Update from Gaza from David Schmererhorn

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

By: David Schermerhorn (B-D-S)

It was a very full week in Gaza with several visits each day to farmers, professors, doctors, etc. There was a huge demonstration the day before Abbas went to the UN to seek special State status. Hamas had opposed the move in the past but agreed to support it this time. For the first time there were Fatah flags and pictures of Abbas evident everywhere among the demonstrators – possible harbingers of reconciliation between the two factions.

And everywhere I went the brief war with the Israelis was viewed as a victory by the Palestinians -from apolitical elders to a 7 year old girl who read a poem she had written celebrating the victory. For the first time Palestinian rockets had landed with some regularity and a little more accuracy in Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Score: 6 Israelis dead vs.165 Palestinians plus hundreds wounded. Victory may be in the eye of beholder but for the people of Gaza this was their win.

A few days after I left there was an even larger demonstration marking the 25th Anniversary of Hamas and the return for the first time since childhood of Khaled Meshal, the titular leader of Hamas who survived an Israeli assassination attempt some years ago. In the past he had offered more moderate proposals as the basis of negotiations with Israel than the Gaza leadership proposed. However, now elections are pending for leadership of all the Palestinians. The purported victory by the Gaza Hamas during Operation Pillar of Defense followed by the success at the UN has encouraged a more militant stance by possible contenders in the upcoming political battles. The ever-accommodating positions taken by Abbas with encouragement of Israel and the US have only led to expanding settlements and increasing subjugation of the Palestinians. Ironically the recent rise in Hamas’s fortunes and lowered status of Fatah may encourage reconciliation between the two factions. Israel has already declared that such unification would relegate Fatah to the pariahs of “terrorist states” with dire consequences.

The US continues to defer to Israel in this regard and refuses to hold open talks with Hamas. It even threatens US citizens with criminal charges for dealing directly with the duly elected representatives of Palestinians. In the meantime heads of other states have recently visited Gaza. Ceasefires are negotiated through the Egyptians. Qatar has promised 400 million USD to the people of Gaza. We are becoming marginalized as a credible arbiter in future negotiations over land and refugee issues. The Israelis ignore our appeals for restraint. And we refuse to speak with the most viable segment of the Palestinians. Until we declare a Declaration of Independence from Israel we cannot expect regard or credibility from the Palestinians or from the Arab world.

In the meantime famers are still being shot at a/o killed as they approach the barrier to tend their fields. A group of the Internationals met with a farm family in southern Gaza. A memorial tomb featuring a picture of Vik had a prominent location in their garden.
Their home was a few hundred yards from the barrier fence that had been built by the Israelis. Fields that they had traditionally tended were off limits because of their proximity to the barrier. Under the vague terms of the ceasefire they should be able to tend the land right up to the barrier but reports had been received of attacks on other farmers who had dared approach the barrier. Some of the farmers and internationals approached the fences. IOF Jeeps and other military vehicles quickly scurried to the area opposite us. Some took up firing positions but no shots were fired. Several of the internationals were prepared to approach closer to the fence but were dissuaded by a Palestinian who said that the
Israelis might be reluctant to fire on us for PR reasons, however they were sure
to take revenge of sorts after we were gone. So we stopped about 200 yards off,
waved a salvo of V for Victories and left.

By the time I left Gaza 4 fishing boats had been captured and crews taken briefly to Ashdod. Through Mahfouz Kabariti, President of the Palestine Sailing Federation, I went with Henry Norr on the boat that is being considered by Gaza's Ark for purchase and refitting.

I first met Mahfouz in 2008 when I reached Gaza 3 times by boat. I was never sure of his official title but he was an outstanding facilitator who managed to provide us with fuel, parts and provisions on each trip. I went to his home for lunch during my latest visit. A bomb that hit an adjoining lot at 2:00 am had blown out all the windows. The blast was so great he thought his house had been hit but no one in his family was hurt.

I noticed 5 Laser sailboats stacked atop each other in his front yard. I had last seen them at dockside in Larnaca, Cyprus where we had hoped to load them onto the deck of the Dignity and take them to Gaza. We were unable to take them and for the next 3 years they languished in Larnaca. Only recently arrangements were made to transport them via Egypt to Gaza. Mahfouz now has the essentials for a Gaza sailing school and has begun classes with the aid of two sailing coaches.

The potential Gaza’s Ark ship is a 24-meter trawler, built in Egypt around 2000 with a V-shaped hull. This is the common length for the larger boats since anything longer triggers more stringent crew and equipment regulations. As with most of the fishing boats it could use a new coat of paint. However, the engine and deck equipment ran smoothly throughout my 10-hour trip. The crew consisted of a captain and 3 deck hands, plus a second captain who would take command when the next shift came aboard in the evening while the fish were off-loaded and the ship was refueled back at dockside.

There is discussion about moving the engine aft towards the stern to provide more storage space. The plan is to load the ship with products generated in Gaza and then attempt to sail into international waters to one or more foreign ports where buyers had been previously found. The Israelis could not credibly stop the ship in the name of security since it would be leaving not approaching Gaza.

Realistically the chance of success is not great since the Israelis would be sure to justify its arrest for lack of an export license or some equally specious assertion. In that event it would become a media opportunity to demonstrate again to the world the continuing efforts by Israel to stifle any trade potentials by the Palestinians as part of their war of attrition.

