Sunday, 11 January 2009

GETTING IN TO GAZA



We travelled up from Cairo through the Sinai in a coach with an Egyptian police escort. Assembling our team of 8 MEPs took a long time at the airport, and what with confusion about where to stay we didn´t put our heads down till past 3am. More confusion in the morning delayed us getting to the Rafah crossing till just before noon. It didn´t seem to matter; UNRWA had already called to tell us that the Israeli Defence Ministry was not prepared to let their vehicles meet us. A series of telephone calls had produced conflicting stories but the result was the same: ¨No way are you getting in!¨ This fact-finding trip was going to prove nothing more than a gesture.

I´ve been to the Rafah crossing before but last time approached it from within Gaza. It´s a modern border control complex, a smaller version of the Channel Tunnel vehicle entrance all paid for with EU money. There are passport control offices, a cafeteria, even a duty free shop – but it´s a fiction, they are all empty and covered in dust. The Israeli siege of Gaza has kept the flow of goods and people to Egypt to a minimum.

Escorted by the mayor of the Egyptian town of Rafah we climbed onto a rooftop platform to look across at Gaza City. All was quiet; ¨bombing is at night,¨ we were told. Returning to the ground we talked with Egyptian ambulance drivers, waiting to take the injured coming out of Gaza. They were all lined up with nothing to do it seemed. We chatted to various journalists, all of them frustrated at not being able to cross into the Gaza Strip.

Then a flurry. ¨Get into the minibus, GET IN, GET IN!¨ For unknown reasons a window of opportunity had opened. It was 2.20pm and the ´ceasefire´ lasted till 4pm. We passed through the gate to be met by UNWRA´s director of operations John Ging and three bullet proof (really heavy doors) UN Range Rovers. We transferred and drove into the Palestinian town of Rafah (yes, there are two Rafahs), passing a few bombed buildings on the way, probably ones that had cloaked entrance/exit routes to tunnels across the border. In so doing we may have become the first ´observers´ to cross since the assault began 16 days ago.

It´s a funny thing about a bombed building but I always find that, even though they may have been destroyed by a devastating explosion just yesterday, they look as though the incident took place a year or two ago. And maybe, their appearance suggests, it wasn´t a bombing at all but a demolition job by a firm that went into liquidation just after the work commenced. So long as it is not your own building it somehow diminishes the impact.

The journey was short, just a mile or so. There were lots of people on the streets taking advantage of the ceasefire - ¨The streets are deserted except during these periods,¨ explained our UN security guide - but very few vehicles except the occasional cart pulled by a donkey. We turned into the compound of a UN distribution centre. There was time only to look at the devastation of a former police station opposite, and exchange a few words both about the damage to the UN buildings and the distribution operation with John Ging. I asked him about the Israeli defence for civilian casualties being that Hamas uses human shields to cover its operations. His response was dismissive, and when you looked around at the context of a war in the midst of a living community you could see why.

Suddenly there was a huge bang; the ground shook and so did my stomach. An Israeli blast during ceasefire. It may have been 6-700 metres away but it felt bloody close! What must this be like for people who really are close? Allegedly, we learnt later, it was a response to Hamas rocket attacks.

Back in the vehicles we drive a short distance through back streets to a primary school being used as a shelter. ¨The UN has 71 ´shelters´ across Gaza and we have 30,000 people in them whose homes have been bombed or are at risk,” said John. ¨Some of them, just like this, have been hit nonetheless as you will know.¨ It seemed to me that most of the residents were children, and they were hugely enthusiastic to see us. (At least our presence changed the routine a bit).

Another Israeli blast, and again the ground and my stomach shook. Smoke arose between buildings a few hundred metres away. The kids weren´t phased, ¨Too far off¨ I imagine they were thinking.

Pushing through their numbers, shaking lots of hands and smiling hard, (some of our team shed tears as soon as they had privacy), we met in a side room to hear about the distribution arrangements (¨We need more than just food and medicines, it´s all the essentials of family life, like bedding for displaced families, and nappies¨).

I asked John about Israeli claims that Hamas were using civilians in places like this as human shields. "Look around you", he said. "Do you think the mothers here would allow fighters to put their kids' lives at risk?"

