Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Work of Western Activists in Gaza

On March 30, western activists took part in a non-violent Palestinian demonstration against the buffer zone, the “no man’s land” between Gaza and Israel that Palestinians are forbidden to enter. They marched towards the border fence in the same area near Khan Younis where two Israeli soldiers had been shot and killed last Friday. Israeli troops then fired “warning shots,” according to the Israeli military.

While the situation was particularly unstable this week due to the recent deaths of the Israeli soldiers, incidents like these happen regularly, particularly in places where the buffer zones cut off Palestinian livelihoods. Fishermen, for example, are only allowed to fish within three nautical miles of the coast, where the catches are much smaller and often contaminated by sewage. The AP reported last month that despite its once-thriving fishing industry, Gaza has become “a net fish importer” as a result of the blockade. The same is true of Palestinian farmers, whose businesses have been devastated by the blockade.

One of the western activists at the March 30 demonstration was Vittorio Arrigoni, knicknamed "Vic", who visited my apartment for a three-hour coffee chat last Friday. Vic is a 35-year-old Italian activist from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) who has lived in Gaza on and off over the last six years. He has twice been jailed and then deported by the Israeli Defense Forces; in 2008, Israeli soldiers put him on an El Al flight back to Italy wearing “smelly clothes and no shoes.” During Israel’s Operation Cast Lead last year, which Vic calls “the massacre,” he rode with ambulances to document horrific civilian injuries and deaths (see picture, taken by Vic). He reports that sixteen Gaza paramedics were killed in 22 days.

Vic has since published an Italian book about the war and is now working on a new book about the siege. He doesn’t speak much Arabic, but peppers his English with Arabic expressions; he taught me new words like taburah (Israeli gunboat) and muqawima (Palestinian fighters). During our conversation, Vic got a call from friends telling him that two Israeli soldiers had just been killed. The friend encouraged Vic to come to Khan Younis, but Vic declined because there were muqawima in the area. As a non-violent movement, ISM does not defend armed Palestinians—only civilians.

ISM is the same group to which 23-year-old American activist Rachel Corrie belonged when she was killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer while seeking to stop a bulldozer from destroying a Palestinian home in Rafah. British activist Tom Hurndall, who was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper a couple of months after Rachel’s death, was also an ISM member. The soldier who shot Hurndall was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison. This was the only time since 2000 that an Israeli soldier was convicted of any offence greater than negligence for the death of a civilian.

ISM currently has six volunteers in Gaza and most have entered in undisclosed ways. Vic entered with a flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Movement that set sail from Cyprus in August of 2008 and managed to get some its boats through the Israeli blockade. One boat was so severely damaged after it was rammed by a taburah that it was forced to dock in Lebanon and almost sank. Vic is anticipating the next “Free Gaza” flotilla will arrive next month carrying construction materials, medical aid supplies, journalists, more activists and possibly parliamentarians from European countries.

(Courtesy of Vittorio Arrigoni)

When the electricity went out and I placed my headlamp on the table as an improvised candle, Vic shared some videos that he’d personally filmed in the buffer zones. One showed an incident in which Vic dodged live gunfire and was cut by shards of broken glass as an Israeli water cannon broke the windows of a Gazan fishing boat cabin (see video). In another of Vic's videos, a deaf Palestinian farmer is shot in the leg by Israeli soldiers while tending to wheat fields near, but allegedly outside, the buffer zone.

Throughout our conversation, Vic inhaled deep puffs of smoke from his pipe as he recalled especially traumatic incidents, including: a Palestinian friend killed in Jabalia, Vic's near death by hypothermia in the Mediterranean Sea as an Israeli taburah tried to “kidnap” him (and ultimately did pull him from the water and arrest him), a bullet that whizzed by within millimeters of his ear, and the "life-changing trauma" of seeing “Gaza turned into Auschwitz” during Operation Cast Lead.

'I can't believe there are children here'

In a Rafah English class full of rambunctious young boys, I met a scruffy 12-year-old who carries tiles, chips, soda and other commodities through the smuggling tunnels on most afternoons. (see picture) The boy said he was "a little scared" when he started last year but now he’s “used to it.” He boasted of his $20 per day salary and of the cigarettes he smoked with the Egyptians. He performed a song for the class that tunnel workers apparently sing as they exit in safety at the end of the day. The boy’s family “used to be poor” but “now they are middle class” because of their children’s work in the tunnels. The boy’s uncle was killed when a tunnel collapsed, and he knows of others who have been “martyred” when Israel bombed the tunnels.

