Code Pink's Gaza Delegation

— Rick Congress

I WAS PART of a delegation of 62 people that entered Gaza on March 7, 2009. The purpose of our trip, organized by the women’s antiwar organization Code Pink, was to challenge the Israeli/Egyptian and U.S.-sanctioned blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza, which has been in force since the Palestinian elections of 2006.

Besides challenging the blockade of Gaza, Code Pink went to participate in International Women’s Day meetings in Gaza that were organized by UNRWA (United Nations Relief Works Agency). So after gathering in Cairo, the group bused across the Sinai to the Rafah border crossing.

From our briefings and discussion by email before we all met in Cairo, we knew that there was a good chance we would not be allowed into Gaza. The Egyptian government is dependent on U.S aid and is also vulnerable to Israeli pressure to keep up the blockade. There is also no love lost between Hamas and the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak. So we had a “plan B” ready. We would camp out in front of the border, generally make a nuisance of ourselves and try to get a lot of publicity.

However, we were able to generate a lot of support. We had a large, very diverse group with participants mainly from the United States but also from Canada, Australia, Pakistan and Egypt.

A video production team from Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now!” program and other independent journalists also came on the trip. Also participating were the author Alice Walker as well as Cindy and Craig Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie who was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer driver in Gaza while protesting home demolitions in 2003. The Corries have since started a foundation and are highly regarded in the Arab world.

Having sponsorship from the UN organization in Gaza was also helpful. So rather than fighting us, the Egyptian government decided to join us. President Mubarak’s wife is the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, and while gathering at the border we learned that the Red Crescent had officially endorsed our mission.

Another factor that eased us through the border was the arrival at the Egypt-Gaza border of a 100-plus vehicle motorcade with humanitarian aid from Britain. They had driven through Europe, entered Morocco and proceeded through North Africa and Egypt. This initiative was led by George Galloway, a Member of the British Parliament. Our delegation raised $10,000.

What Was Gaza Like?

I spent most of the 1980s shuffling between the United States and Nicaragua working to help the Sandinista revolution in the face of the U.S./contra aggression. But I had never been to the Mideast and had no idea what to expect in Gaza.

Palestine is not historically as poor as Central America. Its people have had small businesses, orchards, farms, and have struggled to give good education to their children. The Israelis have been undermining these accomplishments, step by step, in an attempt to break the Palestinians’ morale as a people.

With the blockade the standard of living has been falling rapidly. Besides the economic degradation, a public health risk has been created by the Israelis’ depletion of Gaza’s water table. They have been pumping out fresh water from Gaza, causing salt water from the sea to seep into the groundwater. Children are especially susceptible to kidney problems as the salinity of the drinking water increases.

The Gaza strip is 25 miles long south to north, and three to seven miles wide from the sea to the Israeli border. I got to see all of Gaza in less than a day. On March 8, I helped deliver 1000 baskets with cosmetics and consumer products, which were gifts to Palestinian women attending UN-sponsored International Women’s Day meetings. It was something for the men on the delegation to do.

We had a truck loaded with baskets and we made deliveries from border to border. One and a half million people are packed into this strip of land. Because of the blockade most people are unemployed and most families depend on UN food aid to live.

Most of the population of Gaza comes from Palestinians who were chased off their land by the Israeli army in 1948. Gaza is a mostly urban place with lots of buildings of a few stories, say four to seven, packed closely together. Often entire extended families live in one multi-story building.

The main refugee camp in Gaza City, Jabaliya, has 125,000 people. The camp is not one of tents but of cement buildings with narrow alleyways. There are commercial centers with small stores and eating places, markets and car traffic (also a lot of horse and donkey cart traffic).

The large number of children is also striking. Something like 40% of the population is 15 and under. Many of the children looked somewhat dazed or shell shocked. When I met families, I saw a few children who had been wounded in the Israeli assault. Everyone had a story about children being killed in bombings or shot by Apache gunships or snipers on the ground.

Walking through the streets you would see a row of buildings, one or two of which would be demolished by F-16 or Apache helicopter strikes. Some of the buildings hit were police stations, Hamas offices and government buildings, but others were medical clinics, schools, or residences. Palestinians who showed us around different neighborhoods gave us a running narrative: “In this house everybody died, a family of 12,” “Over here six kids were killed — it was just a house nothing to do with Hamas or the government.”

Some of the neighborhoods on the eastern border with Israel were largely leveled. They bore the brunt of the ground attack. We saw people in tents provided by the UN living next to their wrecked homes. Some families, despite warnings of the risk, lived in their partially destroyed homes.

As we toured the area we were warned not to go through the wrecked homes or pick up anything. Unexploded cluster bombs or white phosphorus remained around the area. Five thousand homes were destroyed and over 50,000 Gazans were left homeless.

Solidarity and Peace

Members of the delegation also attended meetings with various groups such as women’s health and rights organizations, children’s centers, legal organizations, agricultural groups, and student groups. A few meetings made a special impression. We met with the head of the UN operation, John Ging. He was featured on news reports when Israel bombed the UN school where several people were killed. Israel claimed that Hamas was firing mortars from the UN school grounds. John Ging was shown on national TV newscasts strongly denouncing these claims as bogus.

We also met with a leader of Hamas, a woman who was one of the members elected to the Palestinian legislature in 2006.

Everyone said our presence and the solidarity it brought was a desperately-needed morale boost. While material aid is important, people stressed that breaking the blockade and publicizing their plight to the world is essential.

Most of the people we spoke to, both average citizens and representatives of various groups, said that they didn’t support any particular party. They wanted peace, they wanted us to tell the American people that they were not terrorists and they expressed hope for a unified Palestinian government. While we were in Gaza talks between leaders of Fatah and the PLO, based in the West Bank, were in Egypt negotiating with Hamas leaders.

Code Pink has recently decided to organize another, larger delegation to Gaza. To find information on future plans, reports from members of the March delegation, and photos, go to the Code Pink website www.codepink4peace.org (photos are on Flikr under Code Pink Gaza). You can also check You Tube under Code Pink Gaza Delegation. Contributions can be sent to: Code Pink, 2010 Linden Avenue, Venice CA 90291.

ATC 140, May/June 2009

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