Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bedouin Village: 21st Century Ghetto.

At 9am on Tuesday morning sewage flooded a section of the Bedouin village North of the Gaza Strip.

The village is surrounded in the North by a border with Israel and large pools of sewage in the South. The pools take up 350.000m2.

The pools were built in 1976 under Israeli military order. They were constructed over the purest water aquifer in the Gaza Strip and have begun to seep into the aquifer, creating huge risk of polluting water in Gaza.

Four people were killed on Tuesday, including two young children and an older woman who were swept away in the sewage.

The pools were built to serve 50,000 people, by 2003 they were being used by over 200,000. In 2006 a separate pool was built on a hill over the village to which overflowing sewage was pumped.

On Tuesday morning the pool broke, causing the sewage to flood into the village in the valley below. According to a villager the water reached 3 meters in some places.

The Palestinian Authority has long been warned that this environmental crisis needs to be addressed. This situation was not made a priority.

Israel on the other hand continues to prevent building materials from entering the Gaza Strip.

Such a catastrophe brings to light Israel’s unwillingness to take the responsibilities it is required to as an occupying nation.

The Bedouin Village is the 21st Century ghetto.

the sewage pools
The sewage ran down this hill and flooded the valley below
Homes and shops are flooded

destroyed shacks
A collective funeral tent
Sand is pilled in front of homes to prevent further flooding

returning to 1948: refugees yet again

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Smuggling crocodiles, kidnapping Alan Johnston.

I never met Alan Johnston but everyone I have talked to who knows him has spoken very highly of him. He was humble, he was quiet and serious and he was determined to communicate the reality of life in Gaza to the world. Not a single person I have asked about his kidnapping has anything but condemnation for the perpetrators.

Yesterday marked two weeks since his kidnapping and no one has either made demands for his release, or taken responsibility for the crime. There was no local news to be heard all day as all local radio stations were on strike to call for Alan’s release. A large sign looms near the Palestinian parliament building in central Gaza City calling for his release.

This morning I had breakfast in my favorite breakfast joint. There too hung a sign, “free Alan Johnston”.

Few are surprised at the incident, since crime in Gaza has reached unprecedented levels. Cars are stolen, homes broken into, young and old alike are mugged in broad daylight.

A woman tried to smuggle three small
crocodiles into Gaza, strapped to her body as she entered the border from Egypt. She was going to sell them to the local Zoo. The contraband was confiscated, for in Gaza this too, is considered a crime.

The financial embargo on the PA means that besides the 40% of Gazans that are unemployed another 30% who are government employees are not being paid. Aid agencies are keeping the Palestinian people alive. This society will soon collapse, it is beginning to

Smuggling crocodiles and kidnapping foreign journalists is scarce potential income.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Things you don't see every day

Karen Koning AbuZayd head of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) was recently reported saying this:

"Everybody is just in bad shape now with the whole economy going down so badly. They just don't have any opportunities," citing high unemployment and shortfalls in wage payments over the past year.

Donors have poured in more money last year than ever before "but that's because we've made everybody aid-dependant."

What does this mean:

The Twalbe family live in the Beach Refugee camp just North of Gaza City. Of the seven school aged children two don't go to school. The oldest, 13-year old Yousef has asthma and has been made fun of at school since he was young. He quit school a long time ago and stays home to help his father at the market. Abd Karim, the third oldest was recently kicked out of his school for getting in too many fights with his fellow students. Even the teachers are scared of him. The school's headmaster said if Abd Karim comes back he would give up his job.

When I asked Abd Karim to describe his surroundings he listed one incident after another of inter-clan fighting and internal political clashes in the refugee camp he lives in.

In 1948 70,000 Palestinians lived in the Gaza District, after the ‘48 war 200,000 refugees were added to the area and the regional classification “Gaza Strip” was created. The root of Abd Karim’s mental instability is a society that was never meant to take the shape it has today. The “Gaza Strip” has never been a sustainable society. When you add 200,000 farmers with their families to an urban prison you create chaos. Anarchy isn't created out of thin air.

Abu Yousef, Abd Karim’s father, sells humanitarian aid that is distributed to his family by organizations like UNRWA. This is his only form of income. At least two of his sons participate in the daily activity of selling plastic bags of flour, rice and bottles of oil at the local market just five minutes away. A shopping cart is filled with the goods in order to transport them to the market. Over five years ago Abu Yousef used to work in Israel as a laborer, like thousands of other refugees like him. Prior to the last Intifada there were 150,000 such daily laborers from Gaza. Being a refugee means, once you had land, now you no longer have land and thus must work on other’s land. In Gaza employment opportunities are extremely scarce.

