Before I arrived at Grassroots International (nearly a year ago), I thought I understood the hardships imposed on Gaza. I knew about the imposed siege, had read and heard of the Turkish flotilla of 2010 and other humanitarian attempts to reach Gaza. I even knew about loss of acres of farmland, inadequate access to potable water, shortage of medicines, shortage of building materials, and periodic bombardment by the Israeli Defense Forces.
But seeing is believing. I travelled to Gaza during Grassroots International’s staff visit to the region in April 2012. I entered Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing after spending nearly two weeks in the West Bank visiting with partners and allies. Clearing Israeli immigration into Gaza was rather straightforward; it only took a few hours of my time. Once in Gaza I was immediately struck by the condition of the strip’s infrastructure. Having spent time in Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank the weeks before, I couldn’t help but compare and contrast. Despite the bustle of daily activity—people going to work, students heading to school, rush hour traffic—Gaza seemed suspended, as if it were waiting for something. There were the grey buildings, the color of cement, wherever we went. A significant number of them were partly constructed, waiting for building materials to arrive. It wasn’t until the last day I realized the buildings weren’t painted grey, but they were unpainted. Paint must be one of the items Israel has blocked from entering Gaza. There were donkey-drawn carts in Gaza City, something I didn’t see in the West Bank. And, everywhere I turned, there were the bomb damaged houses and office buildings, a testament to indiscriminate shelling by Israeli Defense Forces. Gaza’s chronic fuel shortage, another by-product of Israel’s blockade, also sets it apart from the West Bank. I saw lines of 30-plus cars waiting for petrol at gas stations. I spoke with partners who admitted that their agency’s work hours were formulated around the daily blackouts. Gazan businesses and households rely on their gas-powered generators once blackouts set in. But those generators can only run continuously for a limited period of time and fuel is hard to come by. It’s a balancing act. I was reminded of all this while reading an article on Ma’an News last month. According to the article, the Egyptian army is destroying the tunnels that the Gazan people have relied on for the past five years. The Egyptians cited the August killing of their border guards in the Sinai Peninsula as justification. The tunnels have been a sore point for the Egyptians, Hamas, Fatah, Israel and a few members of the International community for some time. Those in favor of the tunnels argue they provide a necessary lifeline to Gazans who wouldn’t have access to essential food, fuel, medicine and construction materials. Those who oppose the tunnels say they serve as a conduit for arms, terrorists and illicit trade in and out of Gaza. In the middle are the ordinary men, women and children who need food, fuel, and medicines. Having access to building materials to rebuild their homes that have been destroyed by Israeli bombs would be nice as well, but at a minimum they need food, fuel and medicines. The issue of food is a complex one for Gaza. After all, why should Gazans depend on the tunnels for food? There’s agricultural land in Gaza, and it also has been blessed with a coast ripe for fishing. If only it were that easy. Gazan farmers whose lands fall in the buffer zone have limited-to-no access to those lands. Going to their farms is a deadly game. It is not uncommon for farmers to be arrested, severely injured or killed by Israeli fire. As a result, farmers are abandoning their farms in or near the buffer zone in droves. Fisher folk, unfortunately, don’t fare any better. The day we arrived in Gaza fishers had been detained by Israeli naval forces while at sea. A few were injured, their boats were seized and they were forced to swim back to shore. Over the past few years, Israel has unilaterally shortened Gazans’ access to their coastal waters from 20 nautical miles to 3 nautical miles. But, fishers are not safe even within the three nautical miles. This is another reason why Gazans are now dependent on the tunnels for food. Fortunately, Gazans, especially farmers and fishers, are not alone in their fight for their fundamental right to land, food and water. Grassroots International partners such as the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC), and Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) diligently accompany farmers and fishers in their plight. Whether it’s PCHR’s direct legal action on behalf of farmers and fishers whose lives or property have been imperiled, or UAWC and PARC’s work expanding greenhouses and encouraging farmers not to abandon their farmland, Grassroots International partners in Gaza are working on the frontlines of human rights defense. Since leaving Gaza on April 17, 2012, the situation there hasn’t improved much. Israel’s unilateral blockade persists despite humanitarian appeals. Fuel shortage and power cuts continue to be a part of daily life. Approximately 1.6 million Gazans are being held prisoners between the buffer zone and the bluest sea despite article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Conventions’ prohibition against collective punishment. But our partners are also still leading the fight for fundamental rights with and on behalf of Gaza’s farmers and fishers, its women and children, its ordinary people.