It was 3.15pm. ¨We need you to go NOW,¨ said John Ging. ¨I am so pleased you have been here to see this for yourselves. Just take back the message that the people here need protection. The violence has got to stop. The UN has got to back up its words about a ceasefire with some real action and pressure.

We walked out of the building into the throng of excited kids, mostly 7-11 year olds. I was struck by how many made ´V for Victory´ gestures with their fingers. Do the Israelis really believe that bombing urban communities and terrorising their populations is going to bring them security? What about the next generation that even now starts to merge with the existing one?

The streets were still busy but very few people had anything in their hands. Not much to buy I suppose.

I asked the UN driver about casualties at the hospitals. ¨We´re approaching 900 dead and more than 3,000 injured,¨ he said. ¨From what we hear it is mainly ordinary people. Amongst the numbers there do not seem to be that many young fit men of fighting age that would fit the ´combatant´ category.¨

We get back to the crossing and leave the UN vehicles. Back in the Rafah compound it´s interview time, and we watch also as a succession of Israeli F16s cross the sky dropping white flares of some kind. Donkeys pulling carts in the streets and 21st century killing machines in the air.

Then the explosions start. One of them close enough so that journalists and ourselves start to move quickly away.

Twenty or 30 minutes later the crossing complex starts to get really busy. Ambulance after ambulance arrives from Gaza, and their occupants are transferred to Egyptian ambulances.

Our coach sets off in the direction of Cairo just before sunset. Ambulances race past on the road south.

6 comments:

GGL said...

I'm so happy you got in! Although all measures were taken for you to have the safest possible journey, you still felt the fear. I feel sorry for the unsecure civillians in Gaza. It must be terrifying!

I really hope your experience reflects in the actions you and your group take. Hope you can push for an embargo on Israel.

I'm not surprised Israel threw rockets during the ceasefire. I mean what have they NOT done during this war?! It's all been unlawful.

Oh, and thank god you saw everything with your very own eyes... Hamas using human shields?! You definately know the answer to that now.

Trevor Cope (LDFP) said...

Fantastic writing Chris so glad you got in and out safely.
Your blog and notes will form the basis of my evening bulletin and I am so grateful that you could share you experiences with us all. Please take care - we need people like to show the world the injustice and inequality.
Trevor Cope

DNC said...

Well done Chris on getting in to Gaza. Your description conveys the fear that you felt. I cannot imagine what it must be like for the Palestinians living there. Totally traumatising, let alone having to deal with the consequences of death and injury. It was bad enough before the war started. But even surviving now is a constant challenge. I hope that your colleagues will write up their experiences and thoughts, too, to get the maximum amount of press coverage across Europe for the visit

Jean Johnson said...

It must have taken a lot of courage to go into Gaza at this time but I am glad you did it.I wish that all the other MEPs would do the same
Jean Johnson

Tina said...

I'm happy for you that u had the chance to become an eye-witness to what is going on and also made it home safely... I have a very pressing question: why can we not hear about this in the media? I checked AlJazeera, some Israelian and German newspapers, no word about that... My husband only found a small article (4 lines) in the Egyptian Al Ahram... are u planning on bringing ur experiences to the press?
best wishes,
tina

Anonymous said...

When will the European Parliament strongly react on this terrible act of genocide and war crimes being committed by Israel Defense Forces? First of all, there is an unacceptable isolation of Gaza, for a year and a half, under the most rigid embargo regime because of the outcome of the democratic elections held under supervision of international community. It have been the civilians the ones who have suffered the shortage of water, electricity, food supplies and breach of the right to movement. Further on, Israel has started the military operation and continues to breach Geneva conventions, to ignore Security Council resolution - while there is no loud and strict response from the Western community. This absolutely raises the question why the standards in the world are always double?! Serbia has been bombed for three months, for inducing a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo of much smaller scale and to Israel noone is even trying to impose a truce or a peace solution. I am in no way suggesting bombing as a solution as the NATO bombing in Serbia or any other, to be honest, has caused an even bigger humanitarian catastrophe (but it's another issue we shouldn't open here and now), but I wish to call international community and EU to start defending clearly the principles of international humanitarian law, before we witness more people suffer and die. It's a simple plea for people sitting in the coziness of their Brussels offices.