Public Comment

Commentary: A Humanitarian Crisis at Gaza’s Gate

By Annette Herskovits
Tuesday July 10, 2007

Thousands of Palestinians are stranded in Egypt, waiting to return home to the Gaza Strip. Among them is Husam El Nounou, who has been there three weeks, unable to join his wife and three children and return to his work at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP), the Strip’s principal provider of mental health services.  

Gaza’s borders have been sealed since June 8. No food, medicine, people, or commercial goods can reach the 1.4 million Gazans, almost half of whom are under the age of 15. 

El Nounou toured the Bay Area with Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, an American-born Israeli and member of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights, speaking on “What peace could look like.” 

I talked with him over dinner in Oakland, on his way from Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to an Oakland synagogue. Husam, a short man with a round face and gentle brown eyes, described the constant flights over Gaza by Israeli helicopters and drones, regular Israeli shelling and bombing, the increasing salinity of well water; of families with barely enough to eat, and unpaid health care workers—the effects of the blockade imposed by Israel and the United States in response to the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 elections. 

Husam tells of driving with his 7-year-old son when a shell struck with terrifying noise about 100 feet ahead. Husam tried to calm his son, but in the following days, the child showed signs of post-traumatic stress—clinging to his parents, sleeping poorly, and refusing to eat. After a week, he came back from school and said: “Dad, I want to be a martyr.” Distraught, Husam said: “Son, it is good to die for one’s country. But it is much better to live for it.” 

All Gazans have witnessed or experienced at least one traumatic episode — the death of a parent or friend, a home demolished, . . . and, most hurtful for children, seeing Israeli soldiers beat or humiliate their parents and understanding that their parents cannot protect them. Over 40 percent of Gaza’s children show signs of exposure to extreme stress—bedwetting, apathy, extreme anxiety, and nightmares.  

At night, Israeli aircraft fly low over Gaza and break the sound barrier, causing deafening thunder and shaking buildings—sometimes repeated an hour later. Children, violently awakened, scream and cry. Husam describes feeling the heart of his youngest child beating wildly, as he and his wife can only hold and reassure their children.  

Gaza’s Mental Health Program and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel have asked the Israeli High Court to order the sonic booms stopped as they violate human rights. The Court ordered the booms stopped until they made their decision, but the Air Force resumed the practice a month later, and when questioned by the Court, simply denied doing it. The booms continue. 

At Kehilla synagogue, Husam described the situation in Gaza, where, since Israel’s disengagement in September 2005, closures and destruction of infrastructure by the Israelis Forces have practically brought the economy to a halt, and 80 percent of the citizens live in deep poverty and depend on international food aid. 

Rabbi Milgrom talked of his work with Jahalin Bedouins. Expelled from the Negev Desert after Israel’s founding, they resettled east of Jerusalem—but now Israel plans to destroy their villages as it completes a ring of settlements around Jerusalem; this will stop the growth of East Jerusalem and cut the West Bank into disconnected pieces. 

Since September 2000, more than 5,000 homes have been destroyed in Gaza and the West Bank, leaving 50,000 homeless. Israel claims the demolitions are security measures, but Milgrom explained they are in fact collective punishment and a way to make room for more settlements and the separation Wall. 

Israelis willfully blind themselves to all this, Milgrom said, citing Jeremiah: “When you learn of the devastation, your ears will ring.” 

Destroying a house is like an earthquake, el Nounou explained. People wander stunned; they go to schools and mosques to find a place to stay. Most often, the IDF does not leave time for people to gather their belongings. 

The people of Gaza voted for Hamas to defy the West and to get rid of Fatah, the corrupt ruling party. This exercise of their democratic rights was met with a devastating embargo. Poverty, impotence, and hopelessness push young people into the arms of extremists.  


In mid-June, Milgrom returned to Israel and el Nounou flew to Egypt and traveled to the Rafah crossing, the only way Palestinians can go to and from Gaza. Hamas had just seized power in Gaza after fights with Fatah. Last February, Hamas and Fatah reached an agreement about a unity government—the Mecca accords, brokered in Mecca by the Saudis, were cheered by thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. But the U.S. and Israel, openly unsatisfied, kept stoking the fires of civil war by funding and arming Fatah security forces. 

Eyad el Sarraj, the psychiatrist heading GCMHP, himself an opponent of Hamas, tells of a meeting involving Palestinians with U.S. deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams last year. The Palestinians argued for engagement with Hamas, rather than confrontation, as the way to peace. Abrams insisted that Hamas must be pushed out, without regard to the disastrous consequences the Palestinians warned him about. 

Hamas’ participation in elections itself showed that it is tired of armed struggle. Hamas’ Ismaïl Haniyeh, the elected Palestinian Prime Minister, told the French daily “Le Figaro”: “We promise to respect all past agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. We wish for the creation of a Palestinian state in the 1967 boundaries, that is, in Gaza, the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as capital. We wish for a reciprocal, global, and simultaneous truce with Israel to be put in place.” 

Severing Gaza from the West Bank was probably what former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert have had in mind all along. Many commentators in the Israeli press now are pleased about the strategic benefits to Israel of the “three-state” rather than “two-state” solution. 

Meanwhile, 6,000 Palestinians, including the elderly, ill, and children, are stuck at the Rafah crossing under the burning sun, with little water or food. El Nounou wrote on June 25: “I feel very upset for a special reason that my daughter will have surgery on her eye today… She called me yesterday and said: ‘Dad, do not be worried, I will be OK.’ … but when I finished with her, I cried a lot. I hope the crossing will open soon and I will be again with my family.” 


Protest letters can be sent to addresses given on Also contact your Congress members. 


Annette Herskovits is a Berkeley resident.