a handful of Baptists. The number of Christians remaining in Gaza, as elsewhere in Palestine, is alarmingly small.
Here’s Mariam Almiron, an Argentinian nun who works in Gaza. Since her Arabic is still pretty rustic, she communicates well by spinning kids around following Mass. I call her the Spinning Nun.
This trip to Gaza, on behalf of the ACT Alliance, was dedicated to visually documenting the impact of the blockade on ordinary people. That includes the fishers. As I wandered around Gaza City’s fishing port during several early mornings, they kept interrupting the mending of their nets or the unloading of their meager catch to offer me tea. The hospitality of the poor never ceases to amaze me.
The fish that are caught make their way to an auction in the middle of the main street that runs along the coast. It gets animated.
I also captured images related to health care. The blockade prevents a variety of medicines from entering Gaza, complicating life for people with cancer and other serious illnesses. And people who need treatment outside of Gaza face serious waits for permission to travel to the East Jerusalem or the West Bank, or to hospitals in Israel or Egypt, for treatment. Often that permission either never comes, or comes too late for treatment to alter the course of the disease.
Here are images from the mammography department at Ahli Arab Hospital, an ACT member, as well as from Shifa Hospital, the main government medical facility. The first is of a woman being screened for breast cancer. The second is of a woman who is living with breast cancer. Hospitals in Gaza, damaged during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, have difficulties at times getting medical and pharmaceutical supplies to treat women with breast cancer–the leading cause of death among women in Gaza. Sixty percent of all cases of breast cancer in Gaza are diagnosed at a late stage, when the cancer has already spread. In Israel, this figure is only 5 to 7 percent.
Permission to travel for medical care must come from the Israeli government, of course, which since it pulled out of Gaza in 2005 has claimed that it no longer occupies the territory. (The magnanimity of their withdrawal is often overstated, by the way, given that the occupation was illegal to start with, and because leaving had more to do with the decline in production of settlement farming due to salinification, as well as the enormous cost of maintaining military “protection” for such a small number of settlers, than with any desire to return a portion of Palestine to its rightful owners.) Yet it still controls the airspace and borders, and so nothing gets in or out of Gaza without its acquiescence, including patients desperately needing treatment.
The one wild card in this virtually complete control has been Gaza’s border with Egypt. Because Hosni Mubarak has been an accomplice in Israel’s control of Gaza–that’s how Palestinians would see it (James Wall states it thusly: “Israel, Egypt and the US are the “three musketeers” of the Palestinian Occupation“)–the people of Gaza were thrilled with the images from Tahrir Square. They hope a more democratic government in Egypt will open up the Gaza border, allowing a real flow of goods and people across the border, a possibility that makes Israel more nervous. As if to underscore their resolve to control Gaza, the Israeli Air Force used U.S.-supplied F-16s to bomb a neighborhood not far from my hotel while I was there. Among the buildings they destroyed was a pharmaceutical warehouse, exacerbating the problems of medical treatment that I was documenting in the hospitals.
Israel’s embarrassment over its botched handling of the aid flotilla from Turkey last May has led to some positive changes. It has loosened the blockade a wee bit. More Christian Gazans got permits to travel to Bethlehem at Christmas, for example. And carnation growers and strawberry farmers have been given permission to export more of their crops to Europe.
I know from speaking in churches that at this point some readers are getting angry that I haven’t denounced “Palestinian terrorism.” And it’s true, rockets fired from Gaza are a mortal danger to several nearby Israeli communities. But any sense of proportionality, let alone humanity, can’t use that to justify the massive destruction and death wrought by Operation Cast Lead. Collective punishment is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. Yet what’s illegal under international law often gets lost in the discussion of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Witness the tortured statements of Susan Rice, President Obama’s U.N. ambassador, trying to explain her veto this last week of the Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. She preferred “illegitimate” to “illegal,” but even that nuance wouldn’t keep her from casting President Obama’s first U.N. veto and sending one more message to the rising pan-Arabic movement that U.S. strategic interests will win out every day over our self-proclaimed affection for democracy.
Next time I get a speeding ticket, I’m going to argue before the judge that my velocity was illegitimate but not illegal.
I have no interest in defending Hamas, though it’s important to remember that the growth of Hamas was nourished by the Israeli government’s masterful divide and conquer strategy. And it was George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice who insisted on democratic elections in the occupied Palestinian territories. They should have been more careful what they wished for; Hamas won a majority of seats in parliamentary elections in 2006 (though the Palestinian vote was clearly more anti-Fatah than pro-Hamas), and leveraged that into a military defeat of Fatah and a complete takeover of Gaza in 2007. So the reasons for Hamas’ political power today are many.
