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A Day In Gaza

By Viva Palestina Delegation

24 July , 2009

The Viva Palestina delegation of solidarity activists from the U.S. was allowed to enter Gaza on July 15 with truckloads of desperately needed humanitarian supplies--but under the condition that the convoy leave again within 24 hours.

The delegation, led by British Member of Parliament and antiwar activist George Galloway, met one bureaucratic obstacle after another from Egyptian authorities. After negotiating an agreement with the government, the convoy finally left for the Rafah border crossing after several days, and with some of its supplies barred from getting through.

A number of contributors were part of the Viva Palestina delegation. This is the first half of a diary of the 24 hours in Gaza by Tom Arabia, Karen Burke, Ream Kidane, Brian Lenzo, Khury Peterson-Smith, Eric Ruder and Martin Smith. The diary continues with "The stories of life under siege."

THE WHOLE world expects callous disregard for Palestinian life from Israel. But as one of the world's largest and most powerful Arab countries, Egypt is supposed to be sympathetic to the people of Palestine.

For years now, however, the deference of the Egyptian regime to the U.S. and Israeli blockade of Gaza has been essential in keeping the residents of Gaza under lock and key. If Egypt simply allowed people and goods to flow through its border with Gaza, the siege would be over.

But the Egyptian government is susceptible--if barely--to public pressure because of the sympathies of its own citizens and the rest of the Middle East with the Palestinians. After days of delays and stonewalling, Egyptian officials finally allowed our Viva Palestina convoy to pass into Gaza at the Rafah border crossing.

But only grudgingly. We were barred from taking with us 47 trucks, vans and cars purchased at the request of hospitals and other social service organizations in Gaza. And instead of staying for the three days in Gaza that we had planned, Egypt limited us to a mere 24 hours. Those who didn't leave with the rest of the convoy within the 24-hour period were threatened with being stuck in Gaza--like its residents--until the next general border opening, which could be weeks or months in the future.

But we did have 24 hours, and we made the most of them.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 15, 4 p.m.

From Brian: As our bus waited outside the gates of the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, a crowd began to gather around our bus. Around 50 people were camped out on the side of the road, some holding their infant children. We hung our Palestinian flags out the windows and chanted, "Long Live Palestine!"

As people shouted at us, mostly in Arabic, we learned a bit about their purpose at this crossing. One woman holding her baby boy and surrounded by two other children shouted, "I have been here for 13 days, please let me in with you." Another man held his American passport, bags in hand, begging us to let him on the bus.

A group of protesters blocked our path through the border gate, holding a big yellow banner with "End the Siege," written in English and Arabic. People outside and on our bus wept. Many of these people have been trying to get through the border for months, to see their families or to deliver aid.

After navigating through the gate, we entered Egyptian customs, which would turn out to be a six-hour ordeal--a delay just long enough to push our entrance into Gaza out of the daylight hours when we would get the most media coverage.

Immediately, we were confronted with a stark fact of life for Palestinians traveling in and out of Gaza. Along the northern wall of the waiting area, a middle-aged man sat slumped over in a light blue hospital gown. An IV dangled from his arm, the bag lying on the floor between his legs.

A couple of us approached him to offer help and find out what he was doing there. This man had just been released from a hospital in Cairo after kidney surgery--a procedure ruled necessary by Egyptian authorities, so he was allowed out of Gaza to have the procedure with his son at his side.

However, the Egyptian border police refused entry for his son, and so the man limped in sandals and a hospital gown, noticeably disoriented, into customs, where he now sat, unattended to, waiting for entry back into Gaza. Our first delivery of medical aid to the people of Gaza was one brand new wheelchair to a man recovering from surgery, alone, in an Egyptian customs waiting room.

After the fuss, of course, the man was promptly given a wheelchair by customs officials and spirited across the border and out of sight.

Back when our bus pulled through a second gate (the first was blocked by protesters), riot police forced people away from our bus, shoving a young woman and her child. As the scene unfolded, Raja, a Palestinian man from our delegation, cried out, "Oh Gaza! Oh Gaza!" as he wept.

For most of the trip, it was better that we did not weep for Gaza--that we did not show our sadness. The people of Gaza don't need our pity. There is plenty of that to go around. We came to bring aid--but more importantly, our presence was proof that the siege, one of the most brutal blockade-and-sanction regimes in modern history, can be broken. We came to show that Americans care about Palestinians, and that when President Barack Obama calls conditions in Gaza "intolerable," some Americans refuse to tolerate them, even if Mr. Obama does.

After weeping alongside Raja for those short moments on the bus, I focused on the people of Gaza--on their stories and their lives. I opened my heart to them for the paltry 24 hours we were allowed by Egyptian authorities. But when I asked about the January assault, and saw the anguish in their eyes, the intensity of their memories, I thought to myself, "Oh Gaza! Oh Gaza!"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 15, 9 p.m.

From Eric: "Twenty-four hours is not enough time," Insharah Ashour told me as we waited in one of several lines on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing. She was returning to Gaza for the first time in 10 years, and her heart was heavy with the fact that she would have to leave after 24 hours.

"We will break the siege," she said, "but people came from a long way to see their families. Next time, I want to break the siege forever. But if not forever, we can at least raise their spirits. I haven't seen my family for 10 years. I was born and raised in Gaza. Now my mother is very old, and I want to see her before she leaves. I have tried so many times, bought a ticket and couldn't get through."

