Emergency Delegation to Gaza Winds Up Week of Witness to War’s Devastation, Gazans’ Resilience
December 6, 2012
An emergency delegation of peace activists, lawyers, and journalists that hurried to the Gaza Strip just days after the end of Israel’s recent assault on the territory has wound up up a week of bearing witness both to the war’s devastation and to the Gazan people’s determination to rebuild their society and seek a more peaceful and just future.
Consisting of 20 U.S. citizens, two from the UK, one from Spain, and one from Germany, and ranging in age from 23 to 82, the group entered the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing from Egypt on Nov. 26 and 27, following the ceasefire brokered by Egypt and finally announced on Nov. 21. Over the last week members of the group have traveled throughout the Strip, meeting with the families of some of the more than 160 people killed, visiting hospitals and bombed-out homes, joining farmers and fishermen in their efforts to ensure that the terms of the ceasefire agreement are implemented fully, and exchanging views with local human-rights advocates, professors and students, young bloggers, and people on the streets.
“We’ve seen the devastating destructiveness of Israel’s high-tech weaponry, most of it supplied by the U.S. at American taxpayer’s expense,” said Col. Ann Wright, ret., who served in the U.S. military for 29 years and in the U.S. diplomatic service for 13. “We’ve heard grief, anger, fear, and bewilderment, but just about everyone we’ve talked to has also expressed pride in their society’s resiliency and a commitment to continue the struggle for their rights, despite the high price they’ve paid.”
“Over and over people told us terrified they were by the constant buzzing of the drones, and the bombs and rockets that shook whole neighborhoods and sent deadly shrapnel over wide areas,” said delegation member Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK. “There was no safe haven in the Gaza Strip.”
Many of the most poignant stories delegation members heard involved children killed or injured in the Israeli attacks. Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, recalled a family speaking fondly about their lively and lovable eight-year-old son, Fares. On November 15, 2012, shrapnel from an Israeli rocket attacks decapitated Fares as he slept. “He was the life of the house,” said Ahmed Baiyouni, his father. “Now the home seems so quiet.”
At least 33 children were killed and 247 wounded during the Israeli onslaught, according to a preliminary count by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza. Even children who weren’t harmed physically were left traumatized by the sights, sounds, and bone-jarring impact of the bombing, many parents told the visiting delegation.
Despite warning shots fired by Israeli forces, delegation members also accompanied fishermen and farmers asserting their right to fish in Gaza’s territorial waters and to farm their lands along the border with Israel. In recent years Israel unilaterally banned Gaza’s fishing fleet from sailing more than three nautical miles offshore and declared “no go” zones in Gazan territory along the border with Israel, including much of the area’s most productive agricultural land. Israeli forces enforced these ban with frequent attacks on both farmers and fishermen.
According to the text of the November 21 ceasefire agreement, this was supposed to change : Israel’s obligations include “refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas.” With their rights thus reaffirmed, Gazans all along the border have returned to land they have been unable to farm for years, while fishermen have sailed out to six nautical miles offshore.
Unfortunately, since day one of the ceasefire Israel has repeatedly violated its commitment, firing guns and tear gas across the border at Palestinians as they farm their own land and sending gunboats to harass the fishermen. Since the ceasefire Israeli fire along the border fence has killed one civilian and wounded at least 42, including 7 children, while Israeli naval forces have arrested at least 29 fishermen, impounded and damaged nine fishing boats, and destroyed one boat.
"The shooting at farmers and fishermen puts the ceasefire at risk," said attorney James Marc Leas, co-chair of the National Lawyers Guild Free Palestine Sub-committee. "If the ceasefire ends, Israel cannot shift the blame as it is the first to be shooting guns."
The delegation was in Gaza when the UN General Assembly voted overwhelming to grant Palestine recognition as an “observer state.” While people celebrated the vote, many expressed anger that the U.S. joined Israel in voting “No.” They were even angrier that the U.S. supported the Israeli attack on Gaza, citing Israel’s right to self-defense as if Israel were the victim and not the aggressor. Jamal Dalu, a shop keeper who lost 11 members of his family, including his wife and five children, told delegates : "Barack Obama has the blood of my children on his hands, because he gave Israel the green light to carry out these crimes."
The group brought medical supplies and donations for the hospitals and the Red Crescent, and donated funds to some of the families who lost their homes. But these donations are meager compared to the $3 billion in US tax dollars going to the Israeli military. The group plans to use their experiences to report back to their communities and organize to change US policy. While some members of the emergency delegation plan to stay longer in Gaza, most have just returned to their homes and are available for interviews.