As I walked through the tight alleyways of Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza earlier this year, I was followed by dozens of curious barefoot children, fascinated that a foreigner had made them a visit. The siege on Gaza has made it nearly impossible for outsiders to enter.
With the children a few steps behind me, smiling and giggling, I made my way through the dusty camp, being greeted and welcomed by Palestinians who came to their doorways as we passed.
I gratefully accepted an invitation from a fisher’s wife to come into their home to see how they lived. She offered me tea on a small silver tray as we stood in her dark kitchen adjacent to one other room, which made up their whole house. Her husband sat on the floor untangling his fishing line after risking his life that day in the sea.
At the time of my visit, Israel had reduced the fishing zone for Gazan fishermen to only three nautical miles. If anyone dared to cross it, they became shooting targets for the Israeli Navy.
At night you could see a line of lights just off the shore, as the fishermen gambled with their lives in hope of catching some fish from sewage-infested waters. The lack of electricity has left the sewage treatment plant basically inoperable, resulting in a swamp of raw human waste pouring directly into the Mediterranean.
‘Please tell people about us’
I was guided into another home where I was greeted by an old man and his wife and daughter who sat behind him on the floor. “His wife is blind,” I was told, as the man glared at me with a sense of hope that perhaps I was there to help them.
He points at the roof, which was open and half missing, and with desperation in his tired eyes, he pleaded: “Please, tell people about us.”
My heart broke and I looked to the ground because I did not have the courage to respond. His hope that perhaps, if I went home and told everyone about the extreme injustice and squalid conditions in Gaza, perhaps humanity would prevail and everyone would come to help.
But really, I knew that I had already told people. That so many already knew about them, and that no one was coming. Instead, my government would continue to vote against their protection and rights.
I continued through the market at Jabaliya camp, my shoes getting stuck in the sludgy floor, filthy from the lack of water for cleaning. There was an overwhelming smell of rotting food, caused by the extreme heat and lack of refrigeration.
Most of the food at the market had been grown in the border towns on very limited agricultural land. The farmers are forced to use ground water on their crops, which is heavily contaminated with salt and human waste.
The majority of the fertile land is in the buffer zone, where farmers risk being shot if they enter. Israeli bulldozers often level and destroy farmers’ crops, further decreasing people’s access to food. The fishing and agricultural restrictions, and Israel’s debilitating siege have caused a total collapse of the economy.
Together with the depletion of water resources and toxic sewage contamination, the UN has warned that by 2020, Gaza will be unliveable.
As the humanitarian catastrophe worsens, the world turns away. The US, which has previously been the major donor of the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, has recently withdrawn all its funding, jeopardising crucial healthcare and education for millions of Palestinian refugees.
Australia has joined forces and cut all funding to the Palestinian Authority and suspended vital support for an agriculture project in Gaza under the Australia Middle East NGO Cooperation Agreement.
Meanwhile, about 80% of people in Gaza depend on food aid, and 30% of needed medication is not available. The Gaza Community Mental Health Program advised that 15% of children wet their beds at night as a symptom of severe trauma, a consequence of perpetual military aggression.
The youth unemployment rate has reached 70%. The illiteracy rate grows because parents can’t afford uniforms and bus fares to send their kids to school.
In Australia, the prime minister recently offered up the government’s position on Jerusalem as a bargaining tool in a miserable attempt to win a local by-election.
PM Scott Morrison gave little regard to the fact an embassy move from Tel Aviv to the Holy City would be a flagrant violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 478. This resolution deems Israel’s forced acquisition of East Jerusalem as inadmissible and a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Morrison’s excuse for this shift in policy was that the two-state solution “hasn’t been going very well”, considering “not a lot of progress has been made”. However, instead of supporting Palestinians alongside Israelis, Morrison’s government then proceeded to vote against the eligibility of the Palestinian Authority to chair the Group of 77, made up of developing countries.
It is not out of character for Australia to give lip-service to the two-state solution, but consistently refuse to recognise the Palestinian State.
In 2014, Australia was one of only two countries to vote against ending the decades-long occupation of Palestine. Again in May, Australia voted against a Human Rights Council resolution proposing a mere investigation into the killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters by Israeli snipers on the Gaza boundary.
Since the weekly protests, labelled “The Great March of Return”, began on March 30, Israel’s response has left more than 200 unarmed Palestinians dead, including children, paramedics and journalists. More than 18,000 people have been injured.
On a single day, coinciding with the provocative US embassy move to Jerusalem on May 14, more than 60 Palestinians were killed by Israeli snipers.
Since 1948, Israel has denied Palestinian refugees their legal right to return under UN resolution 194. As a result, more than 5 million Palestinian refugees remain stateless, without any recourse to their rights. This is a direct result of Israel’s refusal to comply with internationally recognised obligations.
In Gaza alone, more than 1.3 million people, out of about 2 million residents, are classified as refugees by the UN.
Support and solidarity
In contrast to the Australian government’s stance, and as a sign of solidarity and support, the Run for Palestine Sydney is raising money to support families in the Shujaiya area of Gaza.
The people of Shujaiya are still suffering the effects of heavy Israeli bombing during the 2014 aggression, which wiped out much of their neighbourhood. All funds raised from the event will be donated to Sydney-based ‘Act for Peace’, which runs health, training and psychosocial programs for people in the Shujaiya community.
This year, the Run for Palestine will be held in Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Canberra, on November 18. The Run for Palestine is now in its sixth year and continues to raise money and awareness for the rights and dignity of Palestinians.
[Visit Run for Palestine to register and for more details.]