Seemingly random thoughts on my visit to Gaza (seemingly “random” only because Gazans are taking it on the chin from several different directions);

I am now back in the US after over a month in Gaza. One thought that concerned me before my journey still remains a great concern—if the siege of Gaza is allowed to go on long term, especially if Egypt tightens up on the tunnels, the suffering of innocent people will increase dramatically over time.

I was in Iraq in 2000, a trip that resulted in the first Joe Public Films documentary—“Greetings From Missile Street”. I saw the way in which a society that had previously been classified as an emerging “first world” country could be crushed after ten years of war with Iran, followed by a brief but severe beating (including destruction of infrastructure) from the USA in the “Gulf War”, coupled with the most comprehensive economic sanctions in history, and ongoing bombings in the “No Fly Zones”, and lorded over by a military dictator who also found his fellow Iraqis expendable. The scenario today in Gaza may be smaller scale, but it is strikingly similar. No surprise there—the United States and Israel have been mirroring each other politically for over 60 years.

The siege of Gaza, like others, is ostensibly on to provoke the people into removing their current government. Several Gazans told me what Iraqis told me ten years ago– if anything, the siege is strengthening the regime, making people more dependent on them, all the while with Hamas convincing enough of the populous that the problems they face are all the fault of someone else.

If Egypt holds up their promise to tighten the tunnel business (which, contrary to some reports, does provide a significant amount of non-military products to ordinary Gazans who would not be able to get them otherwise), living conditions will deteriorate even further, very quickly. This will result in problems like water-borne diseases which escalated in Iraq during the sanctions era and killed by UN accounts, over half a million children under the age of five.

Sieges, embargos, and sanctions have rarely worked to provoke people to change their leadership. It didn’t work in Cuba, or Iraq. After visiting Gaza, I have little doubt that it will fail there as well. Without any further elections scheduled, there is no question about it—things will not change, except maybe for the worse, for the average Gazan.

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The long-awaited Gaza Freedom March turned into a difficult time for all concerned. Only about 86 of the 1300 or so people who traveled to Cairo were allowed into Gaza, and their march was greatly limited by Hamas, as well as Palestinian concerns about getting too close to the Erez crossing—three Palestinians were shot there by Israeli forces just a few days before the march. Hamas seemed interested primarily in controlling the marchers once Egypt allowed a few of them to enter Gaza.

Hamas keeps its eye on everything in Gaza. Many Gazans who I talked with expressed frustration with Hamas, saying that they seem much more concerned with keeping and growing their power, rather than helping the common people. This seems to be a shortcoming among governments everywhere.

Egypt received a lot of criticism for their lack of cooperation with the marchers, and rightly so. As far as I can tell, the only “reason” for Egyptian compliance with Israel in the siege is that Egypt, like Israel, receives billions of dollars in aid, most of all military aid, from the United States. They’re not going to bite the hand that feeds them.

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Occasionally I hear someone say that Israel is committing another Holocaust on the Palestinians. I do not think it is either accurate or constructive to make this analogy. In fact, it is so inflammatory that it is counter-productive. Based on what I’ve seen, and what I know of history, I think that the closest and most accurate analogy is with Colonial Americans’ treatment of Native Americans. Even this is a partially flawed analogy in that most Palestinians lead and desire to lead a contemporary lifestyle which is not that different from the kind of life Israelis lead, with understandings of things like private property that are consistent with much of the rest of the world. However, the method of a slow removal of an entire society to make way for a new one that wants the land is quite similar.

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Given that Hamas only won their election by a small margin, and that many of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are under the voting age, I believe it is accurate to say that a majority of Gazans do not support Hamas. However, as one Israeli peace activist pointed out to me, Hamas was democratically elected, and as such, “we have to talk with them” rather than “dealing with them” in other ways. And, in fact, the Israeli government is talking with Hamas—negotiations for a prisoner swap have been going on for some time. Those talks need to widen so that people in Gaza and the West Bank feel like they have some hope. Without hope, a small percentage of any society will lash out, thinking that violence and revenge are the only option. The result is that the cycle of violence goes on indefinitely.

Palestinian unity has become a topic of conversation for many Gazans. Their hope is that, absent another election, Hamas and Fatah can learn to work together. Given the in-fighting and Hamas’s obvious desire to bolster  their power, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for this. Gazans who take this position may be right though– it may be the only way they can move toward peace and a two state solution, if there’s no election forthcoming.