Throughout my three days in Rafah, I’ve recalled a line in Rachel Corrie’s journals that she “[couldn’t] believe there are children here.” She was writing in the winter of 2003, when Rafah's children had already endured years of ongoing killings, sniper fire, and home demolitions. This was before Israel’s 2005 "Operation Rainbow" in Rafah and before last year's Gaza War, which claimed the lives of 13 Israelis and 1400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children. Rachel was also writing at a time when tunnels were hidden inside homes and used mainly for weapons smuggling--presumably before smugglers began to widely recruit children, whose nimble bodies could more easily crawl through the narrow passages.

The tunnel industry is now almost completely out in the open and children are sometimes recruited without permission from their parents. New tunnels are under construction as more and more desperate people risk their lives to get in on the profits. White tents covering the tunnel entrances are widely visible to everyone. It’s easy for journalists to interview tunnel owners or take photographs inside the tunnels (see picture). Some smugglers undoubtedly bring deadly weapons (explosives, guns, supplies for unguided Qassam rockets fired into Israel), but the majority bring food and commodities banned under the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations has called the tunnels “an economic lifeline.”

Since the child labor tragedy has already been widely reported, I’m attempting to come at the tunnel story from two different angles. For one article, I’ve interviewed women who crawled through the tunnels to seek medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals, to marry, or to go on the Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia; none of these women were willing to give their full names, fearing trouble with the Egyptian police. I’m also planning on covering an April 15 silent demonstration organized by Gazans against child labor in the tunnels; if possible, I’ll interview Hamas authorities about why they have not stepped in to stop child labor in the tunnels. Many in the tunnel industry admit that it’s wrong to employ children, but argue that the Israeli blockade has forced this tragic situation upon them.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

First Day in War-Ravaged Rafah

Yesterday I finally ventured outside the more privileged confines of Gaza City. For only $13, I took a 45 minute taxi ride down the coast to Rafah, a war-ravaged community where more than 170,000 homes have been demolished by the Israeli military since 2000. The city houses entrances to thousands of smuggling tunnels into Egypt, which mainly bring consumer goods forbidden under the Israeli blockade (food, cement, electric generators, batteries). They also bring weapons.

This was a sensitive time to be traveling to Rafah, since Gazans are expecting Israeli retaliation after militants killed two Israeli soldiers who had crossed the border into Khan Younis on Friday. On Friday night, Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers reentered Khan Younis, fought with militants, and then retreated. Most Palestinians had expected a much harsher Israeli military action, which could be yet to come. Areas along the border—particularly the smuggling tunnels in Rafah—are the most likely to get bombed. (Obviously, I'm not going near the tunnels during this period.)

As the taxi drove down the coast from Gaza City to Rafah, we passed the refugee camp of Deir Al-Balah, the city of Khan Younis, and then the city of Rafah. In all three places, the cartoon decorations outside the UNRWA schools (run by the UN and staffed primarily by Gazan teachers and administrators) were the only signs of color in otherwise gray and destitute landscapes. I saw hundred of destroyed homes and tent-like tin structures serving as temporary houses.

I spent my morning in Rafah observing activities at the Rachel Corrie Center, which was named in honor of the American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. An animated, assertive 23-year-old led an English class for 20 adorable little boys and held their attention throughout. A psychiatrist and a team of social workers met with parents of children with behavioral issues and academic difficulties. Every week, these counselors hold group therapy sessions for children suffering from post-traumatic stress. Often, they use art therapy (see picture) to draw out the kids’ emotions and help them try to process the horrors they’ve witnessed—dead bodies, Israeli bombings, gun fighting. Many children in Rafah startle easily and have phobias of airplanes. Bedwetting is common even among teenagers.

In the afternoon, I enjoyed a communal vegetarian lunch with the female family members of the English teacher. At the request of the Rachel Corrie Center managers, the teacher gave me hijab (a headscarf) to wear during my time in Rafah, which is a much more conservative community than Gaza City. Throughout the meal, curious neighbors and children came to visit and I got invited to a one-year-old’s birthday party.

One of the stories I’m considering writing from Rafah is about women who come through the smuggling tunnels to get married in Gaza. While the story of the smuggling tunnels-- particularly the tradegy of child labor in the tunnels-- has been widely covered in the media, the topic of people smuggling has not received as much attention. To my surprise, I was able to arrange an anonymous meeting with a tunnel owner within hours of inquiring about this issue. He met me in a shop filled with electric appliances smuggled from Egypt. It costs about $2000 to smuggle a person through the tunnels (some journalists have entered this way), but Palestinians and Egyptians often enter for free if they have relatives in the smuggling industry.

According to this tunnel owner, there were about 20 tunnels when he started five years ago and workers were paid $5000 to $6000 per day. Now, there are more than 1500 tunnels and workers are paid less than $30 per day. Tunnel workers used to come only from Rafah. Now desperate people (and children) from across Gaza are willing to risk their lives to earn some income. The underground wall being constructed by Egypt is likely to yield even deeper, more dangerous tunnels.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Impromptu Meetings and the Search for Stories

So far, I've had private meetings with six business professionals—and only two of these meetings were scheduled. In Gaza and across the Arab world, planning tends to be more impromptu. For example, I met with the Gaza general manager of Jawwal (Gaza’s only mobile phone company), who then made a personal call to the general manager of Gaza’s only electric company.

