[Editor’s Note: Gerri Haynes and Laura Hart, of Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, have returned to Gaza, taking in medicine and a message of support and solidarity. Gerri will be sending back regular reports about her visit. Please scroll down for new updates.]
Laura Hart and I have planned this visit for several months. We thought we would visit our friends in Gaza for two days and then go to Bethlehem to see Zoughbi Zoughbi – then maybe go up to see another friend in Nablus. We received permission from Israeli security early in our travel plans – two months ahead of our planned day of entry! My husband, Bob, ordered medicines as requested by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme with the money we had gathered since our last visit to Gaza in April of this year.
Our WPSR group has made five medical service trips to Gaza since 2009 and we thought a planning visit with our GCMHP hosts might help us make our next service trip – scheduled for April 2013 – more focused. We were ready to travel. It would be a quick visit.
Then came the Pillar of Cloud (or Defense – depending on how you read the words)…six people dead on the Israeli side, 172 people and many hundreds injured in Gaza – many buildings destroyed – the threat of another ground attack – then the truce. So here we are on a plane – we’ve traveled together many times and are good at providing each other with privacy and support – we are companionable travelers, hoping to offer some help or comfort to our friends in Gaza.
About one week ago, I sent out a notice to my email list that we were planning to make this trip and wondering if people would like to help us purchase more medicine. Five thousand dollars and many important good wishes came quickly to us! Some people designated medicines – some were happy to buy school supplies – so we’re traveling with three times as many medicines as we planned and one bag full of needed school supplies – an offering to the huge present need for help, sent with the love and commitment of so many friends.
Only freedom to move and trade will bring the independent ability to address the needs of the people of Gaza.
Laura and I will land in Paris, quickly change planes and fly on to Tel Aviv. We’ll have dinner with a dear friend in the airport, then spend the night at Neve Shalom (Place of Peace), run by Jewish and Palestinian Israelis. Wednesday morning, we hope to enter Gaza.
I’ll keep you posted.
On our way to Gaza
Rubble of a government building bombed in the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza.
On the way to Erez and the hoped-for crossing to Gaza… the night held little sleep – the roosters started crowing at 2 a.m., then I had a phone call from Kirkland at 4 a.m. (an invitation to our grandchildren’s for a Santa Claus event). The staff at Neve Shalom is always helpful and sent us off with a breakfast bag and coffee.
We are now driving past Israeli towns north of the Gaza border. Fields of crops fill the spaces between towns – drip irrigation is used extensively here. We see no evidence of rocket damage from last week’s conflict.
Elias from Bethlehem is driving us to Erez. He says he has many Jewish friends – the people are not the problem, the troubles are between the governments. He says tourists stopped coming to Bethlehem during Ahmoud al Shab (Pillar of Cloud).
And now we are at Erez – our friends from Gaza await our call to let them know whether or not we are allowed to pass through the checkpoint.
More to follow…
The passage through into the Palestinian side was uneventful– many NGO personnel are making this journey and we were required to wait only a brief time on the Israeli side. Entering into Gaza through the Hamas checkpoint required much more time as we had medicines that required thorough screening.
Now we are in Gaza City. On the way to our hotel, we saw some of the results of last week’s attacks. A four-story government building is now rubble. The Prime Minister’s office building is no more.
We are seeing many friends from other trips and tonight we will have a meeting with Dr. Sarraj of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme in his home. Our goal is to sort out ways that our next medical service delegation can be most helpful.
There is great sorrow here for the people who were killed or injured in Pillar of Cloud as well as a general sense of relief that this recent warring did not include a ground invasion. There is also a belief that the truce was signed prior to the intervention of the US Secretary of State. The ongoing trauma of war or threat of war is pervasive.
Optimism amid the Universal Trauma
Palestinian red crescent society clinic where staff worked seven days without a break during the recent Israeli attacks.
We are coming to the end of our first full day in Gaza. Last evening, we had a good meeting with Dr. Sarraj and the Minister of Health and several other directors in Dr. Sarraj’s home. There was a good discussion about the level of trauma in the Palestinian society – and about planning by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme to care for the people.
It has been observed that children who experience the level of trauma and uncertainty of life in Gaza often disconnect emotionally from their parents and other adults. Trust in security is lost when there is a sense that no one can keep a child safe from harm. The staff of GCMHP is planning to develop and test a tool to evaluate this disconnection in children and to formulate a healing plan.
For the future of Gaza, there is some optimism. The truce seems to be holding and there is a promise of increasing freedom of movement. Increasing the boundaries for fishing and for working in the agricultural areas can result in some relief for the economy. At the same time, there is a general concern about the ever-present threat of war.
Today we met with many health care people. We had a brief meeting with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society staff who worked round-the-clock while Gaza was under attack from Israel this month. The nurses, housekeepers, physicians, technicians and security guard are meeting together to review their work and provide support to each other for the experience of working in war.
In a meeting with personnel of the Gaza Community Mental Health Care Programme clinic we again heard about the universal level of trauma experienced in Gaza. Staff members spoke of their plans to train health care workers to provide care in homes and noted the debriefing sessions they are holding for the Programme staff. As all the people of Gaza have experienced the continuous injury of trauma (from the reality of living in an open-air prison to the terror of bombs falling close to their homes), there is a comprehensive need for emotional and mental health care.
One gentleman we spoke with today told of his extended family gathering in his home for safety during the bombing. In the two hours prior to the signing of the truce, bombing was constant and very near his home. For those two hours, forty people crowded into a 9×12 foot kitchen area (the area furthest from the bombs).
Every person we speak with expresses hope for peace and greater freedom. With kindness, we are also hearing a wish for the people of Israel to live in peace and without fear of war.
Outside my window here in Gaza City, the night has erupted with joy over the announcement that the UN has overwhelmingly voted to change the status of Palestine to the upgraded status of “non-member observer state,” from a “non-member observer entity.” While the US and Israel objected to this change, the inclusion of Palestine as a state is significant. One hundred thirty eight nations voted to approve this change. The celebration among the people of Gaza continues!
Touring Gaza City
This morning, our friend Marwan took Laura and me on a tour of the damaged areas in Gaza City. It is stunning to realize how tightly packed the areas are where buildings and apartments were destroyed. Schools were badly damaged. Empty lots close to apartment buildings were repeatedly bombed. The top floor apartment of one building was destroyed – we tried to imagine the terror of the other people in the building as that destruction occurred.
One car holding two young men was targeted – they were both killed. The car now sits in the lot adjacent to their home and their mother is said to visit the car each day.
The death of 172 people and the injury of thousands left this community once again shocked and terrified – even though the truce holds, there is the feeling of extreme danger that the bombing could begin again at any time. We hear again and again, “To survive the war is a victory.”
We have talked with many people about how they helped themselves and their children to cope during the bombing. Some people used their voices to make loud sounds, some people huddled together in rooms that seemed the strongest, some people left their homes in areas that felt more at risk and went to relatives – only to have the areas of their relatives targeted. A teacher told us that one of the most intelligent children in her class returned to school after the truce and seemed unable to talk – holding himself and being isolated. This teacher is creative in helping her students cope with what they have experienced…psychodrama, drawing, verbal expression…but the constant threat of more attacks makes healing difficult.
Yesterday afternoon, we met with the Director from the Ministry of Health who is responsible for organizing international medical delegations. He spoke of the growing medical program in Gaza – they now have 164 candidates for advanced medical specialty training and are seeking host medical communities to offer short sabbatical training for some of their specialty physicians. In preparation for WPSR’s next medical delegation, he listed several medical specialties that would be most helpful for providing direct care and for teaching. Since movement in and out of Gaza is difficult, bringing physicians here to assist with patient diagnosis and care is needed.
This afternoon, we will meet again with Dr. Sarraj, founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.
Sometimes listening to a sage is the most enlightening way to learn about a situation. Today, Laura and I were treated to time by the Sea with Dr. Sarraj – surely one of the wisest of Palestinians. Dr. Sarraj’s son, Ali, 7, and Mahmoud Al Shrafi, Dr. Sarraj’s assistant traveled with us to watch fishermen working along the shore and to enjoy a placid sea (minus patrolling Israeli gunboats for the first time in any visit since 2009).
Dr. Sarraj reviewed for us the history of Palestine since 1948. He has been involved in every phase of governmental and medical development for many years and provides council in each move toward peace. We spoke of the need for freedom for Gaza. The vote to accept Palestine as an observer state in the UN has created a window of hope.
Throughout Gaza, a sense of possibility is reported. We look for a day when the infrastructure of Gaza can be repaired instead of destroyed – when electricity is available continuously, when the water can be cleaned and the sewage safely treated. We look for a day when there are enough schools to house the children seeking education, when trade with the outside world can be fulsome, when fishing can be extended to the deep sea area. The population of Gaza prizes education and wants to extend all phases of educational offerings – including advanced medical education and research. The possibility exists. Last Spring, I asked a friend in Gaza how long it had been since he turned on a faucet and took a drink of water. He paused and replied, “Never.” We look for the day when his response will be “Today.”
This evening, Ann Wright and a group from Code Pink visited the hotel where Laura and I are staying. I visited briefly with them and heard that when Pillar of Cloud started, they had rapidly gathered a group of more than twenty people to come to Gaza. They are observing and learning and will return to their countries to help others become more aware of the situation here.
Perhaps others will hear what we are hearing: the shelling in Pillar of Cloud created fires that were difficult to put out; agricultural areas were shelled and there is concern about what poisons future crops may contain; there is a group gathering water from rain puddles to see what chemicals are in the air; there is concern about what properties were used in the bombs dropped by Israel – did they contain Uranium 238 or some other permanently dangerous properties. So while hope exists, the realities of war – the fatalities, the injuries to people and land, the ongoing sense of trauma exist. We are constantly inspired by the courage of the people we meet.
After visiting again with the Director of International Coordination for Medical Care, Laura and Mahmoud and I visited Shifa and Al Awda Hospitals. Shifa was busy with visiting delegations and journalists – we visited with a man whose leg was crushed in a collapsing building during the Pillar of Cloud bombing. The uncle of a baby whose hip and leg were broken in another bombed building sat outside the hospital waiting for a car to take them home. The baby’s mother was home with another child and his father was still in the hospital – recovering slowly from serious injuries sustained during the bombing.
At Al Awda Hospital, one of the physicians told us he has lost most of his hearing as a result of a bomb blast – the explosion destroying the car driving next to this doctor’s car. Al Awda is located in Jabalyia Refugee Camp – one of the most densely populated places on earth – and received bomb damage in several areas.
We also visited with a young man who was shot yesterday in the newly opened “no go” agricultural area near the border with Israel. This young man was with friends and received a vessel-shattering wound to his groin. He crawled to his friends who then rushed him to the hospital (in private transportation). On arrival, he was in cardiac arrest and had nearly bled to death. Today, he was awake and stable enough to hold his little son.
In the afternoon, we accompanied Dr. Mona Farrah of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) to a school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This school serves middle school boys and runs two shifts of 1140 children per shift. During Pillar of Cloud, 300 families (2000 people) were housed in the school. Many schools housed people whose homes were deemed to be in the path of bombs, but 70 schools were injured – there was no safe place. Over and over, we hear that the leaflets dropped by Israel, warning of coming bombs created chaos because there were no assured safe places to go.
MECA has installed water purification systems in 16 schools in Gaza. Because 95% of the water here is unsafe for drinking, the purification of water is a major concern. The isolation and imprisonment of Gaza has many serious public effects – including a sense that the world often forgets that 1.7 million people are living under conditions creating increasing public health crises.
