Thursday, June 23, 2011

With Friends Like This Who Needs Enemies?

The State Dept issued new travel warnings regarding Gaza on Jun 22, 2011, stating in part:

"U.S. citizens are advised against traveling to Gaza by any means, including via sea. Previous attempts to enter Gaza by sea have been stopped by Israeli naval vessels and resulted in injury, death, arrest and deportation of U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens participating in any effort to reach Gaza by sea should understand that they may face arrest, prosecution, and deportation by the government of Israel." It goes on to explain that a U.S. citizen was killed last year in an attempt to reach Gaza by sea, while the U.S. State Dept did nothing to assist. The warning intimated that the State Dept. is prepared, once again, to do nothing if Israel kills American citizens on the upcoming flotilla.

The really bizarre aspect of this travel warning is there is no mention of Hamas or terrorism, or the supposed  risks citizens of the U.S. would face from Hamas if they were to travel in Gaza. Apparently all the risk in traveling to Gaza as an American citizen comes from our "best friend" in the region. In his May State Dept speech, President Obama declared, "As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values." One would think these shared values would include the safe passage of unarmed civilians through international waters.

Our State Dept mission statement reads, "Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system."

Our State Dept. should respond to American citizens needs by demanding the safety of flotilla participants. It seems it would fall under their job description. Seems like the least they could do.

Please call the State Dept. at 202-647-4000 and demand protection of the Freedom Flotilla. Remind the State Dept.  It's their job.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rafah is Open, The Siege is Over (part 2)

We arrive at the Rafah Crossing at 9:00 am in the morning. Six buses are lined up at the gate, pilgrims waiting to cross for Umrha. For weeks I have been checking in, making sure I was prepared with all necessary information in order to cross the border. Each time I was told not to worry, everything was fine. Internationals have no difficulty. No one mentioned Umrha. We weave our way through the people and cars to the front of the gate. When a car is permitted through, we follow closely behind, passing through the gate. We hand our passports to a man in a small booth. He takes our information and tells us to go back to the other side of the gate. He would call and see if we have permission. “Five minutes”, he says.

Returning to the other side of the gate, we speak to Palestinians who tell us of daily visits to Rafah, each day repeating itself like a Kafka story. In the heat and dust,  people push and shove up to the bars of the gate, thrusting papers and passports towards the guards, hoping someone will listen. Each day they are told to return to Gaza. They wait all day anyway, repeatedly trying to get someone’s attention. At days end they go home vowing to return to the crossing the following day.

With a look of relief, Mohammed informs us that his friend, who works with border control, was coming to the crossing. He would personally escort us to the border. One half hour and he would arrive.

An hour passes. We call again, “ten minutes, ten minutes” we are told. We cross through the gate a second time. Our status as Internationals gives us benefits denied Palestinians. “Go back”, the man in the booth tells us angrily. We return to the shade and wait.

Another hour passes. We receive many calls, “you can pass once the Umrha buses are through.” “You can’t pass.” “You can pass.” “You have not been cleared.” “You are cleared, just wait.” Just wait.

We interview several Gazans who have come back to the crossing for days on end. A son who desperately needs to return to Saudi Arabia for university exams, denied. He had the proper permissions, he arrived on the proper day, but because of Umrha he could not pass. Denied.

A man visiting his mother needs to return to the Emirates to renew his residency. If he does not leave today, his residency will expire. Denied.

A woman with her two small sons, trying to get out so her youngest boy could give a bone marrow transplant to the older boy. She has come to the crossing everyday for a week. Though theses types of medical emergencies are supposed to travel without restrictions, she was denied for a week because of a backlog of people waiting to cross.

Egypt sets a daily limit. The number seems to vary from 300 to 500. Desperate to get her child the emergency medical care he needs she subjects herself to the daily humiliations at the border.

I call the American embassy in Cairo asking for a call to the Egyptian side of the border, so we are permitted to cross. The representative says, “The border is open, you should have no difficulty.” She promises a call back. It never comes.

We pass through the gate for the third time. When we get to the other side, the booth is closed, the man we had been dealing with gone. Mohammed continues making calls, one phone at each ear. We watch as a Palestinian policeman gets in a tug of war with an old woman, grabbing her bag and tossing it on the other side of the gate. She breaks away from him, screaming furiously, and comes and sits near us. I realize my privilege will do nothing to protect her. I feel ashamed.

 A border guard shouts at us- we must return to the other side. We refuse. Every time the gate opens to allow a car to pass, people push past the guards. Tempers flare. Reinforcements are called in. Shoving and shouting ensues as desperate people are pushed back. Denied.

A half dozen border guards jump out of an SUV and begin moving people back to the other side of the gate. Mohammed speaks to one of them and comes back to us saying, “No matter, what we will not go back to the other side of the gate. We will stay here until you are allowed to pass.” We agree. Another American approaches us. This is her third day at the crossing. Mohammed includes her passport with ours and approaches the guard yet again. He continues to press the guard, who returns to his SUV and leaves, promising a call. He returns shortly, but ignores us. Mohammed approaches him once again. He takes our passports and drives toward the border.

The university student I spoke with earlier is nearby. He moves from guard to guard, trying to get some help. Shouting, one guard grabs him by the arm and points. He goes back.

I notice a small girl with inquiring eyes, who I had photographed hours earlier near the tea stall, has made it inside the gate. She hobbles past us, desperately following an old woman who is imploring a guard for help. Frantic, she tells the girl to raise her pant leg, to show the guard the terrible urgency that they seek medical care. The little girls leg is terribly deformed, scar tissue running from the knee to the ankle. The guard, exasperated, turns away. He is not permitted to send her to the Egyptian side without permission. There is nothing to be done.

The SUV returns and the guard calls us over. “The Americans will be allowed to pass.”  We clamor into the police vehicle to be delivered to the border, leaving behind the Palestinians who remain trapped in Gaza. Hours later, while still waiting on the Egyptian side, we see the woman with the two small boys, finally being allowed to pursue her child’s bone marrow transplant. The old woman and the child with the damaged leg is nowhere to be found. Rafah is open. Gaza remains a prison. Gazans persevere under the harshest of circumstances. We are told the situation in Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis. The crisis we face, as Americans, is a moral one.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Nasr's Farm

Nasr's Farm Jun 14, 2011

Nasr used to live in a house with his wife and 5 children on a beautiful patch of land that he farms with his brother. They have an orchard, olive trees, watermelon, peppers, aubergine and squash. Walking down a narrow dirt road past the orchard, the land suddenly opens to gently rolling farmland. In the distance you can see the border fence.

Nasr and his family live on the edge of the buffer zone in the northern Gaza Strip. Following the border fence you can see several watch towers securing Israel. No one ensures the safety of Nasr and his family.

One year ago the Israeli army attacked his home. The children were playing outside, Nasr’s wife, Naama, was in the front yard. Shortly before sunset a tank located on a mound 500 meters from the home fired shells packed with nails at the home. Nasr's wife, torn to ribbons, bled to death in the yard when ambulances were not permitted down the narrow dirt road to his home.

Nasr's home was attacked again this past April. Nasr was afraid to move or even put on a flashlight, for fear of additional shelling. He heard two of his children cry out. They were buried under the rubble in the hallway of the upper story of the house, but they survived. On both occasions the Israeli military claimed to have been shooting at terrorists.

You can see the Israeli military outpost about 2 kilometers from Nasr’s front entrance way. The sheet metal siding of the house has hundreds of nail shaped holes in it. Nasr points to the spot where his wife died as we enter the house.

After the second attack, Nasr’s family moved to a house in the village, near to the cemetery where his wife was buried. One night, around midnight, Nasr woke to find his children gone. He went outside and found them at their mother’s grave. The next day he left that house and returned to his land.

Nasser and his family now live in a couple of tents near his olive trees. His brother’s family remains in the first floor of the house. The second story is destroyed. Nasr and his brother still continue to farm the land. He recognizes that another attack could happen at any time, but he refuses to leave the land he was born on.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Rafah is Open, The Siege is Over

Rafah Crossing Video Jun 16, 2011
The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt reopened to great fanfare on May 28th 2011. World news agencies trumpeted, “The siege is over.” At the time, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Menha Bakhoum said the decision was made to "Ease the suffering of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip." This has not been

I spent several hours at the Rafah crossing. I watched as people desperately trying to cross out of Gaza into Egypt were met with closed gates, yelling policemen and, finally, soldiers. Vehicles inched forward; hundreds of people surrounded them and pressed up against the gate, waving papers and passports, yelling at the Hamas policeman on the other side, imploring them for passage. Tempers flared. Women were crying, some simply from exhaustion, some from despair. People were treated like animals, herded behind the gate, policeman prodding and pushing people to clear the way.

Some people explained to me that they were turned away because their name was ‘not on the list.’ When they asked how to get on the list; they did not get an answer.

A British mother, Wesam Farah had come Gaza with her 2 young sons, Qasem and Qayis for her son’s school holiday. They had planned to visit family for three weeks, but they have not been permitted to leave. They have returned to the crossing on a daily basis for the past 2 weeks, their holiday turned to nightmare. Finally she was allowed to cross the gate, but the border patrol still held her family’s passports and she was uncertain they would pass. For the moment, she was relieved just to have some space to breathe.

