I stood on the ground floor of a collapsed concrete building and watched the homeowner stoke the fire in a makeshift stove. His wife handed him a piece of cardboard to burn and said something I didn't understand. It wasn't just the fact she spoke in Arabic. It was impossible to understand anything I was seeing in the northern Gaza city of Beit Lahia.
I was in Gaza for six days as part of an international delegation organized by Code Pink, a grassroots peace and social justice organization founded during the buildup to the war in Iraq. Our mission was supported by the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza. We were the fourth and the largest of four teams that entered the Palestinian territory from Egypt during the past month. A fifth delegation is attempting to cross from Israel as I write. Our objective was to draw international attention to the human suffering caused by the Israeli military offensive last winter and by the U.S.-supported blockade of Gaza that is now two years old.
The family I saw still living in the crushed remains of the three-story house was one of many who lost their homes during the 22-day war. Imad Ukal, the north area operations officer, explained that "this destruction occurred during the last fours days of the war, which means there were no militants or resistance" in the Beit Lahia neighborhood that was entirely destroyed.
Asma abu Namous, a 22-year-old journalist, lost her fiancé five days before the cease-fire, and only a week before their wedding day. She told me that Yusuf Lubbard was killed during an F-16 attack on the neighborhood his family lived in. He was one of 500 to 1,000 innocent civilians killed. "Why don't they let us live in peace?" she asked, wiping tears from her eyes.
Abu Namos' plea was a common theme among all the people I encountered. John Ging of Ireland, the Irish director of UNRWA, summed it up in a few words. "The people of Gaza are a good and decent people. They are misrepresented in terms of their international reputation, which is very devastating to them."
Ging called on the international community to end the blockade. "The first thing we need to see" he said "is the crossing points opened up, the de-politicization of assistance, reconstruction, and recovery" he said. "We now need to focus on creating a life for the people here. They don't need to beg for this, it's their legal right."
The impacts of the blockade touch every element of daily life, even more so since the Israeli attacks. Only the bare essentials are allowed in, and then only on the few days a week the border is actually opened. It is intended to isolate Hamas, the Islamist party labeled a terrorist organization by the United States. In January 2006, Hamas won the majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliament during an internationally monitored election. But the U.S., along with Israel, the European Union and a few other countries, refused to recognize the new government.
The Palestinian people see the elections as their right to choose who governs the Palestinian territory. "We grew tired of Fatah," abu Namous said, referring to the party that had ruled the Palestinian Territories since their first election in 1996. "If Hamas turns out to be bad, it should be the Palestinian people who decide and vote for new change."
Sealing the borders has turned democracy into a prison in Gaza. We are punishing innocent people without regard for their internationally recognized human rights. As Ging told us, the government leaders who made these decisions should go to Gaza. They should follow our delegations and witness the consequences of their actions. It is peace the people there want, and opening the borders would give them hope that it may be attainable.
Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.