Live from Occupied Palestine, Eóin Murray,Trócaire

Friday, January 26, 2007

The darkest hour is just before dawn

It is an all too familiar sound. Gunfire and explosions echo accross the night in Gaza city. Yet, this evening, once again the sounds are not caused by fighting between the Israeli military and the Palestinian militants.

Instead it is Hamas and elements from Fateh and some of the associated criminal fraternity who are fighting. Tonight all of Gaza is in flames. Every street, every area, is consummed in what can only be described as a civil war between the main two factions here.

At eight-thirty we leave a friend's house to return to the area where I am staying, Tel al Howa in Gaza city. It is a largely middle class area but riddled throughout with the homes of prominent Hamas and Fateh leaders, as well as the headquarters of the ineptly named 'Preventative Security'.

Majdi and I try to navigate the streets with care. We approach each corner slowly, stopping to see if there is fighting. The streets are empty, we can hardly find anyone to ask "is this street safe or not?"

Majdi is a vetern of two intifadas (in that he has lived through them). I trust him - would put my life in his hands. Which is fortunate, because that's where it lies. The sandy streets of Tel al Howa are the centre of the clashes and we are trying to go in to the very heart of it.

While we drive along a street he turns on the light in the car so anyone looking can see we are not armed. When we come to the corner he flicks it off so that we can see what is happening on each street. We go, turn back, turn right, reverse again, turn left. At a certain point on each street junction we can not go any further. There are literally bullets flying over-head. Far or near we can not tell, but we can hear them.

Each time we hear a gunshot we jump in the car, each time thinking that we are gonners. Never before in Gaza he says, has the fighting been like this - all over the Strip.

We have long decided to go to his house instead of our final destination. The problem, now, is to get out of the labarynth of shooting.

We turn one corner in the direction of the sea; blocked by sand and empty pillboxes. We reverse - it's all happening in slow motion. That's probably because in the sand we can't drive quickly enough. The light goes on, goes off, goes on. "Salaam ay lykuum, fi meshakil fi haada issha9are?" (Are there problems on this street?)

Our directions are always contradictory, we never really know which way to turn because it appears there are problems on every street.

We are surrounded by houses and apartment blocks but no lights can be seen. No one wants to be seen, to be targeted - to be the 'lucky strike.'

This is the syptom of power - that, those without suffer at it's behest. In the middle of these internal clashes Palestinian civilians are caught, wondering: what to do, how to escape?

The explosions intensify and then relax, the gunshots can be heard from all directions and we keep on turning, wondering where a gap will open for us to escape. Eventually, we find one. We head off down the sea road in the direction of relative safety.

"ilhamdAllah salama" Majdi says when we arrive ('thank god for your health', said to people who have beaten an illness or returned from a journey.)

Now, we sit. The phones here are buzzing "Abu Khaled, how is it with you?" "Khalil what's happening in your area?" "Are there problems near you, Ahmed?" The answer is always the same.

It is hard to know how we, as internationals, as an international NGO, should respond to this. We have, of course, a clear obligation to ensure that civilians are protected. But we have a clear obligation, also, to protect democracy - Palestinian democracy is being undermined by sanctions imposed on the Hamas government (which, incidentally 'celebrated' one year since its election only yesterday.) And, we have a clear obligation to uphold the other aspects of international law which are being violated in the Occupied Palestinian Territory including the war crimes committed by the Israeli occupation. We have an obligation to work for justice and to speak the truth to power.

But most of all we have an obligation to carry hope and to provide the most vulnerable in society with a slice of it. But in Gaza hope is a scarce commodity, available only for the few not for the many.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Our house, in the middle of our street

Today I sat in a comfortable air conditioned office, of Trocaire's partner B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights information centre.

Meanwhile, out on the ranch - Aine Bhreathnach the ME emergency programme officer went on a tour of Jerusalem with B'Tselem staff.

