In Gaza, the 16 year old ghetto of two million people that Israel created, it seems that we are looking at Israel’s own hideous “final solution” with their collective punishment of a whole civilian population, their catastrophic genocidal practices and their mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. After decades of a systematic, sustained and strategic oppression, the Israeli policy appears to be nearing its final completion.
The most densely populated civilian population on earth. When I arrived, Gaza had already suffered eight years under a deeply inhumane Israeli blockade by air, sea and land. It was also a year after the last horrific bombardment by Israeli air strikes, where 2000 Palestinians perished, including 50 children. The UN had already described it as an open-air prison on course to be uninhabitable by 2021. Others had referred to it as the Warsaw Ghetto of our time. Nothing could have prepared us for what we witnessed over the next four days.
It was 2015 when we gained permission from the Israeli authorities to enter Gaza and we were the very last such group to do so. Entry through the crossing was not unlike entering a sci-fi film. It took hours to pass through the cathedral-like warehouse of metal. Six timed turnstiles were laid out in a line in front of us and the screech while we passed through them was deafening. We were the only people in this vast space. Hundreds of computer-controlled searchlights flashed on and off. I could only surmise that this vast empty space was built as a holding area for Gazans who might consider trying to escape. Then, stretching beyond as far as the eye could see was a steep towering metal wall dotted with more searchlights and look-out towers. Surveillance cameras were placed every 20 metres, all twisting and turning and operated remotely from Tel Aviv. Drones buzzed constantly through the air overhead and it was all a bleak reminder of the formidable arsenal that Israel commands. As a final flourish, we were greeted with a half-kilometre walk through an enclosed metal cage across no-man’s-land. This stretch had been a Gazan farmer’s land which had been confiscated from him to serve this purpose.
Israel leads the world in the development of ultra-sophisticated surveillance systems. A “brave escaping ant” would not be able to cross this border without being tracked and blown to pieces. (In saying that, it puzzles me greatly how the recent lengthy incursions and exits by Gazans could ever have occurred unnoticed through this techno minefield. Could the systems have been turned off?)
Eventually, and after many hours, we arrived in Gaza and were pleasantly greeted and welcomed by some very co-operative and gracious Hamas officials. (Hamas, in the seventies, was set up as a religion-based rival to Fatah, encouraged and even funded by Israel and the USA in the belief that it would undermine the authority of the secular Fatah organisation in the West Bank that had emerged from the PLO.)
In the next four days, we tramped along streets of rubble and twisted girders of metal – these had been a home, a school and even a hospital. Gazans were unable to rebuild these destroyed structures as Israeli authorities would not allow building materials through the border. From one heap of rubble, a sobbing Granny ran up to me – it was winter and bitterly cold. She was camped in a hollow in the bombed out ruin of her family home, where she had been the only survivor from a family of 21 people. She grabbed and hugged me and begged me to tell the world what was happening in Gaza. I made a promise to her that I would.
The electricity supply was controlled by Israel and was extremely erratic; some days two hours and others nothing. This made daily life chaotic and unbearable. The water was undrinkable; fresh food was in short supply – the soils had been poisoned from the huge amount of chemicals expelled in the previous Israeli bombing assaults. Fish – the staple diet of Gazans – was in a desperately short supply as Israel had put an embargo limit preventing the fishermen from going more than a few hundred metres offshore. What had been beautiful beaches were now littered with raw sewerage which had been offloaded by Israel further north. One of the most upsetting of our visits was to a children’s clinic. Most of the young toddlers here were being treated for weeping and very painful burns on their arms and legs. We were told that this was a result of the latent burning effects of the internationally banned “white phosphorus” that had been discharged from the weapons in the last Israeli bombardment.
In visits to hospitals, we found pitiful scenes of empty beds and a huge lack of medications, blankets, pain relief and operating facilities. A cancer hospital, on another visit, had been gifted a desperately needed machine by the Swiss government but, again, the Israeli authorities would not let it past the border – stating that it could be used for terrorist activities!
Huge clusters of young men were gathered socially on so many streets. There is a 75% unemployment rate here with absolutely no promise of it ever changing. We exchanged numerous conversations and social gatherings with many Gazans and were all truly overwhelmed and humbled by their graciousness, generosity and welcome but above all their optimism and phenomenal resilience.
