This month I have given my diary column over to a single topic – my recent visit to Gaza. The visit was organised by the Council for European Palestinian Relations and the delegation consisted of MPs and Members of the European Parliament.
I have tried to give an impression of what we saw and what we were told while we were there. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 war, and today are referred to as the “Palestinian Occupied Territories”. The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank are home to over 400,000 people and are deemed to be illegal under international law.
Palestinian frustration at the lack of progress in securing their own state has led to a political split between the secular Fatah and the islamist Hamas.
The West Bank settlements; the situation in Gaza and the lack of Fatah-Hamas reconciliation remain key factors which undermine the peace process. Our visit particularly focused on the latter two.
Israel does not allow entry to Gaza through the Erez crossing which is the most convenient entry point so it was necessary to go via Egypt and make the long bus journey from Cairo to the Rafah crossing.
However it did give us the opportunity for meetings in Cairo. We were able to discuss the events in Egypt following the uprising which led to the removal of President Mubarak amid popular demands for democracy in the first wave of rebellion which has become known as the Arab Spring and has spread throughout the Middle East.
We met with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic group which is re-launching itself as the Freedom and Justice Party. It has become more moderate than in the past and has strong support. They can expect a strong showing in the coming elections.
We then met with the Trustees Committee of the Revolution who are organising the protests in Tahrir Square. As you can imagine this was an inspirational meeting with some extremely brave professional young people. They take the view that the military council reflects the previous regime and is more interested in self preservation than in moving the country forward.
We travelled by bus across the Sinai Desert but it took us three and a half hours to get out of Cairo. Traffic management will need to be high on the priority list for the new government!
We had to stay overnight in Egypt about an hour from Rafah as it was too dangerous to go any further in the dark. So far it had taken ten hours. On reaching Rafah Crossing we saw three large trucks from Scotland driven all the way with much needed medical supplies donated by Scots. They had been waiting for two days to get in. We later found out they were refused entry because of two items the Egyptian authorities were not happy with but when they agreed not to take them they simply named another two items.
There were crowds of people who had been waiting since 5am to get over the border and home to Gaza. The whole process took four hours until we could enter Gaza and start our first meeting of the visit. When we arrived at the other side we were met by a welcoming party of local members of the Palestinian Legislative Council which has a base in Gaza city as well as Ramallah in the West Bank.
Everyone we spoke to in Gaza had one wish – the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza which is keeping 1.5 million people under siege. UNWRA provide basic food supplies, have job creation programmes and are involved in reconstruction of 10,000 houses or shelters as well as building 100 schools. There are 300 illegal tunnels from Egypt to Gaza through which all manner of goods are transported which are not allowed through the official crossings by Israel. It is cheaper to get reconstruction materials through the tunnels. Meanwhile UNWRA can’t get access to the materials to rebuild the 50,000 homes that are needed. UNWRA faces a current funding shortage and will be forced to cut all food assistance and job creation from October if not resolved.
Gaza used to have a thriving private sector.
One man told us he started a cable manufacturing business in 1996. Eventually he invested in a new factory at a cost of 2m dollars. It was demolished during the Israeli attacks and he received no compensation. During the Israeli attacks 1,480 factories were destroyed out of 2,800. When the blockade is lifted the illegal tunnels will close. The tunnel people compete with business people on a totally unregulated basis and also undercut them and charge high prices for goods businesses need.
The Fatah representatives who are in the minority in Gaza reported on an informal meeting held recently in Istanbul regarding reconciliation between the factions.
They reached agreement on most of the problematic issues such as security, the role of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), elections, and the need to seek national reconciliation on a popular level. We met with a variety of local human rights and international aid organisations including Oxfam. They stressed that their task is to promote basic human needs. The big issues of self determination and other matters we take for granted are luxuries beyond their current reach. They are frustrated by the international communities’ assumption that the siege has been lifted – which it has not.
I had previously visited a refugee camp in the West Bank and found the conditions appalling. I can truly say the one we visited in Gaza was far worse. I visited the house of an elderly woman with a 40 year old disabled son which can only be described as squalor.
We were also able to meet with Ismail Haniyeh who is recognised as PM in Gaza, heading up the successful Hamas Parliamentary Group. He has been pivotal in taking Hamas down a more moderate road.