23 April 2009 Edition
Gerry Adams in Gaza and Israel
Gaza: Taking hope from the Good Friday Agreement
BY RICHARD McAULEY
In Israel and Gaza
THE visit by Gerry Adams at the head of a four-strong Sinn Féin delegation to Gaza and Israel earlier this month – after Gerry’s talks in Washington last month with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell about the Middle East – made headlines across the Arab world, Israel and beyond.
On 7 April, the Sinn Féin delegation – Gerry Adams, Richard McAuley, Ted Howell and Harry Thompson – visited the region for four days. This week, concluding his two-part story of their experience, Richard McAuley tells of their time in Gaza, including meeting the Hamas Prime Minister and Fatah and the PLO.
Bright and early on Wednesday morning we were on the road to Erez Crossing – the entry point into Gaza. At a nearby café we met John Ging, the United Nations director who was hosting our visit.
We drove in UNWRA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) vehicles to Erez Crossing. As we approached this massive border crossing I was struck by its similarity to Long Kesh. A high concrete wall stretched for miles with guard posts positioned along it.
The crossing itself, which is three years old, resembles an airport terminal but has never been properly used. It was built to accommodate up to 30,000 Palestinians crossing each day back and forward to work in Israel. But since its construction Gaza has been under siege so Erez sits largely unused, except for the occasional travellers, mainly UN and other NGO workers.
On this dazzling sunny morning it was four Irish republicans who made our way through it. After having our passports checked we were allowed to travel through in our UN vehicles.
The gates through which we passed from one air-lock to the next are massive metal things weighing tons. The concrete blast walls are enormous, and at the other side of this there is a 600-metre-wide no-mans land before you reach the ramshackle Palestinian border crossing.
There we climbed into armoured UN vehicles before beginning our two-day visit in Gaza.
Our first stop, a short distance away, was the village of Izbet Abd Rabo, which was destroyed during the Israeli assault. There was nothing of value still standing. Nothing salvageable. And in the midst of this desolation Gerry held his press conference. He spoke first in Irish – which clearly took his media audience and interpreter by surprise.
Then, in English, he told them who he was and why we were in Gaza. He set the tone of the two-day visit by describing the Israeli assault as wrong and declaring that all people have the right to live in peace and safety and security. He made it clear that, while he was in no way accepting that the rocket attacks into Israel justified the Israeli response, he called for an end to them and to all armed actions by all sides.
And he stated Sinn Féin’s belief that dialogue, involving all parties, is essential to any peaceful resolution.
Gerry described the international community’s response to the plight of the Palestinians, and in particular of Gaza, as “shameful”.
An elderly and angry Palestinian woman confronted him. It appeared she thought he was with the UN. She had lost her home, her husband and a large number of family members in the Israeli bombardment and ground offensive. We met another family living in a cave created by the collapsed walls of a nearby building. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a few mats on the floor.
After that it was off on a round of meetings that lasted until midnight. UNWRA brought us to the industrial area closeby, where thousands of workers lost their jobs when scores of factories were destroyed; to the American International School, flattened by Israeli rockets; to the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross; to a lunchtime meeting with civic society leaders, including human rights groups; to the Islamic University and a meeting with the heads of several universities in Gaza; and to the Al-Quds Hospital.
The hospital was one of those severely damaged during the Israeli air attack. We walked through destroyed hospital wards and listened to accounts from doctors and others of their efforts to provide medical attention to the wounded and dying in the midst of chaos and war.
We also met with Karen Koning Abuzzayd, who is the Under-Secretary General for UNRWA and who gave us a sense of the huge relief operation they run to feed and care for the needs of the almost one million, one hundred thousand refugees living in Gaza. It is an amazing enterprise involving a staff of almost ten thousand.
Meeting Ismail Haniyeh – Hamas Prime Minister
That evening we met with women’s groups. At 9.30pm, representatives of the Hamas Government arrived to take us at high speed through a confusion of darkened streets to a meeting with the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza. It was obvious that his colleagues remain deeply concerned for his safety and they took precautions to protect their leader.
He’s a big man with a warm smile and friendly demeanour who readily shook all our hands and urged us to sit.
Through an interpreter he welcomed Gerry and the rest of us. He spoke of the Irish republican struggle and of the Irish Peace Process. The Prime Minister explained to us the Hamas decision to stand in the elections of 2006, of their success and of the subsequent hostile reaction of Israel, the EU and USA. He told us of the human and economic cost of the Israeli blockade and of the recent air and ground offensive.
Gerry and he spoke about peace and how to achieve it, of the difficulties involved and of the possibilities arising from the appointment of George Mitchell. They spoke about Hamas’s attitude to Israel and the accusation that Hamas was for the destruction of the Israeli state and against peace.
It was a long meeting. Almost an hour and a half. When it was over we were whisked back to our hotel. I used the hotel internet to immediately issue a statement from Gerry explaining that we had met the Hamas leader. In it Gerry said:
“I was pleased to speak directly with Mr Haniyeh. I outlined to him Sinn Féin’s view that there should be a complete cessation of all hostilities and armed actions by all sides.
“I emphasised our opinion that dialogue, including substantive and inclusive negotiations, and a genuine peace process, is the only way forward for Palestinians and Israelis.
“The fact is that the people of Palestine and the people of Israel are destined to live side by side. I believe that most people want a peaceful accommodation.
“Following my meeting with Mr Haniyeh I believe that progress is possible. Mr Haniyeh told me that Hamas wants a peace agreement.