I wept for Gaza and its people all the way back to Jerusalem. They were locked in this horror and the world turns its back on their plight. That was eight years ago and now, with the unspeakable ethnic cleansing in progress, I am finding it almost unbearable to think of their continuing suffering.
This is proving to be a lengthy piece. However, out of respect for the thousands of families that have been and are being slaughtered, I would like to continue to share my experiences and thoughts with you.
Since my study tour, I have returned to the West Bank on several occasions, always in a voluntary capacity. Since 1967, this area has been under the longest, illegal and most belligerent military occupation in modern history. For several months, I was living in the north of the West Bank as part of an international team in a project created by the WICC. This was their well-developed and internationally respected humanitarian accompaniment programme.
When the Israelis built the 230 mile long Apartheid wall, they did not construct it on the official border but often made it meander into Palestinian land and, in doing so, enclosed hundreds of Palestinian precious farms. Very early each morning, with a team of three people, we would travel across country to one of the agricultural gates. We wore special jackets featuring a dove on our backs as a means of identity. We monitored human rights abuses by the Israeli military who were manning these gates. I was an advocate for many farmers who were being denied entry to their farms and often on the flimsiest of excuses. For example, one farmer had the wrong tee shirt on and another was told his donkey could not accompany him on that particular day! As his advocate, I would plead with the nineteen-year-old heavily armed soldier that his farm was his sole income which had to support a large family. Sometimes, my persuasion worked but, more often, I was met with a fierce refusal. Sometimes, we would all arrive to find that the soldiers couldn’t even be bothered to open the gate that day. Shocking news for these very poor waiting farmers.
On another occasion, having been contacted by the local village elder, I found myself consoling a grieving family in the village where, during the night, 20 Israeli military had smashed down their front door, kidnapped their 13-year-old son from his bed and dragged him screaming away to an unknown destination. These visits are known in Israeli parlance as “night raids.” The occurrence of child arrests is very prevalent in the West Bank. Of course, it is all carried out in defiance of international law. The boys are usually taken into Israel, kept in solitary confinement for months and then re-appear in a military court near Ramallah six month later on a charge of “possibly throwing a stone at some soldiers.” It is the first time their parents have seen them in all this time. They are brought out in a line, all shackled together at their ankles. It is a terrible sight and embedded in my head. All so reminiscent of African slavery in the eighteenth century. These boys are usually then given a five year sentence in an adult prison in Israel and emerge as broken human beings back in the West Bank. Israel knowingly breaks international humanitarian law but continues its policies in the face of widespread international criticism. My task in this situation was to attempt to find a lawyer that might defend the boy and research where the Israelis might have taken him.
As there is little employment in the West Bank, the Palestinians have to reluctantly seek it in Israel. This means that men have to start queuing in caged metal pens from 3 a.m. daily at one of the heavily armed entry points into Israel. It is pathetic to watch these desperate men clamouring to be near the front of the queue to enable them to rush through the series of turnstiles and be the first that will emerge into Israel to be offered a pittance by waiting hawkers for a day’s employment. Another case of deep humiliation for the Palestinians. At six a.m., the green light beams down and the revolving metal gates start whizzing. I was deafened by the piercing screech of 20 turnstiles in action in this rampage. Along with my team of three, we had to record the number of these desperate men rushing through. On one Sunday morning, with agonising thumbs, we clocked 10,000 men struggling through those turnstiles!
The 1.1 million illegal armed settlers in the West Bank (mainly from Russia and Ukraine) create another battlefront for the Palestinians. Frankly, they perform the role of “foot soldiers” for the Israeli Government. Palestine could be the world’s largest producer of virgin olive oil. Olive groves have flourished here for thousands of years and form the main income for a vast part of the Palestinian population. However, the production rate is decreasing alarmingly. Either mobs of settlers set fire regularly to the groves or they are destroyed by the Israeli authorities in order to make way for the construction of new settlements on land that has just been stolen from them. The remaining olive farmers are desperate for help during the short harvest season. The Israeli authorities deem that the harvest can only be carried out on certain days, within specific hours, and disallow any kind of mechanical harvesters to be used. On one occasion, while with 30 other international helpers, working on a local olive grove, we spied a mob of about 30 settlers staring down at us from a hill top close by. Settlers are allowed to carry weapons, usually nasty rifles which are strung on their backs, and have the right of government protection by the IDF, who are always stationed nearby. Towards the end of the day, this mob cascaded down the hill, letting off gun fire as they advanced towards us. (Shades of a Western!) Many were carrying buckets of sewerage which they proceeded to fling over as many of us as possible. We all fled in fear. They then proceeded to haul the giant bags of our picked olives back to their settlement. On return the next morning, we found the farmer in great distress and prostrate by his oldest tree (300 years), which the settlers had uprooted during the night. Sobbing along with him, we all gathered together to replant his precious tree.
