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Tears in Gaza

Katherine Maycock's view from the Middle East

The day began ominously. Several Israelis had been killed over the last few days, and Israel was in the mood for retaliation. We went down to Gaza in the morning. At the Erez checkpoint dividing Israel from Gaza, foreigners choose the VIP, diplomat, or international organisation/tourist categories. Palestinians, meanwhile, are filtered off to enter what is a cross between a long tunnel and cattle grid. But of course there weren't any Palestinians. Gaza has been closed for a long time. Over 100,000 Palestinians used to work in Israel. Now because of the current crisis or Intifada, the Israeli army prevents the majority from leaving Gaza. Unemployment is now at 60%.

The oppression of a people is nowhere more tangible than by taking the dusty road down to this tiny strip of land - a mere 5 x 25 miles. Disconnected from the West Bank (the other Palestinian Territory, known in the bible as Judea and Samaria), Gaza contains over a million people. Blown about by desert sand, it is more akin to Egypt or Pakistan than Israel or the West Bank. In Gaza, 490,000 Palestinian refugees live in crowded refugee camps. Yet 40% of this strip of land has been taken over by 4000 Jewish settlers living in luxurious settlements that take a high proportion of the water for their lawns and swimming pools. Meanwhile Palestinian agriculture has been devastated because of a severe water shortage, and many Palestinian children are ill from the lack of clean drinking water.

This is an insidious and subtle war. It is so easy for tourists and pilgrims to bypass these almost daily realities in pursuit of other holy sites. It is the same for Jewish settlers who have special roads and bridges to drive on which connect their settlements in the West Bank and Gaza strip, so that they don't have to mix with 'Arabs'. With so little contact between ordinary people, forgiveness amidst so much bitterness is hard to imagine. "By the age of five, we know who is the enemy..very soon you start using religious language to denounce the other side" said Salim Munayer, director of Musalaha, a Christian organisation trying to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. The irony is that although locked in an immensely complex conflict, Jews and Arabs are - in many cases - identical in genes and often looks.

Their separation, however, was nowhere more exemplified than in the story of Costa, the 62 year old Director of the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza. He, like 75% of the population of Gaza, is a refugee. Costa was eight when he fled with his family from Haifa during the war of 1948 when Israel was created. All his father's relatives were in Gaza, so to Gaza they went. In 1967 he and his younger brother were preparing to emigrate to Australia as his parents had done. His visa was granted and all was ready, when at the last minute he felt called to stay. His parents put on the pressure, but he resisted. So his brother got on the plane and he stayed. At this point in the story, Costa went silent, and then after a long pause, quietly started to cry...He had never seen his parents again and now they were dead. The pain of this past event just seemed to erupt into the present pain of the morning's bombing. "I feel happy I stayed. I never regret it", he said in wiping his face.

He went on to say how he is unable to see his two daughters who live 90km away in the West Bank. "I cannot see them. They cannot see me". They have not seen each other since before the Intifada started 18 months ago. This is because the towns and villages of the West Bank have been closed off by Israeli checkpoints, which exist to stop the free movement of Palestinians, and to 'protect' Jewish settlers who live illegally on Palestinian land. Palestinians require permits to travel anywhere, and often their applications are refused.

Checkpoints cripple all aspects of Palestinian life. There is no pathology unit at Al Ahli hospital in Gaza. All blood and urine samples have to go to Jerusalem. Palestinians have to apply for permission from Israelis each specimen to cross the checkpoint. It takes one week to get that permission. It recently took 3 months to obtain a basic shipment of humanitarian supplies from Jordan. 30% of the hospital staff live in South Gaza, which on days when security is tight, the Israeli army keep firmly closed. (Gaza has been split into 3 sections).

The root of the violence in this area is the Israeli occupation of what is Palestinian land according to international law. It is the cancer which has crept over the land, slowly but insidiously since 1967. Jewish settlements linked by special roads and bridges litter the hills in the West Bank and Gaza bypassing Arab towns and villages. The question is whether to expect a reversal of these 'facts on the ground' - after all, the building of settlements and roads accelerated throughout the seven year Oslo peace process - or whether it is a fait accompli?

Many Israelis and Palestinians recognise that any true vision of the future, whether it be a single state encompassing Jews and Arabs or two separate states will require them to live and work together. Yet rival theologies form the basis for a politics of separation. With so much communal segregation the challenge is tough. In the words of a Israeli military service refusenik we met, the goal of reconciliation has to be "to see the other as he sees himself."

Katharine Maycock was with an 11-member CMS (Church Mission Society) fact-finding mission to Israel and the Palestinian Territories (February 3-11th).

May/June 2002