On the tour, which illustrates how Israel is using the wall to annex Palestinian land, they witnessed a house demolition taking place.

As Aine witnessed it, the facts are this, in her words:

"Five families lived in a house in Sur Bahir, a village near Jerusalem which is being annexed to Jerusalem by Israel.

On the 22nd of January 2006, their homes were demolished.

Why? Because they built their home without planning permission

Why did they build their home without planning permission?

Because the Israeli controlled Jerusalem Municaplity did not give them permission to build their homes.

Why did the Jersualem municipality not give permission for the families to build their homes?

Because the municapility do not want Palestinians to build houses in this area- even though:the land belongs to the Palestinian people. But they are not wanted there...

Who protects the palestinian families? - I saw the Israedli police and army watch. In fact I saw them eat their lunch while the mechanical arm of the bulldozing crane pulled the house down.

The role of the police is to protect the instrument of destruction, not the human rights of victims.

3 generations of the family watched helplessly as their homes were destroyed.

The elderly watched as their life's work and savings were destroyed. The adults watched as their ability to protect and care for their parents and children was destroyed. The children watched as their future was destroyed.

Why Why Why?????? "

Many of you will be aware of Trocaire's campaign with the Rabbis for Human Rights to prevent the demolition of the Dari family home in East Jerusalem. Our campiagn was unsuccesful, but we and our partners on the ground will keep on struggling to fight discrimination, to fight injustice and to fight this occupation. Keep on struggling with us. Please.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The hate that dare not speak its name.

Topography here is in constant fluctuation. From one visit to the next a whole area, or just a small street can look completely different. In Gaza maybe it has been destroyed or, sometimes, rebuilt.

In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, a flow of ongoing construction manifests itself in the wall, in the illegal settlements and in the construction of the discriminatory road system.

Today, while driving through the western edges of the West Bank, we began to understand what the 'forbidden roads regime' actually means. Through an intricate series of road systems Israelis will travel on one set of roads while Palestinians will travel on roads built underneath them.

It is claimed that the system is designed to facilitate so-called 'viability' of any potential Palestinian state by making it territorially contiguous. More importantly, as Trócaire's partner B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights information centre, say

"The Forbidden Roads Regime is based...on a racist premise, that indiscriminately harms the entire Palestinian population, in violation of their human rights and of international law."
(B'Tselem have a map of the road system here )

Many of the roads we passed are under construction still. We drove along the Israeli-only highways and saw, to the side, dirt tracks that will be turned into small roads for Palestinians. Although we were driving through the occupied West Bank we did not see any Palestinians, we didn't see their villages, or towns. Only Jewish settlements were visible.

The view has been "sanitised" so that Palestinians are never seen, or heard.

The sandy stone of the West Bank has been carved out to facilitate the construction of the road's system. All through our journey we knew, off to our east, only minutes away, was the hussle and bussle of Palestinian towns with their chaotic markets and their queues of yellow taxis - all of this set deep into the rolling jabels (hills) of the West Bank. But all of it hidden to our eyes.

In response to the publication of Jimmy Carter's new book, 'Palestine and Israel: Peace or Apartheid" Fr. Eoin Cassidy of the Irish Commission for Justice and Social Affairs asked in a recent Irish Times article

"Can one sustain the thesis that the restrictions imposed on Palestinian freedom of movement are progressively transforming Israel into an apartheid state? Unfortunately, I think that we can."

The roads system is the most obvious manifestation of this thesis - discriminating, as it does, on the basis of racial and ethnic difference. Or in the words of the Rome Statute to the International Criminal Court (to which Israel is not a state party)

"The crime of apartheid means inhumane acts...committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group...committed with the intention of maintaining that regime..."

And, yet, the word remains a controversial one. Critics say that it is inaccurate, lazy thinking that can do nothing to help the situation here or to bring everyone closer to justice or to peace.