Insharah is one of many Palestinians on the Viva Palestina convoy whose roots are deep in this land crisscrossed by history, with towns that were settings for Biblical stories and have ever since been ruled over by a succession of empires. The Roman, the Ottoman, the British and the American empires have all left their marks here, some more brutally than others.

The Israeli occupation of Gaza began in 1967 after the Six Day War, and though the U.S. was already sympathetic to Israel's colonization of Palestine, this war demonstrated for U.S. policymakers both the strength of the Israeli military machine and the usefuleness of having a powerful client willing and able to challenge the rising tide of Arab nationalism. After 1967, the U.S. dramatically increased its financial, military and diplomatic support for Israel, cementing what came to be known in foreign policy circles as the "special relationship."

Insharah remembers the protests she participated in during this time:

In 1968, one year after the occupation of Gaza began, I was a high school student, and we protested the occupation--all the curfews, the blockades, the daily frustrations. So we planned a demonstration, but the Israeli soldiers locked the school so no one could get out. Then they beat us with their batons. Some girls had broken bones. I was lucky because I was only bruised and couldn't move for a week. When my mom asked me what was wrong, I told her I was just tired.

I hid this from my mom because she thought that girls are not supposed to be wild and protest. I told her years later the real reason I was hurt. And I think she was proud. I was born in 1951 in a refugee camp. So I'm going to tell the kids who live in tents now that this happened before, that it is happening again, and that they should remain strong.

We want our freedom. We want our right to return from the camps and villages where we ended up after our displacement. We don't live in Palestine, but Palestine lives in us.

Throughout the trip, Insharah was nearly inseparable from Widad, another Palestinian woman of her generation. Today, they both live in Houston, and they carry with them, in their quiet demeanor and steadfast determination, the history of their people, with their pain and their hope etched on their faces.

The day we landed in Cairo with the Viva Palestina convoy, Widad explained to me that her husband was 2 years old in 1948 when the men went off to defend their homes and the women and children fled to Jordan. It took 12 years of searching for her husband's father to find their family, but he eventually did.

Ten years after that, Widad met her future husband while both were active in the Palestinian resistance based in Jordan. But Jordan's rulers worried that a people fighting for liberation might inspire Jordan's poor and downtrodden to fight back as well. So in 1970, during what came to be known as Black September, King Hussein forced the leadership of the Palestinian national movement to flee Jordan for Lebanon. Thousands of Palestinian men, women and children were killed, leaving another chapter in the long story of Palestinian dispossession.

Mahmoud Darwish, regarded as Palestine's national poet and one of the Arab world's greatest writers, wrote a beautiful book of prose poems called Memory for Forgetfulness, which takes as its subject the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 1982. But the themes he touches on remain as relevant as ever for Palestinians, from Israel's 1948 war of ethnic cleansing that drove more than 800,000 Palestinians from their homes, to Jordan in 1970 to Egypt today.

Why then should those whom the waves of forgetfulness have cast upon the shores of Beirut be expected to go against nature? Why should so much amnesia be expected of them? And who can construct for them a new memory with no content other than the broken shadow of a distant life in a shack made of sheet metal?

Is there enough forgetfulness for them to forget?

And who is going to help them forget in the midst of this anguish, which never stops reminding them of their alienation from place and society? Who will accept them as citizens? Who will protect them against the whips of discrimination and pursuit: "You don't belong here!"

They present for inspection an identity, which, shown at borders, sounds an alarm so that contagious diseases may be kept in check, and at the same time, they note how expertly this very identity is used to uplift Arab nationalist spirit...

Why then do they level against him countless accusations: making trouble, violating the rules of hospitality, creating problems and spreading the contagion of arms? When he holds his peace, his soul is taken out to the stray dogs; and when he moves toward the homeland, his body is dragged out to the dogs.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 15, 10:30 p.m.

From Eric: I stayed back with a dozen Viva Palestina volunteers to make sure that none of our medical aid, personal belongings or other stragglers got left behind at the border crossing.

While we waited in the warm night for a bus to shuttle us across the no-man's land between Egypt and Gaza, we shared a bag of cookies that someone had left behind--and the expectation that we were finally going to play some small but important role in breaking the siege of Gaza started to make everyone giddy.

The trip brought together an inspiring group of people--Arabs, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Latinos, Blacks, whites, antiwar veterans of the U.S. military, socialists, Democrats and even some Republicans.

Some grew up knowing about the injustices committed against Palestinians, some found out about the issues in recent weeks, and others have come to have a deep commitment to the cause of Palestine because of its connection to a string of injustices that shape the world we live in.

Mutulu Olugbala, also known as M1 and one half of the radical rap duo Dead Prez, is one of these people. As we sat on the curb waiting for the bus to take us to the revelry of people being reunited with their families, Mutulu explained how he ended up on the Viva Palestina convoy:

I've been lucky enough to become involved in a movement that faces the world head on. I try to look at the world from the political standpoint that the people have nothing to lose but their chains. Imperialism, which is headed by a ruling class all over the world, has its boot on this particular place. I recognize this struggle as part of the African people's liberation struggle.

Growing up as a young African, oppression in the name of poverty or all kinds of violence is all around. And many of us ask why? I started to find an answer to these questions in the streets of Tallahassee. And since then, I've met veterans of the civil rights struggle, the Black Power movement and many others.