The situation in Gaza is bleak, at best. It is to Hamas’s advantage that no elections are currently planned. That is not to the advantage of the people of Gaza, but no one seems to care about them—not their own government, not Israel, not Egypt, not the USA. And Fatah is, as Gazans feared, powerless to change things, even if they really wanted to. For all practical purposes, President Abbas has left the building.

The situation in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza is a very contentious issue. All sides have suffered. I truly believe that a majority of people on all sides just want peace, and to be able to “lead a normal life”. However, people throughout the region have a great amount of fear that is constantly exacerbated, either by actual events, or by their “leaders” reminding them that they should be afraid and count on your leaders to keep you “safe”. Fear is an extremely powerful and dangerous thing. When are “we the people” going to stop being subject to (and victims of) this drivel? Who pays the highest price in this conflict, and conflicts around the world? Ordinary people, caught in the crossfire between a small percentage of violent, arrogant,  power-hungry, inaccessible people in power. Is it true that “the people” get the leaders they deserve? I don’t think so. I think we deserve much better.

Video on the way…

speech for December 31, 2009 at Gaza Freedom March Solidarity rally in Waterville, Maine

The speech below was written by Joe Public Films founder, Tom Jackson, while in Gaza last month, and was read at a rally in Waterville, Maine by Desiree Dow;

Greetings, everyone, from Gaza . I am currently in Gaza City , teaching a class in video production to a Gazan youth group, through the American Friends Service Committee office. While I’m here, I’m also shooting footage and conducting interviews for a documentary on life in Gaza today.

In describing what really compelled me to come here, I would point to two reasons. First, having been to Iraq during the sanctions era (1990 to 2003—I was there in 2000), I’ve seen how far down a population can be brought by being shut out from the rest of the world. Second, the only way people here and Gaza can connect with the outside world now is through the internet, and I wanted to help Gazan youth tell their stories through video online. This is a challenge here, not due to any lack of ability on the part of the students, but the process of getting video online it is difficult as I have not found anything better than a dial-up speed connection, and electricity goes out at least once per day. It may only be for a minute or two sometimes, but that’s enough to lose whatever you were working on—a video upload, a blog entry, or whatever.

Many people have been asking about life in Gaza . I will attempt to provide a basic over-view here today, and hopefully a more detailed and developed picture through the documentary after I return to the States.

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Throughout the small patch of land in the southwest corner of the Occupied Territory of Palestine, there is ongoing suffering after air attacks from Israel a year ago, and due to a siege that prevents essential goods and materials from getting into the region, conditions are deteriorating with each day that the siege is held in place. An estimated 4000 homes were destroyed during the bombings. That has left thousands homeless, some still living in tents.

Outside Gaza City , in towns where refugee families were sent years ago, the level of suffering is everywhere to be seen. Houses, and even a school built and paid for with American tax dollars lie in rubble, and due to the siege keeping essential building materials out, are not expected to be rebuilt any time soon. In fact, some Gazans have taken to building mud homes, because they don’t want to have to wait indefinitely to live in something other than a shoddy tent with their family.

In Beit Hannoun, I visited a family that is still living in one of those shoddy tents. A small baby, visibly underweight, was cradled by her mother. The family told me that help had been minimal since they lost their home—another fact that was quite apparent. One of their sons, about five years old, had a hacking cough, and I wondered about H1N1. Even if the risks of H1N1 are limited to those who have other conditions, these people are even more at risk due to diminished health care capacity, bad water, and the other factors I mentioned.

There are myriad other issues of concern in Gaza today. With only rare exceptions, people are not allowed in or out of the region. Unemployment is over 40%. Water treatment plants were destroyed last year, resulting in dangerous drinking water. Farmers cannot get irrigation equipment. Fishermen are limited to a smaller range than in the past, and if they attempt to go outside that range, they will be fired at by Israeli patrol boats. Rebuilding, as I mentioned, is at a stand-still.

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At the Gaza City office of the American Friends Service Committee, Ibrahem, a “training officer” in nonviolent conflict resolution, explains to me the decision that he made when he was growing up. He, like all Palestinian youth, make a choice between responding to their situation, or not. If they decide they must do something to speak out against a foreign occupation, they then must choose between responding with violence, or through nonviolent action.

Ibrahem’s ability to respond to violence with nonviolence was recently tested, not by Israeli forces, but by Hamas forces in Gaza . “Last year, after the war, there was some fighting between Hamas and Fatah. A group of us had a march for peace. We want there to be Palestinian unity. Much to our surprise, Hamas troops opened fire on us. One of my best friends was killed. I was wounded and in a coma for three days. Now that I have recovered, I continue my work for change. We should not be divided as a people. I work every day with the hope that the siege will be lifted and the occupation ended, so that we can lead a normal life.”