Tomorrow morning we are heading to the town of Hebron, an astonishing place, where Palestinians live inside a system of metal cages which have been placed between the first floor of their homes and the upper floors where illegal settlers have moved in. Settlers are allowed to do as they please but Palestinians are prevented from doing anything, on the basis of their ethnicity.

To me it has more then the ring of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another to maintain a regime. But you can call it whatever you like.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Strawberry fields for ever..?

Let me take you down, 'cos we're going to...Beit Lahiya in the north of the Gaza Strip, to go strawberry picking.

As part of Trocaire's work here we want to make our response to the humanitarian emergency as sustainable as possible. This way we can ensure that people who have had thousands of donums of land demolished can recover in the long term. In the northern area of Gaza strawberrys are the main produce.

Strawberrys like you've never eaten before, sweet and juicy. The big ones look like something from a strawberry ad. campaign but the small ones are the sweetest. I'm almost salivating as I write. We loaded our taxi with punnets that would make a Wexford farmer jealous. [Gaza, incidentally, is around half the size of county Wexford. Strawberries are about as much as they have in common, though.]

All going well we hope to help some of Gaza's farmers to rehabilitate their water systems while at the same time working to ensure they have access to markets in the outside world.

Rehabilitating water systems is easy - ensuring that the land isn't destroyed in a further incursion and that the Israeli army allow goods through checkpoints is a far more difficult task.

Access in and out of Gaza is virtually impossible - by train, plane or automobile. In the morning we travelled to Khan Younis and Rafah, scenes of military incursions over the summer. We visit Rafah airport, one of Gaza's oddest conundrums.

Opened by no less a luminary then Bill Clinton in 1998 the airport operated for a little over two years. Its elegant Arabic architecture and interior designs - the blue, red and black patterns of the tiled floor and walls - are a shock in the surrounding areas which are grey, dense, destroyed and gloomy.

Not long after the second Palestinian intifada began the Israeli airforce bombed the radar tower and destroyed the runway. Yet, defiantly, the airport still operated - well, operated, in a sense.

The staff turned up for work every day. The baggage handlers even turned up for night shift. If they were late they got written warnings, even though the carrousels weren't carrying bags and no passangers were checking in to go on the Hajj.

Now, after the events of the summer, the airport has been shredded. Files lie scattered over the floor, glass and metal twist through the air, the stairs are ripped from the walls. We shuffle through the rubble with our heads bowed wondering at the destruction of the last symbol of hope in Gaza. Destroyed.

It is a day of destruction. We spent it walking through the destroyed former settlement areas and the demolished areas of Rafah. We are, once again, deeply depressed. Even the wonder and depth of the blue, blue sea offers little comfort. I am reminded of the words of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet:

"Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea and the sand of memory
Take what pictures you will, so that you understand
That which you never will:
How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky."

We leave Rafah and leave our hopes lying in the rubble behind us.

So, then, no better way to approach the Erez checkpoint that evening than with a car full of strawberries. When we finally pass through the cages and intensive checking procedures (for more on these procedures see this press release from Trocaire's partner PCHR in 2005 )

We delight in offering the strawberries to Palestinians waiting and to Israeli soldiers searching our bags. Even the forces maintaining this 40 year old occupation should not be deprived of such sweet things.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

This is what democracy looks like

We left Dublin airport last Friday evening. This time it was harder to leave. Perhaps because each time I travel to the Occupied Palestinian Territory the situation has deteriorated in some unexpected way and I become more depressed about the lives of friends and colleagues.

Perhaps it was just because there was a taste of something lingering that I didn't want to leave behind. Anyway, some suprise, then, when I arrived in Gaza. It took us (myself and Aine Bhreathnach, Middle East EmergencyProgramme Officer) two days to reach Gaza.

On Saturday the Israeli military hadn't 'processed' our applications, so we weren't allowed in. Luckily for us they spent 11 hours processing it on Sunday. Unfortunately for us, we had to spend seven of those hours physically sitting at the Erez checkpoint in to Gaza.

