14 January 2010 Edition
Solidarity actions successful as Gaza situation deteriorates
BY EMMA CLANCY
THE one-year anniversary of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip was marked by a convergence of solidarity activists on the territory in actions that successfully delivered aid and drew the world’s attention to the plight of the besieged Palestinians.
Around 2,000 activists from around the world, including several from Ireland, joined the Viva Palestina aid convoy and the Gaza Freedom March demanding an end to the economic siege of the Gaza Strip, home to 1.5 million people. While the Viva Palestina convoy was eventually able to enter Gaza and deliver their aid, all 517 activists were later deported from Egypt.
Sinn Féin supported the actions and is this week participating in a 50-person delegation of MEPs and other elected representatives from Europe to Egypt and the Gaza Strip. MEP Bairbre de Brún is to join other politicians in the largest such European delegation ever to visit Gaza. Derry Mayor Paul Fleming will also be participating in the delegation.
While the anniversary solidarity actions were very successful, they took place against a worsening humanitarian and political situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Factors contributing to the deterioration of the situation include the role of the Egyptian Government in complying further with the Israeli and US-led siege; Egypt’s construction of a wall to choke the tunnel lifeline of vital goods to Gaza; and increasing Israeli air and ground attacks, which have killed at least nine Palestinians in recent weeks.
All of this takes place against the background of Israel’s relentless ethnic cleansing and colonisation of occupied East Jerusalem, envisioned as the future capital as any viable Palestinian state.
While Hamas, which won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections overwhelmingly in January 2006, has been entirely excluded from Western-sponsored negotiations with Israel, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has refused to re-enter negotiations with the Israeli government while this settlement expansion continues in East Jerusalem.
Speaking to ‘An Phoblacht’ this week upon his return to Ireland, Tyrone man and Viva Palestina aid convoy member John Hurson described how, while he was presenting GAA jerseys to children in the Gaza Sporting Club on Thursday 7 January, he heard explosions in the distance – two nearby F-16 air strikes – which killed three Palestinians. One of those killed was a 14-year-old boy.
“The curtains in our room blew in and then out with the blast,” recalled Hurson. “At this point, our evening was cut short and we returned to the safety of our hotel. It was a very tense feeling, and word came through that it was a F-16 attack and that one man had been killed. In another attack near the border, two more were killed in F-16 attacks.
“This was a cold reminder to all about the daily fear everyone lives with in Gaza. These attacks are designed to keep on letting everyone in Gaza know that they can be hit at anytime, for no reason at all. Just living in Gaza makes you a target.”
These killings were followed by further air strikes on Sunday 10 January, which killed three members of Islamic Jihad and prompted fears that Israel plans to use rockets being fired from Gaza as a pretext for launching another all-out attack on the people of Gaza.
Gaza-based PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a leader of Hamas, called on all combatant factions to observe a ceasefire in order to prevent such a pretext being created.
“We call upon Palestinian factions to intensify their meetings in order to reinforce the national agreement and to work in a joint spirit to protect our people and to protect our interests and to block any possible Israeli aggression against our people,” Haniyeh said.
The Israeli army (IDF) also launched a ground attack in Nablus in the West Bank on 26 December, sending in several hundred soldiers on the eve of the anniversary of the ‘Cast Lead’ massacre, provoking outrage by carrying out the brutal extra-judicial executions of three men ostensibly in response to the killing by Palestinians of an Israeli settler. Nablus was brought to a halt as thousands thronged the streets to mourn the three unarmed men shot down in front of their families without warning.
The actions of the Israeli government and the rhetoric of ultra-Zionist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past several weeks, including air strikes and threats of full-scale war, have naturally sparked fears of a repeat of the massacre of a year ago, which left more than 1,400 Palestinians dead.
The continued illegal aggression has also highlighted the fact that despite the United Nation’s Goldstone Report of September last year – which found that Israel had carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead – the Israeli government remains confident that it can act with impunity with the backing of the United States.
The Goldstone Report urged the prosecution of those responsible for the Israeli assault, either through the International Criminal Court or through the use of universal jurisdiction in the event that Israel did not carry out a full criminal investigation itself (which the Israeli Government categorically ruled out).
However, the refusal by the U.S. and several EU Governments to back the report’s recommendations in the UN has assured the Israeli Government that its days of acting with impunity from international law can continue.
A year after the bombardment of Gaza and three and a half years after the siege was put in place, the humanitarian disaster in the coastal enclave continues to deteriorate – with the now open and direct complicity of neighbouring Egypt. The billions pledged in reconstruction aid by donor countries at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference in April have not materialised or made it through the blockade to the Palestinian agencies.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights released a statement on 27 December, the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, saying: “Today the Gaza Strip has been subject to 928 days of continuous illegal closure. This form of collective punishment, which indiscriminately affects each and every one of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants, has resulted in a manmade and completely preventable humanitarian crisis.”
Despite the massive devastation caused to homes and public infrastructure in the bombardment, only 41 trucks of building supplies have been allowed into Gaza during the year, according to international aid agencies.