Ibrahem’s colleague, Adham, has a similar story. Adham’s brother was killed in 1993 by Israeli forces. Adham was 8 years old at the time. Despite this personal tragedy, he continues his work in nonviolent social action, helping people whose homes were damaged by Israeli attacks do small scale improvements on their homes. “When I was growing up, I had a choice to make– I could choose to resist the occupation using violence, or by using nonviolence. I have made my choice to work for social justice using nonviolence. The fact that my brother was killed in this ongoing situation has not changed my belief that we can only resolve these issues using nonviolent means of conflict resolution. Otherwise the cycle of violence continues on forever. So, I continue on with my work to help people whose houses were damaged in the war to make improvements to their homes. It is not easy, due to the siege to get materials we need. But even small improvements help people in lots of ways, including psychologically.”

The siege was put in place in 2006 when Hamas gained power, ostensibly because the Israeli government considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization. The Israeli government is in the midst of negotiations with Hamas to swap the one Israeli prisoner the Palestinians have for a number of Palestinian prisoners, many held for years. Some Gazans question whether Israel actually likes the situation here even better, because in a sense it has divided Palestinians, and it “justifies” an even greater division of Palestinian territories, and creates a lack of unity among Palestinians.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, Mr Abbas would take 54 per cent of the vote, comfortably beating Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, by 16 per cent. This is in spite of a similar proportion of Palestinians, 57 per cent, supporting his decision not to run for re-election. These numbers support what many Gazans said to me; an increasing number of Palestinians are unhappy with both parties.

The Fatah faction maintains a similar advantage over Hamas in the event of parliamentary elections, standing to secure 43 percent to Hamas’ 27 percent.

What the Palestinian people want is leadership that will stand up for their human rights. I’ve heard from many Gazans that Hamas got into power in Gaza because people felt that Fatah had become weak and too conciliatory to Israeli demands. People were tired of failed peace talks and whet they perceived as Israeli failures to hold up their end of existing agreements.

Then there’s Egypt . Two countries border Gaza — Israel and Egypt . To date, on a certain level anyway, Egypt has been complying with the siege of Gaza . At the same time, many Egyptian businesses have been making enormous amounts of money through the tunnels built underground, through which a black market for any goods and materials that will fit is conducted. Despite a recent report that Egypt has agreed to tighten up on their end, Gazans have a wait-and-see attitude (what else can they do?). They are used to Egypt playing both sides of the fence, gladly taking US aid and military assistance, complying with Israeli policy, providing rhetorical support to their Arab brothers in Palestine, and making money on tunnel business by selling inferior quality products for inflated prices. As you probably heard, after much negotiating and a hunger strike by the marchers, Egypt agreed to allow 100 of the 1300+ internationals into Gaza to march with Gazans to the Israeli border at Erez to demand an end to the siege.

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Despite what fear mongers say, a vast majority of Gazans want peace. They want to be able to “lead a normal life”, and not feel imprisoned in their own small pieces of land. And what is left of that land, they want to keep, and not give up to Israeli settlers who come from other countries and take it away from them.

To give you an idea of the absurdity of the siege, one of my students showed a video made shortly after the siege was put in place. The video showed a group of children, age 8 to 13, who had learned a traditional form of  dance called “Dabka”, and they were preparing to go to Turkey for an international childrens’ arts and culture event that brought children from around the world together. Shortly before the event, the siege was put in place, and the children were denied exit visas they needed from the Israeli government to go to Turkey. This is just one of thousands of examples of people being denied exit from Gaza since the siege was put in place.

Fear is a powerful and dangerous thing. People in power on all sides of conflicts use fear against their own people, thus increasing leaders’ power and the perceived necessity to keep them in power. Fortunately, sometimes a large percentage of people will realize that they are making a mistake supporting the wrong kind of “leaders”, a recent case in point being here in the USA, with a change in tone from international hostility to in most cases international diplomacy if not cooperation.

Political maneuvers like sieges, embargos and sanctions rarely work for their alleged purposes. The US embargo of Cuba has been on for 50 years. Castro maintained his rule, and now has handed it over to his brother. The US-led sanctions on Iraq resulted in a weakening of the Iraqi people, but if the purpose of the sanctions was to get the people to rise up against Saddam Hussein, that obviously didn’t work out. The same can be said of the Israeli occupation— not all Palestinians are going to quietly move to Jordan and forget about their homeland. Now, with the added siege of Gaza , the ingredients for breeding resistance is increased rather than decreased. Gazans may vote out Hamas in a future election, but people who have been caught in the crossfire will never forget their loved ones who were killed, or their homes that were destroyed. Who would?