The reality is that in order to change our world, we have to amass power by shifting the relationship to the resources in the world from the people who have it now to the people who should own.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 7 a.m.

From Tom: Entering Gaza, its pain, the fragility of its smuggled subsistence, its broken heart but unbroken spirit, is part of every waking moment. So even at breakfast, a delicious meal among friends, the conversation set the stage for what was to come.

A few others and I sat with the director of an orphanage. There have been well over 100,000 children orphaned since 1967 in Gaza alone, thousands from Israel's onslaught at the beginning of the year. And this doesn't count the children of the 11,000 Palestinians indefinitely imprisoned.

But even just eating in silence, we can't help but remember that even these modest provisions had to be brought into the country illegally through tunnels, or that Israel tightens the tourniquet of its siege just before the critical point of mass starvation.

Imagine visiting the world's largest open-air prison--and its inmates are doing everything they can to accommodate you.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 9 a.m.

From Tom: The Viva Palestina delegates were split into three buses, and the first part of our bus tour was Gaza City. It's an otherwise normal-looking city, but peppered with bullet and tank shell holes, the crumbling remains of buildings and the poisonous residue of white phosphorus and depleted uranium.

In the administrative district, hundreds of people died during Israel's attack, and many key buildings were destroyed. The presidential headquarters was hit with dozens of missiles from Israeli warplanes, with 62 people killed there alone. Another body was found just last week. Throughout Gaza, hundreds--perhaps thousands--of families have yet to find the remains of their loved ones buried in the rubble.

Across the street is what was once a police station, beside a factory--both have been reduced to mangled piles of rubble. Just behind these are the broken skeletons of residential buildings, pummeled by missiles and shells. And beyond those is the former building for Palestine television--still standing, but all its windows shattered, riddled with bullet holes.

Further along is another pile of rubble--this time, the former Ministry of Justice. Down the street is the Palestinian National Authority's Ministry of Education, arbitrarily left unscathed. Between them is a demolished complex of buildings that were once the Ministries of Interior, National Security, Finance and Social Affairs. Pieces of the buildings dangle precariously by threads of steel rebar.

Here, dozens more people were killed in the Israeli onslaught. The victims knew of the danger of being in these buildings, but they went to work anyway to keep the city running as much as possible amid the bloodshed and destruction.

We drove by the former headquarters of the Ministry of Detainees, which helps families whose loved ones have been captured and jailed by Israel. It's not just that almost 12,000 are currently behind bars, held in the most wretched of conditions, but the revolving door of prisoners allows Israel to maintain a veneer of "generosity" by releasing inmates to much press attention--even as the same numbers or more are detained.

I don't believe that there's any other country with a Ministry of Detainees. Demolished by the Israeli attack, the Ministry of Detainees headquarters has been moved to what was an adjunct facility.

Further along was another building damaged by Israeli missiles and shells. When we pulled up, it became clear from the now crooked red crescents that it was Al Quds Hospital, once one of Gaza City's foremost medical facilities. Several floors were blown out by mortar fire. There are plans for reconstruction, but precious little building materials to accomplish this.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 10 a.m.

From Ream: The Al Amal Institute for Orphans is situated in the heart of Gaza City, next to the Ministry of Health.

It was first established in 1949 by a group of Palestinian business owners to house children orphaned by the war to found Israel, when more than 800,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes by Israeli forces and terrorist gangs. Palestinians call this the Nakba (the catastrophe), and while it metaphorically created generations of orphans from towns that were disappeared from the map and given new Hebrew names, Al Amal took in the literal orphans of the fighting.

Orphans hold a special place in the Islamic faith. The Prophet Muhammad was an orphan, according to the Koran, and some of its earliest verses are about his childhood. A majority of Palestinians are Muslim, so the orphanage network in Gaza is a crucial part of the social safety net for many generations ravaged by war and conflict.

Al Amal currently takes care of about 100 to 170 orphans aged 5 to 10. Throughout Gaza, there are 53,000 orphans, plus an additional 2,200 newly orphaned children because of the Israeli offensive. The population of Gaza is 1.5 million people, and half are under the age of 15. That means one out of every 13 children in Gaza is an orphan.

Al Amal didn't have to wait until the offensive was over to feel the effects of the onslaught. On December 31, in the midst of Israel's assault, one of the institute's most beloved children, Mohammed El Awadi, was coming back from school after taking his final exams when he was hit by an Israeli bullet. He died shortly thereafter.

Mustafa, one of the staff at Al Amal (names of the institute's staff were changed), said he thought the orphanage might be safe from direct attack because it was located near three government ministries. However, after two of those ministries were hit by Israeli bombs and rockets, it was clear that the children had to be moved.

Mustafa explained the plan: Send each orphan to a respective host family, dispersing them throughout the community. The plan worked. Although many homes where the orphans were sent were attacked, there were no other casualties after Mohammed.

We continued speaking with another Al Amal staff member, Omar, about the uncertainty of life in Gaza:

They say that we Palestinians are spreading terror, but you [Viva Palestina delegates] can go most anywhere in Gaza for 24 hours, and you will have no problems. It's safe. But for the past few years, we sleep with the car door open, with the motorcycle on, with our hearts open because the Israeli bombs can come in the night at any time.