Almost half of productive agricultural land is no longer in use as a result of damage caused by Israeli military actions and while the territory used to export 130,000 tons of fresh produce per year, this has now fallen to nothing.
More than 80% of Gaza’s 1.5 million people – half of whom are under the age of 15 – are dependent on UN food aid, and 90% of households in Gaza experience power cuts for four to eight hours each day.
All but the most essential foodstuffs and medicines are prohibited from entering the territory under the terms of the U.S.-backed siege in support of ‘Israel’s safety’ – pasta, for instance, is deemed a dangerous luxury.
The Gaza Strip is surrounded on its western coast by Israeli naval forces, and on its north and east by the Israeli army. The southern Rafah border with Egypt was the crossing point for the Viva Palestina aid convoy; however, for the vast majority of days it has been closed at Israel’s behest.
It is in this context that a network of tunnels smuggling goods, including food and cooking oil, underneath the Gaza-Egypt border has sprung up and thrived, providing a lifeline to the besieged people of Gaza.
But now this network too is to be shut down, choking the last remaining lifeline to the outside world. Under U.S. and Israeli pressure, and with technical aid from the U.S. Government, Egypt has begun building a steel wall along its 10-kilometer-long border with the Gaza Strip that extends not only above ground, but deep into the ground as well.
According to media reports, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is assisting Egypt in building the underground wall that will also be equipped with pipes to flood the tunnels with water and drown anyone inside them.
While key U.S. Middle East ally Egypt has in the recent past tried to appear as a ‘neutral’ mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has in the past several years shown its open complicity in maintaining the siege against Gaza by its refusal to open the Rafah border. This complicity has now intensified, with the Egyptian Government responding harshly to the latest Viva Palestina convoy and Gaza Freedom March, including deploying thousands of riot police against the activists.
The Egyptian Government has also stated it will not allow any solidarity convoys to pass through the Rafah border in the future, meaning the only option for reaching Gaza is by sea, as the Free Gaza Movement boats did last year.
In this worsening situation the aid actions received a rapturous and warm welcome from the people of Gaza. John Hurson told ‘An Phoblacht’ that the obstacles being put up by Israel, the U.S. and Egypt will not deter the solidarity movement from reaching Gaza with aid and said that there is a discussion among the South African and Venezuelan Governments about organising further state-sponsored aid convoys.
And this week Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún will join parliamentarians and other elected representatives from across Europe as part of the largest ever parliamentary delegation to visit Gaza organised by the European Campaign to End the Siege of Gaza (ECESG), an umbrella body of 30 NGOs across Europe.
The fact-finding visit will take place on Friday 14 and Saturday 16 January.
Sinn Féin Mayor of Derry Paul Fleming will also participate in the delegation, as will Councillor Gerry MacLochlainn.
Speaking from Brussels before leaving for Gaza, de Brún said: “The world was told last year after the horrendous damage, injury and loss of life that major reconstruction efforts would be launched immediately. Twelve months on we need to see those promises fulfilled.
“The siege of Gaza must end and there must be free movement of people and goods so that the people of Gaza can rebuild their lives.”
Diary of a Viva Palestina convoy activist
BY JOHN HURSON
The great news to report to you all is that the ‘Viva Palestina’ Humanitarian Aid Convoy safely reached Gaza and delivered all their aid. On 6 January, 517 humanitarians from 20 countries, in close to 200 vehicles, crossed through the Rafah border into Gaza [after forced detours, attacks and restrictions by the Egyptian Government].
Instead of a five-hour crossing, we did a 13-day roundabout to reach this point.
It was an emotional crossing, and all the hardships faced along the way just faded into a distant past. We had done it. We had crossed every hurdle put in our way, and together we stood tall for our principles and broke the siege of Gaza.
The scenes greeting us as we made our way to Gaza city were unbelievable. Over 100,000 lined the roads and streets as we took three hours to drive 20 kilometres. They had waited patiently for us for weeks, and their outpouring of excitement and gratitude was the most humbling experience of my life.
Following a reception at the border, we set off for Gaza City. Thousands and thousands of people, young and old, lined every step of our way. They were leaning over each other just to get touching a vehicle, taking pictures with their mobile phones, shouting messages of thanks, and generally giving us a hero’s welcome. It was one long humbling experience. What the residents in Gaza have to live with on a daily basis makes them all the real heroes in our books.
Together, we all made it happen, and the people in Gaza love and respect everyone for having shown the courage to speak up for them. They will never forget this convoy, that’s for sure.
Now that I’m back, I will continue to champion the cause of the Palestinians living under siege in Gaza. What is happening to them is one of the biggest crimes against humanity going on in the world today, and it must stop soon. I truly believe that with the wide coverage the convoy received in the Arab world, very soon the screws will tighten further on Israel, the U.S. and Egypt to lift the siege illegally imposed on Gaza.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Peter Canavan signs a ‘Tyrone To Gaza’ flag. His signature joined Noam Chomsky, Gerry Adams, Michelle Gildernew and others