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What Will be Left Behind If and When Israel Leaves Gaza?

Jen and I have returned safely to the US. We apologize for the gap in keeping you posted on our travels. Experiences were simply too complex to quickly digest and days too exhausting to blog in the early hours of the morning. Thank you for all your comments and for accompanying us on our journey. We will continue with a few more entries this week, sent from the relatively calmer offices of Grassroots International.

What Will be Left Behind If and When Israel leaves Gaza….

You may have read that Sharon is stating that Israel will soon pull out of Gaza. Of course, we must hope this is true — our despair must be tempered with hope in finding a resolution to this painful conflict. But having returned from the region this weekend, my momentary despair leads me to imagine that when Hamas responds in kind to the assassination of Sheikh Yassin — and tragically, they surely will – Sharon will withdraw or delay the plan, claiming that the Palestinians are once again incapable of accepting a « generous offer ». He will reclaim the support of Likud members upset with his presumably peaceful overture as well as show Israelis of all political stripes that he at least tried.

If and when the Israelis depart from Gaza, it will not be before significantly degrading its natural resources. The aquifer below Gaza will be depleted in the relative short term — 2 to 5 years and it is already beginning to show an increasing saline content. Perhaps this lost water resource itself will hasten the Israelis’ departure. There are three other principal aquifers in Israel/Palestine: under Tel Aviv, Hebron and Qalqilya. Not surprisingly, under the West Bank aquifers, settlement expansion has been most intense.

Israel will not have left Gaza before uprooting thousands upon thousands of olive and citrus trees. Ahmed Sourani, from Grassroots International’s partner organization, the Palestine Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC), showed us a field littered with stumps – though his group has hurried to return the land to productivity and it is now brilliantly green, covered by wheat. In 2002 — 2003, Israeli tanks and bulldozers destroyed 85,000 donums (1/4 of a hectare) of Gaza’s 170,000 donums of productive land. The argument for the destruction is, of course, security concerns, that the orange and olive groves have provided shaded shelter from which to launch missiles and snipe at the border crossing at Erez and Israeli settlements. These attacks have indeed taken place; Israel’s response has been to collectively punish thousands of farmers, resulting in the loss of their only means of livelihood.

Fishing Where There are No Fish

Gazan fishermen presented a different view of closure to us, that of their fishing grounds. Up until 1986, Gaza enjoyed a thriving fishing industry. Since 1986, there have been increasing restrictions by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) on fishermen’s activities. While the bulk of fish tend to congregate 10-20 miles off shore and in estuaries to the south, the Israeli navy restrictions the boats from traveling more than 6 miles out to sea and in narrow lateral movements. Where there is a settlement near the shore, the fishermen cannot come closer than 1 mile to the beach. A war ship patrols off shore, occasionally fires on them with water cannons or bullets and confiscates vessels and nets. Fishermen caught out of bounds may be thrown in jail from 3 days to 6 months. Those fish caught within the restricted boundaries tend to be highly contaminated — by Gazan household sewage and Israeli industrial effluent. Consequently, the fish from the sea actually fetch a lower price than fish raised on fish farms in Israel. The economic result is the same as the uprooted trees — loss of essential livelihood.

There are about 3,500 professional fishermen and about another 1000 occasional fishermen that fish from the Gazan port. One fisherman is Mrad Hisse, 42 years old with 11 children. His family is unable to live on the income from the limited catches and is now seeking food aid. He is embarrassed because when he son asks him for a sheckel he doesn’t have anything to give him. Mrad understands these restrictions as collective punishment and the consequences are pushing people to do illegal things. Mrad has an 18 year-old son and he worries that if the son is unable to make a living, in desperation, he will join one of the militant groups or engage in smuggling.

