I was honoured to have been invited to be part of the Council for European-Palestinian Relations (CEPR) Delegation to Gaza and witness first-hand the conditions faced by the population of more than 1.5 million people, 1.1 million of whom are Palestinian refugees.
CEPR is an independent not-for-profit organisation established to promote dialogue and understanding between European, Palestinian and Arab parliamentarians and policy-makers. It seeks a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on justice and the restoration of Palestinian rights in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.
The purpose of the delegation, which included elected politicians from the Scotland, the North of Ireland, the Irish Republic, Poland and Portugal, was to assess the social, economic, and political situation in Gaza, six years after the siege was initiated by Israel, and we met NGOs, political leaders, Palestinian officials, the UN and others.
The visit was initially postponed due to the Israeli airstrikes, however, following the ceasefire, it went ahead on the planned date and I travelled with my colleague, Claudia Beamish, the Labour MSP for South of Scotland.
We travelled from Cairo, with an armed military/police escort across the Sinai, to the Raffa crossing into the Gaza Strip and, following a three and a half hour delay at the border, were welcomed by Palestinian politicians and Government Officials.
It was there that we saw the remains of the car driven by the Hamas military leader, which was blown up by the Israeli Air force. That attack, in a densely populated urban street, killed at least seven other people, including a nine-year-old girl and marked the start of a series of Israeli attacks they called ‘Pillar of Defence’ and the Palestinians call ‘the 8 day war’.
We visited the mound of rubble that was the Al Dula family home, a house brought down by an Israeli airstrike killing ten family members, including women and children; various totally or partially destroyed sites in residential areas including civil services offices, the Islamic National Bank, the Al Jazeera Club, a sports club for disabled males and females athletes and the Al Yarmouk Football stadium where bombs were dropped in either goal-mouth, the Israeli pilot boasting he’d ‘scored a goal’.
At the Al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s main hospital, we received a briefing from the Minister for Health, hospital surgeon Dr Mofed Al Makhalalaty, on the 182 killed and 1,000 plus injured in the recent hostilities and learnt that 46 of the seriously injured had been accepted for treatment by Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.
I was particularly concerned to hear that, despite international lobbying, vital medical equipment, including parts for an MRI scanner, are not allowed in and this callousness cannot be allowed to continue.
We also received briefings from NGOs working in the Strip; EWASH (Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene group) and Oxfam who advised of the disastrous situation with water and sewage infrastructure much of which has been damaged with the blockade preventing the entry of materials necessary to maintain, upgrade, operate and repair the water and sanitation infrastructure. Only 5-10% of the water is safe to drink and poor water quality has led to serious health concerns, with vulnerable groups such as children suffering most. An alarming 80% of wastewater is discharged into the Mediterranean Sea is untreated or only partially treated
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) advised us that years of conflict have left 80 per cent of the population dependent on international assistance. UNWRA provides education, health, relief and social services to the refugees and we visited two of their schools, one closed due to damage when a nearby civil service building was destroyed. The Gazan population places great store in education with a high percentage educated to Masters Degree level. Many young people I spoke with talked of their eagerness to continue their education beyond Gazas’ universities and two I met had lost scholarships, not because of lack of skills, rather because of Israeli delays in processing their visas resulting in the terms having started and offers being withdrawn. We heard UNWRA’s doctors see 120 patients a day, 3 minutes for each, and it’s apparent that the scale of the medical challenges faced is significant. We also visited the UNWRA food distribution point within Jabaila Camp, immediately adjacent to one of the police stations destroyed in airstrikes.
The Delegation visited the Palestinian Legislative Council and Prime Minister Ismail Haniya who spoke frankly about the challenges faced by his people as a consequence of the blockade and his willingness to talk with others about the future and the creation of a Palestinian state.
I was interviewed by Syrian television and asked why I thought the West was concerned about Syria but not about Gaza. I believe this is a complicated issue with the United States the key player. Israel is the major beneficiary of US military aid and a major offender against UN resolutions about illegal settlements. The international community must play its part in seeking a resolution and start by condemn the targeting of non-combatants and journalists and the destruction of civil facilities such as police stations.
In South Africa and the North of Ireland, progress only occurred with talks involving all parties. The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza must resolve their differences and talk with one voice. The international community must recognise Hamas were democratically elected, and remove the ‘terrorist’ classification, enforce international law, bring an immediate end to the blockade and support efforts for a lasting peace
I will work continue to with Claudia Beamish and others to raise awareness of the issues we found and have already submitted a Parliamentary motion, which has drawn cross-party support, and plan meeting Humza Youseff, the Scottish Government’s Minister for External Affairs and International Development about what the Scottish Government can do to help.
Meantime, I have caught up on sleep and can reflect on many fond memories of a fascinating visit and the many wonderfully stoic folk I met.