The uprising in Egypt was definitely watched closely, and felt intimately, in Gaza. Several people who told me they had voted for Hamas, and since grown weary of the fundamentalists’ desire to control daily life, were interested in how to leverage the influence of this nearby revolt into change in Gaza. Some I talked with were using Facebook to organize, but it never amounted to much. A few showed up for some protests, but they were quickly arrested or driven away by Hamas police. It will be interesting in coming weeks to see where this goes. Yet one should be careful not to read the wrong message from discontent with Hamas. Many people in Gaza also remain upset with Fatah, especially in light of the Wikileaks documents showing Fatah negotiators considered wide-ranging concessions to Israel during the peace negotiations, including giving up part of the West Bank. And they uniformly see Israel’s occupation as the root of their problems, as a form of control that takes all sorts of insidious forms, including forcing families wanting medical care for their loved ones to spy for Israel.
It was fascinating to talk with several young people (I’m doing a story on their perspective for Response magazine) who are bright and well-educated, but given the blockade, are trapped in an economy with few jobs. And they can’t leave Gaza easily. Even if they could leave, where they can go is dependent on the ironies of Israeli control. I spoke with a couple of young adults who had been to Europe on scholarships but have not been able to visit nearby Jerusalem, the capital of their country and one of the centers of their faith. Many have relatives just a few miles away in the West Bank, but haven’t seen them for years.
When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes up for discussion among church folks in the U.S., it’s amazing how quickly some people start quoting Israeli officials. This includes pastors, including some of my colleagues, who have been invited to lunch at the Israeli consulate and spoonfed the AIPAC line. And then there are some people who have gone to “see for themselves” but never left the safe cocoon of tours organized by groups like Educational Opportunities, which usually steers people clear of real Palestinians, preferring the “dead stones” to the “living stones” of today’s Palestinian Christians.
When I’ve asked people who’ve gone on these trips whether they went to Palestinian villages and talked with ordinary Palestinians, they shake their head. Instead, closely chaperoned by Israeli tour guides and drivers, they see the separation barrier from behind the bus windows and don’t have to get out at the checkpoints and be subjected to the humiliation that ordinary Palestinians must endure to travel inside their own homeland. These Holy Land “pilgrims” tell me they weren’t allowed to do that because they were told by their guides that it was too dangerous.
This is a bunch of crap. Let me venture off topic for a moment. I promise I’ll come back. A friend of mine just returned from a volunteer in mission trip to Haiti, ostensibly to help in the reconstruction of quake-ravaged homes and schools. But concerns about security in the volatile electoral climate translated into being kept hostage (to be fair, that’s my term, not my friend’s) in the Methodist Guest House in Petionville. It was “too dangerous” outside the Guest House grounds, they were told. They did travel to the center of Port-au-Prince one day to see the National Palace and some of the tent cities, but they weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle. So they “witnessed” the suffering of the Haitian people only through the windows of their vehicle. My friend told me several people were emotionally moved by what they saw. The trouble is, what they saw was only part of the picture. If you look at the tent cities only from the comfort of a vehicle, you reduce the people living there to two-dimensional objects, mere victims. If you get out of the vehicle and talk with them, you come to see them as real people in three dimensions, people with joys and fears and frustrations and foibles, people just like everyone else, who are survivors rather than victims, subjects rather than objects.
Ok, catharsis complete. Back to the middle east. As I was saying. . . we have a problem of sourcing, of where we get input into the discussion. Since it’s a complex discussion, it’s important to hear from a variety of people, including Israelis (a significant number of whom disagree with the occupation). What’s particularly troubling about this discussion in church circles is that few are interested in what our Christian sisters and brothers in the region–the “living stones”–have to say. And the more we ignore them, the more they suffer from the region’s slide into violence and end up emigrating, leaving the Holy Land without their critical presence.
One of the more articulate expressions of the Palestinian Christian viewpoint is the 2009 Kairos Document from the bishops and other heads of churches in the middle east. It should be mandatory reading for any U.S. church folks who want to discuss the region. It’s a challenge to us to clean up our act both politically and theologically. From the introduction:
We Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.
Take a few minutes to read it. Then write President Obama and Ambassador Rice and tell them what you think of their U.N. veto this past week.
I’m off to Malawi tomorrow to document a food security crisis there. Be back here soon.