By Stay Human Convoy
Everywhere in the world, the sea evokes the universal feeling of an endless expanse of water that stretches out to the horizon, as far as the naked eye can see…bearing evocations of limitless possibilities that fire the imagination, bringing forth dreams and desires of travelling beyond one’s native turf.
In this land under military siege, however, where every attack is aimed at undermining the population’s autonomy- thus rendering it dependent upon the ‘generous’ concessions of the oppressors- the sea is first and foremost one of the few remaining outlets for survival and self-sustenance.
In the Gaza Strip, even the sea has been turned into an unbreachable frontier, a constant reminder that these waters, whether calm or angered, hold an ever-present menace that has nothing to do with the forces of nature, and everything to do with oppression.
Gaza’s coastal waters are totally under Israeli military control. Officially, only a small stretch of coastal waters are open to navigation, and there is always the risk of being attacked by the snipers on duty on the Israeli motorboats. Notwithstanding international treaties that provide countries with sovereignty over their coastal waters up to 20 nautical miles from their coasts, in occupied Palestine, its 4000 or so fishermen have to stay within a 3 nautical mile area from the Gaza coast, all the while suffering numerous armed attacks at the hands of the Israeli army- over the past years there have been 150 cases of fishermen being wounded, killed or having their boats confiscated by the Israeli army.
These military operations -not least Operation ‘Cast Lead’- continue to pollute the coastal waters and poison the fish stocks of the Mediterranean Sea, creating yet more problems for one of the main economic activities around this strip of land- also hampering (as a member of the fishermen’s unions also remembers) any form of outdoor activities linked to the sea.
The meeting comes to an end in front of a harbour packed with small boats, each with its own history of resistance; amongst these boats we spot OLIVA, the small boat launched as a tribute to Vittorio Arrigoni a few days after his death. The OLIVA will carry on the monitoring, accompaniment and shielding missions that Vittorio undertook, driven by the dreams of a Mediterranean Sea without borders, where each and everyone may have the right to travel across its waters and explore its shores freely and unharmed. OLIVA, like all the projects in which Vik was involved, has the support of the various groups converging within the convoy, such as the popular comittees against the separation wall and settlements, which made possible the realisation of this dream- this international boat was inaugurated during the first day of the Bil’in Conference on Popular Resistance.
The Convoy’s day proceeds with visits to two of the most important medical centres in Gaza City. As we are setting off, we are lucky to meet and cross paths with a procession held by artist groups contributing on a daily basis to the resistance of the Palestinian people, and who welcome our presence with warmth- something which our Palestinian brothers and sisters here have made us accustomed to.
Our first visit is at Shifa Hospital, which is in full swing. During military attacks, the hospital rescues and treats victims of fire-arms. After Operation ‘Cast Lead’, this hospital carried out researches on the long-term consequences of the Israeli army’s use of unconventional weapons in Gaza, which, it seems, has been turned into an open-air testing ground for Israel. Despite the hospital facing constant threats to its activities and autonomy in the face of military occupation, the medics carry out their valuable work day in and day out, and in fact, Shifa Hospital is the only medical centre in the area able to assist people who have become sterile following Israel’s use of white phosphorus.
The second hospital we visit is Alawda Hospital, situated inside the Jabaliya refugee camp. This hospital was entirely financed by NGO’s, and treated some 500 people during Operation ‘Cast Lead’, benefiting also from the active participation of ISM volunteers- Vittorio was one of them, accompanying ambulances. Hundreds of people from Jabaliya Camp are there to welcome the ‘Stay Human’ Convoy. The camp is home to 190,000 inhabitants, constrained to live within a 1.4 sq km area. Our host of honour is one of the camp’s oldest members. Then there is a football game, which strangely enough ends with a draw, and finally we take leave, having been asked to promise to return very soon.
Without your freedom, we’ll never be free!
In the evening we met with a delegation of comrades, who in 2002 were deported from Bethlehem to Gaza, having resisted the 40 day-long Siege of the Nativity Church by Israeli troops. During those dramatic days, 8 of their men were killed and 12 others were wounded. Those who managed to survive the Siege- despite not having access to food or water- were captured and deported: 26 were sent to Gaza, and 13 others elsewhere in the world, 3 of whom are in Italy.
Initially this was meant to be a one year long exile. But the year became years, and now it has been more than 9 years, during which time these men have not been able to return to Bethlehem under any circumstances whatsoever, not even to attend the funeral of loved ones. Some of these men have in fact been made refugees twice. Once, having been born and brought up in refugee camps in Palestine. And a second time again, after the Israeli government exiled them in 2002.
The delegation told us that at first, the European Union attempted to find a solution. Soon, however, the absence of any tangible results made them realize that some highly placed people must have been asked to intervene against them, as is often the fate everywhere in the world of people who fight for freedom.
The delegation also wanted to underline the fact that the tragedy of these deportations will never fade away from people’s memories with the passing of generations –however much Israel would like this to happen- because people nurture in their children an awareness of their rights: the keys of the houses that were taken away from their forefathers are now in their possession.
Finally, the delegation wanted to send Vittorio’s mother the following message: ‘You lost a son, but as of now you can consider all Palestinian people your children’.
– Follow the Stay Human Convoy at their website: http://vik2gaza.org/en. This article was contributed to PalestineChronicle.com.