22 June 2007
Michael Robin Bailey, an Oxfam staff member in Jerusalem reports on the crisis in Gaza.
I got up at the usual early hour as the sun comes in through the windows in Beit Hanina before six this time of year and the local cockerels have been crowing for a couple of hours to keep up with the Imams' first calls to prayer.
Breakfast on the balcony of my apartment is dominated with thoughts of whether Alan Johnstone has been released overnight. A quick scan of the local news websites of Ha'aretz and Jerusalem Post gives no comfort. Nothing on Alan and still some 250 people trapped in the terminal at Erez, trying to leave Gaza but unable to get out because the Israeli forces say they have no one to co-ordinate with.
Off I go to the Oxfam GB office to get a car to visit the crossings at Erez and Karni to see first hand what is the situation. We need this information to consider alongside the reports we have from my workmates in Gaza when deciding what we need to do.
I'm preoccupied with thoughts of those people in the concrete tunnel in Erez, stuck between fear of returning to possible reprisals in Gaza and the implacable refusal of the Israeli machine to simply process them and let them on their way. The previous night there had been shooting and a grenade blast in the tunnel, someone had died and others had been injured. What an end to a day of waiting in the dusty heat with no food or water or toilets, children, adults, old people, sick people all waiting together, hostages to a bigger political drama that seems to forget the suffering of ordinary people.
I notice the car has almost no fuel in the tank, just enough to get me there and I realize that I have only enough money to buy a little extra fuel and I have no credit card. So here I am running out of gas going to see what is happening for a million and a half people who are running out of gas and still I'm infinitely better off.
Arriving at the terminal at Erez, (these crossings are being remade from temporary structures of rough military concrete and corregated iron to swish designer airport style terminals). Terminal is an appropriate term at least, the end of the road for many people and their hopes of seeing relatives, getting work, going to study. The new Erez terminal is all but deserted. Behind the wire fence the newly planted saplings are bright green in the strong morning sun. A single bus and three Israeli ambulances wait for something to happen. A couple of young men in casual designer clothes carry designer guns as they saunter from one mysterious door to another. In the car park only cars of the world's media, a couple of taxis and one car with aforlorn Palestinian family, in the bus stand three coaches wait. Their drivers tell me that they are waiting to take the people stuck in the tunnel to Ramallah. Eemta? When? They shrug. Mumken baddain, mumken bukra. Maybe later, maybe tomorrow.
I call the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Liason Officer, an avuncular Englishman, a Major. He is in a meeting he tells me, he does not know when he will be out. Everyone is in the same situation it seems. I call his deputy, he too is too busy to talk, call back in fifty minutes he says. I get directions from one of the taxi drivers and head off to Karni to see what is happening at the commercial terminal, Gaza's main artery.
Twenty minutes later, just next to the IDF parking lot for tanks and armored personnel carriers, a simple barrier and three young soldiers block the way. Nothing dramatic but still very final. Its closed, they say, there is no one to co-ordinate with on the other side, nothing can pass through, sorry. So instead of the 150 trucks a day that should be passing this thin hot road there are none. Instead of the food and medical supplies, electrical generators and vital spare parts for hospitals and the water utility there is nothing and there is no immediate prospect of any change.
I return to Erez, my own fuel and spirits running low. There are more reporters now and its hotter. The single Arab family who had been waiting for relatives give up and drive off, their youngest child sucking a bottle in the back. I get the IDF liason officer on the phone, he is too busy to see me but explains that their hands are tied, there is no one to talk to, no one on the other side to co-ordinate with. They did let emergency medical supplies in through Erez yesterday with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC). They are using two small crossings points far down in the south, Karem Shalom and Sifa where internationals are doing the co-ordination with them. These can be used for emergencies. I don't ask what constitutes an emergency above 250 people trapped for two days without food or water or toilets in a concrete tunnel and one and a half million people trapped for six years without hope. I don't think we share the same world view.
In this farce scripted by Lewis Carrol, Monty Python and the Devil himself part of the reason for there being no one to coordinate with on the Palestinian side appears to be that the Palestinian border officials have been told by Mahmood Abass' 'government' that they will only be paid if they do not turn up for work.
Nothing more for me to do at this dead end, this impossible, impassable impasse, I turn for Jerusalem. Watching the fuel gauge all the way back. I talk to my colleagues in Gaza, they update me on the people trapped in the tunnel, they have been getting some water and food, some basic medical help. I hear that the Municipal Coastal Water Utility has been forced to use standby pumps continuously because the week's violence has damaged much of their first line equipment. This is not good, the fuel use is greater and there is no money for the extra cost and the 24 hours a day operation wears the pumps out quickly and they are low on spare parts. I hear that the utility has a large consignment of pumps, generators and spare parts waiting to be brought in through the Karni crossing but of course its closed. I ask for a list so that we can start the coordination negotiation with the IDF liason officers at Erez. The ones who promised all the help they could give if we had a specific request.
I was just about to leave the office to do something related to my usual job when the phone rang. Al Jazeera, would I come to talk live about the situation in Gaza? Three hours later a television camera and I share a small dark cubicle. Behind me a picture of West Jerusalem, neat white boxes and terracotta roofs. In front a television screen showing the news programme I'm to be interviewd on and the camera lens. In my ear an interpreter is relaying the story that I am going to be commenting on. People being interviewed in Gaza today, asked to respond to reports that the Israeli government has said they will impose a total food blockade on Gaza, only allowing basic items to be supplied by the humanitarian agencies. One and a half million people under siege. The images on the screen of ordinary people in Gaza, some angry and defiant and some fearful and confused is replaced by the Al Jazeera news anchor.
It's my turn. What are you, Oxfam, going to do? Our priority is humanitarian access, getting essential supplies into Gaza, supplies of food, fuel, medicines, pumps and spare parts to keep the water flowing. After that it is making sure everyone understands that the people of Palestine all have to be treated the same according to their needs. Do you work with the Israeli forces? Yes, we negotiate humanitarian access with the IDF liason officers, we have to. One and a half million people need a lot of humanitarian supplies every day, not just one special consignment of 12 trucks as happened at Karem Shalom earlier this afternoon but real high volume access day by day by day. Thank you the voice in my ear says, we are out of time. So will the 250 people in the tunnel be, so will the one and a half million be. Out of time, very soon.
Postscript: The people stuck at Erez were eventually taken by bus to the Karem Shalom crossing point into Israel and then to the crossing point into Egypt. Some of the people opted in the end to stay in Gaza and about half of those who went into Egypt were reported to have returned to Gaza. I guess the three busses outside Erez went back empty to Ramallah. It seems that Gaza to Ramallah is not a journey the government of Israel wants under any circumstances, which is a shame if you live in Gaza but have family in the West Bank but that's a story for another day, well thousands of stories, all sad, many tragic.