We reached Gaza tired and already depressed - the long walk throughthe cages at Erez is a deeply humiliating experience. Humiliating not because we have to go through it but because we see people on wheelchairs being pushed through, we see children cowering through, we see women and men covered in bandages hobbling through. The humiliation is because I can't bear to see one set of people being treated like this by another.

Anyway, all that was a long way of saying that we reached Gaza, tired and depressed. We were immediately kidnapped, in the best sense, by staff from Trocaire's partner the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

And here comes the surprise. It's a good one.

For the past few months the biggest issue for people in Gaza has become the security situation caused by the the clashes between Hamas and some 'leading lights' in the decrepit Fateh party. People felt unsafe to leave their home. One friend lives near a hot spot - her house has bullet holes through it. Her children are so afraid that even when no fighting is happening they are crawling from room to room. In the centre of Gaza city, in the square of the Unknown Soldier a movement has sprung up. Partially out of desperation, partially out of a desire to end the violent internal clashes and provide some protection for Palestinian civilians.

10 people, 6 women and 4 men have decided to go on hunger strike. They are artists, doctors, human rights lawyers, poets and independent political activists. For the past eight days they have refused food and vowed to continue doing so until such time as a national unity government is formed and the internal clashes come to an end.

Civil society, the business community and people from all walks of life have gathered around to support them. They have been given tents, blankets, chairs, heaters (for Gaza at night is bitterly cold). Petitions are being circulated, the 'Oud is being played, national poems are being sung and recited through the night. Thousands of ordinary people have passed through in support.

Their slogan is simple 'NO - to internal fighting." We spend sometime talking to Doctor Miriam who began organising the strike. She tells us that:"This is the first step for fighting the occupation. We must be united as a people in order to achieve our rights and our dreams. Internal fighting can not bring us there. We have not hung any flags other then Palestinian flags here. We do not welcome guns into this area. We want real national unity to struggle for the human rights ofthe Palestinian people."

We move from the tent she shares with three other hunger strikers into the main tent. Over a hundred chairs are gathered around in a circle. A man is sitting, surrounded by his children, he is an ordinary man. He holds a microphone in his hands and talks about his desire that the clashes will end so his kids will be safer going to school. Over the course of hours the microphone passes through many hands - anyone can speak and express their feelings, for as long as they need to. It is a truly open affair.

The microphone passes to one Palestinian woman. She is resplendent in her handwoven black, red and yellow dress. An elderly lady, with a lived in face. Her name is Um Jaber Wishah. She begins to tell her own story. The story explains the lines on her face, and at times her eyes well with tears as she describes her journey in 1948 when she and her family were expelled from their village inside what is now the state of Israel. She talks about the pain of Mothers who see their sons taken to prison, or killed. She reminds us that:"the prisoners are calling for calm on the streets of Gaza and we must honour their desires. We must behave as Palestinians, with dignity and respect towards each other. Not to divide ourselves into Hamas or Fateh."

Her words are powerful and they move the crowd to applause and cheers. The evening in the tent reminds me of the words of Martin Luther King who, the night before he died, said

"You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together,that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."

The work of these hunger strikers and their friends and fellow strugglers in human rights organisations such as those supported byTrocaire is for unity. They are doing it by creating real people power, by encouraging people to take back the streets and take back the responsibility for democracy and accountability themselves. This, indeed, is what democracy looks like.

