Bernard Sabella: A Gaza Visit

By Dr. Bernard Sabella
As a Palestinian parliamentarian I was in Gaza for the few days prior to the formation of the Palestinian National Unity Government and for the vote of confidence on Saturday March 17th. My impressions of Gaza, both in terms of it being a big prison encampment with Israeli guards all around its borders and of the effects of internal fighting between different Palestinian factions, reinforced my belief that the formation of a national unity government is a needed step in the right direction. Gaza’s economic situation as well as its social fabric, particularly relations between clans and extended families caught up in internal strife, is cause for serious concern. Of the Gaza population of 1.4 million living on 365 square kilometers 68.2% are below the age of 24 years. Children, 14 years and younger, make up 48.5% of the entire population. Gaza has the Mediterranean, as a limited outlet, but even the sea does not provide long term solace as it is monitored closely by the Israelis, which leads to the sporadic killing of Palestinian fishermen by Israeli gunboats when they are spotted off limits. Another cause for concern is the environmental disaster that the Mediterranean is suffering due, in part, to the untreated sewage and waste spilling onto its shores. There were projects planned to increase the treatment of sewage and waste but these had to be scrapped because of the election of Hamas and the subsequent boycott by donor states. Desalinization projects remain limited but one can spot medium sized trucks with motors for desalinization of home water. Gaza pipe water is not suitable for drinking because it contains an unacceptably high concentration of salt. Civil society organizations remain active and together with international partners continue to offer services to the population that cover physical and mental health, educational and vocational programs, youth activities and sports, human rights and advocacy among others. These, however, remain limited but offer much needed hope in a dismal situation. I had the opportunity to visit a Primary Family Health Clinic and a Mobile Dental Clinic both run by the Near East Council of Churches. The fact that there were well over fifty expecting mothers in the Family Clinic says much to the quality of service offered and the professionalism with which the Clinic is run.

Gaza is in dire need of rehabilitation and reconstruction. If left alone, Gaza will sink not into the Mediterranean, as someone once wished, but in internal chaos and disorder. This will definitely affect prospects for Arab-Israeli peace but most important it will further detach and disconnect the Palestinian Territories from each other and, I am afraid, may also detach areas within the Gaza Strip itself from each other. The overwhelming vote of confidence 83 for and 3 against given to the Palestinian National Unity Government reflects the keenness of the Palestinian Legislative Council and its members, across the political spectrum, to seeking a way out of the current overall impasse. The ceaseless efforts in the past few months of President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian National Authority to bring the factions together on a joint political platform bore fruit in the MECCA meeting of February 2007. The meeting held under the auspices of His Majesty King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was the culmination of efforts at Palestinian unity first undertook by Egypt, Qatar, Syria, Jordan and Yemen among other Arab States. While one remains optimistic about the expected fruits of a unity government, much needs to be done in order to restore a sense of harmony and reconciliation especially among those in the Gaza Strip who suffered the consequences of the internal strife. The unity government should give this its priority. But as important the Palestinian government should deal with all signs of lawlessness and disorder and should do all in its power to restore a sense of security to its own people first and foremost. Without such a feeling, Palestinians will see this government as yet another attempt to make do with appearances of national unity without transforming the harsh realities on the ground.

Accordingly, the primary challenge is internal and it brings with it the need to keep the Gaza Strip open and accessible to all. Particularly important in this respect is the relatively free access of the international media to the Gaza Strip. The kidnapping by masked gunmen of Alan Johnston on March 12th, the BBC experienced reporter who has lived in Gaza for the last three years, had shocked not only his Palestinian media colleagues and friends but also Palestinians of all walks of life. The quick release of Alan would restore confidence of our people that security is indeed a top priority of the unity government. It would also send a clear cut message to international friends, supporters and partners that they are welcome to come and stay with us in Gaza and elsewhere in the Palestinian Territories and that we do not accept the closure and encampment policies of Israel and its occupying forces.

As the Arab World prepares to the upcoming Riyadh Arab Summit on March 29th the expectations of our Palestinian people is for the Summit to consolidate and strengthen the government of national unity in order for it to bring law and order and to do the needed planning for reconstruction of the economy, service and public sectors. The Riyadh Arab Summit needs to take a comprehensive view of the Occupied Palestinian Territories with special attention to the Gaza Strip and to East Jerusalem; both territories are suffering particular afflictions and are in need of immediate intervention and plans of resuscitation. East Jerusalem is being relegated by the various Israeli authorities to a position of an encircled and marginalized city in the greater metropolitan Jerusalem. The construction of the separation wall has carved out East Jerusalem from its natural Palestinian demographic, economic, social, cultural and religious environment. As a result the city is dying and many of its institutions, civil society organizations and indigenous service providers are facing great challenges to stay put in the city. This situation may serve Israel well in the short run but it cannot be a tenable situation in the long run, if Jerusalem is to become the symbol and embodiment of a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

While the advancement of peace is a cherished goal, the efforts and offers of the Riyadh Arab Summit cannot bear fruit if the Israeli counterpart refuses to budge. We have grown accustomed through long time negotiations with Israelis that once a condition is met, another subsequent condition is presented and when this, by its turn, is positively considered, yet a new attendant condition is presented by Israel. We are not sure that Israel really means peace as internal political considerations take precedence over serious peace negotiations. Judging from recent statements, some in the Israeli government do not want to alienate the forces in the Arab World and among Palestinians that seek to promote peace. There remains doubt, however, that the Israeli government and body politic are doing enough to actually advance the peace process. Israeli peace policy may best be characterized as one of appeasement rather than of serious pursuance of peace prospects. Some keep imagining that time is on Israel’s side. In fact a closer look at developments or rather the lack of them will show that no one has really any time to spare.

(DSPR, March 27, 2007) 

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