When I was first invited by the Council for European-Palestinian Relations to be part of a Europe wide fact finding delegation of Parliamentarians to visit Gaza, I was immediately keen to join the four day visit.
As a teenager, I had been to Lebanon with my father, an MP who had a commitment to a just solution in the Middle East. I also knew a number of Palestinian exiles in London during my childhood.
I am a member of the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Palestine and was clear it was important to witness what was happening myself in order to best try and understand the situation and to make a small contribution to support and resolution as best I could.
However, the last war started and the trip was postponed. When the ceasefire was called, we were told the trip could go ahead and I knew that this was the time to go in order to see for myself what the immediate aftermath was for the people of Gaza and to gain first-hand knowledge of the general conditions.
My good colleague John Finnie MSP was also on the trip. During the four days, the delegation from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Poland and Portugal saw the aftermath of Israeli bombing, heard from Government Ministers, visited a hospital and school and the UNRWA facilities. On our return, John lodged a Scottish Parliament motion which I discussed with him and put my name to. The motion highlights the main visits of our trip and our determination to work for a just peace. It is the first action we have taken of a range of commitments we have resolved to carry out on our return.
After a long bus journey from Cairo, across the Sinai Desert, often flanked by Egyptian army or police, we came to Raffa crossing where 3 small boys played on a rusty luggage trolley and half-heartedly tried to sell a bottle of olive oil as a sparse number of people sruggled with luggage. The wait was long for us but much longer for those sitting in the bleak hall waiting for their name to be called for whom it must have seemed interminable.
Lunch was missed, due to delays at checkpoints and a flat tyre, and had turned to dinner! We then hurried to attend a candlelit vigil at a bomb site which had been the home of the Al Dalu family who lost 10 family members in the attack. Children held a banner “Free Gaza” and sang. There, John and I met two young women who inspired me to commit to organising a meeting of young women from Gaza, Scotland and Northern Ireland which I will work on with Catriona Ruane Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I saw the gratuitous and callous nature of some of the bombing such as the Abu Khadra civil service compound and the Al-Jazeera club which provided sports facilities for 400 girls and boys of whom about 100 are disabled. There was also damage to Zaitoun Girls’ School. The attack on the Al Yarmouk football stadium, with the goals at each end and the spectator facilities bombed, was lauded by the pilot of the Israeli plane in the media as a goal. These examples of wilful destruction of infrastructure can only be seen, in my view, as a ruthless attempt to wear down the residents and make life more impossible.
The blockade also prevents any sense of normal life with great scarcity of the means for self-reliance and the running of any enterprises.
The briefing at Al-Shifa Hospital from the Health Minister Dr Mofed al Makhalalaty informed us that 182 had been killed and over 1000 injured in the recent hostilities. We also heard of bombs designed to cause most damage to people – the dime bomb causing amputations and a bomb which breaks into small shards.
At the briefing from Scott Anderson the Deputy Director of United Nations Relief and Works Agency,
we heard that the majority of the residents are to some degree dependent on food aid and also visited the UNRWA food distribution centre. We were taken by UNRWA to Zaitoun Girls’ School which had experienced bomb damage and then to Zaitown Eo-ed D Tel El Hawa School to meet staff and primary children, which was a heartening experience, as an ex-primary teacher. The resilience of the people of Gaza was encapsulated in that primary classroom.
challenge. Water comes almost completely from the underlying coastal aquifer which could become unusable as early as 2016 according to the UN Country Team. Almost a third of households are not connected to the sewage system. This of course also affects agriculture and fishing. The fishermen are unable to fish beyond 6 nautical miles where the better grounds are and risk being fired on by Israeli gunboats. 90% of them live in extreme poverty as they cannot pursue their livelihoods out to the usual 12 nautical miles.
Electricity is also a challenge with many power cuts. Many families and businesses have to use diesel generators for power. I discussed this issue with the Minister for Local Government and am keen to take forward the possibility of small scale renewables.
We also met the elected members of the Palestinian Legislative Council and held a meeting with the Prime Minister, Ismail Haniya. The leader of our delegation of European Parliamentarians was Pat Sheehan MLA, the Northern Ireland Assembly member for West Belfast. The message he delivered, as an Assembly member, ex-political prisoner and hunger striker was powerful. In order for there to be a lasting peace, all democratically elected parties must be involved in the decisions and reconciliation process. In spite of present challenges, Northern Ireland is testimony to a way forward as is the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.
On our way back to the border at Raffa crossing, was saw a bridge had been blown up on the coast road, meaning we had to go round a long way on a sandy track, along with all the other diverted main road traffic – a final testimony to the state of things in Gaza.
As we headed for the Border however, we visited a new date palm plantation in in Raffa which seemed to stand as a symbol of hope for the future.
As the interminable sand of the Sinai Desert flitted past the bus window after the Egyptian border at Raffa, I reflected that it seemed inconceivable that there should be a blockade. I know also after what I had seen that the residents of Gaza would never be broken in spite of the queues for food basics at the UN depot, the lack of infrastructure and wilful destruction of what does exist.
Along with John Finnie MSP and many others I will do what I can to help having seen something of Gaza for myself.