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Postcards from Palestine

Speaking through the prison cell: Video call with Gazans

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 - Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine

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Snapshot of our video conference with student and youth activists in Gaza.

We began by driving to Ramallah—our first full day in the West Bank. On the drive, Said, the guide for our delegation pointed out how the road we traveled on changed from East Jerusalem (under Israeli control) to the West Bank without any notice (like the checkpoints you would see in areas that border 1948 Israel or illegal settlements on Palestinian land).

In Ramallah, we began with a video conference with student and youth activists from Gaza. For the majority of the conversation, we spoke with three women - Aya, Louba and Samar. We began the conversation by acknowledging what a privilege it is to be talking with them - and what a privilege it was to be in the West Bank. During our chat, one of our delegates asked how they compare life under Hamas (the government of the Gaza Strip) to life under Fatah (government of parts of the West Bank). The student responded that she can only talk about life in Gaza because she is not allowed to visit the West Bank. She can currently never know what life is like for her fellow Palestinians living just miles away due to the restrictions Israel has placed on the ability of Palestinians to travel in and out of various areas.

I had heard about these restrictions before and have heard them mentioned while talking to students about why they should support justice in Palestine, but it wasn’t until this moment - writing this blog post - that the restrictions really set in. Aya, Samar and Louba cannot see their family or friends, cannot know what it’s like to live under direct Israeli occupation (in the West Bank), can only know these experiences through online interactions and secondhand information. They cannot go to Palestinian universities in the West Bank or to universities in Israel. (Only three Gazans have been permitted to study in the West Bank since 2000, when Israel began its restrictions on movement.)

To me, no additional information should be required to see why the occupation is wrong. No legal codes need to be cited—this is about a simple and fundamental human right—to have the freedom to move, freedom to travel, freedom to visit family and friends.

Aya recounted how, during the year she was studying in the United Kingdom, she thought she’d be able to visit the West Bank and Jerusalem under a tourist visa since she was no longer in Gaza. My friends in the UK could visit Jerusalem, but I cannot—she told us.

“It took me 22 years to realize I was living in a prison,” she said - alluding to the metaphor I’ve heard so many people use for the Gaza Strip—the world’s largest open-air prison.

Caged in on three sides by Israel (through land, sea and air) and on the fourth by Egypt, Gaza’s 1.5 million residents live in an area that is 25 miles long and 4 miles wide. It is one of the densest urban populations in the world and by 2020, it will be unlivable.

The youth also described the conditions facing people in Gaza - shortages in water, electricity, medicine, food and gas— among other necessities — because Israel controls what can be let in/out.

“We joke with people - don’t get sick, because even if it’s something small, you may die,” Aya said.

Aya also told a joke about electricity, but first some context: Israel provides Gaza with 120MW of power; Egypt with 22. Gaza needs a minimum of 350 megawatts to provide basic services for hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. There is only one privately owned power station in Gaza.

Aya tols us that one day, the power stayed on the entire 24 hours and people thought of calling the electricity company to tell them they forgot to shut off the power. Funny, right?

It’s not funny when students have to take finals in the dark, and it’s even less funny when we’re talking about life or death situations in hospitals.

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Learn more at Visualizing Palestine: http://visualizingpalestine.org/infographic/gaza-water-confined

The women spoke about their activism related to empowering other young women in Gaza. While noting that some conditions of living under a religious government are especially hard for women, they were careful to note that the rest of the world should not diminish its focus on Israel’s stronghold on Gaza.

“People who are politically oppressed often become socially oppressed.”

I began to feel hopeless listening to the students talk. But I was reminded of what Syndey had said to us the night before about who has the right to feel hopeless. The Palestinians who suffer these experiences have every right to feel hopeless—but that right does not extend to us. It is our job as people who are on the ground witnessing what is going on to relay the despair that many people here feel, but to also communicate what we can do to end these conditions and suffering. One major contribution is through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

An absolute majority of Palestinian civil society issued a call to the rest of the world in 2005 to put pressure on Israel to end its oppressive policies through tactics of boycotts, divestment, and/or sanctions against Israel. The “peace process” that many have witnessed over the last 20 years and that is again at the fore of mainstream conversations on Palestine and Israel, has done nothing to bring “peace with justice” to the Palestinians. It has only stalled progress while Israel has continued to build illegal settlements on land that the international community acknowledges would belong to a future Palestinian state.

Nearly everyone we’ve spoken to so far has commented that the two-state solution (an independent Palestinian state adjacent to an independent Israeli state) is dead. The only form of pressure that Israel has received in terms of settlements and justice for Palestinians has come through some form of BDS—whether it’s the rise of divestment movements in church groups and college campuses across the West, of academic and cultural boycotts from teachers unions in Northern Ireland, the Association for Asian American Studies or from renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, or the threats of the EU to refuse to do business with Israel unless it acknowledges its 1967 borders (and effectively cedes Israeli settler land back to the Palestinians).

“This is a tipping point—not the tipping point, but a tipping point,” Omar Barghouti, scholar and founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) said to us later that day.

And to hear students in Gaza call on us to do our part in supporting BDS resonated with the work that many of us are already doing in our schools and communities around the nation.

So even in my hopelessness, I did feel inspired.

I left with a heart that was at once light and at once heavy—people in Gaza bear some of the worst injustices of the occupation. You can read about their most recent sufferings at the Stanford Daily link below.

I commit to heeding the call to supporting the liberation of Aya, Samar and Louba from their prison through whatever tactics of BDS make sense in my local contexts.

I look forward to the day when they can meet their sisters and brothers in the West Bank in person.

Inshallah!

 

If you’re curious about what you can do to help students and youth in Gaza, you can start by signing their petition for academic freedom and the ability to cross borders for university level schooling:

http://takeaction.amnestyusa.org/site/c.6oJCLQPAJiJUG/b.8624591/k.D2C/Help_Palestinian_Students_Access_Education/apps/ka/ct/contactcustom.asp

To read some more of my writing on Gaza, look here:

http://www.stanforddaily.com/2012/11/14/gaza/