This week, a former President and now citizen activist came to Gaza to witness and speak about the ongoing, deliberate destruction of Gaza. On June 16, former President Jimmy Carter spoke in unflinchingly blunt terms of devastating damage caused by the 22-day Israeli military assault on the small strip of land and the failure of the international community to help Gazan citizens rebuild their homes, government offices and industries.
Upon seeing the destruction of the American International School (one of seven schools completely destroyed in Gaza and 87 other schools severely damaged), Carter said, "I have to hold back tears when I see the deliberate destruction that has been wreaked against your people," adding that he felt partly responsible because the school had been "deliberately destroyed by bombs from F-16s made in my country."
In the same speech to graduates of a human rights curriculum sponsored by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, President Carter referred to this month's CODEPINK delegation that had tried to enter Gaza with playground equipment through the Israeli Erez border crossing but were turned back.
Carter said, "Last week, a group of Israelis and Americans tried to cross into Gaza through Erez, bringing toys and children's playground equipment - slides, swings, kites, and magic castles for your children. They were stopped at the gate and prevented from coming. I understand even paper and crayons are treated as 'security hazards' and not permitted to enter Gaza. I sought an explanation for this policy in Israel, but did not receive a satisfactory answer - because there is none...."
Before that delegation, in late May, CODEPINK sent a 66-member delegation of people from 10 into Gaza through the Rafah, Egypt crossing. It was successful in breaking the blockade and brought three sets of playground equipment and toys and a variety of educational materials to the kids of Gaza.
I was part of two of those delegations, on my third trip to Gaza in three months. Three additional groups totaling 73 persons led by delegates from CODEPINK's March, 2009 International Women's Day 60-person delegation also entered Gaza in late May through the Rafah, Egypt crossing. CODEPINK also took 45 persons in early June from three nations to Israel, in an unsuccessful attempt to cross into Gaza via the Erez, Israel border crossing.
In the three past three months, we have witnessed the destruction of much of Gaza and the silence of the international community to the pleas for assistance in the reconstruction of the homes of over 50,000 persons made homeless by the 22 day Israeli military attack on Gaza.
We have also witnessed the effects of the two year siege/blockade/quarantine by the international community on Gaza, collective punishment for the election of Hamas in 2006 as the government of Gaza.
For three months we have met the same residents of the Jabalyia area each day sitting in the wreckage that was their homes--waiting for help--and none has come, despite the pledges from many countries.
During his one day visit to Gaza, President Carter spoke strongly about the international blockade on Gaza and about arbitrary prohibitions by the Israeli government that have made travel into and out of Gaza by Palestinians virtually impossible, banned the import of all but basic goods and prevented reconstruction since Israel's three-week attack on Gaza ended in January, two days before President Obama's inauguration.
Carter said, "Tragically, the international community largely ignores the cries for help, while the citizens of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings." He added, "Never before in history has a large community been savaged by bombs and missiles and then deprived of the means to repair itself. The responsibility for this terrible human rights crime lies in Jerusalem, Cairo, Washington, and throughout the international community," Carter said.
1.5 million people live in the tiny area (25 miles long and 5miles wide) of Gaza, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
Carter said, "This abuse must cease. The crimes must be investigated. The wall must be brought down, and the basic right of freedom must come to you."
Carter, as a private citizen not as a government envoy, met with senior members of Hamas, the political, economic and militant group that won sufficient Parliamentary seats in 2006 elections to gain control of the Palestinian Parliamentary Council. Hamas is labeled a terrorist group for having fired thousands of unguided rockets into Israel over the past 5 years.
According to research done by Israeli human rights group B"Tselem from in the 5 and one-half years from June 2004 to the end of Operation Cast Lead, on 17 January 2009, 19 Israelis, including four minors and two soldiers, were killed in Israel by rockets and mortars fired by Palestinians. According to UN figures, in 2005, 1,194 rockets were fired at Israel (an average of 100 a month), in 2006 the rocket fire increased to 1,786 (an average of 149 a month), and in 2007, 1,331 were fired (an average of 111 a month). According to Israel Security Agency figures, in 2008, 2,048 rockets and more than 1,672 mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel (not including the period of Operation Cast Lead, which began on 27 December, during which the rocket and mortar fire increased significantly)
B'Tselem also reports that in the eight years from October 29, 2000 to December 26, 2008, the day before the Israeli attack on Gaza, 3000 Palestinians had been killed in Gaza and 1791 killed in the Occupied Territories (total 4791) by Israeli security forces.
During the same 8 year period, 237 Israeli civilians and 245 Israeli security forces (total of 482) had been killed by Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
During the December, 2008-January 2009, 22 day attacks on Gaza, 1440 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military and over 5,000 were wounded.
13 Israelis were killed during the 22 days, including 3 civilians and ten Israeli military, five of whom were killed by their own Israeli military forces.
Former President Carter gave Hamas leaders in Gaza a letter from the family of Corporal Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was seized and taken into Gaza in June, 2006. Mr. Carter asked that the letter be passed on to the soldier, who is presumed to be alive. Senior Hamas official Ismail Haniya, who risked Israeli assassination in by making a public appearance with Carter, said Hamas was hoping to negotiate an "honorable deal" for Shalit's return to Israel in the form of a prisoner exchange. In contrast to the one Israeli held in Gaza, over 11,700 Palestinians (including 400 women and children) are imprisoned in Israel.
American and international activists continue to work to educate government officials and citizens about Gaza. On June 4, prior to President Obama speaking at Cairo University, a CODEPINK delegation delivered to the US Embassy in Cairo a copy of a letter from senior Hamas officials signed by deputy Foreign Minister Ahmed Yousef inviting Obama to visit Gaza to see the destruction for himself. The delegation also delivered to the US Embassy a petition signed by over 10,000 persons asking President Obama to visit Gaza.
Additionally, activists with the International Movement to Open the Rafah Border who are in their third week of camping at the Rafah, Egypt border have begun a hunger strike to pressure the Egyptian government to let Palestinians join their families in Gaza.
On June 25, 2009, the Free Gaza Movement boat fleet will attempt to break the naval blockade on Gaza. On July 4, 2009, an American delegation will leave the U.S. for Gaza as a part of the Viva Palestina convoy (). Also, in August, a group of Canadian Members of Parliament will visit Gaza.
While many members of the U.S. Congress visit Israel, only seven have visited Gaza, and several of those have been targeted by the American Israeli Public Affairs committee (AIPAC) because of their statements of concern for Gaza. On the same day, February 22, 2009, Senator John Kerry and Congressmen Keith Ellison and Brian Beard, were the first members of Congress to enter Gaza in 5 years. They said they entered Gaza as private citizens, not government employees.
The U.S. State Department still bans travel for US government employees citing the kidnapping of 17 foreigners in Gaza from 2005-2007 and the deaths of three US government security contractors in 2003 who were killed while providing security to U.S. diplomatic personnel who were visiting Gaza to identify potential Palestinian candidates for Fulbright Scholarships. The State Department allows persons on government contracts to go into Gaza.
Citizen activists have been traveling to Gaza and upon their return, trying their best to educate government officials on Gaza. It is high time for the Obama administration to send US government officials, including Special Envoy George Mitchell, to Gaza to figure out the mechanisms for getting the $300 million the US has allocated for reconstruction in Gaza to the people of Gaza.
Ann Wright is a 29 year US Army/Army Reserves veteran who retired as a Colonel and a former US diplomat who resigned in March, 2003 in opposition to the war on Iraq. She served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia. In December, 2001 she was on the small team that reopened the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She is the co-author of the book "Dissent: Voices of Conscience." (www.voicesofconscience.com).