But judging by the overwhelming UN vote to grant special status to the Palestinians and the appalled reaction to new settlement expansions the world has grown tired of Israel's continuing intransigence. Only the US, Israel and 7 other nations voted against the UN resolution (including 4 microstates that can barely be found in the Pacific at high tide). The Israelis have announced a policy of "Mowing the Lawn" every few years to cut down weapon potentials by the Palestinians. Each of these efforts is personified by the US's F-16's that
destroy their homes, schools and children. The growing outrage against US policies does not need to be encouraged by anti-Islamic videos produced by California crazies when our iconic weaponry delivers death and destruction with blatant disregard to the consequences.

As we approached the 6-mile limit an Israeli boat fired a few shots from about 150 yards, blew its horn and went on its way. Perhaps they saw this grumpy grey haired observer and thought better of it.

There is an Israeli natural gas rig located about 8 miles off shore. When we entered Gaza by boat in 2008 we passed less than a mile from it and could see the structure quite clearly. This time we could get no closer than 3 miles. But it was possible to see outlines of the rig. There are now 3 very large cranes rising from the platform not observed previously. Also a smaller platform that I have no recollection seeing on previous trips. Their efforts have clearly increased which may well explain their ban on fishing boats within miles of its location for security reasons. The real likelihood of horizontal drilling to the larger
natural gas deposits in Gaza is another possible factor in their actions.

Under the terms of the current ceasefire fishing boats are allowed to operate 6 miles
from shore as opposed to the 3-mile limit imposed in recent years. However within the past days there were reports that the old 3-mile limit has been reinstituted.

The trawler I was aboard dragged its nets along the sandy bottom for a couple of hours before hauling it in. The catch was primarily small - 6-8" - fish collectively known as bream, some shrimp, an occasional small octopus, and a variety of unidentified miscellaneous. In 2008 there were always some bigger fish but more significantly the amount taken with each haul was 5 to 10 times larger. Each take now was greeted more with resignation than jubilation. Clearly the fishery has collapsed. The 20-mile limit provided by the Oslo Agreement must be restored to remedy the situation. Which will take place some time after the last settlement has been removed.

Typical of Palestinian hospitality the crew shared shrimp and a delicious 16” mystery fish that had been cooked on the engine’s exhaust pipe. It would be hard to find a better meal at sea.

The following day I went with Theresa McDermott to see the ruins of the Al Jazeera Club. Dr. Khamis Elessi, head of the Rehab Center at Elwafa Medical Hospital, is on the board of Al Jazeera. I have stayed in touch since meeting him in 2008. The Club is dedicated to working with Disabled Athletes many of whom train to compete in Paralympian events. There are roughly 150 members. The Club had been located on the second floor of a building housing a bank that was the target of a bombing attack.

The Club was totally obliterated. Shards of bicycles, weight machines, treadmills were all that were left. A hole through the floor revealed where the bank had once been located.

Dr. Khamis took us to a nearby soccer field used by the Club. He spoke of fund raising to build a new location for the Club just beyond the field. That way in-door and out-door activities would be located side by side. And there would be no rent. Talk of turning lemons into lemonade…

I suggested he contact Mahfouz, whom he did not know, about the possibility of using the Lasers as part of their activities. I later confirmed with Mahfouz that with minor adjustments the Lasers could be fitted for amputees or those with other disabilities. The two  planned to speak with each other about the possibilities.

After driving 5 hours from Cairo to the border at Rafah the Egyptians would not let us into Gaza. Our "tour Leader" was a 40-year-old Palestinian born in Egypt and currently living in London. She had lost 22 relatives to Israeli attacks over the years and wanted to make a brief return visit.

When the Egyptians rebuffed us after a seven-hour wait at the border she offered to organize a tunnel crossing for those interested. 8 of us agreed immediately. A German from Munich declined saying he had to discuss with his wife first. In any case we switched
cars a couple of times, turned off cell phones and entered a barely hidden tunnel entrance for the crossing. The tunnels are about 2.5 feet wide. I could generally stand up, though banged my head a few times when I should have ducked. Lighting was adequate. Footing pretty good. The walls were braced with various building materials. We were through in 10 to 15 minutes and were plopped into cars that drove quickly away from the entrance.

On my return I went with only one other person. About half way through we were confronted by 3 20-year olds who demanded money. I had already paid the organizer and just pushed past them in my best Leo fashion. When we had almost reached the end our guide called for us to stop and stay close to the wall. A woman in her late 20's hurried past us on the way to Gaza carrying a small baby.

The drive back to Cairo was the white-knuckle event of the trip. I am convinced our driver (20ish) had never been given the car keys before and decided to make up for lost time. It was only when flocks of sheep or military roadblocks loomed out of the night that we dropped below 150 kilometers (You do the mph math but it was FAAST). I entered some sort of Zen Zone, found my place in the Universe and opened my eyes again at the appropriately named Lotus Hotel in Cairo.

Judging from the news I did well to spend my last Cairo night at the airport. I did stay for a few hours in Tahrir Square for the Matinee but things really picked up that night at the Presidential Palace that is on the way to the airport. Thousands of anti-Marsi protesters surrounded the Palace. Several died.

On the evening of my return to Seattle I joined a group of Palestinian supporters, including a previous shipmate, Kit Kittredge, caroling near Westlake Center. Following the familiar music of Ode To Joy or We Wish You A Merry Christmas, etc. we sang revised verses urging the listeners to Boycott Israeli Products or decry the policies of Apartheid. Again and again our transient audience applauded our message. It was an encouraging response. The tide of opinion is slowly turning but must continually be encouraged.


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