With the level of hatred, mistrust, ignorance, and so high on all sides of this issue, including the United States, this conflict has the potential to go on for many more generations. We in the United States can do something about this situation, since our government has disproportionately supported Israel over Palestine, and our people have been so misinformed about the situation, including about Palestinian culture, by our mainstream media.

The next step for Palestine is for the siege of Gaza to be brought to an end. That will take Gazans out of the fire and back into the frying pan, and what must follow for a just peace is an end to the occupation in Gaza and the West Bank . This is not only an assertion of the Palestinians; many Israelis who work for peace, such as former military who started an organization with former Palestinian fighters called “Combatants for Peace” list ending the occupation as the first and most important step toward peace in Israel and Palestine.

Perhaps the most important distinction we Americans can make is that there is a difference between the Gazan people and their government. Hamas only won their seat in power by a narrow margin. It cannot accurately be said that all Gazans support Hamas any more than it could accurately be said that all Americans supported Bush from 2000 through 2008 or now support Obama. Many Americans would be surprised that Gazans show us the courtesy of distinguishing between our government and the American people. When the conversation turns to foreign relations they let me know that they understand that American foreign policy is not necessarily the will of an informed public.

So, that takes us back to the media. American mainstream media does not accurately inform the public. Those of us who see how skewed or even non-existent their coverage of international issues is, have a responsibility to do everything we can to alert other Americans to unfair policies which are never reported but are hurting and sometimes ending people’s live in other parts of the world.

I want to thank the organizers of this rally, and thank Desiree for relaying this message to you. For anyone attending the rally who would like to take issue with what I’ve said, I invite you to write to me at joepublicfilms@yahoo.com.

I hope that 2010 will be the year when this unjust siege of Gaza is lifted, and people in this region can move forward into a just and sincere resolution for peace.

Thank you.

Report from Gaza: Freedom March, Earlier Today

Hi everyone,
 
I was just out on the road with my class, shooting video and photos of the Gaza Freedom March. It was a very energizing event from my perspective, and that of the class members, but I’m afraid somewhat of a disappointment for the marchers and organizers. The exception to that, I would guess, is the amount of press coverage, which I think was quite good, considering the # of microphones set up where speeches were made, and the huge crunch of TV, video & photo camera people that formed a half circle around the speakers.
 
Among the speakers was a rabbi from New York City, with three or four other rabbis at his side. He talked about the need to end the siege and the occupation, among other things.
 
As you may have heard, only 100 internationals were allowed to pass through Egypt and enter Gaza. This, of course, was a source of enormous frustration for the other 1270 or so machers who were left behind in Cairo.
 
I believe the choices in who was allowed in were based on getting at least one from each country represented. When we first arrived on the scene, outside Beit Hannoun, which is north of Gaza City, there was probably less than 1000 Palestinians present. Far lower than the previously anticipated 50,000. Based on what I heard, this was due to a number of factors. First, three Palestinians were killed near the Erez border last week when Israeli troops opened fire on them. The Israelis believed they were planting mines; the Palestinians said they were collecting scrap metal. Additionally, from what I’ve heard, Hamas got in the middle of things once the 100 internationals arrived, and there may have been internal safety concerns as well. One of the youth organizers here at AFSC-Gaza was wounded early this year when Hamas troops opened fire on a Palestinian unity march he was leading.
 
At any rate, when the freedom marchers started their march into the free zone, most of the Palestinians left. Also, the Palestinians who worked for the media were not allowed to follow along at first, but after awhile, someone must have convinced Hamas troops to let the join the marchers who had stopped 100 meters away on the other side of the zone. Some of the marchers sat down, a few more speeches were made, a couple of songs were sung (including “We Shall Overcome“, AKA “We Shall End the Siege”), and then the marchers turned back and got back on their bus. It is unclear, I think to  them as well as the rest of us, whether that’s the end of it or not.
 