Mustafa explains that Israel's siege of Gaza and its constant bombardment have targeted not just specific individuals or political parties, but everyone. As a result, he says:

We have no other choice but to fight. Our struggle did not end with the last war, and it did not start with the election of Hamas, it did not start with the PA peacefully taking over Gaza. It began in 1948.

It can't be put in any other way. We're put in a situation where we can't defend ourselves. But we are every day becoming stronger. If we build our strength with justice and without taking the rights of anyone else, we will make it.

In our last few moments at Al Amal, Omar expressed his gratitude for the Viva Palestina convoy and invited us to stay longer next time. He then asked us to deliver this message to the American people: "We love Americans, we like Americans, we respect Americans. But your taxes--the American people's--give us bombs."

July 16, 10:30 a.m.

From Eric: Haidar and I finished a traditional Palestinian breakfast of bread infused with olive oil and thyme. Then we drove around Remal, the administrative center of Gaza, where the concentration of ministry and legislative buildings, universities and Al Shifa Hospital took many direct hits in December and January. This is also the neighborhood of the Palestinian bourgeoisie that had lived in Tunisia, and returned to Palestine after the 1993 Oslo Accords.

I knew Haidar through many phone calls to Palestine, but this is the first time we met face to face. During the Israeli onslaught in December and January, Haidar continued to do interviews with, despite the stress of the 24-hour-a-day military operations--helping open a window on what conditions in Gaza really were like. He is also a leading Palestinian voice in the movement calling for a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel.

In Remal, Haidar surveyed the damage and worried that the opportunity for the Palestinian struggle to capitalize on an international outrage at Israel's war may be slipping away:

Armed struggle is just one pillar of the struggle. But what about mass mobilization? What about international solidarity? Honestly, Gaza 2009 is our South African moment.

The problem is that we do not have a visionary leadership. In response to my latest article about Hamas, they called me to discuss it. They weren't at all happy with what I had to say. But it must be said, and I have to say it--I talked for about a half an hour with a senior adviser.

We can't just accept the Hamas-Fatah dichotomy. We've been arguing for an alternative, for a third way.

Mohammed, a former student of Haidar's at Al-Aqsa University and a member of the steering committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), got into the car, and we continued with our tour of destruction. Mohammed picked up the explanation of what Haidar meant by a "third way":

After finishing my studies, I began working with some undergraduate students to establish a campaign against occupation and colonization in Gaza, and the rest of Palestine.

We're a student extension of the Palestinian academic and cultural boycott of Israel. We're organizing a boycott of Israeli institutions that are complicit in the occupation of Palestine. We call on freedom-loving people, like you and others in the West, to boycott, sanction and divest from all companies that support and collaborate with Israel directly or indirectly.

Our struggle is universal and attempts to reach out to all people internationally. All the various student organizations and parties have signed on to this campaign. This is a global movement that has been gathering momentum since the Israeli offensive of 2009. Our struggle and our tactics are nonviolent. Hundreds or even thousands here in Gaza are part of our campaign.

We're also working to establish links with students all over the world, and we invite them to come to Gaza as part of breaking the siege and protesting the collective punishment, illegal under international law, that Israel has imposed on us. This is a result of the democratic election in 2006 won by Hamas. We are being punished for holding an election that did not produce a result Israel and the U.S. approved of. But this punishment does not target just one party, but all the people, the democratic process and the human rights of all of Gaza's residents.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 11 a.m.

From Tom: Despite the destruction I saw in Gaza City, nothing could have prepared me for what I was to see in Jabaliya, a refugee camp to the north.

Here, Gaza was hit the hardest in an act of genocide that can be seen with plain eyes. In some areas, everything is leveled. Everything. Much of what had been crushed was near the so-called "buffer zone" by the northern border. This "buffer" is now like a large mass grave.

The destruction was total. For kilometer after kilometer, every structure is either a crumbling shell, a skeleton or a pile of rubble. Farms were shelled and overrun by tanks. Hundreds if not thousands of cattle were crushed--or actually killed, one by one, by Israeli snipers. A soldier's graveyard beside a mosque in the distance was overturned by Israeli tanks. Not even the already dead could be left alone.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 11 a.m.

From Brian: Everyday life in Gaza City is a twisted amalgamation of normalcy and extreme abnormality. Walking down the street in the late morning is like watching the un-filmed time in between scenes of a Hollywood action film--the monotonous, mundane activity that takes place between climactic encounters.

I made contact with a man named Mohammed, who is the executive manager of a prominent NGO in Gaza. Mohammed agreed to take me around Gaza City for a couple hours to take in as much as I could during my brief visit.

Downtown Gaza City looked much like any other city in the Middle East. Shops were open, cars navigated around the city, people sat in sidewalk cafes, smoking shisha and drinking fruit juice.

But the scene is different in one major way. As I looked at a beautiful mahogany desk in a high-end furniture store window, I glanced at the second-story apartment windows and saw a few dozen bullet holes. The building across the street had a cellular phone kiosk and a small bodega, but on the fourth floor, you could see straight through to the buildings behind it due to a rocket strike, presumably from an Israeli Apache helicopter strike, given the angle of the hole and damage.

