I popped over to Gaza last weekend to see how things are, only it wasn't that simple. Nobody can just "pop over" to Gaza these days; it requires a great deal of negotiation and planning, and a lot of goodwill from a lot of people, many of them across the border in Egypt. And that's the point; Gaza is not a normal place at the moment, despite the best efforts of the people of Gaza themselves to lead as normal a life as possible. The blockade is the culprit; that and the occupation of Gaza's land, sea and air space by Israel with, paradoxically, Egyptian support. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking that Israel left Gaza in 2005; it evacuated its settlements in 2005 but has maintained an iron grip on the territory ever since, compounded by its immoral and illegal blockade, the collective punishment – a war crime – of 1.5 million people for voting the "wrong" way in 2006.
With the blessing of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was part of an aid convoy to Gaza organised by Partners for Peace and Development for Palestinians (PPDP), a consortium of aid agencies and civil society organisations. Due to delays with shipping the medical aid from Alexandria to El-Arish, the Egyptian government agreed that two peers, an MP and I could pass through the Rafah crossing in advance of the convoy itself. As it turned out, the parliamentarians left on Sunday morning and I followed later the same day and the convoy had still not entered Gaza; that didn't happen until early afternoon on Monday.
Getting through Rafah is part of the experience, and it is not pleasant. There does not appear to be any system at all and you are shuffled back and forwards from one (usually empty) desk to another before The Wait. Just getting through the first gate into the border compound involves The Wait; once inside you are at the mercy of border police who seem to be more concerned with their cigarettes than with helping anyone. At one stage, I was taken off to a room at the other end of the building and told to sit. We soon established that the man at the desk didn't speak English and my Arabic less than basic, so we sat and looked at each other. He, at least, had some work to do; I had time to admire the decoration in his office – drab. After 15 minutes of silence I asked if there was any problem: "No problem." Another 10 minutes went by: "Go." It was another pointless wait, probably imposed simply because the nameless man in civilian clothes had the power to impose it, but I wasn't going to argue. Threading my way back to my travel companions we "only" had two more passport checks before crossing to a warm welcome in Palestine.
The next time someone tells me about Arab solidarity, or the Arab nation, I might do something nasty to them. This is the Egyptian regime that only opened the Rafah crossing in the face of world outrage at the Israeli assault on the Freedom Flotilla. Judging by the agitation of the Egyptian border police at suddenly finding themselves with lots of work to do, I have no doubt that they would much rather keep the crossing closed to save themselves the bother. I was with two members of the House of Lords and one MP and our visit to Gaza had been approved by the Foreign Ministry in Cairo and yet we were still at the mercy of Egyptian police who perhaps saw our presence as an opportunity to wield their power; the experience of ordinary Palestinians must be hellish. Coincidentally, as we were waiting outside the gate, I received a text from George Galloway on an unrelated issue; I can't do anything just now, I texted back, I am at the Rafah crossing. "Allah be with you," came George's perceptive reply.
It was twelve years since my last visit to the Gaza Strip and I wasn't sure what to expect. The Israelis and their supporters in the western media would have us believe that the Hamas government – whose prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, was elected, don't forget, unlike his counterpart in the Ramallah Palestinian Authority, Salam Fayyad – is trying to create a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Gaza. If that was true, then I wouldn't have expected to be kept awake by loud music at our hotel; or felt the need to ask the restaurant to turn the music down so that we could have a conversation; or, if recent news items were anything to go by, to see women using a sheesha in public. The fact is that the people of Gaza, labouring under the blockade, are normal people trying hard to make a go of things under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Our Mr. Fixit for the duration of our visit, an employee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was at pains to point out that he is not a Hamas member and said that while the restaurant we visited is not the norm in Gaza, "it's what the government would like see as the norm". The young owner has sunk his life savings into the venture and while every item on the menu is not always available he is both determined and confident that it will succeed.
