Monday, January 12, 2009

Getting in to Gaza

From Chris Davies MEP (and only a day late this time, Rob's Uncle!) :-

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*GETTING IN TO GAZA*
*Sunday, 11 January 2009*
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We travelled up from Cairo through the Sinai in a coach with an Egyptian
police escort. Assembling our team of 8 MEPs took a long time at the
airport, and what with confusion about where to stay we didn´t put our
heads down till past 3am. More confusion in the morning delayed us getting
to the Rafah crossing till just before noon. It didn´t seem to matter;
UNRWA had already called to tell us that the Israeli Defence Ministry was
not prepared to let their vehicles meet us. A series of telephone calls
had produced conflicting stories but the result was the same: ¨No way are
you getting in!¨ This fact-finding trip was going to prove nothing more
than a gesture.

I´ve been to the Rafah crossing before but last time approached it from
within Gaza. It´s a modern border control complex, a smaller version of
the Channel Tunnel vehicle entrance all paid for with EU money. There are
passport control offices, a cafeteria, even a duty free shop – but it´s a
fiction, they are all empty and covered in dust. The Israeli siege of Gaza
has kept the flow of goods and people to Egypt to a minimum.

Escorted by the mayor of the Egyptian town of Rafah we climbed onto a
rooftop platform to look across at Gaza City. All was quiet; ¨bombing is
at night,¨ we were told. Returning to the ground we talked with Egyptian
ambulance drivers, waiting to take the injured coming out of Gaza. They
were all lined up with nothing to do it seemed. We chatted to various
journalists, all of them frustrated at not being able to cross into the
Gaza Strip.

Then a flurry. ¨Get into the minibus, GET IN, GET IN!¨ For unknown reasons
a window of opportunity had opened. It was 2.20pm and the ´ceasefire´
lasted till 4pm. We passed through the gate to be met by UNWRA´s director
of operations John Ging and three bullet proof (really heavy doors) UN
Range Rovers. We transferred and drove into the Palestinian town of Rafah
(yes, there are two Rafahs), passing a few bombed buildings on the way,
probably ones that had cloaked entrance/exit routes to tunnels across the
border. In so doing we may have become the first ´observers´ to cross
since the assault began 16 days ago.

It´s a funny thing about a bombed building but I always find that, even
though they may have been destroyed by a devastating explosion just
yesterday, they look as though the incident took place a year or two ago.
And maybe, their appearance suggests, it wasn´t a bombing at all but a
demolition job by a firm that went into liquidation just after the work
commenced. So long as it is not your own building it somehow diminishes
the impact.

The journey was short, just a mile or so. There were lots of people on the
streets taking advantage of the ceasefire - ¨The streets are deserted
except during these periods,¨ explained our UN security guide - but very
few vehicles except the occasional cart pulled by a donkey. We turned into
the compound of a UN distribution centre. There was time only to look at
the devastation of a former police station opposite, and exchange a few
words both about the damage to the UN buildings and the distribution
operation with John Ging. I asked him about the Israeli defence for
civilian casualties being that Hamas uses human shields to cover its
operations. His response was dismissive, and when you looked around at the
context of a war in the midst of a living community you could see why.

Suddenly there was a huge bang; the ground shook and so did my stomach. An
Israeli blast during ceasefire. It may have been 6-700 metres away but it
felt bloody close! What must this be like for people who really are close?
Allegedly, we learnt later, it was a response to Hamas rocket attacks.

Back in the vehicles we drive a short distance through back streets to a
primary school being used as a shelter. ¨The UN has 71 ´shelters´ across
Gaza and we have 30,000 people in them whose homes have been bombed or are
at risk,” said John. ¨Some of them, just like this, have been hit
nonetheless as you will know.¨ It seemed to me that most of the residents
were children, and they were hugely enthusiastic to see us. (At least our
presence changed the routine a bit).

Another Israeli blast, and again the ground and my stomach shook. Smoke
arose between buildings a few hundred metres away. The kids weren´t
phased, ¨Too far off¨ I imagine they were thinking.

Pushing through their numbers, shaking lots of hands and smiling hard,
(some of our team shed tears as soon as they had privacy), we met in a
side room to hear about the distribution arrangements (¨We need more than
just food and medicines, it´s all the essentials of family life, like
bedding for displaced families, and nappies¨).

It was 3.15pm. ¨We need you to go NOW,¨ said John Ging. ¨I am so pleased
you have been here to see this for yourselves. Just take back the message
that the people here need protection. The violence has got to stop. The UN
has got to back up its words about a ceasefire with some real action and
pressure.

We walked out of the building into the throng of excited kids, mostly 7-11
year olds. I was struck by how many made ´V for Victory´ gestures with
their fingers. Do the Israelis really believe that bombing urban
communities and terrorising their populations is going to bring them
security? What about the next generation that even now starts to merge
with the existing one?

The streets were still busy but very few people had anything in their
hands. Not much to buy I suppose.

I asked the UN driver about casualties at the hospitals. ¨We´re
approaching 900 dead and more than 3,000 injured,¨ he said. ¨From what we
hear it is mainly ordinary people. Amongst the numbers there do not seem
to be that many young fit men of fighting age that would fit the
´combatant´ category.¨

We get back to the crossing and leave the UN vehicles. Back in the Rafah
compound it´s interview time, and we watch also as a succession of Israeli
F16s cross the sky dropping white flares of some kind. Donkeys pulling
carts in the streets and 21st century killing machines in the air.

Then the explosions start. One of them close enough so that journalists
and ourselves start to move quickly away.

Twenty or 30 minutes later the crossing complex starts to get really busy.
Ambulance after ambulance arrives from Gaza, and their occupants are
transferred to Egyptian ambulances.

Our coach sets off in the direction of Cairo just before sunset.
Ambulances race past on the road south.

Chris Davies MEP
11 January 2009
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