Resolute in Gaza


Of the 1.1 million Palestinians who live in the narrow coastal Gaza Strip, only a handful consider the Egyptian-Jordanian proposal an acceptable alternative to the Intifada. Palestinian Legislative Council member Ziad Abu-Amr expressed the prevailing attitude: “Too many people have been killed and wounded, too much damage has been inflicted on the economy to stop [the Intifada] now.”

Halting the armed struggle now would mean “all the Palestinians’ sufferings and all their losses are for nothing.”

Many Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank agree with the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, which opposes the proposal on the ground that Palestinians are being asked to end the uprising in exchange for a return to negotiations.

Hamas spokesman Mahmoud Zahhar told Al-Ahram Weekly, “Negotiations are a means to an end, not an end [in themselves]. We have wasted the last 10 years since Madrid in talks which have achieved nothing [towards the realisation] of our national demand” for an end to occupation and an independent state.

Furthermore, in Zahhar’s view, Israel aborted the Egyptian-Jordanian effort “when it rejected the proposal [as a whole] and said it would not agree to return to negotiations where they were broken off in January.” Zahhar observed that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “has decreased the offer [on West Bank land given back to Palestinians] to 42 per cent and insisted that Israel be allowed to expand settlements,” which are growing at a rate of more than 10 per cent per year.

While talking peace, Sharon is escalating his military campaign and tightening the siege of Palestinian-held areas. Abu-Amr says Sharon is trying to change the politico-power “equation” between Palestinians and Israelis because he “cannot return to the pre-Intifada situation,” where Palestinian sovereignty over 88 to 95 per cent of the West Bank and shared administration of Jerusalem were being discussed. He is trying to accomplish this objective by “exhausting the Palestinians,” says Abu-Amr.

Easier to contain than the West Bank, Gaza has become a prison, an insecure cage vulnerable to attack from land, sea and air. Only a few hundred Palestinians are permitted to leave the Strip to travel to Palestinian-ruled enclaves in the West Bank or abroad. Jerusalem, with its Muslim and Christian holy sites, is off-limits to Gazans.

Only a few of those who have permits to go to jobs in Israel actually make use of those permits. The Erez crossing from Gaza to Israel, where workers used to queue up for security checks, was deserted when I entered and left the Strip.

Gaza has become a wasteland. The Israelis have bulldozed hundreds of hectares of farmland and uprooted thousands of trees along the roads in the 42 per cent of the Strip which they control and in locations which they have, in the past three weeks, occupied temporarily.

Israeli settlements and military posts planted in the north, centre and south deprive Palestinians of freedom of movement. At any moment the Israelis can — and do — close the road which runs the length of the Strip or cut it into three or four isolated sectors, thereby entrapping Palestinians. When a Palestinian leaves home, there is no certainty that he or she will return when expected.

Driving the 45km from one end of the Strip to the other is both time-consuming and hazardous. Next to its settlements, Israel has erected squat cement observation towers from which heavily armed soldiers monitor traffic slowly snaking through solid cement blocs. A journey which should take half an hour now takes two to three hours.

Resistance activity puts anyone travelling along the road in danger. Many Palestinians have been killed going to and from work, school or university, the doctor or dentist. Each and every trip is a risk. Cars and lorries are detained and searched. Produce en route to market perishes. Economic activity is at a standstill. Gaza’s vegetables and citrus, the Strip’s main cash crops, are dumped on the local market or left to rot in the fields because they cannot be sold in Israel or exported elsewhere. Fishermen cannot put out to sea.

Shopkeepers have no customers. Gaza’s many new hotels have no guests. Palestinians hold on to whatever cash they possess: they do not pay interest on loans, utilities or school fees.

Those who are ill can consult doctors at charitable clinics but cannot afford medication. Since Israel blocks the import of cement and raw materials, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has suspended development and infrastructure projects. Both the PA and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which looks after the 820,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Gaza, have initiated public works projects to provide the jobless with an income.

Every month UNRWA supplies 127,500 families (nearly all the refugees) with a basic food package containing flour, rice, oil, sugar and milk. The Gaza Red Crescent Society provides cash grants to the most needy, while Iraq assists the families of martyrs.

Nevertheless, Gaza’s 14 per cent malnutrition rate is climbing. An increasing number of children suffer from stunted physical growth and slowed mental development. The new generation is deprived of a proper education since the school day is divided into two four-hour shifts.

The damage done by physical and economic privation is compounded by violence and fear. On most days, Israeli warplanes and helicopters circle overhead, maintaining a certain degree of tension. Everyone is on edge, poised for the next attack. During the week I spent in Gaza, five Palestinians died, 20 were injured and 147 were made homeless when Israel staged a raid against the Brazil refugee camp of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. Dr Eyad Sarraj, head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, asserted, “Every single person in Gaza is traumatised, including myself. The most traumatised are the children. They have lost their world of security. They live in a cage with no roof and receive trauma from the sky [when Israeli helicopters and planes bomb Palestinian localities] and from the eyes of their parents. Some people are in a state of panic. Every family has at least one member who is a bed wetter. Even those who are 14 or 15 are afflicted. Children cope with trauma by acting it out, writing about it, painting pictures of things they have seen.” The confrontation with Israel “becomes a horrific game” which they play by demonstrating and throwing stones. They die “but they have no concept of death,” he observed. An UNRWA staff member said that he knew of at least one child, a 10-year-old girl, who was prepared to die in a demonstration so that her family would receive financial aid. A doctor who works in a popular clinic said that he sees a large number of cases of stress, depression, high blood pressure and sexual impotence.

The situation strongly affects the most vulnerable members of society, the handicapped. Geraldine Shawa, head of the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children, revealed that many who attend its schools are not only deeply disturbed but also hungry. They must be fed, straining the society’s slender resources. Furthermore, children from cash-strapped families cannot afford the fees for the school bus and the $10 to $15 a month for batteries for their hearing aids. Deaf children are often more traumatised than hearing children because the deaf do not understand what is happening. While they cannot hear explosions, they can feel the vibrations and sense tension. “Someone has to explain the situation to them by signing,” she said. “Often this is left to their teachers.”

Hani Shawa, general manager of the Bank of Palestine, summed up: “The occupying power is destroying the whole fabric of society so the Palestinian people will submit and accept a foreign occupation. The Israelis can break a junta, a government or a regime, but they can never break a people.”

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to Al Ahram weekly.

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