Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

Blog 13. A lifeline to Gaza

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Earlier I wrote that, with Our Way to Fight now out in the world (though not until May in the US), I would use this blog primarily to post news related to people and organizations that you’ll meet in the book.  My goal is to extend electronically the range of the finite entity that is a book, in other words to create a sort of open book.

The first such item is this news that arrived this morning from Gila Norich of Physicians for Human Rights – Israel:

“I’m excited to report that for the first time in over 18 months, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel has received clearance to enter Gaza to provide medical services. PHR-Israel’s medical delegation will spend the next 48 hours at Al Shifa’ Hospital in Gaza City seeing patients, training physicians, and expressing solidarity with our Palestinian counterparts living under nearly four years of closure and ongoing movement and access restrictions.

PHR-Israel’s Mobile Clinics Coordinator Salah Haj Yihyeh (more on him below*) organized the visit just last night upon receiving official permission from the Army’s coordination office.  Joining him are three senior physicians, Dr. Mustafa Yassin, orthopedist, Dr. Abdallah Burak, and Dr Rafiq Masalha, both neurologists.

Despite monthly requests for over a year, PHR-Israel has been repeatedly banned from carrying out its mobile clinic in the the Gaza Strip.

Between January 2008- June 2009, PHR-Israel was permitted to enter and successfully carried out 13 physician delegations during that time.

Our professional cooperation on the eve of the December 2008 Israeli offensive led senior medical officials in Gaza to turn to us for help in obtaining medications and medical supplies needed to care for the injured during the attacks.  In response, PHR-Israel released an appeal for donations to which hundreds of our Israeli and international friends generously responded, enabling us to send seven dispatches of medications and supplies, including intensive care unit beds, surgical equipment, rods for orthopedic procedures and other emergency surgical equipment totaling nearly 400,000 USD.  Following Operation Cast Lead, PHR’s requests for medical delegations to enter Gaza were summarily rejected, we believe due to the ongoing targeting of the human rights community and our work.

We hope this visit to Gaza signals a new moment, and that the presence of our doctors in Gaza will enable us to better understand the effects of the ongoing closure on public health and secure livelihoods in the Strip.  We hope as well that the medical information and professional observations released by Israeli physicians following this visit will influence the local public and policy makers to question the State’s Gaza policy, a policy which condemns 1.5 million people to the confines of daily collective punishment.”

* More on Salah Haj Yihyeh, mobile clinics coordinator, from the chapter on PHR-Israel in Our Way to Fight:

I travelled with a van-load of Israeli medical personnel and supplies to the PHR mobile clinic in the Jenin refugee camp.  At the military checkpoint we watched Salah negotiate with the soldiers to let us enter the occupied West Bank.  He is fluent in Hebrew, his second language since childhood.  To the nurse seated beside me I commented: “To do this kind of negotiation he has to be quite skilled in diplomacy.”

“Oh,” she replied, “he has to be skilled in many things.”

Born in the year of the Six-Day War, 1967, Salah Haj Yihyeh grew up a refugee in the town of Taybeh, his grandparents and parents having been expelled from their own village in 1948.   He explains, “Every year on Nakba day – for Israelis the day of independence, but for us the day we lost our land – we go to what was my grandmother’s house in a village that is now Kibbutz Yakum near Netanya.  All the village land was confiscated in 1948 by the state of Israel.  My family still have the documents that prove they own this land, but it means nothing.”

Salah is a citizen of Israel.  I asked him how he defines his national identity.  “I’m Palestinian,” he replied, in a quiet, even voice that I imagine well suited to negotiating with soldiers.  “Ever since I was born, I’ve seen myself as Palestinian, and it is very important for me that my children grow up with this national identity.  We are Palestinians who live in Israel, but still, we are Palestinians.  This will continue.”

I asked Salah if he could see the occupation ending in his lifetime.  He shook his head.  “It won’t end as long as Israel continues to deceive the international community into believing that it is the Palestinians who oppose peace, even though when you look at what happens on the ground, you see that it is Israel, whether governed by the left or the right, which continues the occupation and gives no sign of any willingness to give up the occupied territories in order to achieve peace. Even when you have an international court decision that the separation barrier is illegal, even then nothing happens – quite the contrary, Israel continues to build whatever it wants in the occupied territories.  The Obama administration has failed to achieve any progress.  And even if tomorrow international pressure pushed Israel into a corner, I fear that Israel would engage in some sort of provocation, maybe start a third intifada, for example over the holy places in Jerusalem, to divert attention from everything it is doing to maintain the occupation.  This is why I am pessimistic.”

Recently the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved a measure to investigate Israeli human rights organizations that criticize government policies.  Physicians for Human Rights-Israel is one of the targets.

Even so, Salah Haj Yiyheh and his colleagues continue to work as if a just peace is still possible.  What sustains him?  “I believe the work PHR does can still provide some solidarity, some sort of comfort that we are able to work together in this very depressing situation.  This is one of the few things we can do to show that perhaps a bridge to peace can still be built, even though it is small, narrow and weak.”

(Excerpt from A drop in the sea, chapter 9, Our Way to Fight.)

For more information on PHR-Israel, see their website at http://www.phr.org.il/default.asp?PageID=4.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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