London, November 28, 2008
Who could have believed that by Christmas 2008 the West would still be unable to summon up courage to discipline Israel for crimes against the Palestinians?
The cruel siege of Gaza has been going on for at least 30 months. "It started March 2006 – I was there," says a friend… in other words, as soon as Hamas was inconveniently elected to power. In early April the EU turned off financial aid and the economic blockade had begun.
Gaza was already suffering severe hardship when I visited a year ago. I wrote afterwards:
I noted the deserted beaches and disused fishing boats… Israel has banned fishing off the Gaza coast, ruined the livelihood of 3000 fishermen and deprived local people of a proper diet. Boats defying the ban are fired on.
The Gaza Strip is sealed off from the outside world with an Israeli fence guarded by watchtowers, snipers, tanks, armoured bulldozers and drones. Israel pretended to withdraw two years ago but still controls Gaza’s airspace, coastal waters and airwaves. It has the place bottled up like a prison and makes frequent incursions…
Right now the strangulated economy is in free-fall and for 1.5 million ordinary folk life is hell. Unemployment stands at 65%, and 80% live below the poverty line.
Fuel is running out, so are basics like washing powder. Shattered infrastructure and food shortages mean serious public and personal health problems. Power cuts disrupt hospitals and vital drugs cannot be kept refrigerated. Thousands look death in the face as medicare collapses.
A friend emailed: "Today in Gaza we have no cement to build graves for those who die."
Gaza's Ministry of Health reported then that cancer and cardiac patients were without their necessary medication. There was no radiotherapy. Hundreds of renal failure patients were not receiving dialysis as frequently as they should because a third of the machines were out of action. Lack of spares had also disabled other diagnostic and therapy equipment.
Hospitals had run out of many essential drugs and were dangerously low on dressings and cleaning materials. A shortage of anaesthetics threatened to close the operating theatres. Fuel stocks were down to 15 days and there was no patient food. 450 cancer patients (35% of them children) were denied permission to cross the border for proper treatment. Physicians for Human Rights had been trying to bring the critically ill out of Gaza but were often refused by the Israeli authorities. So they died in agony.
In Britain Channel 4 News screened a shocking report about how the sick were blackmailed. If they agreed to inform on relatives the Israelis would allow them to leave. If not, they were condemned to "stay in Gaza and die".
Now, a year later, Gaza's health minister warns that many more will die if Israel’s frequent power cuts and fuel restrictions succeed in shutting down whatever life-support systems are still working. Lack of spares has put half the ambulances out of action and 95 types of medicines, as well as cancer drugs, are no longer available in the Strip. 220 machines used for dialysis and other serious conditions, including CT scanning, are unserviceable.
Israel won’t allow medics or journalists into Gaza to witness and report. We can only guess at the horrific conditions the siege has created.
As for Gaza’s fishermen, the harassment never stops. A few days ago Israeli gunboats seized three fishing boats and kidnapped 15 Palestinian fishermen and three international peace activists – one of them British - in Palestinian waters. But the British government and its Royal Navy are far more concerned about pirates hi-jacking supertankers off the coast of Somalia than protecting British and Palestinian citizens, lawfully and peacefully going about their business, from piracy off the coast of Gaza.
As I write, a Libyan vessel is on its way to Gaza with food, the first Arab boat to try to break the siege. Where are the others? There should be an armada.
We had gone to Gaza in 2007 to show, in our small way, solidarity with the Muslim and Christian communities in their suffering under the Israeli cosh. And we wanted to meet Fr Manuel Musallam, the heroic priest who for 9 years had been trapped in Gaza, unable to visit his family living not far away in the West Bank because the Israelis wouldn't grant him a travel permit. When his parents died he was prevented from attending their funerals.
When he heard we were coming, said a colleague, this brave man burst into tears.
Now, at 70 and with failing health, he has suddenly been allowed to reunite with his family. This leaves the parish and its excellent school without a priest, and a replacement will have to be found… someone who is willing to be a prisoner.
Freedom to worship in the Holy Land is routinely denied to Muslims and Christians. And to underline this fact the Israelis blocked the Pope's representative, archbishop Antonio Franco, and his colleagues from entering the Gaza Strip last Sunday to hold a service despite arrangements having been agreed days earlier. They were made to wait three hours at the crossing to no avail.
Who could have believed that by Christmas 2008 the international community would still turn a blind eye to Israel’s persecution of Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land?
And who could have believed that the great Churches of Western Christendom would sit back and watch the Holy Land being stolen, and not even prod their politicians into action?
While citizens here in England prepare for their jolly festivities in safety and warmth, what are the chances of a merry Christmas in tormented Gaza? Zero. Families will be cold, hungry, and probably huddled in darkness much of the time, dreading the next Israeli blitz and in constant fear of re-invasion.
Their Christmas misery comes courtesy of the morally bankrupt Western leaders who connive with Israel to destroy Gaza and bring its people to their knees, or their graves.
- Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. For further information please visit www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk .