Talking about Gaza and Sderot
Anat Saragusti, journalist
Amira Hass – Ha'aretz
Prof. Kenneth Mann, Adv. – Legal Advisor, Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement
Nomika Zion – Urban Kibbutz Mivgan, Sderot
Um Haithem – Resident, Beit Hanoun, Gaza
Dr. Eyad Sarraj – Director, Gaza Community Mental Health Center
On October 29, 2007, the Palestine-Israel Journal invited the public to an open discussion in an attempt to speak with honesty and integrity about the situation in Gaza and Sderot, and to raise questions not often discussed in Israeli public discourse.
At the Leonardo Center at the Kibbutz Movement headquarters in Tel Aviv, over 180 people gathered together to hear the viewpoints and experiences of Dr. Eyad Sarraj, Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Center; Nomika Zion, a resident of the Urban Kibbutz Mivgan in Sderot; Um Haithem, a resident of Beit Hanoun in Gaza; Amira Hass from Ha'aretz; and Prof. Kenneth Mann, legal advisor to Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement. The discussion was held in Hebrew.
After opening remarks by the Palestine-Israel Journal's Co-Editor-in-Chief Hillel Schenker, moderator Anat Saragusti began the evening's program with Dr. Eyad Sarraj's phone call from Gaza. Dr. Sarraj gave a moving statement expressing his hopes that "your meeting tonight is productive and improves the lives of those in Gaza with peace, respect of human dignity, security and equality."
Amira Hass speaking at the event.
Photo courtesy of activestills.org
The situation in Gaza is terribly grim. As an example illustrating the dire situation Gaza's residents currently endure, Sarraj shared that since the Israeli-imposed closures, which began on June 12, 2007, as few as 12 items, deemed as basic necessities are permitted to cross the border into supermarkets and other stores. Normally, Gaza imports 9,100 items. Many items are no longer allowed into the Gaza strip, such as salt, cleaning supplies and cement.
As Sarraj was speaking to the audience, he reported Israeli F-16s flying overhead.
"The siege is heightening and the situation opens opportunities for extremists to flourish on both sides.”
He stressed that the situation cannot be resolved unilaterally, through violence. "This land belongs to those of us on both sides who want to live in peace, security and dignity," concluded Sarraj. To view Dr. Sarraj's full statement, please click here.
Nomika Zion from the Urban Kibbutz Mivgan in Sderot spoke next. Zion agreed to come to the event based on her "continued empathy for the Gazans" and to give a "profile of a city deeper than the panic and hysteria seen in the media."
Zion described Sderot as a multi-cultural, "tribal" city that today is made up of 45% immigrants from Georgia. The remaining 55% of Sderot residents come from Morocco, Ethiopia, Palestinian "collaborators", and members of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad and National Zionist religious movements.
After "seven years of being on the frontlines," the city of Sderot is in deep crisis. The city council is practically defunct and the people rely on the work and social services provided by NGOs. According to Zion, to date there are 700 children considered to be youth-at-risk and suffering from post-traumatic stress due to continued Kassam rocket attacks. Zion described herself as a weaker, less independent person due to having lived under these conditions.
Approximately 10% of the Sderot population has left the city to make their homes in other cities -- this group comes from the wealthier class of Sderot.
In a recent judicial ruling, the Israeli government determined that it is not responsible for the security of the city. However, some NIS 15 million has been spent to build secure areas, which are more risky than helpful to run to in the event of a missile attack. “Still a tolerant city,” the residents of Sderot feel there is no hope, no solution and that it is “hard to live,” said Zion.
Following Nomika Zion’s presentation, Um Haithem, a resident of Beit Hanoun in Gaza described the situation on the ground and her family’s struggle to survive under siege. Earlier in the day, Um Haithem spoke with her daughter who reported an Israeli attack that resulted in the death of one of her school friends from I.D.F. fire.
Gaza feels like a “big prison without humane conditions, without sanitary conditions, and electricity for only two to three hours a day.”