Mohammed further filled in this bizarre picture. He estimated that due to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, about 95 percent of the goods in the stores around me, including the mahogany desk, were smuggled into Gaza through the network of underground tunnels along the southern border with Egypt. The cars driving around all run on gasoline smuggled through the tunnels. Mohammed knew of a man who married an Egyptian woman and was forced to smuggle her in through the tunnels, too.

This is life in Gaza--a land of extreme contrasts. A place where children play tag in a giant crater that used to be the road's median. A place where fishermen cast their nets in water filled with raw sewage--for them, scanning the horizon for Israeli gunships that regularly fire on them is as everyday as keeping an eye out on storms or high winds.

A place where young boys play soccer on a lush green pitch next to a pile of rubble and twisted metal that used to be an athletic club, but was bombed by the Israelis in January. A place where you can't fill in a pothole, let alone repair a building, since Israel and Egypt ban the transport of concrete into Gaza (the last concrete factory in Gaza was bombed by the Israelis earlier this year).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:10 p.m.

From Tom: On one particular patch of road, many residences were crushed. Each of the houses held four to five families, with four to 12 members. One larger residence in particular was destroyed because it allegedly hid a tunnel. It belonged to ordinary people. There was no such tunnel. In that vicinity alone, 60 children were slain.

Several homes for the elderly were bombed and leveled. Most of the dozens were killed. Many were maimed and soon after perished, or they remain slowly awaiting their fate in a painful and complicated terminal condition.

The rest, in whatever condition, now live in ad hoc shanty villages with other survivors of all ages. These are the only structures with life. The tent villages spread through the land are crowded with people who but months ago lived in solid homes, in a bustling town. Now they live under plastic or cotton sheets, in shacks made of tin, hay or cinderblock. But as we pass, some children nonetheless play, waving and smiling. How is it possible?

Everything ordinary or necessary to the life of a contemporary society was targeted and destroyed--farms; factories for the production or processing of everything from electricity and sewage, to food and clothing, to office and auto supplies; state, government and municipal buildings; places of worship; hospitals; high schools; colleges; roads; residences; research facilities...

The damage is estimated at $2 billion, but it will take many more billions to reconstruct and get Gaza running in anything like a normal way.

Israel's excuse was self-defense--that these places housed terrorists and weapons. But whole villages and towns? So many government buildings? Schools? Homes for families and elderly? Any kind of shop or factory you can imagine? Graveyards? Fields and orchards? Cattle?

Every action Israel takes reveals a strategy of breaking Gaza's infrastructure and society apart, and condemning its people to hell on Earth, so that their land and their memory may be replaced.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:15 p.m.

From Eric: As we drove along, Haidar and Nasser suddenly burst out laughing. We had just passed several donkey carts, and Nasser told Haidar to ask me if we had as many donkey carts in the U.S. I replied that Gaza definitely had more donkey carts per capita than the U.S. "At least we have excelled in something," said Haidar with a hearty laugh.

The light moment melted away as we turned the next corner. The rubble stretched as far as the eye could see. The destruction was nearly total. "A lot of people died here," explained Haidar.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:30 p.m.

From Khury: A few of us from the convoy who are students went to Gaza City's Islamic University to meet with a group of students.

The campus, like so much of Gaza, is gorgeous. With palm trees everywhere, green athletic fields and charming, modern buildings, I felt like I was at a university in California--until I saw the first of many shells of buildings surrounded by rubble.

The campus is dotted with destroyed facilities, reminders of the winter's bombing. IU is the biggest university in the Gaza Strip, with 20,000 students. Israel destroyed 74 of IU's laboratories during the bombing, which came at the end of fall semester and at the beginning of the spring one.

We met with a couple of administrators from the university and eight students. The students graciously toured us around their campus, answering our questions and telling us about their lives. Their requests from us were simple and humbling. "Please tell them," one of the women said, "that we're not terrorists. We have ambitions like any other students in the world. We went to university so we can make things better for ourselves and our people. All we want is a chance."

Our hope is to build academic relationships between our universities in the U.S., and IU and others in Palestine. This can cut against the isolation imposed on Gazans through the siege. Speaking with the students reminded me of how significant solidarity is to these people who Israel is working to cut off from the world. As one student said, "We are strong persons, and we're still here, but we need you to stand up with us."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 12:45 p.m.

From Martin: We drove through the northern part of Gaza in the area of Jabaliya where the worst destruction was evident. Whereas other parts of Gaza had buildings that were partially wrecked, with some remnants of buildings still standing among the debris, this entire area of Gaza was almost completely leveled into piles of rubble.

I spoke with many of the translators who were volunteers and assisted us on our tour. I asked Mohamad Aldada, who lives in Jabaliya, what he wanted Americans to know. He replied:

I hope that peace will spread among our country in order that we may live as the whole people among the world and have our rights. I had 17 neighbors killed during the war, including 10 who were in one house, and they were mostly women and children. During the bombing, we were scared, and now we have so many children suffering from psychological pains. Whenever they hear a loud noise, they cry out, "A bomb! A bomb!" and start crying.

We had so many martyrs that we buried. When there was a martyr, the sheik informed the neighborhood by chanting from the mosque, and we then prepared a public burial. From everywhere, Israel was so brutal and savage. We had funerals every day, so many funerals. It was like hell. Darkness was all around, even during the day. The streets were empty, and no one could work. The bombs surrounded us.