I have not traveled the world, but I am certain there are other areas on this planet that suffer even more hardship, with higher unemployment, with even more human cruelty and consequently even more human suffering. But here, in this conflict, what grips me, is the fact that it is man-made, in this case there is no need to be gender neutral, because it is largely men that were the instigators, the leaders, the protagonists of this sad chapter of human history. Building one human calamity on another. I can weep over the past, but I am responsible for my activity or inactivity, my words of praise, or condemnation for the injustice of the present.

Abd Karim has epilepsy and is mentally unstable, I believe he is schizophrenic, but Gaza has no psychiatric facilities for children under the age of 15. In the evening when I return to the family’s home the boy has disappeared. Sometimes he returns at 1 or 2am. Abu Yousef worries about him and can’t get to sleep until his son is home.

Getting around Gaza

Signpost in former colonies: Firing weapons not allowed

Flowers growing in a former Israeli army guard tower

Friday, March 16, 2007

These are My Neighbors

Ayman is the head architect at one of the universities in Gaza, he is married and has a daughter called shams, sun. Mohamed is a law student and the head of security at the same university Al-Aqsa. He grew up in Alexandria and the West Bank and then moved to Gaza five years ago. Mohamed hopes to leave Gaza one day. He is very critical of both of Gaza's main parties Fatah and Hamas. He is engaged and longs for the day he can raise a family in a peaceful nation.

Alaa lives in Beit Hanoun. He grew up in Jordan. His family moved to Gaza in the early 90s when there was much hope for a peaceful future for the Strip. Alaa is one of about 60,000 Palestinians in Gaza that have no national ID or passport. Jordan did not recognized his family as full citizens and when they left the country the lost the IDs they did own. Alaa studied computer science but due to the lack of jobs he works as the guard and caretaker of the building I live in, the Mecca Tower. As a natural comedian he is a constant source of joy and laughter, making the lobby of the Tower a welcome place to come to. I am saddened to hear that he will be leaving his current job soon in order to open a computer store in Beit Hanoun.

Sameer is my tailor down the street. He is actually a sheikh as well as a tailor, but he is the only fatah sheikh I have met in the Gaza Strip. He speaks highly of the days he spent working n Tel Aviv in the 90s where I believe he gained some of his sowing skills. With the poor state of the economy in Gaza Sameer recently moved his shop to his home, a small shack by the side of the road, and rented out the space previously used for his tailor shop for the opening of a falafil restaurant.

I am a regular at Mohamed's family's vegetable and fruit shop just around the corner of my house. I have the tendency to fill a bag with all sorts of vegetables and fruit, onions, potatoes, avocado, apples, pears, tomatoes and then Mohamed will give me a rough estimate of the price. This is my favorite shopping experience in life. I have taught Mohamed and his brother to juggle with oranges. Mohamed is in his last year of high school and hopes to study English at university. They also make fruit juice. My favorite is carrot and orange.

I don't remember the name of this little boy. He is from the Abu Amra family which reside in shacks on the road near my building. They are beounis that once roamed the Negev desert but since the closure of Gaza and the forced migration of Palestinians in the region to the Gaza Strip they are out of work and have lost their living space. He too is my neighbor.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

"Humans are dysfunctional”

Ghazi was sitting on the ground eating lettuce, next to his wife who was washing vegetables in a large metal vat. When he heard my voice at the gate, he got up with excitement and slowly walked over on his wooden cane, a large smile on his face, offering me the last leaf of lettuce. He was wearing a brown wool outfit and looking much stronger than the past many times that I had seen him. He was still going to the hospital three times a week for kidney dialysis, but he had also begun teaching Arabic literature and linguistics again three times a week at the Azhar University in Gaza City. While I had been away the infighting in Gaza had deteriorated significantly. One battle occurred at the hospital while Ghazi was hooked up to the dialysis machine. There was shooting in and around the hospital and he was forced to get on the ground and hide. Gaza had never seen what it witnessed in December and January. With a look of horror on his face Ghazi explained, it reached a stage where brother was killing brother.

Ghazi’s son Ihab joined us and for a long time I quizzed him on the process of exporting strawberries from Gaza. Ihab was a salesman of fruit and vegetables, who would buy second grade goods from local growers that couldn’t be exported to Europe and would sell them in Israel and the West Bank. This would require him to spend hours at the Karni crossing between Gaza and Israel, which was the only channel for goods entering or exiting Gaza. Ihab explained to me the methods that the strawberry growers used to sneak their lower quality goods into the container of the high grade ones. Agrexco, the largest Israeli exporter that held a monopoly on the market on the other hand, abused its power by paying the Palestinians much lower prices for their produce than they did growers in Israel that Ihab knew. “Humans are dysfunctional” Ghazi pointed out, every one working only for his own benefit, looking out for their own needs. Ihab, having ended his account of the corrupt strawberry market added, “there isn’t anyone that does any good.”

