Author’s note: Just after this article was written, it became evident that Israel is likely to launch at least a limited attack on Gaza, which only heightens the sense of urgency for action that is advocated here.
The baby is crying again. You wake up. Cold. There is no electricity in the house; it went off during the night. For the last week weeks, months it has been on only sporadically. You throw on a coat and go to check on the baby. It seems listless. There is no milk in the house, and very little food. The UN shipments have stopped again, and you are not sure when they will resume.
In the other room, you hear your husband coughing. He has been sick for weeks and lately he has been spitting up blood. He has tried to get permission to get to a hospital in Israel, but every time he has been denied permission to leave.
You go outside to see if a neighbor can give you any milk. The first thing that hits you is the stench. The garbage has not been collected for weeks, and the sewage problem, because of the recent rains, has become even worse. No wonder so many people are sick. You are living in a cesspool. And you, and everyone else, is trapped inside this prison because the borders are sealed. This has been going on now for a year and half, and there is no telling when it will be over. And with the end of the truce, such as it was, there is a renewed threat of violence from the Israelis. Even now, you see an Israeli drone overhead and know that a missile could be launched from it at any time.
This is ordinary life these days in Gaza, the thin strip of land along the southern Mediterranean coast, 25 miles long and 6 miles wide at its maximum into which about one and half million inhabitants, most of them originally refugees, are packed. Gaza has one of the highest population densities in the world, and most of its population, about 56%, is 16 or younger. Many are malnourished some estimates put the figure as high as 75%. According to a recent study cited by the noted author, Chris Hedges, 46% of Gazan children are afflicted with acute anemia, and 30% suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. About a tenth of these children have permanent brain damage. Eighty-two percent are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder; the great majority of them have witnessed death first-hand. Eighty percent of the population as a whole is dependent on food aid. Unemployment is rampant upwards of 60%. Most Gazans subsist on less than $2 a day.
According to a recent report by Andrea Becker in an article entitled "The Slow Death of Gaza," the effects of the siege, which has been imposed on Gaza by Israel, ever since Hamas took control of this territory in June, 2007, have been devastating, and the situation is, if anything, only growing worse. Many on-the-spot observers and prominent international spokesmen have not hesitated to call Israel’s actions genocidal both in intent and effect. The U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, for example, has condemned the Israeli siege of Gaza as “a crime against humanity” and "a prelude to genocide." It’s easy to understand why when you read such reports as Becker’s where she recounts the various forms of misery and deprivation from which Gazans suffer daily:
"In practice, Israel’s blockade means the denial of a broad range of items food, industrial, educational, medical deemed ‘non-essential’ for a population largely unable to be self-sufficient at the end of decades of occupation. It means that industrial, cooking and diesel fuel, normally scarce, are virtually absent now. There are no queues at petrol stations; they are simply shut. The lack of fuel in turn means that sewage and treatment stations cannot function properly, resulting in decreased potable water and tens of millions of litres of untreated or partly treated sewage being dumped into the sea every day. Electricity cuts previously around eight hours a day, now up to 16 hours a day in many areas affect all homes and hospitals. Those lucky enough to have generators struggle to find the fuel to make them work, or spare parts to repair them when they break from overuse. Even candles are running out."
Articles such as Becker’s are easily found on the Internet and even occasionally in the American press; there is no dearth of damning statistics that can be cited to illustrate the immensity of the problems Gazans face in coping with the challenges of this siege, seemingly without end. But my purpose here is not merely to provide another such recitation of numbers, percentages and other quantitative indices of this situation. Instead, I would merely like to present to you some voices from Gaza that speak directly of what their own lives are like and how they have come to feel as this siege continues.
The people whose stories I will cite are friends of mine though I have never met them. Although I spent most of November in Palestine myself, I was never able to get into Gaza since the walls of a prison often exclude visitors as well as those they incarcerate. But they have become friends of mine through correspondence, and all of them will be contributing to a book I’m writing about life under the occupation. Here, however, I will just let them speak for themselves, quoting from the letters they have sent or otherwise made available to me.
One man, a professor, in writing about the siege, sent me this summary several months ago, although conditions have not really changed significantly from the time of his letter:
"Sorry to disappoint you and tell you that Israel, in fact, is still preventing us from having fuel. They only allowed the only electricity station we have here to have some industrial diesel. But that was not enough at all. I spent the whole night in total darkness.
"The severe shortages in fuel have affected our teaching program. Our students and lecturers cannot attend their classes. Yesterday, I had only three students out of 80! Those who can walk long distances try their luck. But yesterday we had a heat wave and many of those who tried to walk to school had dehydration. Mind you that most of our students already suffer from malnutrition. To add insult to injury, UNRWA has halted all its activities yesterday, for the first time in 60 years. 80 percent of Gazans depend on food handouts provided by UNRWA. So you can imagine the situation now.
"Israel’s continued tightened siege on the Gaza Strip has a catastrophic effect on all of us here. In addition to the chronic shortages of fuel, we also have shortages in medicine and some basic food stuffs. The situation is simply disastrous. I’ve just heard that patient number 138 has passed away. He is one of thousands of terminally ill patients who need urgent treatment outside Gaza, in Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian, or even West Bank hospitals, but Israel is refusing to give them the necessary permits. Two days ago I visited Al-Shifa hospital and was told that almost all major surgical operations have been suspended due to regular power cuts and the absence of fuel to run their generator!
"In addition to the dangerous shortage of electricity that threatens the lives of critically ill patients in all of Gaza’s hospitals, and the chronic shortages of petrol and diesel and gas for domestic use, we are also suffering widespread shortages of bread, due to lack of electricity to run the ovens at bakeries across Gaza."