Mohamad then went on to explain that in northern Jabaliya at Beit Lahia, near where he lived, "The people now practice their daily life, because there's nothing to be afraid of from the U.S.-made bombs, tanks, F-16s and helicopters any longer. They aren't afraid because so many of their family members were killed. They feel like they have nothing left to fear."

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July 16, 1 p.m.

From Eric: Haidar took me to the home of a man killed by Israeli soldiers in January. He worked for the UN Relief Works Agency.

There is an eerie quality to walking into this building. I remember vividly when Haidar first told me this story over the phone during one of our interviews in the midst of the massacre. Today, it becomes even more haunting as Haidar describes the man as the same age as me when he was killed.

The soldiers entered the house because they thought it would afford them a useful vantage point to control the surrounding area. They entered by punching a hole in the wall in the rear of the house. A crude patch fashioned from whatever materials could be scrounged up now serves as a daily visual reminder of what happened.

Then the soldiers punctured the walls in the front of the house in a few places to set up sniper nests.

The father of the man killed by the soldiers lives next door to the family's apartment, and as Haidar and I sat in the room adjacent to the one where the body sat for 12 days, he arrived, offered us tea and proceeded to recount the story of his son's assassination, in all its full and terrible detail:

On the second of January, they occupied the whole area of the Abed Rabbo farm refugee camp and occupied this house on the fifth of January. It was terrifying.

Two of my sons and their families were upstairs when the soldiers entered, and ordered everyone including the children to raise their hands. They took my sons downstairs while their wives and children were kept in one room, with two soldiers at the door for the next three hours. They spent several hours searching the seven apartments.

They took my son upstairs to the third floor and shot him dead--one shot at point-blank range. They told my other son that his brother was injured, and said he should go outside and shout for an ambulance, and hope that one hears him. But they were snipers on the roof of the mosque across the street that shot at him, blowing the fingers off one of his hands.

The soldiers told him to remove his clothes, and when they saw he had no explosives, they ordered him to return to the apartment. With his hand bleeding, two soldiers took him upstairs to the third floor. After three days, Israeli soldiers called on everyone in this and surrounding buildings to come outside. But no one was allowed into the room where my son had been killed.

The body sat in the family's apartment, with Israeli soldiers letting it rot as they sniped at civilians on the street outside. The women and children were held upstairs until they managed to escape three days later. Ambulances that were called to pick up the body were turned back by sniper fire. Twelve days later, the body was finally picked up and laid to rest. The man is survived by his wife and eight children.

This father's story of Israeli terror continued. "A third son of mine was used as a human shield by Israeli soldiers," he said. "Whenever they thought they might be shot at, they held my son in front of them and rested the barrel of their guns on his shoulder. The soldiers used my son in such a way for three days."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 1 p.m.

From Martin: We saw graffiti--saying things like, "Steadfast, we will not give up despite the siege," on almost every small storefront and apartment dwelling.

Gaza graffiti comes in four kinds. One kind is for electioneering and political campaigns. Another category of graffiti marks where a particular political faction has control, such as one that asserted, "Hamas resisted for the protection of the city." We also saw "Al-Aqsa Brigade" and "Freedom Fighters Brigade." A third type of graffiti marked where a martyr had given their life. We saw an etching that announced, "Here is the mother of a hero."

The final category is political and social messages. We were moved by the power and will of Gazans to endure and struggle, as captured in these art forms of grassroots resistance, with slogans like: "Unity is a bounty and a blessing to the resistance"; "The strength of our community is the hallmark of our civilization"; "Jerusalem will always be the capital of Palestine"; "Resistance and struggle is the way to victory"; "Our future is bright"; "With patriotism and unity, we will move forward"; "Make your voice heard"; and "A commitment to martyrs, refugees and our Jerusalem."

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July 16, 2 p.m.

From Tom: The convoy regrouped at Al Shifa Hospital for a much-needed moment of triumph and celebration. For the first half of the day, we witnessed story after story of Israeli state terror.

But now we could rejoice. It was to Al Shifa that we would deliver the bulk of the over $200,000 in medical aid we were able to bring through the border crossing at Rafah. At a big press conference, New York City Councilman Charles Barron was finally able to say to a resounding ovation, "After much duress, we've broken the siege. Mission accomplished!"

After this brief moment at Al Shifa, however, we were off to the Ministry of Detainees. Walking in to a packed room, the ceiling and ventilation system broken by hits from Israeli mortars, we would hear stories of families of detainees and the slain. Before our visit was over, all of us were in tears.

The imprisonment of Palestinians is one of the most dehumanizing of Israel's long-term methods for oppression. Every Palestinian family has been affected by this brutal policy. Israel has imprisoned over 750,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza since 1967--over 40 percent of the male population of the Occupied Territories.

Only 5,419--fewer than half of the prisoners currently in detention--were put on trial and convicted of any offense. Compare this to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the single Israeli political prisoner now held by Hamas, who was riding a tank on Palestinian land when captured.

Families rarely if ever are allowed to visit their loved ones in Israeli jails. But here, we had the honor of hearing some of them speak.

"Welcome to Gaza," said one. "This is land that is for all prisoners, for all free people, for every single human being. All of Israel is said to suffer so much from one prisoner. What about us? More than 11,000 of us are in jails. This child whose hand I'm holding has never seen his father, but we are people of peace."