Another experience that will haunt me, simply in its gross inhumane injustice, is the forced cruel evictions of Palestinians from their homes. One morning I was called to the next village, where a group of settlers, armed as usual, had threatened to set fire to a Palestinian family’s house. By the time I arrived, they had carried out their heinous threat and now it was a desperate and dangerous scramble to try and salvage a few sticks of their furniture and bedding. They now had nothing and were left sitting on the side of the road, bewildered and frightened. All the while, several of the screeching settlers began teasing the family and thrusting their rifles gleefully in the air. In raging anger, I so wanted to confront them but my training in conflict management kicked in, thus avoiding possible further aggression against the family. The villagers encircled and comforted them, bringing them food and hot tea, while I proceeded to record the incident in a brief report for the UN office in Jerusalem.
Again, wearing our distinctive jackets, a colleague and I would accompany the local village children in their walk to and from school. The reason for this was that nearby settlers would often gather and relish in mocking the children, throwing stones at them and sometimes even laying broken glass and other dangerous items on their path in the hope of injuring or intimidating them. Accompanying the children gave them protection and the settlers had been well instructed not to be active in our presence. Of course, it did not stop them on the days we could not be present.
Days off were very precious and welcomed. Jenin, a sprawling ancient city a few hours away and home to a famous theatre, was a definite priority for a visit. This historical city supports huge refugee camps and these suffer frequent incursions by the IDF. We were sitting in a café so enjoying an Arabic coffee when the street was overcome with choking smoke and the ferociously loud and pounding noise of volleys of gunfire. It was a chilling experience. The IDF had invaded a refugee camp close by and were using chemical bombs to smoke out some of the refugees; they had shot and killed five men and destroyed several streets in the camp while on their way to attack a hospital. So, no sooner had we arrived for our R&R than we were rushing to the bus station to make a hurried exit from Jenin back to our village. That was the first of many military invasions into that particular camp. (A few months ago, in July 2023, 1000 IDF troops invaded another camp in Jenin, shot and killed 12 men and smoked out hundreds of families before laying waste to their tiny shanty houses in the narrow lanes of the camp and all before invading and destroying the camp hospital.)
I could describe many other equally devastating scenarios I experienced in my stays in the West Bank. After 1948, Palestinians suffered mass evictions. For the last more than five decades, Palestinians have also lived under a vicious and cruel military occupation. In the case of Gaza, Palestinians have been locked in a dehumanising ghetto. This shames us all. Their treatment should not be tolerated by the international community. For the most part, the world has looked on with a dispassionate and often ignorant eye which the global media has been encouraged to maintain.
Try to imagine if you can, you and your family for the last three generations attempting to live under these cruel and suffocating conditions. How would you manage and to what might you be driven to gain your freedom? Oppressed people will always seek and want to gain their freedom, their safety and their equality. The root of the present violence is oppression and here we have the once oppressed now in the role of the oppressor.
In my opinion
For many years, Israel has been grossly irritated by two festering thorns in its side. What to do with Gaza, the 16 year old ghetto of two million people that they have created, and the West Bank, where the invading more than one million illegal settlers just haven’t quite done a good enough job! It seems that we are looking at Israel’s own hideous “final solution” with their collective punishment of a whole civilian population, their catastrophic genocidal practices and their mass ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. After decades of a systematic, sustained and strategic oppression under the guise of a military occupation, the Israeli policy appears to be nearing its final completion.
Finally, at long last you might say, a whiff of optimism from the “other side”. Last week, a high profile American Jewish lobby group took a powerful full page advert in the New York Times. It appealed to the Biden administration to facilitate a cease-fire now – it called on all people with conscience to stop the genocide and then, in bold lettering, stated that the root of this violence is the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians…It closed with that World War Two cry:
“Never Again means Never Again!”
As I write this, one child is being murdered in the Gaza Strip every ten minutes and this has been happening since 7 October 2023.