From other friends of mine in the area I had learned that Ghazi had quite a reputation as a “communist”, in this community this referred more to one’s religious beliefs than to the political ones. Ghazi was certain that it was personal possessions that corrupted. I pointed out that attempts of communist systems failed because the few in power ruled with corruption, he added in defeat that people also stopped being motivated to work. The state of humankind tormented Ghazi.

Rita, Ghazi’s seven year old niece had appeared and was throwing shoes at us from behind a bush, when she was told off she started running after her younger brother Eouda with a broken off stick she found. Just minutes prior Eouda himself had used it to chase after the chicken that was lounging around the garden where we sat.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

This is Gaza

I have realized that every single time I go out of the comfort zone of my home, my work sphere and into the homes of the poor all across the Gaza Strip I am faced with the same string of emotions. I sense pain, discomfort, compassion, incredulity, shock, and a deep, deep sadness that this suffering just will not go away. The sea of people I encountered this Monday are beginning to fade, one into the other, their stories so similar, their pain so common place, their struggles one and the same and yet each one of them faces it alone. The people I met, Essam, the wife of Ramzi, Abd Al-Raziq, the names fade much like their stories do, all of them in need of employment, all of them trying to overcome poverty and all of them needing hope. We can bring them a food basket, but I think in this very intricate act of entering a home, sitting, listening and praying a blessing over the home. some of this longed for hope is sensed, through this act what is communicated is that someone, somewhere cares, someone remembers them and someone takes the time to speak a prayer for them.

One man I met, I have now forgotten his name, had five children, two of his daughters were mentally disabled, one of them nearly blind. He doesn’t have the money to keep paying for the latter’s treatment, in the past he has been able to get her some medical attention, but today she can barely see. His oldest son is in his last year of high school and yet unless their situation changes drastically his father will not be able to pay for his college education. I wondered to myself, what motivates this young boy, sitting next to me, to keep studying hard? What is he studying for if once he is done he will so likely be unemployed like his father and the hundreds of other young men in the neighborhood? This man, like the breadwinner in every other home I visited Monday, used to work in Israel as a laborer. Today, he has been unemployed for five years and helps his father in a little shop he runs from the front of the house. I noticed the items for sale on the dusty shelves on my way in, some chocolates, bread, oil, a few small plastic toys, the stock in the entire shop I doubt would add up to more than $200. The man’s sister also lived with him. Her husband, they told me, had been killed when he rushed to the aid of a local militant, who had been shot by the Israeli army. Her husband was shot and killed in the process. What and who was she living for now? Childless and with no prospect of being married again, she is likely a burden to her unemployed brother who is expected to provide for her.

I saw her just briefly as I left the house. A tall woman, cloaked in black, the look of shame and sadness on her face tore at my conscience.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Volleyball and Civil War

I heard my name called out as I walked swiftly past the main police station in Gaza City. One of the three policemen gathered there, walked over to me, a cigarette dangling from his lips. I had met Ahmed the second week I was in Gaza, when I went to play volleyball with Palestine’s best team, located in the Jabalya Refugee camp. Ahmed was their star player. Warming up that day I paired up with Ahmed, which lead to a slew of questions about my coming to Gaza and sparked the beginning of our friendship. On one occasion when Ahmed was stationed by the building I live in, he snuck up while he was on duty and managed a few hours of sleep, leaving at 6am in order to appear before the senior officer to end his shift. Ahmed was a member of the Presidential guard, a player on the Palestinian national volleyball team, a father and was studying to be a schoolteacher so as not to have to be a soldier anymore. This evening I learned what had caused this desire to grow stronger over the course of the past six weeks.

At the height of fighting between Fateh and Hamas, a Fateh affiliated base was surrounded by Hamas forces. Ahmed was among the 150 soldiers inside the station. The gun battle continued most of the night, until at 6:30am Ahmed’s side ran out of ammunition. The station was stormed; the senior officer was executed. In total 15 men were killed or severely injured that night in the course of battle. The station was burned to the ground. Ahmed did not return to work for one month. The evening I saw him, was his first on duty since returning to headquarters. After questioning his absence, his superiors threatened him and then sent him back to work at a new location. And so, tonight, Ahmed was back on duty, a Kalashnikov awkwardly hanging around his shoulder, a thin beard adorning his face.

I asked him about the volleyball team. The volleyball season had ended and only the final match remained. Ahmed’s team was Fatah affiliated and its only real competitor was its archrival, fitted in green uniform, non other than the Hamas team.

I wondered what would be going through Ahmed’s mind the day of the match. He had seen his colleagues and officers killed in front of his eyes by masked gunmen of the opposing faction. Very soon some of those same men may be facing him again, but on the court for a friendly game of volleyball. Hidden that night behind balaclavas, he would never know if they were the same person.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Gaza focus of Human Rights Report

Read the latest report by John Dugard, the special rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied Since 1967.