Staff of the school voiced interest in developing pen pal relationships for their students with students in the United States. The resilience of the people continues.
Leaving the Prison
This morning, Laura and I left Gaza. I’ve visited Gaza many times and have left through the Erez Checkpoint to Israel every time. Never have I had a deeper sense of leaving a prison. The cab ride from Gaza City takes about ½ hour. The first stop is at the Hamas checkpoint where passports were checked and we were sent on our way. Since Pillar of Cloud, private cars or cabs coming from Gaza can no longer take passengers from the Hamas checkpoint to the departure from Gaza checkpoint – so a second cab is required for this ½ + mile. At the departure checkpoint, further passport inspection is required and after about 10 minutes (briefer than usual) Laura and I were on our way to Erez – pulling our bags through the ½ mile cage/tunnel to the first set of doors. Through the doors to the first inspection of our luggage, to the first set of turnstiles – up a long sloped floor to another door, down a hall to the second set of turnstiles and into the first gathering room where all luggage/purses/cameras/computers, etc are surrendered to large white bins and an up-sloping conveyor belt that takes everything to an unseen place for an unknown amount of time.
And then the wait begins…ten to twenty people crowd into a small room behind a security-screening device – imagine your basic airport hands-up-in-the-air device and morph it into a more space age whirring-around-the-body device. Today, Sunday, following the 36 hours of Erez weekend closure, there were dozens and dozens of people waiting to pass from Gaza. Many of these people were ill, many were children, many were mothers or fathers or grandparents accompanying an ill child or adult, some were businessmen. There is no line to enter the screening – everyone crowds into everyone else and some feel entitled to step in front of others. At one point, after about 30 minutes, I became impatient with healthy men who were crowding in front of women with sick children and I wedged myself between a group of these women and a group of the men – holding one woman after another in place to enter the screening … one elderly woman put her head on my shoulder and kept smiling at me until she was accepted into the screening. At last, I followed that woman and when we had each completed the next phase of double screening (going back to be checked again in the device); I encountered her in a small open room (Israeli security people looking down at us.) We smiled at each other and hugged – at which point, I was loudly chastised and ordered into two further screening areas, including a partial disrobing search – what a morning!! By the time, I cleared all of the multiple checks, Laura had gathered our luggage and we passed one-by-one through passport control, into the day and through the Erez fence.
Please note: Our passing is relatively easy – multiply the steps required for a Palestinian leaving Gaza.
By late morning, we arrived in Bethlehem and were greeted by our dear friend Zoughbi Zoughbi, Director of Wi’am. We reviewed some of our time in Gaza and then took a cab to Jericho to visit Zoughbi’s relatives. As we approached Jericho, I mentioned that I had always wished to visit the monastery on the Mount of Temptation. With hardly a hesitation, we were climbing a rocky path up the mountain. The view from there over Jericho to the Dead Sea and Jordan is spectacular. We were blessed with a clear, lightly sunny day and as we walked and talked about the future of Palestine, we were treated to a wonderful time for reflection.
Tomorrow, we’ll be talking more about the “next time” we come to Palestine and Israel – and then Laura and I will fly back to Washington. Each time I do this, I am reminded about the inequity of my freedom to travel vs. the incredible challenges faced by Palestinians who wish to travel. Leaving the open-air prison of Gaza is a bit difficult but travel for Palestinians is plainly hard. Palestinians are stateless, they carry Palestinian identification, not a state-issued passport and many of the privileges of citizenship in a state do not pertain to them. Most of the people we talked to here hold the hope that the recent UN vote will help to move the Palestinian people closer to having a place they call their state. I hope the next step for them is freedom – which as Yeshayahu Liebowitz, winner of the 1993 Israel prize stated, will only come with justice. A final note – this is the hope of all my Israeli friends as well.