It has been nearly one year since Israel launched "Operation Cast Lead," on Dec. 27, 2008. It was at 11:30 a.m. that 88 Israeli aircraft flew above the Gaza Strip and simultaneously struck 100 targets within a span of just 220 seconds. Thirty minutes later, a second wave of 60 jets and helicopters struck an additional 60 targets. Among the "casualties" were all civilian police stations and government administration buildings, along with the American International School. At least 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 700 injured on that one day alone.
Twenty-one days -- and more than 1,000 Palestinian lives -- later, the invasion officially ended, and the international "community" heaved a sigh of relief and proceeded to turn its back. On the ground in the Gaza Strip, however, the invasion feels very much like it never ended -- only this time it appears designed to finish the job with a slow death, under the radar of the global spotlight. We must not let that happen.
On Dec. 29, more than 500 human rights advocates from around the world will converge on the Rafah Crossing from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. The goal of the Gaza Freedom Marchers: to enter Gaza, join in solidarity with the 1.5 million Palestinians literally imprisoned there, and -- on Dec. 31 -- march in non-violent unison to the Erez crossing into Israel. Our demand: Israel -- and all governments that enable it, including Egypt -- must open the borders in and out of Gaza now.
Since January 2006, when Palestinians had the audacity to choose their own government (led by Hamas) in elections widely recognized as free and fair, Israel has imposed collective punishment on Gaza in the form of a crushing blockade. Less than a quarter of the volume of supplies they normally need have been allowed in since December 2005 -- and in some weeks, the trickle permitted by Israel is significantly less. Israel maintains a list of "dual-use" items such as steel pipes and fertilizer, which it says could be used to manufacture weapons. These are never allowed in, with rare exceptions for "special humanitarian cases."
Then there are materials such as building supplies -- cement, glass, wood, for example -- that are desperately needed to rebuild the more than 20,000 homes and 90 per cent of businesses that were damaged or destroyed by the Israeli army. These supplies also are virtually never allowed in, with the stated excuse that Hamas might benefit. As a result, many Gaza residents are forced to live among the rubble, in the ruins of their homes or in pop-up tents never meant to house families of eight -- and certainly not for longer than a few weeks. Other than these goods - along with items considered vital to human life -- no specific list of what supplies are and are not permitted entry is disseminated. In other words, it's a deliberately cruel guessing game. The UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees reports that items that have been inexplicably refused entry include light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta and tea. As the school year began this fall, chronic shortages of everything from paper, textbooks and ink cartridges to school uniforms, school bags and computers were rampant.
The bottom line: The UN trade and development agency says 90 per cent of Gaza's residents are living beneath the poverty line, and damages caused by Israel's Operation Cast Lead are estimated at $4 billion. Yet no rebuilding can begin, and no industry can thrive when the borders are hermetically sealed.
However, after visiting the Gaza Strip twice this year what most wrenched my heart was the lack of plans and hopes for the future. As one of my friends in Gaza told me recently, "every day is the same: all I see before me is an endless monotony -- no way to use my skills to support myself or my family, and no prospect of relief." There are few jobs to be had, and as the Strip's five universities churn out more graduates every year (due to the high value placed on education by the Palestinian culture), the palpable mood of desperation and futility spreads. Although many students in Gaza would like to study abroad, particularly due to the very limited range of master's and PhD programs available, the prison doors remain shut to them as well. Between July and September 2008 (the most recent figures available), no more than 70 students managed to leave Gaza via Israel. Yet, more than 1,000 students from Gaza apply to universities around the world every year only to discover they can't get out.
It is these young people who will decide the future of the Gaza Strip, and of the region. What are Israel's stated reasons for keeping the "prison door" shut? Arieh Mekel from the Israeli foreign ministry was recently taped telling ABC News: "Education is not as urgent as the need for medical care...And anyway, the problem is in Gaza and with the people of Gaza who voted for Hamas. We do what we can, but while Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and while rockets are still being fired at Israelis, Palestinian students seeking education are not a priority."
An effective way to "outsmart" extremism is to encourage secular education and exposure to other points of view, while giving the people hope for their future. The policy of depriving Palestinians of a competitive education as well as gainful employment makes three of these goals nearly impossible. And that's why the plight of these students will be a major focus of the Gaza Freedom March. There are currently about 850 young people in Gaza who have attempted to study abroad, but who were turned back at the Egyptian or Israeli border. We hope to convince the universities who had originally accepted them to reinstate their invitations, then we will attempt to take these students out with us upon the conclusion of the march.
One young man from Gaza Strip, who will complete his degree in English literature in January, dreams of earning a master's in journalism, and then returning home. "We would not be fair to Gaza if we leave it to the control of thugs and those shouldering rifles... ," writes 24-year-old Mohammed Said El-Nadi in his blog. "There are more than one thousand reasons that push people to leave Gaza. However,... this is our only homeland. We must roll up our sleeves and start right away to rebuild what has been destroyed. We must bravely accept the challenge and start forging ahead to restore our glory. We should have faith...and believe in our potential..."
Perhaps that is just what scares Israel the most....Let's show Israel the world will no longer accept this wanton and cruel suffocation of human potential. Join us in the Gaza Freedom March, either actively on the ground in Gaza or here at home.
Readers interested in attending the march should visit Gaza Freedom March -- deadline for joining is Nov. 30.
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