Gaza: Life Blockaded
by Paul Jeffrey
Gaza is like a prison in many ways, surrounded by high walls on three sides. Gun towers oversee the free-fire stretch of scorched earth and rubble, warning anyone--including farmers who once tilled the land--against getting close. On the fourth side, the west, the Mediterranean inexorably draws the eye to the horizon; but it, too, is forbidden. Fishers who long pulled their catch from its waters cannot venture more than two nautical miles from shore without being shot at from Israeli gunboats keeping close watch. So they fish right off the shore--a low-yield enterprise that, because it harvests an inordinate number of immature fish, isn't good for the health of the fish population either.
Yet no matter how hemmed in they are by the Israeli blockade, the people of Gaza struck me on this, my fourth visit, as gritty survivors. Despite their many serious difficulties--caused by Israeli containment, international indifference, and fundamentalist control--Gazans continue to laugh and play and love.
"Despite all the bad things you hear about Gaza, there is life here," Father Jorge Hernandez told me. He's the priest of the Latin-rite Holy Family Catholic Church, Gaza's only Catholic parish. "People here pray and lead virtuous lives. They are happy, even living in Gaza with all its problems. This is their homeland. Their loved ones are buried here. God is here, and it's a fruit of the Holy Spirit that people here embrace and celebrate the life they have."
There are only 206 Catholics left in Gaza--a land that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph passed through on their way to Egypt. There are also some 2,000 Orthodox Christians and a handful of Baptists. The number of Christians remaining in Gaza, as elsewhere in Palestine, is alarmingly small.
Food and Health Care
This trip to Gaza, on behalf of the ACT Alliance, was dedicated to visually documenting the impact of the blockade on ordinary people. As I wandered around Gaza City's fishing port during several early mornings, the fishers kept interrupting the mending of their nets or the unloading of their meager catch to offer me tea. The hospitality of the poor never ceases to amaze me.
I also captured images related to health care. The blockade prevents a variety of medicines from entering Gaza, complicating life for people with cancer and other serious illnesses. People who need treatment outside of Gaza face serious waits for permission to travel to East Jerusalem, the West Bank, or hospitals in Israel or Egypt. Often that permission never comes--or comes too late for treatment to alter the course of the disease.
Hospitals in Gaza, damaged during the Israeli military's Operation Cast Lead, have difficulties at times getting medical and pharmaceutical supplies to treat women with breast cancer--the leading cause of death among women in Gaza. Sixty percent of all cases of breast cancer in Gaza are diagnosed at a late stage, when the cancer has already spread. In Israel, this figure is only 5 to 7 percent.
Permission to travel for medical care must come from the Israeli government, which, since it pulled out of Gaza in 2005, has claimed that it no longer occupies the territory. (The occupation was illegal to start with. The withdrawal resulted from the decline in production on Israeli settlers' farms caused by the saltiness of the soil and the cost of maintaining military "protection" for the small number of settlers.) Yet Israel still controls Gaza's airspace and borders; so nothing gets in or out of Gaza without its acquiescence, including patients desperately needing treatment.
Israel accuses the Hamas-led government in Gaza of terrorism, and rockets fired from Gaza are certainly a mortal danger to several nearby Israeli communities. But no one with any sense of proportionality or humanity could use that to justify the massive destruction and death wrought by the Israeli military's Operation Cast Lead. Collective punishment is illegal under the Geneva conventions. Yet what's illegal under international law often gets lost in the discussion of Israel's policies in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.
In the cacophony of opinions about the Holy Land, we who call ourselves Christians need to listen to our Christian sisters and brothers in the region. One of the more articulate Christian testimonies is the 2009 Kairos Document (www.kairospalestine.ps/) from the bishops and other heads of churches in the Middle East. It challenges us to clean up our act, both politically and theologically. From the introduction:
The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and photojournalist who serves as senior correspondent for response magazine. He also covers emergency response operations for the ACT Alliance. His work can be supported through the Advance, missionary code #09541Z. Visit him at: kairosphotos.com/blog. This article was excerpted from his 2/19/2011 posting on his Global Lens blog.
A Call to Action in PalestineSubmitted by ACT Alliance
During 2010, life in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) continued to be characterized by violence, poverty, a lack of basic goods and services, impeded freedom of movement, aid dependency, and land confiscation. Palestinians face an ongoing crisis in education, health, the economy, and the protection of civilians. Ultimately, only a resolution to the political conflict between Israel and the Palestinians can address the root of these afflictions. Meanwhile, the humanitarian community must address these ongoing humanitarian emergencies.
Impact of the Blockade
The Israeli blockade of Gaza has daily impacts on the Palestinian population. According to a report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), a lack of fuel for the power station causes about 98 percent of Gaza's residents to suffer rationed electricity. This negatively impacts the use of water wells and water desalination, affecting the availability of clean drinking water.
Gaza's health sector has long been under duress. During the winter of 2008/2009, thousands were injured during the military's Operation Cast Lead. Structural damage to Gaza's health facilities remains and supplies are inconsistent. Psychosocial health is a major concern, especially for children. Agriculture is hampered by a lack of seeds, pesticides, machinery, and vital parts for irrigation systems. Fishing is limited by restrictions that prevent fishermen from venturing far from shore.
In the West Bank, actual and threatened displacement continued in 2010. Conservative estimates suggest that some 60,000 Palestinians are currently at risk of having their homes demolished. As of October 2010, Israeli authorities had demolished 285 Palestinian homes and other buildings in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), displacing 340 people. Across the West Bank, Palestinians continued to face unemployment, at a rate exceeding 23 percent (United Nations Refugee and Works Agency for Palestinians). Israel also maintains onerous restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the West Bank, especially in locations with the "Area C" designation, indicating exclusive Israeli civil and military control.
The Global Response
More than 70 percent of the Palestinian population now depends on aid from international organizations, in part because only these agencies are able to bring many necessities in. Humanitarian aid that amounted to 3 percent of imports in 2007 had risen to 26 percent by 2010. (Beit Selem Report, May 2010).
The ACT Alliance has supported Gaza's health, educational, and economic sectors in order to reduce the people's suffering. The ACT Palestine Forum (APF), with its different members, is planning to support the neediest Palestinians by providing health and psychosocial care, education, agriculture, and advocacy geared at ending the blockade and alleviating the suffering.
Excerpted from an ACT Alliance Alert: Occupied Palestinian Territories, March 2011.
Date posted: Jul 07, 2011