SOOD: Re-think American policy toward Gaza September 22, 2009

Gaza on the edge

by Samera Sood  -  Orange County News  -  20 September 2009

As a West Bank Palestinian now living in California, I should have known better than to fear the worst when I traveled to Gaza recently as part of a humanitarian group bringing humanitarian supplies. Yet most of the information we receive today suggests Gaza is a chaotic and violent place unwelcoming of Americans. My visit there was a stark reminder that this is a grotesque misrepresentation.

Instead, I got a bracing reminder of the power of individuals and communities to counter the economic noose Israel tightened around Gaza following the democratic victory of Hamas in 2006. Palestinians, under a UN-estimated 600,000 tons of rubble from the December-January assault on Gaza, were promised $4 billion in reconstruction aid by the international community in February. The money has largely not materialized. Consequently, Palestinians are eking out a living while the international community wrings its hands and fails to act because of an unwillingness to recognize the democratic choice of the people.

Of course, if such strict prohibitions were not placed on Gazan trade, humanitarian aid would either not be needed or could be reduced significantly.

As a successful businesswoman in Orange County, I thrive because the merchandise I sell can easily move from state to state as well as internationally. Palestinians in Gaza, however, cannot import non-essential items from the international community. Land borders are closed to such goods, the Gaza airport long since closed, and the Israeli military patrols the coast and denies entry by sea even to vessels carrying humanitarian supplies.

Yes, it’s a stretch to imagine a Mediterranean Sea-based Gaza thriving like any beach city in Orange County, but with open borders and an end to the siege Gazans would certainly get many more visitors from the West Bank, Jordan, and elsewhere. Businesses could be built around the Gazan coastline. Economic vitality and self-sufficiency would increase.

When we got to Egypt, authorities there hindered our humanitarian efforts and allowed us just 24 hours in Gaza. Israel has rightly received criticism for its brutal treatment of Palestinians, yet Egypt’s complicity in the strangling of Gaza’s economy has gone underreported. The Egyptian government’s contribution to squeezing Gaza is supported by Israel and the United States, though it is despised by Egyptian citizens.

Once in, we were embraced by the Palestinians we met. Almost the entire neighborhood of Azbet Abed Rabbo lay in ruins. People there were painfully aware that Israel used American weaponry to flatten much of Gaza. Nonetheless, most want not vengeance but freedom and a viable Palestinian state that will provide them with the ability to move freely in more than an area 25 miles long and seven miles wide as is tiny Gaza.

Imagine being restricted to such a small space for your entire life. That is the reality in which Palestinian children grow up today. There is almost no egress to Egypt, the West Bank, or even to East Jerusalem during the holy month of Ramadan – or Israel where many hold deeds to stolen family land.

Nevertheless, the people are not broken.

Palestinians are aware that Americans are learning what really happened in Gaza earlier this year – and 61 years ago when they were ethnically cleansed from homes and land in what is now Israel while being shunted into refugee camps in Gaza and elsewhere. Earlier this month, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay blasted Israel’s “nearly total impunity” for human rights violations it carried out during the Gaza fighting.

“Significant prima facie evidence,” Pillay stated, “indicates that serious violations of international humanitarian law as well as gross human rights violations occurred during the military operations of 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, which were compounded by the blockade that the population of Gaza endured in the months prior to Operation Cast Lead and which continues.” Human Rights Watch recently documented frightening evidence of Israel’s slaying of 11 unarmed Palestinians waving white flags.

I am one of the few Americans to eyewitness the aftermath of the devastating war on Gaza and its people. I would encourage President Obama to push Israel to lift the siege of Gaza, before more children go malnourished and stunted, and lend his support to Palestinian elections in January 2010 – only this time with a willingness to recognize rather than punish the victor.

Purposefully creating a desperate, caged, and impoverished group of people along the Mediterranean as Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing is very poor policy. Under such conditions, Gaza’s leaders are apt to become increasingly hardline rather than increasingly conciliatory. American policy toward Gaza needs rethinking.

Samera Sood is a businesswoman in Orange County.


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