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Remembering Gaza

January 4, 2011

It is the second anniversary of the December 2008 – January 2009 Gaza war. It was on December 27, 2008 that the Israeli Defense Forces launched Operation Cast Lead, a massive military operation in Gaza, with a publicly-stated goal of stopping rockets from being fired from Gaza into Israel and halting the smuggling of arms into Gaza via hundreds of tunnels lying beneath the Gaza-Egypt border.  The conflict continued until January 18, 2009, and Israel completed withdrawal of its ground forces several days later.

Some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died, many more were injured, and infrastructure in many areas of Gaza was destroyed over the course of the three-week confrontation. Though a ceasefire still largely stands, the two-year anniversary of the war is an appropriate time to be reminded that living conditions for the 1.5 million Palestinians residing in Gaza remain very grim as a result of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is high time to remedy the bleak situation by reaching a lasting political solution.

Two years before the 2008-2009 war, Israel enacted a blockade of imports to Gaza after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured by Palestinian militants. The blockade was tightened in mid-2007 after Hamas took control of the government in Gaza.

The blockade remains largely in force today, despite efforts by local and international activists to break it and call attention to its devastating effect on Gazans. Following the May 2010 Gaza flotilla (Mavi Marmara) incident, in which activists delivering aid to Gaza were killed by Israeli soldiers, Israel announced an easing of restrictions on some imports. United Nations and non-governmental organizations operating in Gaza, however, report ongoing, major bottlenecks and restrictions on imports and reconstruction projects.

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza is of particular concern and anguish to Quakers in the United States, given our substantial involvement since the late 1940s in efforts to assist Palestinians in Gaza. In the wake of the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war, the United Nations asked the American Friends Service Committee to organize a large-scale humanitarian relief program for Palestinian refugees in Gaza in 1949-1950. AFSC’s effort was an interim measure, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) took over the relief program as soon as they were able.

On the occasion of its 60th anniversary in 2009, UNRWA estimated that the international community has provided some $3 billion in humanitarian assistance to Gaza since 1949. Based on my five years of living and working in the Palestinian community, I find it unacceptable that the ongoing political stalemate is diverting precious resources in the direction of food aid and medicines and away from long-term development in Gaza in the form of greater investments in education, health, infrastructure and jobs. It is investments in these areas that will provide long-term security for Palestinians and Israelis. How can there be security for either Palestinians or Israelis when the unemployment rate in Gaza, largely a result of the Israeli blockade, is estimated to exceed 40%?

I have witnessed first-hand  over nearly a 20-year period the evolving situation in Gaza. In early October 2008, I found myself standing on the Israeli side of the Erez crossing in into Gaza. It had been more than eleven years since my last trip to Gaza, a mid-1997 trip from Jerusalem on which my wife and three young children had accompanied me. We wanted to say a personal farewell to Gazan friends and colleagues with whom we had developed relationships over the previous five years of working alongside them to build a brighter future.

The Gaza crossing of 2008 was almost unrecognizable to me. The building we were entering, newly-constructed by Israel, resembled an international border crossing. Inside we encountered modern high-security screening machines, as well as formal-looking booths where Israeli officials checked our documentation, primarily the hard-to-get permits issued by the Government of Israel to foreign passport holders whereby they are allowed (or not) to enter Gaza.

Four of our five team members had applied for permits to travel to Gaza, and we were frustrated by the fact that only two of us had received them. We had waited in the Erez parking lot for a couple of hours with some encouragement from our Israeli contacts that a third permit would be issued at the last minute. It never was. So the two of us with permits decided to cross just before closing time and as the sun was setting.

After being cleared by Israeli officials to continue through to the Palestinian-administered area of the Erez crossing, we found ourselves alone and utterly disoriented by the fact that we were trapped in a holding area with no clear sign of how to proceed. The turnstile through which we had just passed only allowed passage in one direction; there was no turning back. Ahead of us was a large metal wall, with no apparent door that we could pass through. We called out asking for directions. After what seemed an eternity, but was in reality probably only a few minutes, the wall ahead of us moved to the side, opening enough of a space that we could pass through with our luggage. It was a gate, not a wall.

We continued through a fenced walkway that after twists and turns finally landed us in a passageway containing a few Palestinians. They were porters who insisted on carrying our luggage for a hefty fee – no doubt these workers were the envy of many, given that the high unemployment rate in Gaza. As the daylight faded, we emerged from the fenced walkway and passed through no-man’s land — a barren, dusty field with a pathway leading us between rocks and crumbled heaps of broken concrete and twisted iron re-enforcing rods that were the remains of previous military conflict. Looking back towards the Israeli side, we couldn’t help but notice a tethered surveillance balloon floating high above the checkpoint.

What appalled and discouraged me the most, however, was the fact that almost no Gazans cross Erez to work in Israel or travel to the West Bank. United Nations and other officials told us that, as a result of the closure of Gaza, some 80% of Gazans were receiving food aid in late 2008. This figure stood in sharp contrast to the mid-1990s when I was the representative for a U.S. private voluntary agency that had the largest NGO food program in Gaza, second only to the UN food assistance program. Tens of thousands of Gazans worked in Israel at the time, and we fully expected the number to go up.  Optimistic about the prospects for development and jobs in Gaza following the 1993 Oslo peace accord, we phased out our U.S. government-supported humanitarian food program and focused our expertise and resources on long-term development needs in the area of infrastructure, with a focus on potable water for Palestinians.

It was only some two months after my October 2008 visit to Gaza that Operation Cast Lead was launched by the Israeli military. The result: significant loss of human life, thousands of people injured, and additional widespread destruction of infrastructure in Gaza, an infrastructure that was already suffering greatly during my October visit due to previous incursions by the Israeli military and the embargo on imports and exports imposed by Israel.

Some 15 years after we phased down our welfare-oriented food assistance program in favor of a development-focused program, most Gazans now depend on food aid just to get by. That’s a sobering state of affairs. A political solution is long overdue. It’s time for a viable Palestinian state – one that includes both Gaza and the West Bank – living side by side with Israel in peace and prosperity.

  1. Mark L Grantham permalink
    January 4, 2011 3:13 pm

    I was living in Syria during this war, I had the wonderful opportunity of meeting many Palestinians. This War was both painful and needless. At first, my opinion was one of indifference and I took a laissez faire approach to this situation. But then I was fortunate to meet many Palestinians, and my opinion changed.
    This entire group of people was disregarded, they were a forgotten group of people. The television was on 24 hours a day, showing the devastation and carnage that was occurring in Gaza.
    My heart is heavy for many reasons, but especially because of the needless deaths and injuries. In my opinion, the Jewish Israeli citizens completely ignore and disregard this very vital group of citizens.
    In this upcoming year, I hope that a process of Peace can be started. In my opinion, the West has to stop looking at it through a western perspective.
    No one has the right to judge or define another person, we are all a child of a God. Inshallah!

  2. January 4, 2011 5:17 pm

    Yes, all that is said is true and very sad, but the lack of dependable electricity is also a major problem in Gaza. The people have only eight hours a day at best and frequent blackouts. Students have to study by candle light and not infrequently the hospitals send out an emergency call for fuel for their generators so that patients won’t die. Therefore, the Friendship and Peace Society is raising money to provide passive solar lamps to as many poor students as possible using UNRWA to distribute them through the schools. We have enough money now for 200 solar lamps at $15 delivered from China to UNRWA. Any donations will be welcome and are tax deductible. We’d like to give 1000 lamps anyway.

  3. Joe Weinstein permalink
    January 4, 2011 8:46 pm

    Evans’ final paragraph begins by noting that it’s 15 years since his NGO ‘phased down our welfare-oriented food assistance program in favor of a development-focused program.’

    Unfortunately, this constructive refocus runs counter to the abiding institutional basis of the UNRWA. As Evans notes, refugee welfare aid in Gaza began as an interim measure, just as the 1949 Armistice lines were intended to be interim. Now, 62 years later, a combination of mushy humanitarian and hard pork-barrel interests at the UN has made funding for UNRWA uncritical, permanent and increasing. Of this funding, little comes from wealthy and allegedly concerned regional regimes, including those who have gone to war (and some who keep urging war) ‘for’ Palestine; most comes from the USA and Europe.

    Decades of mindless renewal and increase of such funding has resulted in an institutionalized ‘temporary’ UNRWA which has several permanent interests: (1) maintaining Gaza as a welfare dependency, (2) paternally ministering to an ever-increasing number of Gazans, and (3) ensuring that there is NO permanent agreed-on political solution. (Such a solution would likely permanently settle property and welfare claims of all those affected by Arab-Israel conflicts, thereby undercutting reason for existence of UNRWA.)

    In line with its survival interests, UNRWA (unlike the UN’s or anyone else’s treatment of any other refugee groups) gives refugee status, and thereby entitles and awards aid, to each descendant of a some-time Palestine Arab refugee. So in the year 2120 – even if from now til then no further wars occur and no one then living will actually have been displaced by wars – by UNRWA’s logic there will then be tens of millions of ‘Palestine Arab Refugees’ – all of them to be counted as its welfare cases – with millions more on the way.

    It’s time for the charitably inclined prime funders of UNRWA to take the truly humanitarian course and phase out its perpetual funding in favor of substantial but time-limited efforts and aid that would actually promote better life for Gazans – in place or as emigrants – and would actually promote rather than discourage whatever improved political situation is possible. Aid now unconditionally dispensed for subsistence of each new Gazan should instead be directed to development, permanent settlement in place, and emigration and resettlement. Some of the aid could be held in reserve, conditioned on political solutions.

    I agree with Mark G. that from our third-party perspectives all the conflicts are ‘painful’ and ‘needless’. But we can expect ‘needless’ violence whenever such violence is demanded by a nation’s or other armed group’s concept of existential need. Hamas deemed that it had an existential need to continually attack infidels (Jews, military or civilian). Israel deemed that it had an existential need to eventually respond convincingly (and indeed of the 1400 Gazan deaths at least half turn out to have been Hamas combatants, by Hamas’ own figures).

    I also share Mark G.’s hope that everyone have empathy for every other ‘vital group of citizens’. However note that common Israeli citizenship is not in fact a basis for desirable empathy for Gazans by ‘Jewish Israeli citizens’. Unlike Arab Israelis, Gazans are not Israeli citizens: per the Oslo accords and ever since, Israel – and just about everyone else – accords Gazans a separate Palestinian national identity and citizenship.

  4. Mark L Grantham permalink
    January 4, 2011 9:13 pm

    There might be many “reasons or rationalizations” for War, but to see an innocent person killed, a school or hospital blown up, that is devastating.
    Palestinians might not be citizens of Israel, but they are people with feelings,families and emotions! I had the distinct pleasure of meeting many Palestinians in Syria, many who were forced out of their family homes. One older women simply wanted to see her house again, but she knew she would never enjoy this opportunity.
    One person is not able to disregard another, for their conscience will be troubled, or so I hope!
    I am reminded of the song that many of us have sung, and in it is the line “and let it begin with me”. We can make a difference, change does start with one person, if it is something that sits heavy on your heart, then do something to make a change. Many Friends have a yard sign that says War is Not the Answer, I have started to engage a discussion with others. I hope to talk to people that think differently than I do. Preaching to the choir will not start change, it might make me feel better.

  5. January 5, 2011 10:01 am

    Thank you for sharing these reflections, Jon.

  6. Tom Thompsen permalink
    January 5, 2011 12:06 pm

    Thank you Jon for the insight and compassion….those of us on Cape Cod ( and I might add there are a substantial number of us) work hard to enlighten others as to the inhumane and unjust treatment of the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank “one at a time” (just like the story of saving one starfish at a time on our shores). Please continue your work. Christians, Jews, Muslims…we are all complicit if we remain silent.
    Noreen Thompsen

  7. martina nicholson MD permalink
    January 5, 2011 8:28 pm

    Hardness of heart is never easy to change, or to soften. But it is in eye-witness stories such as this, and in the gentle way of “standing ground;” trying to be present for those who are suffering, that the beginning of awareness and refusal to do “same-old, same-old” thinking and behavior happens. Thanks for your efforts! It is a big help to those of us who do not know what to do, when FCNL tells us to sign a petition. We know you are working on the right people in Washington, to try to get the Senators and congressional reps to care about this issue, among so many others. My own belief is that only when EVERY group has civil rights, all minorities within whichever governments, will we really be safe from genocide, mass murder, and the co-opting of military to use against our own people.

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