Another friend, this one a college student, who wrote me only two weeks ago, after alluding to similar conditions that were affecting her personally, summed up her feelings this way:
"My dear, I don’t want to break your heart with the awful news of the late Gaza, peace be upon that place of earth. I am sure you follow the news wherever available, yet media can not and will never be able to honestly describe the truth of our reality. People here have reached a point in which they feel as if they are isolated from the rest of the world (which the are). I have personally heard some saying: ‘This is not a life, we are dead, we have been for a long time but lying to ourselves saying that we are alive, we’re just some moving dead people.’
"Believe me, it is worse than that, but there are still many people who truly believe that salvation is very close. I am not sure which one of them I am ."
And. finally, a letter that was written a year ago showing that even then, only five months into the siege, the situation was just as grim as today and the feelings of hopelessness and abandonment fully as pronounced. As you’ll see, this woman’s remarks foreshadow and articulate even more powerfully the same sentiments my college student friend expressed in her recent letter.
"I’m sorry for not being in touch and for not writing sooner, but words are failing me, and I cannot articulate what Gaza feels like right now. A hopeless prison with a dark gloomy cloud over it. It’s been raining for three days now and its starting to get cold. Unfortunately with rainstorms come power outages, so that means there is no water or electric heaters. Gas heaters are not operational either because of the high gas price, that’s when gas is even available. But also because most people are saving their gas for cooking food, rather than using it for heaters, especially with a possible invasion coming in two weeks and the possible cutoff of gas. I feel for people without access to heat. I also feel for people like my aunt whose house was demolished and is living in a half-built house with no windows that UNRWA stopped building because they ran out of cement and other building materials. It’s the beginning of the winter. It’s only going to get colder.
"I also can’t help but think of Gaza’s sick and dying…in their frailty, lying there helpless wishing hoping praying that by God’s mercy they would be allowed a permit to leave Gaza, or by some sort of miracle someone will save them. But most are denied access and most die a slow agonizing death, and only then are their bodies free.
"And the world reads about it, but it’s just another story, another one of Gaza’s tragedies. But I wish the world would realize how real this is and how real these sick people are. Some of these sick patients are my uncle who has heart disease, or my little cousin with a tumor, and now unfortunately my aunt’s husband who one day was walking, and the next day woke up crippled from a brain tumor. And when you see people you care about so sick and unable to leave Gaza, you first get angry for having such shi*ty luck, and for the injustice of the world…the type of anger that turns into fury and consumes you, until it becomes exhausting. You then resign yourself to the reality of Gaza’s fate which finally sinks in. But with that reality comes hopelessness and the crippling feeling of helplessness. And so my uncle, my cousin and my aunt’s husband lie in a hospital, waiting for their permits, and none of us can do a thing other than pray or chase around people who may know someone who knows someone who can help us with a permit. But we know full well how real death is, and that most just die while waiting. And then a human rights organization issues a statement, yet again, another Palestinian dies because they were denied access to medical care. And their only crime was being born Palestinian in Gaza and falling ill. Nowhere else will you see this but in Gaza. And no place else will the world remain silent at the obscenity of Israel’s inhumane acts, except in Gaza.
"It’s hard to not feel like we’re in a large concentration camp as I see Gaza’s empty streets, and the hopeless feeling in the air and just the gloominess that has covered Gaza. I think most people feel abandoned as we are literally locked up in this small, concentrated space and we don’t know what the world plans for us, or what to expect next. It’s hard to imagine what being in Gaza does to someone’s will until you’ve come here. You no longer feel alive, in fact, you’re not living; you’re just killing time until some sort of change happens. Sadly, Gaza has become desensitized to the rest of the world, as it feels like the international community has turned a blind eye to the reality that is Gaza, and as long as Israel is allowing some food in and hasn’t completely cut off electricity or gas and as long as we are kept alive, no one will ask about us.
"But just because we are breathing, that doesn’t mean we’re alive."
Again, like the statistics I cited at the beginning of this article, these despairing Gazan voices could be multiplied ad infinitum, but redundancy would not strengthen my case that the people of Gaza have been suffering, and continue to suffer, grievously from this terrible siege that has been imposed on them collectively because of the actions of a few. Of this, you are probably already convinced, whatever you may think of the justifications or lack of it for Israel’s actions. The point is that more than a million people are experiencing a calamitous humanitarian crisis, which has been made even worse by so many American voices remaining silent in the face of this ongoing and, in the view of many, obscene strangulation of Gaza.
Of course, you could say, "well, there are many people who are suffering throughout the world look at Darfur, the Congo, Kenya, India, etc., etc." True enough, but Americans must remember this: It is our unremitting financial support of Israel, amounting to about 3 billion dollars every year*, making it the recipient of more of our foreign aid that any other country, that makes this siege possible. We are paying for all those planes and missiles, for all those bulldozers that demolish the houses of Gazans (and other Palestinians), and for the salaries for all those guards who are keeping the Gazan people locked up in their fetid open-air prison. Yes, these are your tax dollars at work. Do you really want to continue to see them spent in this way?
If not, then please, as the Obama administration is about to take office, write to the incoming president, to your senators and congressmen, and even to the government officials in Israel, which is holding its own election soon, to protest as vigorously as possible against the continuation of the siege and to call for its cessation. Americans have a special responsibility here, and by adding our voices to those around the world who have already condemned in the strongest way the siege of Gaza, perhaps we can help to create a wave of irresistible pressure against the walls of Gaza that will finally bring them down. The people of Gaza, resilient as many of them doubtless are, are counting on us not to forget them. Listening to their voices, we must use ours not to fail them.
*Some analyses suggest that the actual amount may be closer to 5 billion dollars per annum, but whichever figure is used, the thesis is not affected.