A little later, I had the chance to speak with a woman from the Samouni family. On January 5, at least 70 people in the Zeitoun district of Gaza were massacred by the Israeli military--and the Samouni family alone suffered the loss of 48 family members, including over a dozen children. Many died from injuries they suffered, but went untreated, because medics and humanitarian workers were unable to enter the area because of heavy bombardment.

Alia told me what happened:

We were all together in one house. The Israelis came and knocked on the door. Everyone in the house left, our family with others from the neighbors, about 120 members. [Some were let go and] put together in the Samuli house. [The rest] were surrounded and held outside all day with no shade, no food and no water. Some tried to go back inside to bring out some wood and food to make.

Then the Israelis shot those outside, and shot into the home. Many children died, and some of my own. The father of a family of 14 died. My husband killed, cousin killed, brother killed.

We heard testimony from some of the young Samouni daughters. The first was no more than 15 years old:

After trapping us in our home, they bombed us four times. After the first rocket, my father and cousin were injured. After the next three, all of us had been harmed. I looked up and saw my cousins' head in her hands. Her head was severed off and lying in her lap. At the same time, my father lost the left side of his head. My brother and two of my uncles were also killed.

Pointing to two young women standing next to her, she said:

She lost her mother and her uncle. And this is my cousin, and she too lost six members of her family. We want to know why the Israelis commit such horrible aggression against us, and with weapons that are forbidden internationally.

The next child was even younger, and took the microphone to exclaim:

What was our fault? What was our fault that we had this violence committed against us? We were just civilians sitting in our homes peacefully, and they killed us, killed all of our family.

I just want to say one thing. I will never forgive them. This is our principle: never to forgive, never to forget. We are still here in our land. We need one time, only one time, to resist, to fight the Israelis for Gaza.

The 10-year-old spoke next:

What is my fault? They killed my parents, but what did I do to them? My life was beautiful and peaceful. But after what they did, I will never ever feel that passion again, to just seek a hug from my parents. And I will never forgive them, because they took the most precious thing in my life.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 4 p.m.

From Eric: Haidar has driven me the entire length of Gaza, beginning in Gaza City heading north toward the border, and then south along the coast all the way back to Rafah, where later, I had to cross back to Egypt. As we saw the wall that Egypt has constructed to contain the residents of Gaza in their prison colony, we began discussing how it could be that the massacre didn't bring an end to this intolerable state of affairs.

Haidar explains:

We consider it a significant victory that Israel's December-January offensive ended without Israel being able to accomplish any of its strategic objectives. In three weeks of pounding, they couldn't end the rocket launches, they couldn't force Hamas to surrender, and they couldn't break the will of the people of Gaza.

We needed to build on this victory, and the slogan that we raised is that we will no longer accept the siege they had imposed on us. But as soon as the offensive was over, the resistance leadership ran off to Egypt for national unity negotiations. And where are we now? We are back to the pre-massacre siege.

We need to challenge this. We need to tear down the wall separating Gaza from Egypt. We need to tear down the PA, which does nothing but sustain the fiction that we have something approaching a viable Palestinian state.

In 2007, the wall came down. This was the second time. The first time was shortly after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005. In 2007, Hamas was under intense pressure. There was no petrol, no milk, no medicine. The Egyptians tried, but couldn't stop it. Masses of people flooded across the border. We woke up in the morning, heard on the radio there was a huge explosion that opened up a hole in the wall, and we all headed for the border. Some 750,000 flooded to Al Arish to get supplies.

Hamas' popularity remains about the same as it was when they were elected in January 2006. If the siege has done anything, it has radicalized people. That's what I think. And I include myself in that.

But of course, radicalization doesn't necessarily mean support for Hamas. I have become more secular, actually. And I believe more and more that the two-state solution has come to an end, and what I am suggesting is more radical than what Hamas is proposing, because Hamas has accepted the two-state solution.

I am not for elections at this time, however, because as we have seen in Iraq, in Palestine and elsewhere, elections that don't produce outcomes the Americans want tend to get people killed. There can be no democracy under occupation. I am for the dismantling of the Palestinian Authority and the formation of a national unified leadership that can lead resistance against occupation. Not unlike the South African resistance.

We have a tunnel economy. There are no factories. There is practically no economy except a trickle of smuggled goods. The global economic crisis has essentially had zero impact because we are already experiencing a severe depression.

There is a fissure opening up within Hamas between those who want to be a "responsible" party of government, and those who understand the need for resistance. This second current is coming to terms with how to address the urgent needs of Gaza, including the need to breach the wall for a third time and take the edge off the siege. I think this is the only way to move the struggle forward.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 8 p.m.

From Brian: The bus ride back to Rafah, driving along the beautiful coastline, was one of the saddest moments of my life.

No matter how much the people of Gaza show their appreciation and endless graciousness, or how many people you exchange e-mails and phone numbers with, you can't escape the guilt that you get to leave, that you are just visiting.

I won't be returning to the lap of luxury by any means. Our economic crisis means that my daily life is becoming closer to that of some people in Gaza, but with that one overwhelming difference: I get to go home, a right all Palestinians are denied.

As we drove the coastline, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea, I cracked open the bus window to take a few last photographs, but Gaza quickly reminded me of its dilemma. The smell of raw sewage filled the bus.