I can only hope that they succeed.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A day of sadness and shame

1. Fatema Ahmed al-‘Athamna, 70;
2. Sanaa’ Ahmed al-‘Athamna, 30;
3. Ne’ma Ahmed al-‘Athamna, 55;
4. Mas’oud ‘Abdullah al-‘Athamna, 55;
5. Sabah Mohammed al-‘Athamna, 45;
6. Sameer Mas’oud al-‘Athamna, 23;
7. Fatema Mas’oud al-‘Athamna, 16;
8. ‘Arafat Sa’ad al-‘Athamna, 17;
9. Mahdi Sa’ad al-‘Athamna, 13;
10. Mohammed Sa’ad al-‘Athamna, 14;
11. Sa’ad Majdi al-‘Athamna, 8;
12. Mahmoud Amjad al-‘Athamna, 12;
13. Malak Sameer al-‘Athamna, 4;
14. Maisaa’ Ramzi al-‘Athamna, 4;
15. Nihad Mohammed al-‘Athamna, 33;
16. Mohammed Ramadan al-‘Athamna, 28;
17. Manal Mohammed al-‘Athamna, 35; and
18. Saqer Mohammed ‘Edwan, 45.

These are the names of the dead from this morning's attack by the Israeli army.
They were sleeping in their beds when their homes were shelled.

Trocaire's partner, PCHR, tell me that 282 Palestinian civilians [i.e. innocent people] have died in Gaza since the 9th of June.

When is the world going to take action to protect Palestinian civilians?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Falling olives. Falling bombs.

I was sitting akimbo. My legs flat on the ground, my head bent over. Above me a sixteen year old Palestinian boy is beating the Olive tree with a large stick. The olives rain onto my head and back, like soft pebbles. Around us the whole family are up trees or on the ground picking up olives.

It is the time for the annual olive harvest - we have come to a village near Nablus. The family we are with have not been able to access their land for six years because of attacks from the near-by illegal settlements. The annual harvest defines so much of the life of the West Bank - visitors come from afar, money for school fees are paid and so on...for this family the fear of attack meant that this land was inaccessible and so was the rythem of normal life associated with it.

Throughout the day we were, variously, 'guarded' by heavily armed local settler security or abused and stoned by boys from the school in the local settlement.

But all in all, with the help of Trocaire's partners the Rabbis for Human Rights, the olive harvest has been going relatively smoothly, at least thus far. Families have been able to access their land and dozens of Israelis and internationals have been deployed to try and assist them by providing a helping hand and some token security.

Cut from the West Bank to Gaza where forty-eight hours letter the olives falling have turned to bombs falling - in Beit Hanoun; a town of forty thousand people in the very northern point of the Gaza Strip.

By now the Israeli incursion has been going on for five days - over 40 people are dead and the town, which has suffered much in previous incursions, is being ravaged again.

In previous years the Israeli military entered with the same declared intent - to halt the firing of home-made rockets into the south of Israel near Gaza. In the last two years massive incursions have not brought about the desired result. Collectively punishing the entire people of the north has not changed anything.

The pictures finally went accross the world when Israel fired at a peaceful demonstration - when the world asks Palestinians to reject violence, and they demonstrate peacefuly, this is the Israeli response. The women were, evidence suggests, fired upon before reaching the mosque - thus negating the Israeli claims that they only fired at militants escaping from the mosque itself.

Events have continued to expand and escalte. The military has in the last hour moved into the other major northern town of Beit Lahiya.

The scale of killings and attacks is becoming too large to explain in this blog - so I commend you to the work of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights whose fieldworkers are in the area writing reports on an almost daily basis: .

Despite all that is happening - the unprecedented sanctions against an occupied people, the construction of an illegal wall deep inside the territory of the West Bank, the complete seige imposed on the Gaza Strip, the collapse of the Palestinian economy and the deepening humanitarian crisis accross the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the expansion of settlements, the continued internment of human rights defenders - despite all of this, and more, the world continues to practise a conspiracy of silence against the Palestinian people.

Each country which has signed the Geneva Conventions, and even those who have not, have a clear obligation under common article 1 of these conventions to "respect and ensure respect" for the conventions - but this obligation is being ignored. After thirty-four days of Israeli attacks against Lebanon an international force was deployed to protect Israeli civilians - yet after almost 40 years of occupation and almost 60 years since the nakba (catastrophe) - the world has done nothing to protect Palestinian civilians and the climate of impunity continues.