first published at Crescent International, Eva Bartlett
Unusually heavy torrential rains last month inundated much of Gaza, which was already reeling from a tight Israeli-Egyptian siege since 2006. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected with more than 5,000 evacuated from their homes. Power outages of 20-22 hours daily, or complete days, have become the norm, affecting every facet of life in Gaza.
The Gaza Strip, a 40 km long, 12 km at its widest point, 365 square metre strip of land is host to 1.7 million Palestinians, two thirds of whom are refugees.
While Gaza’s suffering extends decades back, since 2006 much of the world has cut ties with Gaza, and since 2007 Israel, supported by Egyptian and Western powers, has enforced a full blockade on the Strip.
It is not merely an economic blockade, but rather a full lock-down on movement, goods, access to health care outside, and limiting the import of fuel, cooking gas, and medicines, to name some items, into the enclave. It impacts on every facet of life imaginable.
In November 2008, I joined a boat of European Parliamentarians sailing from Cyprus to the Strip, attempting to symbolically break the blockade. Apart from the act of solidarity, it was also my sole means of entering Gaza. With all but one border crossing controlled by israel, and the remaining crossing by the complicit Mubarak rule in Egypt, entry by sea was the only option. However, the outcome was not certain: israel also controls Palestinian waters.
Organized by the Free Gaza movement, the November sailing was the third of its kind. Two more boats reached Palestinian shores before israeli warships begin violently obstructing passage, including ramming one boat. Two years later, machine-gun firing elite israeli commandos air-dropped onto one of a fleet of six boats sailing to Gaza. They boarded the other boats, beating passengers. Nine passengers were killed and over 50 injured in this illegal act in international waters.
I joined the handful of other human rights activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) to begin what would be over two years of the most surreal and horrific experiences as an activist I have ever had.
Our work comprised accompanying farmers and fishers as they attempted to work their trades, routinely coming under machine-gun fire from Zionist soldiers. In the case of the fishers, they are also subject to shelling and heavy-powered water cannon attacks—the force of which shatters windows, splits wooden structural components of the boats, and destroys electronic navigation equipment. The israeli navy also often adds a chemical to the spray which leaves the soaked victims stinking of excrement for days. [videos]
In one assault on fishers, the navy first sprayed machine-gun fire at a fishing trawler one kilometer off Gaza’s northern coast for about fifteen minutes, then firing a missile which set the boat aflame. The fishers jumped overboard and were saved, but the boat was not. Gutted by flames, the vessel was destroyed, and along with it the livelihoods of the eight or so fishers who regularly worked on the boat.
Half an hour into my first venture out with fishers, in November 2008, an israeli gunboat charged us, swerving at the last minute. Intimidation. The fishers scrambled to reel up their nets. Soon after, another gunboat sped towards us, water cannon firing. Our trawler managed to escape before the dousing. This minor harassment pales in comparison to the repeated assaults that usually occur when fishers try to fish even a few miles off the coast. Under the Oslo accords, Palestinian fishers have the right to fish 20 nautical miles out, but under Israeli rule six miles is the limit. Often, when the fishers are attacked at sea, it is repeatedly as the Israeli navy follows them from one location to the next, rendering their fishing efforts largely fruitless.
Fishers are routinely abducted, their boats stolen by the navy. If the boats are returned, it is inevitably after many months, and stripped bare of nets and equipment. The process of abducting fishers usually plays out as such: one or more israeli gunboats attack the fishing trawler (or the small, rowed boats common in Gaza) with machine-gun fire and/or shelling; the navy orders the fishers to strip down to their underwear, dive into the water, and often makes the fishers swim or tread water for extended periods, regardless of the temperature of the water. Fishers are then hauled aboard, abducted to a detention centre, and interrogated on anything but fishing.
A similar policy of intimidation plays out daily in Gaza’s border regions, where farmers and anyone working or living near the border face potential machine-gun fire or shelling. This includes some of the Strip’s poorest, usually children, who work in border regions collecting stones and rubble (from israeli army-destroyed homes) for re-sale in the construction industry. These labourers face danger twice-over: the threat of being targeted by machine-gunning/shelling, and the treat of unexploded ordinances beneath the rubble exploding when disturbed.[videos]
During the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, in addition to warplane bombings, many homes in the border regions were destroyed by demolition explosives. This tactic was in tandem with the intentional destruction of wells and cisterns in border regions. Tanks and bulldozers churned up huge swaths of land into unworkable waves of earth. The combination of this all rendered the areas flanking the border unlivable, and almost impossible to farm. [see: They Make Like Art Here]
Farmers who attempt to access their land, be they elderly or children (male and female), are routinely targeted by israeli soldiers. A 50 meter “buffer zone” established unilaterally by israeli authorities on the Gazan side in the mid-90s, has over the years been expanded to the current 300 metre “buffer zone.” In reality, the actual policy is one of attacking Palestinians as far as two kilometres from the border.