A small boy caught my eye, as he stood pressed up against the gate. He held his mothers hand and he did not speak. I asked his mother how long they had been waiting. “We have come everyday and waited all day, only to be turned back. We have received no explanation, just told to go back.” She had planned the family visit for years, spending four thousand dollars on airfare for her family. Her departure flight from Cairo was leaving in 2 days. She was uncertain whether she would make it, but didn’t know what to do to rectify the situation. After our interview, the gate opened and as people surged forward, she was allowed to pass. The authorities still held her passport, her fate was still undetermined, but the relief of making one small step brought both tears and laughter.

Rafah Crossing is Open  (a little bit)
I would watch for hours as these 2 mothers ran back and forth, trying to find out where their passports had gone. Dodging in between cars and ambulances crossing back into Gaza, they searched for the men who had taken their documents. Finally, passports in hand, Wesam and her boys loaded their bags into a taxi and departed for the Egyptian side. I lost track of the Ukrainian woman, and could only hope she had managed to get out.

Later last evening after arriving back in Gaza City, we received a call from Wesam. She was back in Gaza. After 6 hours of waiting, the Egyptians turned her back. She was not allowed to pass and was told to return on Saturday and try again.

For the majority of Palestinians leaving Gaza is like a Kafka tale. The fanfare has faded, the misery persists.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Beit Hanoun Jun 7th, 2011

Beit Hanoun March to the Buffer Zone Video
We marched to the buffer zone with about 20 others including members of the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative who have been organizing non-violent demonstrations for the past three years, as well as several members of GYBO (Gaza Youth Break Out). Carrying flags and alternately chanting, singing and walking in silence we approached the Israeli border. This is a no go zone for Palestinians. Israel has deemed that 300 meters from the wall is a buffer zone, so Palestinian farmland is taken away.

Waving flags and chanting we reached the edge of the buffer zone and continued walking. Almost immediately, dust kicked up just ahead of us, a warning shot rang out. We stopped, daring to go no further. Climbing a small embankment we waved our Palestinian flags and chanted to the soldiers hidden in the guard towers. Not five minutes passed and 2 shots rang out, one kicking up dust at our feet. 19 year old Mohammed Kafarna grabbed his neck, turned, and ran back in the direction we had come. He had been hit with shrapnel.

That effectively ended the demonstration; we turned and headed back toward the village. I was stunned that two dozen people could pose such a threat to Israel that the army would resort to using live rounds of ammunition against us. Of course, we were not a physical threat, I imagine the Israeli soldiers laughed at us as we turned and headed back. But non-violent demonstrations do cause a threat, especially when people walk to the wall and demand access to their land, their olive trees, their resources, and their homes. Israel has only one method to disperse non-violent demonstrators and that is through violent repression.

We often hear of Israel’s need for security, yet the people of Gaza are under occupation by the state of Israel and no one utters a word about their security. For years Palestinians have been killed with impunity, always with the words “Israel has a right to security.” Over the weekend after dozens of unarmed protesters were killed by Israeli forces in the Golan, Netanyahu declared, ‘Unfortunately, extremist forces around us are trying today to breach our borders and threaten our communities and our citizens. We will not let them do that’. The Israeli military said troops fired warning shots into the air after people started approaching the border fence, then issued verbal warnings to protesters to stay away. After some of the protesters reached the fence, soldiers opened fire, ‘with precision’, at their legs. Amongst the dead was a 24 year old woman Enis Shriteh, a fourth year English student. There was no explanation on how she got confused with ‘extremist elements’. There was no explanation of how shots to demonstrator’s legs killed her. There was no questioning of Israeli statements at all. Enis Shriteh’s death did not warrant mention in the mainstream press.

Certainly no one in our group was an extremist, nor were we a threat, merely Palestinian youth and international supporters trying to reach Palestinian land. There is no denying this: Gaza is a jail and Israeli soldiers are the jailers. Imprisoned without charges, the people of Gaza are trapped. Israel would have the world believe they are beneficent and kindly jailers, desperately seeking peace. This is a lie. Gaza is under siege.

You don't believe me? Come, we'll walk with the people of Beit Hanoun down to the buffer zone.

See my first video ever at:
(Weekly Beit Hanoun non-violent demonstration met with live gunfire, shrapnel injury)

Thursday, June 02, 2011

First Impressions of Gaza:

Gaza Rising

The port is quiet. Fishing boats sit empty,
tossed along the shore.
A blood red sun sets.
Waves painting the shore whisper freedom.
But the gunboats, out of sight,
are not far. No, they are not far.
Bending toward justice,
the youth rise up to meet the waves.
Tomorrow is a new day. And gunboats
can not stop the rising tide.
Gaza rising, a new day.