In the eyes of many Westerners, Gaza is a dangerous and war torn place. Even activists, including myself, often imagine Gaza primarily as a place of suffering, and one that has unfairly come to eclipse the affliction of all of Palestine. But while Israel’s wars of aggression against the people of Gaza, as well as its brutal siege, have cost many lives and inflicted countless casualties, Gaza today is a remarkably calm, protected and beautiful place where everyday lives go on, despite the continued suffering of its people. Indeed, Gaza is a place where the heart and soul flourish even if the body is ailing; where people and community are so alive and resilient that it rekindles one’s hope in humanity.
I only know this now because I traveled to Gaza earlier this month to participate in the second annual Global March to Jerusalem (GMJ) on Friday, 7th June 2013, when thousands of Palestinians and international activists mobilized in peaceful demonstrations around the world to draw attention to Israel’s continued violations against Jerusalem and its people. Although Israeli police violently suppressed GMJ demonstrations in Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank, peaceful mass demonstrations did successfully take place in Gaza and the neighboring countries of Jordan and Egypt, as well as in Tunisia, Mauritania, Morocco, Yemen, Malaysia, and Turkey. In addition, there were demonstrations in solidarity with the GMJ all around the world, including several major cities across Europe and North America.
On Friday, 7th June I was fortunate enough to join Palestinians and a group of international activists in a peaceful mass rally in Beit Hanoun, the nearest point possible to Jerusalem in Gaza. Many thousands attended the rally, and during my address I promised to carry their voices back home with me to the US in order to communicate their struggle to live under the footprint of a racist occupying power that my government funds and arms. Of course, the few days I spent in Gaza are hardly enough to fulfill this promise. There are too many voices that I was not able to hear, both because there was not enough time and because of my identity as an American woman. But I am hoping that what I can offer begins to communicate the complex life stories of a people resisting against horrific injustices, while at the same time encouraging other Westerners to travel to Gaza in order to do the same.
My entry into Gaza was made possible by the Miles of Smiles convoy organized by the International Committee for Breaking the Siege on Gaza (ICBSG). While there have been many international convoys entering Gaza in recent years, all of which bring much needed aid to the besieged people of Gaza, the Miles of Smiles convoy offers something unique by focusing on development aid. The first Miles of Smiles convoy reached Gaza in November 2009, and since then the ICBSG has successfully organized twenty additional convoys into Gaza. Our convoy included activists from Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Malaysia, South Africa, the UK, and the USA.
Miles of Smiles works closely with Partners for Peace and Development for Palestinians (PPDP) to sponsor projects that empower Palestinians to develop the means to live dignified lives on their own terms. The PPDP is a UK-based organization that works with a dedicated team of Palestinian employees and volunteers in Gaza to offer interest-free loans and small grants to Palestinians, helping them to establish family businesses and development projects. One example of this is a small bakery that we visited during the first night we spent in Gaza, which thanks to a PPDP loan generates employment for an entire family.
PPDP’s Palestinian employees and volunteers in Gaza coordinated our program, which included many different activities that allowed us access to a diverse array of Palestinian voices and experiences. For example, our second day in Gaza we met with the children and spouses of Palestinians who are currently imprisoned by the occupation authorities, often without any formal charges ever being brought against them. And even when Palestinians are tried, it is in military courts – an apartheid system of justice that separates Palestinian children from their fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters.
Earlier that day we also visited a government hospital that specializes in caring for children. We asked one of the doctors there what the needs of the hospital are, and his answer was a lack of resources – a problem that more international activists could easily help alleviate if the US and Europe did not impose such draconian penalties for working with Hamas, the ruling party of the government in Gaza that Israel and its Western allies label as a terrorist organization because of its resistance activities against the occupation. The doctor explained to us that they have many doctors, in fact too many to employ. Even during Israel’s recent war against Gaza in November of last year they had a sea of volunteers to help. However the hospital still needed equipment and medication to meet the needs of their patients. Indeed according to the human rights organization B’Tselem, Israeli forces killed 167 Palestinians during last November’s military operation, at least 87 of them civilians and more than one third under the age of 18. As we visited some of the sick children I felt so helpless and angry because as an American I am unable to contribute anything to the important work of this hospital, which saves innocent children’s lives. Fortunately, those in Arab countries are able to donate without fear of prosecution, and their contributions help keep the hospital running.
On our fourth day we visited Islamic University, the best university in Gaza (there are seven in total) and ranked among the top 250 universities around the world. Founded in 1978, the university’s campus is modern and beautiful, servicing around 20,000 students each year. The university offers many degrees across the arts and sciences, with Islamic values guiding the behavior of the students as well as the curriculum, which is in line with international scientific standards. But even this university has suffered unjustly under the occupation. During Israel’s December 2008 war against Gaza, occupation forces destroyed 74 of the university’s laboratories, as well as a library, a collective punishment against the entire population. Lest anybody think that this was collateral damage, Israel deliberately bombed the university in six separate air strikes. When I think of violent acts that would terrorize me as a teacher and a scholar, this ranks among the worst. And yet this terrorism is exactly what my government is uncritically supporting.
During our time in Gaza, we also met with Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh, and distributed aid to orphans as well as to needy families thanks to the generosity of our Libyan delegation (as well as my own friends and colleagues who kindly donated money so that I could distribute toys to children). But most of us will never really know what it is like to live under a violent occupation. What it is like to be cruelly besieged by your neighbor and demonized by Western countries for fighting back. We spoke to some graduates of Islamic University who are involved in the Gaza student community, to try and learn more about their own experiences.
One member of the convoy, an American filmmaker of Pakistani origin, remarked how surprising it was that the Palestinians working with us were not more angry. One young man responded that, in fact, they are very angry, but that they still have to live. He explained that he holds his pain and suffering deep inside himself, as do other Palestinians in Gaza. It has to be contained for fear that if expressed it could destroy their lives. And even though he spoke these words calmly and quietly, the inner anguish distorted his face and the grief filled his wide eyes. He told us that he lost seven friends in the last war against his people. On his way to sit his university exams he also saw bombs destroy the buildings around him. His exams were postponed. But what really made the suffering intolerable was getting through the cold nights during that war.
I can only conclude that this coldness is symbolic of a world where an occupying power can terrorize and ethnically cleanse a native population with impunity. Because if there were any warmth left in our hearts, then we would all be doing everything that we possibly could do to stop Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. Convoys like Miles of Smiles help, as do solidarity activities like the GMJ, but considering the extent of their suffering, the Palestinians deserve more from all of us.
Sarah Marusek earned her PhD in social science from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University and is currently a traveling faculty member with SIT Study Abroad. She is also a member of the International Executive Committee of the Global March to Jerusalem.