This off-limits area steals roughly one third of Gaza’s agricultural land, land which happens to be some of the most fertile soil in the Strip. This is an area formerly known as Gaza’s “bread-basket” for the many olive, fruit and nut trees, wheat and rye, lentils and chickpeas, and various vegetables and fruit that once grew abundantly on these lands. Now, in the name of “security,” every week or two, armoured bulldozers accompanied by tanks, flatten swaths of farmland, even beyond the israeli-imposed 300 metre limit.
We accompanied farmers planting wheat or harvesting their crops, often low-growing crops like parsley or lentils. While doing this, they routinely come under fire from israeli soldiers in jeeps or shooting sniper-style from dirt mounds along the border fence. Some of the farmers are paid labourers, earning the equivalent of five dollars a day, at best, which they contribute to their families’ incomes. Others are grandparents, grandchildren, working land their families have farmed for generations.
Military gun towers are spread along the length of the border, including remotely-controlled towers with swiveling machine guns fired by soldiers with joysticks in control rooms kilometres away. Our policy was to stand with arms raised and visibly empty of anything that could be construed as threatening, and to stay in place until the farmers wanted to leave. It was about farmers reclaiming land they are being forcibly pushed off of by the israeli policies and shootings. We wore only a thin fluorescent vest, and most of us carried still or video cameras to document the aggressions.
*[two left images by Emad Badwan]
When the soldiers shoot, it is often after surveilling farmers for extended periods. In one such instance, the army watched us working on land over 500 metres from the border for two hours, choosing the moment when the farm labourers were pushing a stalled pickup truck full of parsley to begin sniping at them. Although we stood in front of the farmers, between them and the soldiers, the latter shot around us, hitting a seventeen year old deaf farm labourer in his calf.
In another instance, we came under heavy fire for over 40 minutes from Israeli soldiers roughly 500 metres away. The farmers lay flat on the ground, with no cover to protect them. We stood, bullets flying within metres of our hands, heads, feet. The Canadian embassy called me to say they would do nothing and that humanitarian workers should be aware of the Israeli security policies in Gaza’s border regions.
Even if the injury is not an immediately fatal one, people who are shot in the border areas risk bleeding to death before reaching medical care. Ambulances, also targeted by israeli shooting and shelling, cannot risk coming too near to the border. So when Ahmed Deeb, a 21 year old who attended a protest against the border policies, was shot in his femoral artery, by the time a group of young men carried him to an ambulance further away, he had lost too much blood and died upon reaching the hospital. [see also: What Threat Did I pose the Israeli Soldiers?]
On my birthday in 2009, we joined Palestinian volunteers in Gaza’s northern region of Beit Hanoun to search for the corpse of a young man gone missing two months prior. A shepherd in the area had reported having smelt what seemed to be a dead body in the northeastern region near the border fence. As we walked in a line, combing the ground for the body, israeli soldiers began firing on us. The dead man’s father walked with us, ducking with each shot fired our way. The bullets came closer and more quickly as we located the badly decomposed body, loaded him onto a sheet, and hauled him away, the father wailing. The israelis deny Palestinians even the dignity of recovering the bodies of their loved ones.
Our intent in accompanying the ambulances was to deter the warplanes, tanks and drones from attacking medics. We were spurned on by the fact that in the first week already 2 medical workers had been killed and 15 more injured in the line of duty (by the end of the 23 days of attacks, 23 emergency workers had been killed and 50 injured). Medics and rescue workers under the Geneva Conventions are to be provided safe access to the injured and dead. In Gaza, as with so many things, international law matters not, and medics are prevented from reaching those calling for them, and medics are targeted. [see also: Defend the Rescuers and Rescuers Targeted, One Year On]
In the first few minutes of attacks, israeli warplanes targeted police stations in densely populated areas throughout the Strip. Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s main hospital, was a chaotic mass of people seeking out loved ones and bodies all over the place. The floors of were covered with people of varying degrees of severity, waiting for treatment, including in the under-equipped ICU. Ambulances and cars screamed past in an endless stream, dropping off the injured, the dead.
The Red Crescent station in the east of Jabalia, Northern Gaza, was as of our second morning with the medics too dangerous to access: the land invasion had begun during the night, shells flying dangerously close to the building. By morning it was impossible to access, and by the end of the attacks we return to find it studded with machine-gun fire and hit by shelling. Also by the second morning, a medic I had worked with throughout the evening was killed from by a dart bomb fired at his ambulance. [see also: Ensuring Maximum Casualties in Gaza]
During the course of accompanying the medics I saw people horrifically burned and maimed by white phosphorous used in various locations throughout Gaza. The most infamous was the bombing over Fakhoura, the UN school, then a sanctuary for internally-displaced. When white phosphorous rained down on the school, 42 civilians were killed and many more horrifically maimed by the chemical weapon. White phosphorous burns until deprived of oxygen.
