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.
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.
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.
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…