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A Conversation with Justin Podur in Gaza
[Interviewed by Cynthia Peters]
Tell me about Gaza.
During my first few hours here in Gaza, just after I crossed the Erez checkpoint, I passed an orange grove being knocked down by Israeli armored bulldozers. We started to take pictures of what was going on, but nearby tanks fired into the air warning us to stop. We went back the next day to survey the damage and talk to the caretakers of the grove -- a family living in a nearby house. The Israeli army had shot up their house and their water tank. For three days, the whole family was afraid to leave the house.
The Erez checkpoint is close to the Erez settlement. Perhaps the Israeli thinking is that the orange grove could provide cover for some sort of Palestinian operation against the settlement.
Checkpoints are often near settlements. They are sites of tragedies as well as mundane hardship. A few days ago, on June 28th a couple by the last name of Lalooh were shot. Their house was near a checkpoint. The man had gone out to hang up laundry. He was shot by Israeli soldiers. His wife went outside to see what was happening and she was shot as well. She died, and the man is in intensive care.
Another thing you notice at checkpoints is which cars pass through easily and which ones don't. Israelis have orange license plates. Palestinians have green. At just about any checkpoint, you see a long line of green license plates waiting for hours while the orange ones zip right through.
Gaza is completely fenced in. It's like the world's largest prison. To the west is the sea. To the north, south and east are electric fences. Palestinians are not allowed to leave. You know that famous quote that says, "It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer"? Well, here, they've locked up more than a million innocent people.
Gaza is a land mass of 360 square kilometers. Of that, 58% is in hands of Palestinians; 42% is in hands of the Israeli military and settlements. In Palestinian-controlled areas there are 1.25 million people. In the Israeli controlled area, only 4000. That works out to be something like 6000 Palestinians per square kilometer in their areas, and 27 Israelis per square kilometer in their areas. Each settler has 226 times as much space as each Palestinian (leaving aside land quality).
The economy of Gaza is a disaster. Most Israelis commute elsewhere to work. But the Palestinians can't move around. Their unemployment rate is 67%. People have been living off of mutual aid, hospitality, donations and savings, and there is some agriculture, but that can only go on for so long. It's been two years now since Gazans have had to function in this prison.
How do people cope?
People spend a lot of time just trying to get around. The central road between Gaza City and the north has a checkpoint -- making the road almost unusable to Palestinians. People tend to take the long way around on the western road. But the other day, the Israelis set up an impromptu checkpoint on this western road, which meant people had to turn around, leave their cars somewhere and then try to make their way on foot on the beach. The next step, no doubt, will be that the army starts patrolling the beach.
Even the simplest daily practices are a gamble.
Amazingly, people keep finding ways to live their lives. I had a chance recently to visit an art college, where I saw people making sculpture, furniture, and paintings. They have few supplies, the graduates will have no where to work, and travel to and from the college is arduous, but they persevere. Israel claims that if they relax security, they'll risk more suicide bombers. But, as many military experts acknowledge, these security measures do very little to prevent bombings. What we do know about these security measures, however, is that they prevent people from creating art, from going to school, from living their lives.
I visited a technical college where it's the same story. It offers a high level of education, but there are so few prospects for the students who earn their degrees. They have to sleep over in the school in order to attend class with any predictability.
Have international volunteers been active in Gaza as well?
Yes. I'll give you an example of a recent action, which I was not at but which others told me about. In Raffa in southern Gaza, an Israeli bulldozing operation left a broken, open sewer that was becoming a serious public health concern. When workers tried to fix it, they were fired upon by Israelis. They asked internationals to protect them while they fixed it -- so about 20 internationals came, formed a ring around the workers, and the workers fixed the sewer. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has ordered the dismantling of 10 "rogue" settlements. Is this a meaningful gesture in any way?
The problem is not these rogue settlements -- unapproved enclaves of a few people in mobile homes. The problem is the Israeli-approved settlements, which operate under an entirely separate parallel infrastructure. Settlers don't worry about having their electricity or water turned off. Their needs and their freedoms are protected by the Israeli military. They get to walk through walls -- or what are effectively walls for Palestinians. The problem is this systemic protection and nurturing of sanctioned settlements, which represent daily theft from the Palestinians, and provide the military's justification for being there.
Beginning to dismantle this parallel infrastructure would be a meaningful gesture.
What would a two-state solution mean for Gaza?
The question is, how would it work? What happens to Gaza? Are Gazans going to be able to go back and forth to the West Bank? Would there be some sort of bridge or tunnel? Who will control access? From what I've seen, people not being able to move around is the root of so many problems. Without open passage between the two land areas that would make up Palestine, daily life would still be pretty miserable. You can't construct two of the world's largest prisons and then call it a state, and expect that it has anything to do with peace or justice for Palestinians.
This two-state solution is not a peace plan, if peace means peace of mind and a modicum of control over your destiny.
What is the direction of this intifadah?
The problem is there is no goal -- no offensive goal, no defensive goal. The point is to be defiant, to maintain dignity. I've heard many young men and even children give voice to the idea that they have nothing left to choose but how they die.
People sometimes use the argument that maintaining the occupation is a security risk for Israel, but I'm not sure that's true. Israeli civilians are at risk due to suicide bombers, but Israel as a nation is not. The tragedy is what's happening to the Palestinians. And in a way, that's Israel's tragedy as well. What Israelis have to worry about is not what's being done to them, but what they're doing.
Israeli peace activist Neta Golan asked a soldier, "Haven't you learned from the suffering our people have been through?" He answered that he was working to make sure Jews never suffered again. The problem is that in the process of protecting Jews, Israelis are inflicting terrible suffering on the Palestinians. It is a suffering that is within Israel's control to stop.