Tuesday 2nd March 2010
By Fiona Edwards (Birkbeck & Palestine Solidarity Campaign Student Officer) and Ian Drummond (SOAS)
Destroyed buildings, piles of rubble and bullet holes met us on every street as we drove our ambulance through Gaza City one year on after Israel’s murderous assault.
Today, Israel’s war on Gaza is continuing, using its brutal and illegal blockade to collectively punish 1.5 million people by denying them access to food, safe water, medicine and all basic supplies necessary for human survival.
Plans are underway to make life for Palestinians trapped in Gaza even more intolerable. A steel underground wall is being constructed on the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza. Sinking as deep as the water table, the wall will cut the people of Gaza off from their principal lifeline - the network of over 1,500 under ground tunnels which ensure the people of Gaza have sufficient food, water, medicine and other basic necessities which they currently smuggle in from Egypt; without the tunnels the Palestinians would starve to death.
We went to Gaza to raise awareness about the growing humanitarian crisis the Palestinians are facing, to show our solidarity and deliver millions of pounds of medical and humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.
On 6th January 2010, alongside 500 humanitarian activists from 20 countries across the world, we succeeded in our attempt to break the siege on Gaza. The Viva Palestina Convoy, which was co-organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and backed by the NUS Black Students’ Campaign, travelled for more than three thousand miles through Europe and the Middle East, picking up tremendous support, extra aid donations and volunteers in many countries along the way.
After one month on the road and tense negotiations with the Egyptian government we were granted permission to deliver our aid and stay in Gaza for 48 hours. Even this short stay proved long enough to witness the devastating impact of ‘Operation Cast Lead’.
In Gaza we had the privilege to meet lots of young Palestinians, who shared stories of the trauma and suffering they had endured during the war and on-going siege on Gaza. We met two students from the Islamic University of Gaza who had lost both of their legs during the war last year. Another student, Yousef Abdul Jabbar Al- Mughrabi, who is 21 years old, was blinded and paralysed on the right side of his body following an explosion of a drone bomb outside his home. The lost of his sight has meant that he could not complete his degree in Civil Engineering and he has been forced to start a new degree in Islamic Studies from scratch.
During last year’s war Israel extensively used chemical weapons including white phosphorus, a substance that burns intensely on contact with oxygen. A student told us of the horror she witnessed first hand, when the white phosphorus shells were raining down:
“The whole world was celebrating the new year with fire crackers in the sky. I thought Gaza was no exception when I looked at the sky! It was grey with a frightening light that looked like a ball of fire. We have never seen this before. Then, we started to hear the news on the radio and we knew that those balls of fire are called phosphorus shells.
Some were targeting the houses and others exploded in the middle of the streets. We tried to extinguish the fires with water. Suddenly, we found that this was not a normal fire. We were suffocating. The smell, the smoke, and the unknown chemicals were all life threatening. We had to put pieces of clothes that were soaked in water on our faces to breath through them. It was a nightmare that I don’t like to remember.
Some people got burnt with the phosphorus shells before the eyes of their loved ones. Most of those died on the spot. We could see their flesh dissolving with such weird chemicals and bombs. We stood helpless and hopeless.”
The immense suffering that these students have endured is an experience they share with all of the young Palestinians in Gaza. In the war many schools, colleges and universities, including the Islamic University of Gaza and the American School of Gaza, were damaged or destroyed. Over 1,400 Palestinians were killed, one third of which were children and many more young people were amongst the dead. The on-going siege means that Gaza’s educational infrastructure remains in ruins as no cement or building materials has been allowed in since the war. The siege also means that educational equipment such as paper, stationery, desks, books and other necessary materials are in very short supply. Electricity is routinely cut off for several hours a day in Gaza by Israel who controls the supply.
What is truly inspirational is that life goes on and that Palestinian students are absolutely determined to continue their studies, to gain an education, in these appalling circumstances.
The evening before we left Israel’s F-16s started to bomb Gaza. Several Palestinians lost their lives. The same evening we visited a tunnel in Rafah where we watched tunnel workers as they smuggled in refrigerators, which would help to keep the short supply of food in Gaza fresh. Thirty minutes later, as we were driving towards Gaza City we heard an explosion. Later we discovered that the same tunnel we had visited was bombed and two tunnel workers were spoke to had been killed.
Whilst much of what we saw and heard in Gaza was upsetting, the steadfastness and resolve of the Palestinian people to rebuild their society after Israel’s brutal attack last year was totally inspiring. Now more than ever we must redouble our efforts to demand an end to the siege on Gaza and for peace and justice for Palestine.
We have launched a national ‘End the Siege on Gaza’ student tour to report back our experiences from Gaza to campuses across Britain. For more information about the tour, including how to organise a meeting on your campus please contact the Palestine Solidarity Campaign at firstname.lastname@example.org.