This is a smell many are getting used to in Gaza since Israel destroyed the last functioning sanitation facility. Residential and commercial waste is dumped freely into the sea, not by some corporation trying to boost its profits by dumping illegally, but by the government and municipalities out of necessity, a practice not seen in the U.S. since the 1920s.

Our guide came on the loudspeaker to draw our attention to the east side of the bus. A few miles away, you could see fairly new high-rise apartment buildings, completely undamaged, billboards and what looked like a budding metropolis. Signs of progress, right? Just the opposite. These are the former Israeli settlements, abandoned when Ariel Sharon decided to "withdraw" from Gaza, a supposed sign of his commitment to peace. Our guide then asked us to glance back westward to see the two Israeli destroyers not far off the coast--to see for ourselves just how far Israel has "withdrawn."

Our buses continued on, the sun setting below the horizon, leaving just enough light to see the southern countryside. Interspersed between large houses built for Palestinian Authority officials are acres of farmland, the light too dim to make out what was growing. What you could see was the tank tracks and signs of demolition. Almost every free-standing structure, aside from the officials; houses, showed some sign of damage or disrepair.

Most of this pre-dates the January offensive--some is from previous assaults, some from the scheduled home demolitions under Sharon's government. You can't rebuild without raw materials, so the rubble sits, and farmers continue to work their land, breed their livestock and eke out a living.

By the time we reached Rafah, the sun was long gone, but the stores, restaurants and streetlights lit up the town center. I had learned that the lights ran on by fuel-fed generators, a power source that most buildings rely on.

However, I found a much more profound reason a few minutes later. As we waited to enter the Egyptian crossing, I noticed a bit of graffiti on the walls next to our bus. One was a small hand, holding a heart, filled in with the colors of the Palestinian flag, with little wires and lightening bolts scattered about the composition. Above and over the center of the heart was the text, translated from Arabic: "Gaza is powered by the electricity in the hearts of all Palestinians."

I had hoped to leave Gaza and conclude this entry perhaps on that hope-inspiring message. But Gaza doesn't let you forget about its dilemma. As we passed through customs, one of the Palestinian doctors on our convoy had hoped to finally bring his three young children back out of Gaza. They have been trapped there, despite having American passports, for five years.

They were denied entry into Egypt. Apparently, Israel and Egypt feel this well-educated doctor would become a bigger threat to Israel by reuniting with his three young children. That is my last memory of Gaza, but one that was a stark reminder of my task, and the task of everyone on the Viva Palestina convoy.

There is no middle ground on this issue. This isn't about the right of Hamas militants to carry guns across the border (although it seems to be absolutely fine for the U.S. to send guns, missile and bombs over the Israeli border many times each year). This isn't even just about Gaza. Gaza is just the latest chapter in a 60-year campaign of ethnic cleansing and strangulation--a history that is readily available to read if you're willing to flip through the pages.

This is about the right of families to live together. This is about the right of farmers to work their land, students to attend their schools, and people to carve out a decent life. It's about the right of any people to govern themselves as they see fit, without foreign interference.

Another bit of graffiti caught my eye during my visit. It was written in English, and read, "Palestinian Children: You will not stop our DREAMS."

If we only cry and send a few dollars, Palestinians will continue to suffer and continue to fight by themselves. If the children of Gaza can remain defiant and fight through their tears, then I am confident we can, too. We, people in the United States, will need to fight and organize and build a movement. Viva Palestina represented, for me the beginning of a broad movement, however small it currently may be. We came to break the siege, and we broke the siege. Others can, should--and undoubtedly will--follow in our footsteps.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

July 16, 9 p.m.

From Karen: The Viva Palestina U.S. convoy made history when it broke through the Israeli-U.S.-Egyptian siege of Gaza. It was the largest delegation of U.S. citizens to go to Gaza on a solidarity mission.

The question for activists is what now? We didn't just go to Gaza to bring aid, though it was much needed and much appreciated. We went to drive a wedge through the gates at Rafah that are separating families, keeping goods from flowing in and information from flowing out.

I can say that a lot of us didn't realize the degree to which Egypt was managing this siege. When we got to the border crossing, we saw the Egyptian riot police back Palestinians away from our bus to ensure that no Palestinians not part of the convoy could leave.

We watched them harass families in no man's land while we waited for our passports. We watched the border enforcement laugh and joke behind the counters while they made us wait for four hours to get into Gaza.

It is Egypt's decision to keep this border closed. Of course, it's pressured by Israel and the United States. But with the president of the United States saying that the border closings should be relaxed, Egypt has the perfect excuse to allow food, cars, supplies, medicines and families into Gaza. Yet it refuses!

When we finally went in, the gravity of the situation hit me. I was in the land where Rachel Corrie was martyred. I was in the land of Samidoon. I could smell the beach where Huda Ghaliya lost her family. You can see the remnants of the Israeli settlements. You can smell and feel the history on this strip of land.

The question remains what do we do with the information we learned in Gaza? On the heels of this historic trip to Palestine, students and other activists around the country can use it to plant the seeds of a BDS movement.

The tide is turning against Israel in America--on campuses and in the mainstream. We need to shift the debate to an unapologetic pro -Palestinian stance that demands real justice for the Palestinians. For the first time in decades, I feel that there is a chance to build a healthy pro-Palestinian movement. We can start with BDS and end with a democratic state.

My trip has steeled me for action. The people of Gaza, more than anything else, sent me home with their amazing strength.


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