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.