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We tell stories: Countering the Israeli occupation

Destroyed Building in Gaza Photo: Mati Gomis-Perez / AFSC

Note: Mati Gomis-Perez is AFSC's Country Representative for Israel and Palestine. Last week she went into Gaza after Operation Protective Edge and speaks about the impacts of the bombardment and occupation, and what's next. This is the most recent is a series of posts on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory by AFSC staff. You can read all of them here. - Lucy

Going into Gaza through the Erez crossing on the morning after the signing of the open-ended ceasefire agreed between Israel and the Palestinians, I had a mix of feelings. On the one hand, there was eagerness to see my AFSC colleagues’ faces after speaking on the phone with them for the previous 51 days. On the other hand, there was a bit of anxiety at the thought of not really knowing what I would see.

Random destruction is what I witnessed: destruction of residential areas, mosques, factories, fields, other buildings in confined areas, but also pretty much everywhere. I saw a tomato sauce factory totally destroyed and a diaper distribution warehouse heavily damaged. It is difficult to find places that have not been physically hit. And when I found an area that had apparently not been touched, the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) school filled with internally displaced people appeared as the reminder that many people will be without a home for many months and years to come.

Destroyed building in GazaThe stories told by people in Gaza are indeed disturbing. Most people in Gaza slept with their clothes on in order to leave immediately in the event of receiving the feared phone call from the Israeli army giving them just a few minutes warning of an attack. A colleague explained that a family in the neighborhood of Shuja’yah, which was heavily bombarded on the night of 19 July, was trapped in their house while watching through their windows how others were being shot at in the streets while fleeing. “You leave your house behind but also your life”, said another colleague. I saw faces of exhaustion. “We are tired; we are tired of life in Gaza”.

Full statistics are available but I choose to highlight the following: 142 families have lost three or more family members in one single incident, 13% of the housing has been affected and 360 factories or businesses have been damaged (126 totally destroyed). As a result of the bombardment, there are 1,500 new orphans in Gaza. Basically everyone in Gaza has been directly or indirectly affected. The feeling that your life could be over any second has haunted everyone in the Strip for 51 days to the extent that many wished to be dead rather than waiting and watching others being killed.

Israel, as a country, seems to be going down a spiral of hate and outright racism. The attacks in Gaza, the atrocities that have been witnessed there, all indicate a message for the Palestinians that there are no limits, nobody is secure, everyone is a potential target regardless of their political affiliation or activities (as if that would justify the killing of anyone let alone entire families).

Beach in Gaza where 4 little Bakr boys were killedThe clampdown on Palestinians living in the West Bank, with more than 1,700 detentions carried out during the past two months and the recent announcement of 1,000 acres to be appropriated by the State of Israel in the south of Bethlehem, indicates that the policy of displacement and occupation of the Palestinian population will continue with renewed energy. The policy of acquiring land and pushing the people out still continues 66 years after the displacement and dispossession of the Nakba. One colleague in Jerusalem pointed out to me that the attacks have been on Gaza, but the war continues to be against all the Palestinians.

The hate speeches and rhetoric coming from Israeli politicians and in social media outlets and the attacks by Israeli settlers against the Palestinian population have not been countered by a strong, articulated opposition in the streets of Tel Aviv. The brave Israeli voices that have expressed outright criticism to the bombing on Gaza are few, hardly influential and have been subjected to a violent reaction from others. It appears that the majority of Jewish Israelis don’t seem to want any option other than to continue in this path towards a one state that subjugates and oppresses 4.5 million Palestinians (plus 1.6 million inside Israel).

The ceasefire agreement of August 26th, 2014 seemed to offer some new elements on the Palestinian side. A unified voice was heard in Cairo and for the first time in many years, it seemed that, this time, Palestinians were agreeing on something. In addition, the ceasefire backed by the United States, Egypt and others, meant that the unity government was finally accepted, that Hamas was recognized as a political actor (8 years after their win in democratically held elections) and that the relations between Ramallah and Gaza were on an encouraging path to ending the political divide.

The news coming out in the last days about developments between Fatah and Hamas are very discouraging to say the least. Already, both factions are arguing whether Hamas civil servants will be paid or who has the main responsibility in reconstructing Gaza.

Regardless of the Palestinian political divide, there is no willingness coming from Israeli officials to engage in the negotiations in Cairo where, as agreed, issues like lifting the siege on Gaza and its development would be addressed. If life in Gaza does not see profound changes (i.e. lifting of the Israeli siege, full economic development, liberty of movement in and out of the Strip, etc.) many may start thinking, “all this killing and destruction, for what?”. If larger and core issues of the Israeli occupation are not addressed soon, the “calm” we have right now will become the beginning of the countdown for the next round of full blown aggression against the Palestinians. I often wonder how much more pressure can Palestinians endure.

Destroyed buildings in GazaPalestinians’ resistance to the Israeli occupation is most often silent, staying put in their lands and surviving. It takes the form of enduring checkpoints, house demolitions, land grab, attacks from settlers, denial of permits, bombing, shelling and killing; it is about engaging into long and tedious legal procedures to maintain, renew or obtain their Jerusalem residence ID, requesting permits to exit Gaza or refusing to be recruited by the IDF. These acts of resistance may not be heroic and may not find their way into headlines but have their own individual and unique stories.

Hamas and other political factions will present armed resistance as an alternative, as other people(s) in other parts of the world may have chosen this path to confront oppression and occupation. However, by and large, Palestinian struggle and resistance means to stay put and stay alive.

The international leaders and those with capacity to influence these dynamics, i.e. the United States and the EU, have decided to neglect their moral and legal obligations towards the practices of the State of Israel. They decided many decades ago that the occupied (i.e. the Palestinians) has to present alternatives, plans and solutions to its occupier (i.e. Israel) in order to end their own (the Palestinians’) suffering: this is the framework of the so-called peace negotiations and the two-state solution paradigm.

Hardly any political pressure is put on Israel and there is disturbing silence about holding the State of Israel accountable for continuous, blatant, systematic violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. In doing so, these international leaders have become complicit of the crimes committed by Israel.

Many of us who care about justice, dignity of people(s), human rights and basic human decency and humanity, wonder how long these leaders will remain silent. And because their silence is as disturbing in its own way as the stories shared by Palestinians in Gaza, West Bank and inside Israel, we have to continue exerting pressure on them, telling the facts they have chosen to ignore and voicing those stories. Peace cannot be achieved without justice and justice needs the truth to be told.

A colleague of mine, running from Shuja’iya neighborhood in Gaza, ended up in a house with tens of people members of his extended family. The men would take turns to sleep for there were not enough mattresses or space to sleep all at once. My colleague’s turn would start at 6.00 am. I asked him what they did while waiting for their turn. He said “We tell stories.”