Consumer goods are available due to the tunnel economy at the border with Egypt, but at a price. Some Palestinians in Gaza can afford to pay that price, but most cannot. Unemployment is at record levels and around 50% of the people live below the official poverty line of $2 per person per day; just under half of that number are described officially as living in "abject poverty". Efforts to jump-start the economy flounder against the blockade; it is pointless for Israel to "ease" the siege if it doesn't allow two-way traffic of people and goods; people with no food on the table aren't really bothered about Israeli politicians making it possible to buy shampoo. Israel doesn't want to lift the blockade entirely, of course, because that would enable the Hamas government to gain in strength and challenge the nominal authority of the western-backed PA of Mahmoud Abbas. Israel needs a weak Palestinian Authority to continue to get its own way in "negotiations" and a more popular Hamas or, even worse from the Israeli/US point of view, a reconciled Fatah and Hamas, is the worst-case scenario. Viewed from the Gaza side of the fence, reconciliation is not only desirable but possible; the word is that it's the Israelis and the Americans who have told the Egyptian mediators to slow down, giving Israel yet more time to create facts on the ground in the occupied territories.
Reconciliation, of course, would mean a united Palestine, not just united factions, and it must be kept in mind that Gaza and the West Bank cannot and should not be considered in isolation of each other. With Western complicity, Israel is trying to create a Palestinian Authority on a rump West Bank shredded into non-contiguous segments while palming off Gaza to Egypt. Divide and rule is an old colonial trick and we should not allow the Israelis or their US and EU-backers to dictate on this issue. Palestine is one, the people are one and the solution is one.
Although the Israelis destroyed the buildings when they left their settlements in Gaza (so that the Palestinians couldn't use them to accommodate some of the people made homeless by Israeli aggression), the land is being brought back to life again. Thanks to charitable donations from around the world, some of the land vacated by Israeli settlers is now being put to good use growing citrus fruits, olives, date palms and vegetables alongside provision for chickens, beef and dairy cattle, and sheep. Nevertheless, not a single Palestinian I have ever met is happy about living on charity. Without exception, they want to work, but the stranglehold that Israel has on Gaza is choking the life out of their will to carry on. Education dropout rates among young men -traditionally the future family breadwinners are on the increase; why get an education to sit around doing nothing at the end of it? Scratch beneath the optimistic veneer and you find despair.
Nevertheless, when Lord Hylton, Yasmin Qureshi MP and I visited the Islamic University of Gaza which was bombed by the Israelis last year, the US-educated Vice President for External Relations and Professor of Civil Engineering, Rifat Rustom, was proud that the laboratories destroyed by the Israelis were relocated and open for students' use within two weeks of the attack. The university's recent graduation saw enthusiastic graduates leave for uncertain futures because jobs are scarce; according to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) unemployment in Gaza stands at 44% and there is "80% aid dependency". Opportunities to study further at overseas institutions are almost non-existent because of the siege and the lack of money to pay course fees and living expenses.
During the visit, we met ordinary Palestinians whose homes in Deir al-Balah refugee camp had been destroyed by Israeli bombs as recently as 5 days before we arrived. One house survives as four walls with another four accommodating what passes for a kitchen in many homes in the camps; the roofs were blown off in the explosion last week. Even so, three families still call it home. The fact that there is no electricity for most of the day and night is irrelevant to these families, because they have no light fittings in any case. Cooking depends on gas canisters. Water and sewage… well, it's best not to go there. Access to fresh water that meets the WHO's standards is limited. The British charity Interpal – time to admit a vested interest; I'm the chair of trustees – commissioned recently a fresh water project in Meghazi refugee camp which delivers fresh water to refugees. Such projects are the focus of a number of aid agencies these days. Restrictions and politically-motivated attacks on NGOs are designed to stop this kind of provision, with the intention of making life even more unpleasant for the people of Gaza, which is shameful.
The conditions in the refugee camps are appalling, as you might expect. Poverty exists all over the world, of course, but not usually because of illegal military occupation or deliberate policies sustained with the not-so-tacit support of the United States and European Union. And that's what makes the situation of the Palestinians so unacceptable. The rest of Gaza may look and sound buoyant, but that is testament to the resilience of the people more than anything else, for their positive outlook is remarkable given the circumstances. No electricity for hours on end because the EU has stopped paying for the fuel to run the power stations; food shortages and high prices for what is available; unemployment; the occupation and siege; and the ever-present threat of Israeli missiles. Perhaps it was the imminent arrival of the month of Ramadan, but people were very upbeat when, really, they have no reason to be so. As long as the refugee camps and the overall situation for Gaza's 1.1 million registered refugees (75% of Gaza's population) are so damning, the rest of the world has no right to sit back and accept the status quo.