I also saw terrified civilians who had been kept hostage by the army, denied food, water, medicines, and in many cases terrorized. People streaming from areas all over northern Gaza, on foot, under the bombs, seeking safety where none is to be had. And victims of drone strikes: the army employs the “double-tap” bombing method: strike an area and strike again within minutes, precision-bombing those who’ve come to help victims of the first strike. I will never forget the shrill wailing of a man whose wife was caught in that fatal second “tap,” shrieking as he picked up the pieces of his beloved and accompanied her to the morgue.
Many atrocities later, at the end of 23 days of incessant bombings, we began to see the immensity of the attacks Strip-wide. People assassinated point-blank, including children; families buried alive in bombings of entire buildings, the survivors of which then denied medical care for days until many died of their injuries; racist hate graffiti left on the walls of homes occupied by Zionist soldiers; football-field sized earthen pits used to hold prisoners stripped naked, held for days, some of whom were then taken to Israeli prisons; hospitals bombed, including with white phosphorous–including a rehabilitation hospital where most of the patients were invalids; kindergartens, universities, mosques, markets, schools, and farms, bombed and destroyed. [see: Israeli War Crimes Coming to Light]
This nightmare scenario replayed itself in November 2012, under eight days of Israeli bombing which killed 171 Palestinians. Not only did the army massacre more Palestinians, but it also wreaked havoc on the Strip’s infrastructure, again destroying key bridges, water and sewage lines, schools, a soccer stadium, health clinics and hospitals, and television stations, leaving Palestinians again to clean up the mess of Israel’s war games. At the same time, Israeli authorities have restricted and now banned construction materials into Gaza, rendering the re-building of destroyed homes and buildings nearly impossible [see: Killing Before the Calm and The Flattening of Gaza].
Even without the massacres and shootings, life is beyond unbearable in Gaza.
In 2006, Zionist warplanes bombed Gaza’s sole power plant, which then provided roughly half of the Strip’s energy needs. Since then, the ban on construction materials and replacement parts has meant that the plant has never fully been rehabilitated, the dearth of power causing rolling blackouts. In good times, power outages are only 6-8 hours long every day. Currently, with a fuel shortage generated both by the complicity of the Ramallah government and the bombing of the life-line tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, Gaza is so deficient in fuel to run it’s power plant that the power outages vary from 14-18 hours per day, on average.
This dangerously impacts the health, sanitation, water, education, and industrial sectors. Hospital life-support equipment, operation rooms, ICUs, dialysis machines, refrigerators for plasma and medicines, and even simple hygienic laundering services are all affected [see: Israeli Siege on Gaza Causes Waste Crisis and Attack on Water Brings Sanitation Crisis].
Sanitation plants, already over-worked for want of repair and expanded sewage holding pools, end up dumping 90 million litres or more sewage into the sea; under power outages dumping is compounded, and sewage pools sometimes overflow into residential areas, as has recently happened in a district of Gaza City. [see: Attack on Water Brings Sanitation Crisis and Israel’s threat to cut Gaza water supply would be “complete catastrophe”]
I visited a few tunnels during my time in Gaza. Though some of the hundreds of tunnels running from Gaza to Egypt have been fortified and are large enough to bring in banned items, like vehicles, or even camels, the tunnels I saw were small, weakly-fortified in patches with wood planks, and over-lapping neighbouring tunnels side by side, one over another. Those working in the tunnels are among Gaza’s desperately poor, working long, unbearably hot hours for a pittance, and always subject to the dangers of tunnel collapse, electrocution from poor wiring inside, or Zionist bombings.
But the tunnels at least allowed into Gaza things banned or limited by the Zionist regime. In the years between 2008-2010, these banned items included random things like diapers, A4 paper, livestock, seeds, fertilizers, shoes, and pasta. The Israeli regime went as far as to calculate the minimum amount of calories needed to keep Palestinians not quite fully starving (see: Food Consumption in the Gaza Strip—Red Lines). Even after the lightening of some of these ridiculous restrictions, the tunnels were still critical to the import of adequate amounts of fuel and cooking gas.
Following the July 2013 military coup in Egypt, the majority of Gaza’s tunnels have been destroyed, meaning a drastic shortage in fuel, cooking gas, and construction materials.
Damage to the coastal aquifer from over-extraction will be reversible in 2020 if no action is taken now, a 2012 UN report notes. At the moment, 95% of water in Gaza is undrinkable according to WHO standards.
The manufactured layers of crisis rendering life in Gaza utterly unbearable, and dangerous, have continued to escalate while at the same time, the media black-out on Gaza continues. From my experiences in the Strip, including meetings with the different water, sanitation, health and agriculture officials, I learned that the current 80% dependence on food aid could be reversed, unemployment rates lowered, and a decent quality of life possible if, and only if, the blockade is lifted, exports and freedom of movement allowed, and Israeli attacks on farmers and fishers halted.
Until then, and until world leaders, including Canada’s own, stop their blind support of the Zionist state and act to enforce the numerous UN resolutions affording justice to Palestinians, the suffering will only worsen.