I’ll update when/if there is anything more here. I will say again, the press turnout seemed good. (Three of my students were interviewed by a Venezuelan TV station!) Hopefully the press coverage is just as good in Egypt for the rest of the marchers. I’d be interested to hear from people about coverage in the USA. I wouldn’t expect much from mainstream media, but if any network does cover it, and cover it fairly, I’d be interested to know.
Please write me at joepublicfilms@yahoo.com
 
Peace, Salaam, Shalom, (another song they were singing as they marched)
Tom

Taking the Pulse in Gaza

Joe Public Films founder and producer Tom Jackson is currently in Gaza, teaching a class in basic video production to a Gazan youth group from American Friends Service Committee’s office in Gaza City. He is also attempting to get a clear picture of life in Gaza under siege and occupation. This is the first blog installment from his visit.

If you came to Gaza but only visited Gaza City, you might wonder what the concern is over. Downtown Gaza city is a buzzing area with universities, cabs flying everywhere (and I mean everywhere, including in the wrong lanes), and people going about their business. While unemployment in all of Gaza is well over 50%, it seems that Gaza City has been at least somewhat spared, both in the bombing last year, and in the economic and humanitarian crisis this year.
 
Outside Gaza City, where I have now been a few times, one can see very easily and clearly what the problem is. Two days ago I visited families still living in tents because their homes were destroyed almost a year ago. One family, with several small children, was finding it very hard to feed their youngest child of only a few months. They told me she is under-weight– a fact that was quite visible to me. They could not get enough milk to feed her. When I hear stories like this as I am video taping, knowing that in just a few weeks I can go back to the comfort and relative ease of my life far away, it fills me with a very dark feeling. What on Earth can I say? Certain things come to mind– “I’ll do everything that I can”– but, somehow it just isn’t enough. They don’t want or need words. We wound up telling them that we would contact ANERA, which is an organization that helps refugees with various issues, and if they can’t help we will ask them who can. We’re following up today. 
 
In refugee camps around the Gaza Strip there are many stories like this. Homes destroyed, and no ability to rebuild because the siege keeps rebuilding materials out of the country. Bad water because in some places water treatment plants were damaged or destroyed. The potential for a huge humaintarian catastrophe here is great, if the siege is not lifted soon. H1N1 in a place like this is truly something to be afraid of– Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, conditions are bad and not getting better, and the population is very young, so a large % of the population is in the vulnerable age range. Apparently there are vaccines in Gaza now, but by all accounts that I’ve heard so far, not enough. It is unclear to me why there is not enough. I’ll continue to look into it and write about this again.
 
There are so many issues that I plan to interview people about while I’m here, including the water issue, the challenges faced by farmers (water issues again, and now fertilizer and equipment shortages due to the siege), fishermen (Israel is limiting their range off the coast that is accessible to them), issues mentioned before like unemployment and inability to rebuild.
 
Meanwhile there is talk of the Gaza Freedom March. Gazans I’ve talked to differ widely in their beliefs on whether the marchers will be allowed in. Most are doubtful, because Egypt, they believe, is unlikely to be cooperative (more on that later). Whatever the case, there are two internal marches planned, from inside Gaza to the two borders — Rafah on the Egyptian border, and Erez on the Israeli border. There are probably even fewer Gazans who believe these marches will be allowed to cross the border to leave Gaza. Still, the point will be made.
 
Wherever people are able to hold a vigil or a rally on any of the last days of December or on January 1st, in order to express support for lifting the siege on Gaza, your efforts will be greatly appreciated here. There is a gathering planned in Central Maine, and peace and justice activists here have been glad to hear about it.
 
My apologies for taking awhile to get some description  of life in Gaza out. It takes some time to take the pulse, but I am starting to get a better sense of thinsg here, including politically, which I’ll write more about soon.

Out of Balance a hit in Paraguay

JPF received word from the organizer of the film fest in Paraguay re. the August 14th screening of Out of Balance. The organizer, Hugo Gamarra Etcheverry, refers to “Marisela” at TeleSur Internacional who saved the day by providing a DVD with Spanish captions.

“I want you to know that the DVD arrived to our hands 2 hours before the show ! Thanks so much again Marisela.

The film was shown for a crowd of 120 persons, who applauded spontaneously at the end and during the conversation session afterwards, there were mostly expressions of concern for what the film tells and appreciation for the way it is told. So, Tom, I am very happy for my selection. There is another screening on the 24th.”

The festival’s website is www.pla.net.py/cinefest/festidoc

Autumn trailer for documentary in production

This is the autumn trailer/fundraising video for our current documentary, which is in production. “No Country for Cold Men” is about the home heating oil crisis in Maine. Last year there were reports of people having to choose between food, meds, gas for the car, or home heating oil. This year is likely to be as bad or worse. This documentary is being produced in hopes of raising awareness, concern and action. While we move toward renewables and away from oil, we must help those in need.