“As I have said consistently: there needs to be a dialogue between the people of Palestine and their leadership and the people of Israel and their leadership. That is what worked in Ireland.
“I believe that there is a duty on the international community to recognise the democratic outcome of the elections in Palestinian Territories. I believe that the people of Palestine and the people of Israel have the right to live free from the fear of threats, with human rights and in dignity and as equals.
“The citizens of Gaza are living in an open-air prison. They are being denied their human and national rights. This has to be rectified.”
The human cost of the siege
The next morning we were up early for an intensive round of further meetings. Local business leaders expressed their anger at the impact of the siege on efforts to stimulate jobs and commerce. The blockade means that no reconstruction of the damaged caused during the Israeli attack has been possible. The business and commercial life of Gaza is being strangled.
Other political meetings took place during the day with representatives from Fatah, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the People’s Party and others.
In the afternoon, we met the Hamas Mayor of Gaza and the City Council, Minister for Health Dr Bassem Na’im, and senior Hamas government officials, the Palestinian Legislative Council, including the Minister for Justice, and we visited Shifa Hospital.
The director of the hospital, which is the largest in the Palestinian Territories, gave us a quick tour and explained some of the grave medical and human problems confronting them. He told us that within minutes of the commencement of the Israeli attack in December around 140 bodies were brought to the front door of the hospital. The medical staff were swamped and there were so many bodies in such desperate condition that initially they couldn’t tell the dead from the severely wounded.
The director pointed to a half-finished building for much-needed intensive care units. It can’t be completed because the Israeli blockade prevents building materials coming into Gaza. During a tour of the hospital we were taken into rooms containing modern radiation machines for treating cancer patients that are lying idle because the Israeli authorities will not allow spare parts in.
In one particular hospital room we were introduced to a father and mother watching over their 13-year-old daughter who lay curled up on a hospital bed and will die shortly because she could not receive the treatment she needed for bone cancer. It was a heart-breaking experience.
The political meetings and interviews with the media continued again up to very late that evening. It was our last night in Gaza.
The next morning we were at Erez at 8am waiting to cross back into Israel. This time, however, the Israeli authorities would not allow us to use the cars. We had to walk through ‘No Man’s Land’ with our bags and baggage to the terminal.
There, a remote voice instructed us through air-locks and computer-controlled doors. Bags on one track to be scanned and X-rayed, and us into an enclosed contraption that whizzed around us to presumably detect anything illegal.
A long, deliberately dragged-out process that took two-and-a-half hours. A new experience for us but for the dozen or so NGO workers who travel back and forward every few weeks it was an old routine experienced many times. Some told us that they can wait up to 12 hours! I felt sorry for them having to put up with that nonsense but they took it in their stride – fair play to them.
Behind us, one and a half million people remained locked up in their huge out-door prison. The Israeli blockade allows a drip-feed of food and other resources. It’s all minimal. Barely enough to keep the place ticking over. Barely enough to feed people. The electricity network often fails. The sewage system is inadequate and is frequently on the point of collapse. People – children mostly – are dying because of inadequate medical resources or access to outside care. No substantial repairs have been carried out on damaged property, no homes being built, no factories being repaired and there is no sign of any relaxation of the siege.
It is a depressing, disastrous human crisis that looks set to get worse unless wiser heads prevail.
The Israelis seem determined to sustain the siege while the international community appears equally determined to stand by and allow this inhumanity to continue. It’s a disgrace but, worse, without a solution soon, it is a powder keg waiting to explode.
With 60 per cent of the population of Gaza under 18, the consequences for the region of this huge youth population isolated and trapped in a small confined geographical area and within a cycle of violence and poverty is obvious – or at least it should be. As Gerry warned:
“If allowed to fester and grow, in 20 years the world will look back at this time and remember Hamas as the moderates!”
And then we were out and on our way to Ramallah in the West Bank where we had a meeting with the Palestinian Authority.
We were now back on republican time – that is, we were running late. Later on still, we travelled to Bethlehem where Dr As’ad Abdul Rahman of the PLO Executive walked us around Al Duhasha, a Palestinian refugee camp established 60 years ago.
In the evening, we held discussions with members of the PLO Executive, including Rafiq Husseini, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Chief of Staff, and again Dr As’ad Abdul Rahman of the PLO Executive.
Back in Ireland
Saturday morning before Easter Sunday and we were on our way home.
Speaking on his return to Ireland, Gerry summarised the four days and outlined our next steps.
“I left the Middle East even more convinced that a process of dialogue between all of the participants is essential for progress.
“Democratic mandates must be respected and in any negotiation process there must be clear objectives set, within a fixed timeframe, if there is to be confidence that any new round of negotiations will be real.
“I believe that only a two-state solution which provides for the security and prosperity of Palestinians and Israelis, as well as national rights for Palestinians, can deliver a durable peace settlement.
“The response of the international community over many years to the political and humanitarian crisis in this region, and in particular to the plight of the Palestinian people, has been shameful.
“With George Mitchell travelling to the Middle East early next week there is a new opportunity opening up which must be grasped. But as that new initiative takes shape, the siege of Gaza should end immediately, all armed actions should cease and the reconstruction of Gaza, which the Israeli blockade is preventing, should begin.
“I intend to submit a report of my visit to Senator Mitchell and to the Irish, British and US governments and others with an interest in and influence on the situation there.
“Eleven years ago on Friday, the Good Friday Agreement was achieved. Many of those I have spoken to in recent days in the Middle East clearly take hope from that achievement. With political will it can be done in the Middle East also.”