Tested by fire

"Tested by fire" Continued...

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

Palestinian Christians say that what's harder to endure than the persistent shortages is the travel restrictions. The families evacuated along with Massad's family left behind parents, siblings, and others; and with few exceptions they have not been allowed to see them since. One young father (none wanted their names used in print) told me his parents were allowed to visit Bethlehem recently, for one week only, and it was the first time they had seen a new grandchild born in 2007. Israel does not permit whole families to travel outside Gaza (believing they will never return to Gaza unless some family remains there), so another young mother told me she has not seen her younger siblings since 2007. The five families living near Bethlehem are not permitted to travel anywhere outside the Bethlehem area either.

"We see journalists and humanitarian workers traveling to Gaza, but Palestinians are not allowed to go," said Bishara Awad, founder and president of Bethlehem Bible College. His wife Salwa is from Gaza and has not seen her family members who remain there for nine years. When her sister-in-law died in Gaza last month, Israeli authorities denied her permission to attend the funeral.

"You don't want to talk politics, but when you share your story that is what comes out," said Massad. "We as Arabs and Palestinians did a lot of bad things, but we have suffered, too. With Israel it is not eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth; it is 100 teeth for a tooth."

Across the street from

the bookshop, whose bright blue doors now remain closed and locked, is Ahli Arab Hospital. It began in 1882 as a British hospital run by the Christian Mission Society. It eventually came under the control of the Southern Baptists, but today it is run by the Anglican communion.

When I sat down at the hospital with director Suhaila Tarazi, before I could ask a question she said simply, "We lack medicine and need supplies."

She had just received from the Ministry of Health the list of medical items showing a zero balance in Gaza: It contained 440 items. "Our biggest problems here at the hospital are treating kidney disease. We need dialysis equipment and X-ray development solutions. Our other big problem is spare parts for all equipment."

Ahli Arab is an 80-bed hospital but currently can operate only 50 beds. "Our target group is the poorest of the poor, which is a growing group," said Tarazi. Even with outside support that includes the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made a special visit in February to rededicate a hospital chapel destroyed by an Israeli bomb in 2003, Tarazi and her health workers are not exempt from shortages. Electricity is cut off about every 8 to 12 hours, and the hospital must ration the use of generators because of fuel shortages.

As Gaza's isolation deepens, in recent months Tarazi sees two trends: the increase in waterborne diseases and gastroenteritis; and patients showing up with their whole families-often eight to 10 people-who hope to receive better food and shelter at the hospital than they can scrape together elsewhere.

"We have a life-threatening problem with sewage because of the shortage of treatment facilities. It is dangerous to eat fish from less than three miles offshore, as they have been swimming in water likely contaminated. And now 40 million liters of water are pulled daily from the same sea to meet basic needs."

It's hard to see how current negotiations are enough to break the cycle of violence and deprivation. Rocket launches and suicide bombs bring blockades and border closures that further isolate Gaza, keeping "good guy" Palestinians out while militancy within the small enclave grows, prompting more Islamic militant violence and more restrictions from Israel.

Back at Erez Crossing the most prominent features of crossing the border at the end of the day are the ambulances and rows of wheelchairs. Each day health workers try to convince Israeli authorities to allow their worst cases through for care in the cities of the West Bank and Israel. If they succeed, the patients are unloaded from the ambulances and pushed by wheelchair across the buffer zone-and into the present again.

Perpetual war: Gaza timeline

The first mention of Gaza is in Deuteronomy 2:23, when the Avvites occupied the territory, soon to be overrun by Philistines. By 1300 b.c. the city had become the conqueror's coastal base from which they launched attacks against Israel in what now seems a perpetual state of war. Captured by Napoleon in 1799, Gaza came under Egyptian influence, and the UN handed control to Egypt when it created modern Israel in 1948.

1949 Israel signs truce with Arab countries that declared war on it in 1948. Egypt retains control of the Gaza Strip and refugees move there.

1956 Israel invades Egypt, mostly in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar's takeover of the Suez Canal. A year later it withdraws.

1967 Six-Day War begins as Israel attacks Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and captures Gaza and Sinai from Egypt, and the West Bank from Jordan.

1979 Egypt and Israel sign a U.S.-brokered peace treaty to normalize relations. They also agree to a framework for self-rule for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

1982 President Ronald Reagan endorses full autonomy under Jordanian supervision for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel rejects the plan.

1987 Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, begins. Hamas is founded and launches attacks on Israeli forces from Gaza.

1988 Palestinian leadership splits over growing Hamas influence.

1993 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin sign Oslo Accords to negotiate an end to the conflict based on a two-state solution.

1995 Rabin is assassinated by an Orthodox Jew who opposed the Oslo accords. Shimon Peres becomes temporary PM in his place.

1996 Peres declares war on Hamas after suicide bombs kill Israeli civilians.

2000 At Camp David, President Bill Clinton brings together Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak for final negotiations under the Oslo Accords. Barak offers a list of Israeli concessions, but Arafat balks. In September the Second Intifada begins under growing influence of Hamas in Gaza.

2001 A powerful bomb at a Tel Aviv disco kills 17 and injures dozens more, as Intifada violence continues through 2004, leaving over 1,000 Israelis and more than 4,000 Palestinians dead.

2004 Israel fires missiles into Gaza in a targeted assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In November, Yasser Arafat dies in a Paris hospital.

2005 Israel completes troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip but does not ease movement restrictions for Palestinians living there.

2006 Hamas wins Palestinian parliamentary elections, ousting Arafat's Fatah party but not his successor, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

2007 Hamas gunmen rout Fatah from Gaza, killing 100 people, and seize control of the territory. In October Christian bookshop manager Rami Ayyad is found dead.

2008 In December Israeli troops and tanks cross into Gaza, launching a ground war after a month of exchanging airstrikes. Three weeks later, Israel withdraws to Gaza Strip borders but launches a naval and land blockade. More than 50,000 Gaza residents are displaced.

2010 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls on Israel to end two-year blockade, saying over half of Gazans are food-deprived.

Shadow of death

Three Israeli civilians have been killed by Gaza-launched Qassam rockets since November 2008, but the "junkyard" rockets pose daily fear and uncertainty for the 800,000 Israelis who live within their 10-mile range, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW). Lacking guidance systems, the rockets are "inherently indiscriminate" and threaten civilians in violation of the laws of war, the report says. At the same time, HRW faults Israel for nearly 800 civilian deaths in Gaza in its 2009 offensive, and provides evidence that a number are the result of drone-launched missiles, suggesting-since the drone is one of the most precise weapons in its arsenal-that the civilians were targeted.


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