This month, U.S. congressmen, including Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), were refused entry into the Gaza Strip at the Erez crossing while on a fact-finding mission in Israel-Palestine. Israeli authorities, without elaboration, claimed that their application had not met the criteria necessary to enter. Apparently elected U.S. congressmen inspecting American taxpayer-funded projects and reviewing U.S. aid to Palestinians in Gaza is not worthy criteria.
Bernie Sanders’s representatives to the Democratic platform committee have brought the plight of the Palestinians into the national political debate. This could become a breakthrough moment, presaging policies that address the security of both Israelis and Palestinians as being mutually inclusive.
Some have suggested that the members of Congress may have been turned away from Gaza by Israel through the influence of the U.S. State Department, attempting to prevent Democratic members from elevating the issue of Israel-Palestine. Whatever the motivation, in that moment of rejection, those Congressmen experienced a small taste of the restrictions on freedom of movement that Palestinians live daily. For the Palestinians in Gaza, living under a blockade that just entered its 10th year, virtually all movement in and out is prohibited.
As I watched the Israeli military assault on Gaza in 2014, I was desperate to help. I looked to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, mandated with providing essential services for Palestine refugees, and joined the board of its nonprofit arm, UNRWA USA. Last spring, I traveled with UNWRA USA staff to the occupied Palestinian territory — the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip — to visit our projects, ascertain living conditions and witness for myself the political and economic situation. The trip was my first to Gaza. Had the other members of Congress been permitted to enter Gaza, they may have seen for themselves what I witnessed firsthand.
At Erez, the Israeli-controlled crossing into Gaza, I passed through chutes that resembled the herding bays that lead cattle into an abattoir — a standard feature of Israeli checkpoints throughout the occupied Palestinian territory. As we waited for our entry to be approved, young Israeli guards paraded around with automatic weapons.
Once in Gaza, I met Palestine refugees who had faced unimaginable tragedies, like Amal*, a mother who fled the war in Syria with her 13 children. After a perilous journey, they arrived in Gaza only to find themselves under Israeli fire a few weeks later. I met the Nasser family from northern Gaza, whose home had been destroyed in the 2014 assault. I heard their account of fleeing their home under the cover of darkness, petrified, with distraught children and a pregnant mother. When I met them, they were still living in a collective shelter in an UNRWA school with hundreds of other families, a full nine months later.
Two years after the latest Israeli assault, rebuilding in Gaza is going at a snail’s pace. Over 12,600 houses had been completely destroyed, 6,500 severely damaged, and another 150,000 uninhabitable due to damage. Tens of thousands of people remain internally displaced as the lack of funds and Israeli restrictions on building materials hamper efforts to rebuild.
Three major Israeli assaults on Gaza in the last eight years have left their mark, and the scars are not just physical. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is visible throughout the communities I visited, and beyond. Eight-year-old Gazan children have already experienced three devastating military incursions. Children, living in constant fear, experience nightmares and bedwetting. According to the UNRWA, PTSD rates rose 100 percent in 2012 — 42 percent of patients were under the age of 9. The 2014 assault compounded their suffering. The UNRWA’s community health program provides invaluable support to these children and their parents, through group and individual counseling. I sat on the floor and saw the relief that came to a group of children in an art therapy session held at the school that was serving as their shelter.
The Israeli military assaults may be periodical, but the blockade is a constant. This June, the illegal Israeli blockade on Gaza began its 10th year. Israel, with the help of Egypt, prevents all access to and from the Gaza Strip by sea and air, and the movement of people and goods in and out of the coastal enclave is restricted to just three crossings. The blockade means all food, water, energy, building supplies and medical supplies are controlled by Israel. Only Palestinian medical and humanitarian cases have a faint hope of leaving. The U.N. has repeatedly highlighted the illegality of the blockade as a form of collective punishment and called for it to be lifted, but to no avail.
Due to the blockade, Gaza has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. Eighty percent of the population relies on the UNRWA for humanitarian aid, and the agency will provide critical food assistance to an unprecedented 1 million Palestine refugees there this year. This food insecurity is entirely a man-made problem.
Gaza’s economy is under complete Israeli control. This humanitarian crisis is being engineered. A trapped population witnesses the Gaza Strip undergo de-development and suffers from relentlessly mounting psychosocial pressures, while the international community picks up the tab.
In such an untenable situation, the UNRWA is quite literally a life-sustaining force. Its schools, health facilities, food assistance, and other services are a lifeline for Palestine refugees — not just in Gaza, but in the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and war-ravaged Syria.
Through the services it provides to Palestine refugees, the UNRWA is a beacon of hope for peace and stability in the region. Unfortunately, year after year, it struggles to meet its funding needs as donor countries grow less confident that their investments will not be blown up. As the international community’s interest cools, the Palestinians’ challenges grow.
And while the world debates the actions of the Israeli government, especially in Gaza, a humanitarian crisis of monumental proportions grows. Israel’s legitimate security concerns are being undermined, not aided, by the illegal siege and blockade of Gaza, which is increasing the level of desperation among Gazans. Israel’s government is unable to achieve a constructive reassessment of its position and is itself trapped in a loop of endless conflict.
It’s time for friends of Israel in the international community to take concrete steps towards guiding Israel to ending the siege and blockade of Gaza, and the misery and suffering which the siege and blockade has brought to the 1.8 million Palestinians living there.
It would also behoove Israel to be diplomatic when hosting visiting members of the U.S. Congress that they rely upon for security and support.
*Names have been changed for privacy considerations.