Most of us don’t get to visit the headlines. I had such an opportunity recently week when I joined a convoy bringing humanitarian aid to the besieged people in Gaza. I was joined on this trip by my son, Powell, a graduate of Berkeley High School and UC Davis. Powell works as a labor union organizer and activist with Unite Here in San Diego and has taken a special interest in Middle East affairs since majoring in political science at Davis.
While flying to Cairo and joining a caravan of buses across the Egyptian desert, the Sinai Peninsula, and through the heavily fortified border crossing at Rafah into a war zone might not seem like a typical father-son bonding excursion, we were each called to a responsibility to try to lend succor to a desperate, war-ravaged, brutalized group of fellow inhabitants of the planet.
Current conditions in Gaza have been well documented, if not in the mainstream North American media, then certainly on progressive Internet sites. The historical ravages visited upon the Palestinian people by their “neighbor,” Israel, are similarly well known. It began, of course, in 1948 with the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Resisters were murdered or turned into refugees. Over the subsequent 61 years, the settler state has expanded its borders with the brute force of soldiers, tanks and bulldozers. United States taxpayers have picked up much of the tab for these “settlements.” (It is estimated that U.S. aid to Israel from 1949 to 2000 was close to $100 billion. In fiscal year 2003 Israel received a foreign military financing grant of $3.1 billion and a $600 million grant for economic security in addition to $11 billion in commercial loan guarantees. This total aid package of nearly $15 billion makes Israel by far the largest single recipient of U.S. aid.)
It must also be noted that Israel, a nation the ssize of New Jersey, has the fourth-largest military in the world, including the largest fleet of F-16 fighter planes outside of the United States. Israel’s notion that it is David fighting a world of Goliaths is not quite accurate. Unless they are fighting the United States, Russia or China, Israel is Goliath, and everybody else is David.
In 2008, 21 South African activists visited occupied Palestine. Most concluded that the word apartheid was more than appropriate. South African MP Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was widely quoted: “What I see here is worse than what we experienced; the absolute control of people’s lives, the lack of freedom of movement, the army presence everywhere; racist ideology is also reinforced by religion, which was not the case in South Africa.”
Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with a current population of 1.5 million, two thirds of whom are refugees. It is now, essentially, the world’s most notorious penal colony with its borders essentially closed by the neighboring governments of Israel and Egypt. The essential supplies of life are severely restricted from coming or going. While it is crude to use the this metaphor it is also accurate to say that to attack the people of Gaza is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.
The recent assaults on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 have been the most lethal to date. F-16 jets and Apache helicopters (all made in America), off-shore naval destroyers, white phosphorous bombs, cluster bombs all contributed to the systematic destruction of food warehouses, small factories, apartment buildings, Red Cross facilities, the American School, Gaza City’s government buildings and more and more and more.
Clearly, these attacks targeted the civilian population. In Gaza, it could not be otherwise.
Like most Americans who have not been soldiers, I have never visited a war zone. America is clever enough to make sure that all of its wars of aggression are away games, “played” on the road, in the visitors’ ballpark. Thus, my eyes had never seen what they saw a few weeks ago in Gaza. Clearly, the Israeli government’s goal was not just to make a political or military point but rather to eliminate a society of people, their land, their buildings, their factories, their homes, their water and electrical supplies, even their farm animals. And most of all their spirit. While they accomplished the former, they failed at the latter.
On just one one-hour tour starting in Gaza City and environs, the physical devastations of the recent attacks were obvious and overwhelming. The detritus remains as a bizarre sculpture of de-construction. Buildings are now mounds of massive slabs of cock-eyed concrete, poked though with gnarled re-bars and unknown Cubist shapes. Almost every surface of every building, factory, house, apartment is riddled with bullet holes, large and small. Living in the ruins are families, in small tents and lean-tos and thatched makeshift “houses.” In one industrial section, I saw a roadside pile of concrete and steel rubble of what had been a small factory; atop the rubble was the rotting carcass of a cow. Apparently Israel soldiers had been inspired to shoot at and destroy anything that moved.
In fact, while our convoy was in Egypt and Gaza, a newly published account by an organization of Israeli soldiers suggests that policy set by top commanders led to unnecessary civilian deaths and massive physical damage.
“We didn’t see a single house that was not hit. The entire infrastructure—tracks, fields, roads—was in total ruin,” an anonymous soldier says, describing his days in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion last winter. “Nothing much was left in our designated area. A totally destroyed city. The few houses that were still habitable were taken by the army. There were lots of abandoned, miserable animals.” The destruction continued daily, he testifies, though Palestinians—fighters and civilians—had fled the area.
I got to see the human side of this genocidal assault on the Palestinians. I left the convoy for a day to accompany a Palestinian filmmaker who had secured permission from the staff at a hospital in Cairo that was tending to many of the most severe medical cases from the recent attacks. Because Israeli bombs and missiles had cut off the electrical supply to Gaza hospitals, many of the worst of the war-wounded were evacuated to Cairo. We were allowed to visit a half-dozen patients in their rooms. These fractured bodies and lives were as heartbreaking as you might imagine. We met a 10-year-old boy with part of his skull gone, a bullet lodged in his head forever, too perilously positioned to be removed. He had the bad fortune to live next to a small iron foundry. The incoming bomb destroyed the factory and sent shards of iron into his face. He had the worse misfortune to watch his two-year-old brother die before his eyes in the same attack. He was able to tell the camera crew that he, now, wanted to die, too. In another room, two men lay in beds. Each was missing a leg. One was also missing an arm. He spoke candidly, trying to put into words what it is like to have one’s neighborhood rained upon with bombs. He attempted a gesture that required two hands coming together, with the left hand reaching out to meet the ghost of a forearm and fingers that are no longer there.
Both in the hospital in Cairo and on the streets in Gaza, we heard some common refrains: ‘We will never surrender.’ And, ‘We want peace, we want our land back and we want to co-exist. We don’t hate the Jewish people. It is their government that wants us eliminated.’
These are not direct quotes, obviously. But they are accurate expressions of what we heard in Gaza. They also accurately represent the comments made by Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya at a press conference I attended.
The evil being visited upon the Palestinian people is almost beyond comprehension. Almost. One can only pray that it so appalls the world that, at some point, it simply will not stand. The Crusades ended. The Holocaust ended. Apartheid ended. So too must the siege of Gaza.
Groups of citizens, be they from Great Britain or America or anywhere, entering Gaza with humanitarian aid and medical supplies are a good start. Breaking the silence of other Arab countries and Europe would help. And President Barack Obama and the current U.S. administration could absolutely lead the way in stopping it by cutting off all military aid to Israel.
Stephen DeGange is a freelance writer who has lived in Berkeley since 1985.