If there is one problem that unites the Muslim world in its sympathy it is the Palestinian issue. Forget the republics trying to break away from Russia and the Uighurs of China. They can be ignored just like the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria and the Palestinians who reside still as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Forget the many African conflicts such as Darfur, southern Sudan or Somalia. The one problem that will unite Muslims all across the world is the one of Israel and the Palestinians.
It is a long standing issue that has captured the imagination for a few major reasons. First, it is simple to decide who is right and who is wrong. Secondly, it is a ‘David Versus Goliath’ fight and thirdly, the Israelis, many of their leaders born in the fires of early 20th century Europe, have come full circle from being the bullied, oppressed victims to becoming the bullies and the oppressors. It would be poetic if it was not so tragic.
The conflict is one that simmers with frequent flashpoints and we have just experienced a new flashpoint recently – the raids on the aid flotillas being sent to the Gazans who have been kept in siege conditions for a long, long time.
However, what people often forget in all of this is the reality on the ground. What is it really like for people of Gaza?
A little bit of exposition
Lying on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the Gaza Strip borders Egypt on the southwest and Israel on the south, east and north. It is about 25 miles long, and between 4 and 8 miles wide, with a total area of 139
square miles. The territory takes its name from Gaza, its main city.
The place has a population of approximately 1.5 million, a million of whom are refugees who fled to the territory in order to escape violence during the creation of Israel in 1948.
The Gazans are fenced into what is almost like an open air prison - entering and leaving the Gaza strip can take hours - and this is when the border crossings are supposedly open! Special permission may be required before being allowed to leave. While for many this may not be a problem, for people who are ill and require specialist treatment using medicines or equipment banned from Gaza, this can be - and has been - a death sentence.
All this because the people dared to vote for people that foreign leaders did not want to be voted into power – Hamas won the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, however this was not to the liking of foreign powers.
They fought to stay in power, but the previous administration, Fatah, forced Hamas out of the West Bank after weeks of inter-Palestinian violence. Hamas were able to keep control of Gaza though, repelling the Fatah party from it totally.
With a greater presence in the West Bank, Fatah effectively carried out a coup, becoming the government of the West Bank, and forcing the Palestinian territories into two separate political camps. This left Gaza isolated and allowed it to be blockaded by Israel in order to try to force Hamas from power.
It has also been said that a compromise solution can be reached with Hamas if it gave up its goal of the destruction of Israel. However, Hamas had offered a “multi-year peace” in exchange for the blockade to be ended, but this was not accepted, so such talk can be taken with a grain of salt.
Operation Cast Lead
In December 2008 Israel launched a brutal operation against the Strip, “Operation Cast Lead”, which was purportedly due to immense levels of rocket fire from Hamas. The truth was that previous to this there had been a ceasefire that had mostly been respected by Hamas and other armed groups, but had been violated by Israel.
Israel - needing to forget its shame of not being able to pummel Hezbollah in Lebanon a couple of years earlier - launched its full fury on the Gaza strip causing huge amounts of death and destruction, destroying much civilian architecture.
It attacked UN facilities including schools and warehouses containing food and other resources, destroyed the water treatment plant along with the industrial areas and also indiscriminately killed many people. Its war crimes included using white phosphorous
in populated areas.
The world was shocked and outraged by this destruction. So much so that the Middle East Envoy, Tony Blair, decided he needed to make media appearances telling Hamas to stop firing rockets. This was absurd considering it was Israel which was using overwhelming firepower and Hamas had been observing a ceasefire for much of the past 6 months.
Much of the world was complicit in Israel’s actions with countries like the UK and the US using stalling tactics in the UN in order to allow Israel time to do its thing.
After the aggression, Hamas brutally cracked down on people it considered to have been collaborators with Israel who may have helped it in its operation to supply it with intelligence. However, this was plain old mob rule and ripe for people to work on their existing vendettas under a separate pretext and who knows what horrors people were put through without a fair trial.
Since the aggression, Gaza has been anything but a peaceful and tranquil place to live.
The sounds of Israeli jets may have reduced in number, but the sheer amount of damage done requires massive levels of investment and building of both homes for the population and also on other public infrastructure that was destroyed – infrastructure like the water treatment plant which has since been leaking raw sewage.
However the siege on Gaza allows almost no building materials and people have been forced to resort to living in tents or houses made of mud.
Resources are scarce in Gaza – since the blockade, less than 25% of the previous levels of imported goods get into Gaza. Exports are not allowed at all, helping to further destroy the economy of the place.
So, what is exactly allowed into the Gaza Strip?
Some essential items such as gas, frozen vegetables, soap and washing liquid are allowed, but items barred from entering Gaza include candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, and mattresses.
Since June some international pressure has been applied on Israel to lift the blockade, but instead of doing the right thing, Israel has agreed to ease the blockade by allowing in more goods and having a blacklist of items that are not allowed in instead of an arbitrary list of items that previously were allowed in. We will have to wait and see what this means in practice.
A major partner of the blockade is the government of Egypt. Since Hamas has links to the Muslim Brotherhood – the only real opposition to the oppressive regime in place is Egypt, it feels threatened by any success that Hamas may have and has actively enforced the blockade on Gaza.
There has been some respite however in the form of tunnels going under the Egypt-Gaza border which have been a vital lifeline to allow goods into Gaza. Egypt has tried to block this by building a massive impenetrable underground wall to block the tunnels. Embarrassingly, this impenetrable wall has since been penetrated – it just takes longer to build the tunnels now.