As of now, the city council in Beit Hanoun cannot disburse salaries to its employees, there is rubbish throughout the streets, new diseases are surfacing, and people are dying.
“Beit Hanoun is a beautiful place with many trees, but every time the trees grow too much, the Israeli soldiers come and cut them down.”
Um Haithem held an Israeli identity card. However, when she moved to Gaza, her residency rights were revoked and now she has difficulty crossing back and forth between Gaza and Israel. Two of Um Haithem's daughters live in Berlin, Germany, but it is not worthwhile for them to visit. After making the journey, they would not be able to visit with their father who cannot secure the necessary permits for exiting from Gaza.
Increasingly, daily life in Beit Hanoun is becoming more challenging. Israeli drones flying overhead produce a constant state of fear and anxiety. The children are no longer children but are plagued by chronic nightmares and show signs of depression. They fall asleep in fear of middle of the night intrusions by soldiers, the sound of bombs dropping and artillery firing.
Usually, Um Haithem prepares lentils and beans. Wheat, flour and milk are not always available. Um Haithem expressed her gratitude that her children are doing well in school. Um Haithem said that the suffering she was trying to describe could not be fully communicated in words to the audience.
Amira Hass expanded upon the situation in Gaza from her firsthand experience. Hass lived in Gaza for several years as the Ha’aretz correspondent in Gaza, the only Israeli journalist to do so. Hass methodically outlined reasons deconstructing the Israeli government’s claim that the closure and siege of Gaza is in response to continued Kassam firing. That, “the kassamim” started this is a lie,” she said.
In fact, Hass believes the continuation of Israeli violence in Gaza is an extension of the disengagement, a process that she claims started in 1991 and not in 2005.
Hass labeled Gaza and the Israeli government’s isolation of the 360 square kilometers as the creation of a Bantustan. Continuing with this tactic, the West Bank will gradually become a group of smaller Bantustans, Hass predicted.
Disengagement created for the Israeli government “a model for Gaza, but not a model for peace.”
Families residing inside Gaza with members living in the West Bank are prevented from seeing each other by lack of permits and the costs necessary to travel to the West Bank. Reunion in Gaza is basically impossible at this point. A resident of Gaza trying to visit a family member in the West Bank must exit Gaza via Egypt to Jordan and finally arrive in the West Bank. The situation is becoming so dangerous and volatile that, “peace, we won’t have,” stated Hass.
Suggesting that the situation in Gaza will continue to worsen, Hass said that, “the boiling point has not been reached yet.”
The final speaker of the evening, Prof. Kenneth Mann, focused on Israel’s responsibility for the wellbeing and security of Gaza. He said that between 1967 and 2005, it was accepted by all, including the Israeli government, that according to international law pertaining to occupied territories, Israel had formal responsibility for the well-being of the Gaza residents. After the disengagement in 2005, the Israeli government tried to claim that it was no longer an occupying power, and therefore was no longer responsible to care for the security and human rights of the residents of Gaza.
However, in post-disengagement Gaza, Prof. Mann asserts that Israel continues to maintain “intensive, effective” control using technological and military means. Effective control of a population is occupation, even without the presence of soldiers. This view is the basis of a claim brought by Prof. Mann and Gisha before the Israeli legal system in opposition to proposals made by the Israeli government to use electrical stoppages and other measures to put pressure on the Gaza population to stop the firing of Kassams.
“Who can do what in Gaza is determined by Israel,” said Mann.
In effect, Israel has placed sanctions on an entire population. Cutting electricity and fuel supplies, and stopping import and export of basic and other goods equals sanctions against the entire population. According to international law, these acts describe collective punishment. The Israeli government is using collective punishment as the means by which it will achieve its goal to stop Kassams from being fired into Israel.
The Israeli government claims that its limits on electricity and fuel are not collective punishment, but rather part of the disengagement, an eventual withdrawal from all responsibility for Gaza.
“But it definitely is collective punishment according to international law,” declared Mann.