In the Home of a Hamas Militant

We spent an afternoon with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) staff. They offer clinical services and conduct extensive outreach and education on mental health issues with schools, mosques and community groups. They’ve helped make it socially acceptable to openly discuss and examine despair, depression and trauma. Some of you may remember Mohammed Mukhaimar; he works with GCMHP and spoke at Grassroots International’s 20th Anniversary conference, « Sow Justice, Reap Security. » We had the privilege of seeing him at work. He took us to the Jabalia refugee camp, one of the largest in the world, home to 90,000 refugees living on 1 square kilometer. Families tend to be large, with up to 11 children squeezed into narrow apartments. Everywhere we walked, we were swarmed by dozens and dozens of children posing to have their picture taken. We paid a home visit to a delusional patient; he had been a political prison in Israeli jails for 11 years. Mohammed and his colleague, a psychiatric nurse, administered medication to the patient. We listened to his story, at times incoherent, while his mother filled in the gaps — it was a yearning remembrance of the village from which they were driven in 1948.

Out in the alley, a 25 year-old man speaking excellent English invited us into his home. He was a schoolteacher with a young son. He and his wife lived with his many brothers and his parents – 15 in all. We removed our shoes, walked across a straw mat and sat on pillows in what served as the living room and a bedroom. On the walls hung photos of young martyrs. Crowded around a computer screen, three teenagers — the schoolteacher’s brothers – watched a quite violent Hezbollah video, interspersed with stills of Sheikh Yassin. The schoolteacher laid out his proposal for a political settlement — a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank with a secure connection to Gaza. That sounded similar to many other proposals we’d heard. And the refugees, we asked, knowing that as a refugee himself he must have strong feelings about their future status. The refugees must be allowed to return to their homes in Israel, he said, adding that he knew that Israel would never agree. In the absence of that agreement, he argued in the most friendly, polite and well-reasoned voice, holy war and righteous death is the next best option. He showed us a photo of his little three-year old boy dressed with a Hamas headband, holding a rifle, flanked by rockets on either side of him. He was proud of the picture. We gasped but didn’t argue; we had our own security to consider. We shook hands, thanked him for the visit and left. It was a profoundly depressing exchange. This appeared to be ground zero for Hamas recruitment. We reflected with the GCMHP staff: was this family in any sense suffering mentally illness, a target for treatment? For me his logic was tragic but for him it made perfect sense. He had a completely logical framework, informed by his interpretation of Islam, his squalid surroundings, the occupation, and the lack of coherent Palestinian leadership. Mohammed had sat patiently and listened to the schoolteacher – not a client of GCMHP. This was by no means the first time Mohammed had met people that expressed their anger and despair in precisely the same way. GCMHP seeks to reach people before it comes to this, to reflect on their pain and think through options other than martyrdom. I felt proud that Grassroots supports the work of GCMHP.

Food and Hope

Ahmed Sourani of PARC showed us the work of the urban agriculture program in the Jabalia refugee camp. Refugee families planted tomato plants and leafy greens in patches of dirt in empty lots littered with rubble. The families trained cucumbers up strings on rooftop gardens. PARC provides those families that are able to bang together a rooftop coop with pigeons for protein. With the economy so tenuous, hundreds of thousands of Gazan families receive food handouts from the United Nations as well as from a vast array of relief and food for work programs. In a strange co-dependence, the little bit of money that circulates in the Gazan economy in large part comes from spending by internationals and nationals working in these humanitarian agencies. The urban agriculture program helps families achieve food security in a dignified way: growing their own food for improved nutrition and occasional sale. They also help neighborhoods « green » Gaza, by planting olive trees along crowded streets.

This work takes on new importance as the UN recently threatened to stop humanitarian deliveries to Gaza because the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) obstruct their work — the IDF won’t allow them to return expensive trucking containers to Israel due to security concerns. Some months back, two terrorists passed into Israel hidden in such a container. Other aid organizations are beginning to openly question whether their charity work perversely allows Israel to continue its occupation without causing an even more extreme social explosion fed by empty bellies. Reflecting on whether humanitarian aid helps or hurts is of course a complicated reflection — few of us would be able to stomach a deepening humanitarian crisis. Nevertheless, that reflection is long overdue and can lead to important changes in humanitarian aid practice. This crisis has gone on far too long for those of us working in the bloated « humanitarian industry » to be aiding and abetting it. To my not unbiased mind, work like that of PARC’s is the kind of community development strategy that we ought to support: Rather than creating dependency, it encourages social organization and provides dignified tools for communities to meet basic needs.