Mohammad Al-Nour is a Palestinian activist who knows what it is like to live in the Gaza strip. He was living with his family in Gaza just before the war of 2008 began, when Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip killing hundreds. He said,
“…Life is intolerable here, we are clinging onto life and it is not fair. Our leaders have let us down and the blockade is unnecessary; it must be lifted so we can breathe and live a good life. I appeal to the outside world that they all get together and fight this injustice.”
The blockade, now entering its fourth year, according to the Red Cross is “strangling the economy in Gaza”. The people in Gaza continue to suffer from poverty, unemployment and a weak health system. On the other hand a recent report by the charity "Save the Children" reported that children in the poorest parts of the West Bank face significantly worse conditions than those in Gaza.
It also states that families forced from their homes in the West Bank are suffering the effects of grinding poverty, often lacking food, medicine and humanitarian assistance. It seems apparent now that it’s not just Gaza who is suffering but a whole community of people and we must not forget one over the other.
It is in such circumstances that people have tried to get some aid to the Gazans. First there was a convoy of aid sent at the start of 2010, vehicles driven from the UK amongst other places and they got as far as Egypt and Israel before being stopped – many goods were not allowed in and some important aid such as pre fabricated homes that were much needed in Gaza had to be redistributed elsewhere and given to other Palestinian refugees in Jordan.
Yes people, the Arab regimes surrounding Israel have also kept the Palestinians in refugee camps instead of integrating them into society. Most have also carried out military operations against the Palestinian refugees if they got too rowdy, so there is plenty of ugliness and blame to go around.
Following from the aid convoy, the Free Gaza movement planned to send an aid flotilla directly to Gaza in the hope of finally managing to deliver much needed aid, including banned items such as pre fabricated housing and even a dentist’s surgery.
That mission tragically failed with the flotilla being attacked by Israeli forces in international waters before it even reached the Gaza coast. The result was the deaths of nine aid activists mostly from Turkey, one being a US national who lived in Turkey. The USA did not seem to show much concern.
World condemnation was stark and even countries that are usually sceptical of criticising Israel, voiced their concerns (including the US and the UK, before they cowered again). However, many of the statements could have been written by the same people, as for instance the Middle East envoy Tony Blair was trotted out on TV who amongst other things made the demand that Hamas stop firing the rockets (that it had not been firing) into Gaza.
There was a UN resolution passed demanding an independent inquiry into the attack on the flotilla, but Israel would only allow an internal inquiry and some countries eventually cowered to accept this line, including the UK (where 80% of Conservative MPs are members of the Conservative Friends of Israel) and the US. The Muslim and Arab world have always condemned Israel for its treatment of Palestinians.
Turkey which was the only Muslim state to have good ties with Israel has now stated its relationship with Israel will never be the same since the killing of nine Turks on the Gaza-bound flotilla.
Turkey isn’t itself always an innocent party, it has been slammed for its treatment of its Kurdish population, however its position on the attacks on Gaza and its support for the Palestinian people is not in doubt - it has actually tried to help the people unlike other neighbours Many Arab and Muslim states have been slow to find a solution, only using the Palestinians as
a political football to be used when they want to distract their people from own their actions. The regimes seem to not care a jot for the suffering
of the Palestinian people.
The biggest donors to the Palestinians are not the surrounding Arab states, but the EU. Chew on that for a bit – the oil rich Arab countries are being outdone by the EU in providing both political and financial support to the Palestinians.
Egypt is even complicit in the misery that the people of Gaza face as it does not want to recognise Hamas and keeps its border crossings with Gaza closed all too often.
Sixty years since the formation of Israel and the expulsion of many Palestinians from their homes, we are no closer to a solution or Palestinian state.
The Palestinians Need You!
Israel has recently agreed to ease the Gaza blockade after coming under international pressure from the UN and EU. However, the actual blockade will still continue and many essential items - especially building materials - will still be heavily restricted.
Exports will also remain banned, hurting industry based in Gaza. What is required is a total lifting of the siege on Gaza. We need to also take part in order to show solidarity with the Palestinians and try to force positive action to help them. Here is what you can do to help:
It would be a great idea if you stopped funding the people who are oppressing the Palestinians. This is especially the case if the products are from settlements in the West Bank.
This Ramadan, ask yourself if you really want to open your fast with Jordan Valley dates (the big succulent juicy ones)? Do you really want to end a day of not eating by eating food grown on stolen land? So sort yourself out first.
If you are at college or university, chances are that there will be some Israeli sympathisers doing the lecture circuits to sell you their propaganda. They need to as they need to buy in from future generations if they are to continue. This is the type of situation you need to get heard in. Get a few friends around and gatecrash such events, but make your point intellectually.
Let the people know
Write to your MP or the government, even collating a petition demanding for the siege to be lifted. The lifting of the blockade won’t be an end to all the problems but it’s a start. Write to Muslim regimes in the region too to let them know how you feel about their treatment of the Gazans.
Also write to, and call, people living in Gaza - they need to hear from the outside world and know that we care.
Learn about the crisis
Read up on the issues surrounding the Palestinian cause to make yourself aware of the facts and make sure people are not allowed to peddle lies about the conflict in your presence.
Send direct aid to Gaza through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) http://www.un.org/unrwa, or any other charity - Muslim or non-Muslim - that is trying to help the Gazans. It is important that money and aid reaches the people. However, the UN is more likely to be able to get through vital building materials which are in much short supply.
Also, join the Free Gaza movement, you can find more information by visiting http://www.freegaza.org/. Joining up may not result in the lifting of the blockade but the more flotillas and ships attempting to reach Gaza, the more Israel will be inclined to do something, as well as increasing pressure on world leaders.
You’ve read the history, the facts and the plight of our Palestinian brothers and sisters - especially in Gaza. Now it’s time to act. Time to show solidarity with the people of Gaza. Time to speak up for them. It is time to help them.