Next thing I knew I was in a private car en route to visit the general manager of the electric company. While meeting with him, the mayor of Khan Younis popped in to discuss electric shortages in his governorate—so I made arrangements to meet with him next week. The electric company general manager also put me in touch with the Palestinian Businessmen’s Association, which by coincidence was holding its first craft exhibition since the blockade. So off I went to visit the exhibition.

The exhibition was funded in part by the World Bank and aimed to draw attention to the work of Palestinian mom and pop shops still practicing their trades despite the blockade. The most interesting handicrafts were those that turned war rubble into art: metal wreckage molded into elaborate house decorations (see picture), broken glass used to make colorful tiles, and uprooted olive trees carved into picture frames and lamps.

Tomorrow, I’m headed to Rafah and Khan Younis. In Rafah, I’ll meet with the friends of Rachel Corrie who I interviewed for my previous article and will see if these conversations yield any new story ideas. The big news in Rafah at the moment is that Israel bombed smuggling tunnels last week in response to a Kassam rocket attack that killed a farm worker in Israel. The rocket was not launched by Hamas, but by a more radical militant group that rivals Hamas. I won’t be covering this story because it’s been widely covered already, and I won’t be meeting with any militant groups.

In Khan Younis, I’m tentatively planning to research an article about the social and economic ripple effects of Gaza’s power shortages. (I was surprised to learn yesterday that, like most of the population, the electric company general manager gets no power in his home for eight hours per day.) I’m looking to meet with a Khan Younis family whose children were killed recently when a faulty electric generator smuggled from Egypt exploded. I’m also hoping to visit a sewage treatment plant that is forced to dump raw sewage into the sea when the electric generators fail.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Over the Great Wall of Israeli Bureaucracy and into Gaza Foreigner Housing

At present, there are only two ways to enter Gaza: through the Erez checkpoint on the Israeli side, or the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side. While IDF soldiers initially told me that my application to enter Gaza through Erez would take one week, it ultimately took more than five weeks (and almost daily phone calls) before the approval was finally granted.

While I waited for the Gaza permit, I was covering news stories from Israel and the West Bank. I tried to choose topics that were connected to Gaza in some way. For example, I wrote an article for Columbia Journalism Review about the degree to which journalists in Gaza felt safe and free to report. I also wrote an article for Global Post about Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza.

Upon learning that my visa was approved, I bee-lined it to the Erez checkpoint, a massive and virtually empty terminal with a maze of hallways and doors that lock behind you as you pass. No Palestinians and only handful of foreigners—all development workers—entered alongside me. It took less than an hour to get through security. I then walked one mile down a narrow open-air passageway with a cement sidewalk and fencing on either side. Bulldozers and cranes appeared to be leveling land nearby. At the end of this long passageway through the desert, I found five taxis that were waiting to drive people to the Hamas checkpoint a couple of miles away.

The Hamas checkpoint consists of a small office with some meeting rooms and is manned by police officers who check bags and passports. The police told me that foreigners are not permitted to stay in civilian homes without prior approval from the Hamas authorities. This derailed my plans to stay with Palestinian friends of friends in Gaza City. After about an hour of discussions in which I declined to stay at a hotel, my taxi was escorted by security to a row of seaside apartment buildings that house many foreigners, including journalists, development workers and activists. The police told me that I could visit families and travel as I wish, but my primary residence should be in an approved apartment building or hotel.

Luckily, an empty apartment was available, with a furnished living room to boot (see picture). The rent is only $350 per month, including internet, water and backup electric generators, which are a luxury in Gaza. My landlord divides his time between Gaza and Canada, where his children and grandchildren live. While I had hoped to have a more authentic and integrated community experience, I’m going to stay in this posh building and avoid drawing unnecessary attention to myself. I also don’t want to make any problems for this family that had planned on hosting me; I had a lovely visit with them yesterday, and I will continue to visit them.

Today I coffee chatted with Palestinians from various NGOs, went to the market, and visited the Islamic University of Gaza, where I made arrangements to sit in on history and English classes next week. Despite my bumpy landing yesterday, I feel quite safe and free to move about, and I’ve had no further interactions with the police. As I’ve found throughout the Arab world, people are warm, welcoming and eager to talk. However, the conflict with Israel and the ongoing blockade color every conversation— already, I’ve heard dozens of stories about loved ones killed, families separated, and lost dreams of seeking opportunities outside the “prison” of Gaza.