Even though Israel claims to have "eased" the blockade, building materials are still banned from entering Gaza. What little building goes on is done using material salvaged from bomb-damaged buildings or smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt. That means that the 60,000 homes destroyed by the Israeli military during last year's bombardment and invasion have yet to be replaced, leaving thousands still homeless in tents or already overcrowded homes belonging to relatives.
The situation in the territory doesn't have to be like this, of course. A highlight of the trip was a visit to the House of Wisdom – Dar al-Hikmah – an initiative of multiple groups and factions to encourage dialogue within the Palestinian community and between the people of Gaza and the West. The Hamas government is fully supportive as it feels that its message isn't getting across to the western audience in language that is easily understood. One senior source told me that Hamas has no intention "to Talibanise" the people of Gaza; "We are Erdogan, not the Taliban," he added, a reference to Turkey's prime minister widely regarded as a "moderate" Islamist.
This is borne out by Dar al-Hikmah's approach, which is supported by external agencies, including Britain's Forward Thinking charity, a trustee of which is Lord Hylton. He is very enthusiastic about the future if the House of Wisdom can spread some of its eponymous quality.
Responsibility for looking after the interests of Palestinian refugees lies with UNRWA; the Deputy Director of Operations in Gaza told us bluntly that the agency is facing a shortfall of $100m in its general budget. Christer Nordahl explained to our delegation the effect that this has on what UNRWA is able to do; education, for example, is a priority but 90% of its schools have to operate a double shift system to accommodate a growing population of school-age refugees; that's still not enough to cater for everyone. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness said, "Thousands of five and six year olds can't go to UN schools today because of this illegal blockade."
Medical care is also in a state of crisis, with local hospitals and primary care centres struggling to treat patients due to shortages of medicines and medical equipment; spare parts are on the "banned" list so if equipment breaks down it cannot be repaired easily and swiftly. Hospital generators help when the electricity supply is cut off, but they need fuel and that too is still in desperately short supply. In any case, such generators are not built to replace a mains supply permanently, so breakdowns are frequent.
The blockade has been called "murderous", not just because of the people killed by Israeli aggression; patients trying to go abroad for life-saving treatment assuming that they have the funds to pay for it have to get across the border; through Israel this lays them open to approaches by the Israeli security agents who offer to facilitate easy passage in return for information on the situation in Gaza or for an agreement to work as a spy. The crossing at Rafah hasn't been open very long and passage is still difficult, although not entirely impossible. Seriously-ill patients may spend five or six hours in a noisy border post only to face a bumpy forty-minute drive to El-Arish or, if they have to go to Cairo for treatment, a five or six hour road journey which taxes even healthy people. Not everyone makes it.
Israel is recognised as the occupier of the West Bank and Gaza by the UN and, as such, has obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention to provide for the people living under occupation. The simple fact of the matter is that Israel is failing in those obligations. This situation predates the Hamas victory in the Palestinian election in 2006; the presence of Hamas is a pretext for Israel to continue with illegal policies against the people of Palestine but it is not the reason for such policies. That lies within Zionism itself, Israel's founding political ideology.
At the core of the whole issue is the fact that the legitimate human and humanitarian rights of the Palestinians are pushed consistently to one side in the search for political solutions. It was pointed out during this trip that when Muslims and Islam ruled in the Holy Land for centuries, Christians and Jews lived in relative peace alongside their Muslim neighbours, and Hamas, apparently, "does not have an issue with such arrangements". The arrival of political Zionism changed all of that, because Zionism cannot share the land with anyone else; Israel has to be a Jewish state and legislation has been passed in the country's parliament recently to make it obligatory on non-Jewish Israeli citizens to acknowledge that.
It is surely time for the international community and its parliamentarians who pay homage to democracy and democratic values to stand up for the human rights of the Palestinians over and above the security of the state that has usurped those rights in defiance of international law and conventions for at least six decades. As more and more parliamentarians from Europe and beyond actually visit Gaza to see for themselves what the pejorative "Hamasistan" really looks like – and I have heard parliamentarians whisper after previous visits that Hamas is "more open, honest and ready for peace than Fatah" – perhaps politics will be pushed to one side and the search for peace with justice will begin in earnest.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.