Saturday, December 20, 2008

Latest Gaza boat brings food for babies and shame on governments

The United Nations shut up shop in the Gaza Strip last week, explaining that it was halting distribution of food aid because its stocks of wheat flour ran out. The politicians and governments responsible for this desperate situation won't shut up, assuring us how much they share our concern, and deploring the lack of progress towards peace in the region. But it's time they did, because a couple of days after the UN Relief and Works Agency said that "irregular border access" meant deliveries had been unable to reach the impoverished territory, a bunch of amateur campaigners landed in Gaza by sea with badly needed baby foods.

Driven into the Gaza area as refugees from what is now Israel, and increasingly prevented from earning their living by closures, war and blockade, Palestinian refugees and their children have been forced back into dependence on aid in larger numbers. About 750,000 people depend on food assistance.

Israeli forces closed the crossing into Gaza on November 5, blaming Palestinian fighters for carrying out a number of cross-border rocket attacks. The blockade has prevented the delivery of humanitarian supplies, fuel and other basic commodities.

"Wheat supplies scheduled to arrive in Gaza on the 9-10 December were unable to enter due to rocket fire, hence the mills have run out of flour and UNRWA has been forced to suspend food distribution," the agency said in a statement. "Food distribution for both emergency and regular programs will be suspended from Thursday 18th December until further notice."

On average, the agency distributes food to about 20,000 Palestinians every day. Dozens of people were turned away from a distribution centre in Gaza city after the hand-outs were halted.

A six-month truce brokered by Egypt has neared its end with each side blaming the other for its breakdown. Palestinians say it was undermined by Israeli raids, Israel claims it is responding to rocker attacks (though Israeli peace campaigners accuse the IDF of provoking the resumprion of such attacks). On Wednesday a Palestinian man was killed and two others injured in an Israeli air raid on the town of Beit Lahiya. Witnesses said 47-year-old Falak Okel, who died in the attack, did not belong to any armed group. Earlier two Israelis had been injured by a rocket exploding in a supermarket car park at Sderot..

Hamas which, as an elected government still runs the Gaza Strip said it would not renew the truce until Israel ends its attacks and the blockade. Meanwhile an opinion poll on Tuesday indicated that 74 per cent of Palestinians and 51 per cent of Israelis backed the truce. The Israeli blockade has continued on land and sea, with the Israeli navy seizing Palestinian fishermen and their boats, and turning away a Libyan cargo ship that was trying to deliver food to Gaza. .

Today, we heard some good news. The Free Gaza Movement announced that one of its boats had made the fifth voyage from Larnaca in Cyprus to Gaza. Yael Kahn, an Israeli woman living in London said:
On this fifth voyage was another cargo of high protein baby
formula from Islington (sent by IFY) to Yibna refugee camp
in Rafah.
Also was a cargo of baby food from Newham (NFoS) to Shabura
refugee camp in Rafah.

Yael Kahn, Chair of Islington Friends of Yibna [IFY]

Yael has previously visited Yibna camp, in which she began to take a special interest when she realised that the town where she grew up, Yavne, was built on land that had been that of Yibna village, from where the refugees came.

Saturday's boat carried a mixed crew and delegation including Qataris from a Qatar People's Initiative, Lebanese, and Israelis, as well as a Spanish journalist. They defied orders from an Israeli gunboat to stop because they had Israelis on board.

One of the Israelis, writer and activist Neta Golan, a co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, said: "Countries that commit crimes against humanity often hide those crimes from their own people. Israel is doing exactly that, by not allowing Israelis to come in to witness what they are doing in our name."

Earlier this month two Jewish academics from Britain arrived in the Gaza strip on the Free Gaza movement's fourth trip. Emeritus Professor Jonathan Rosenhead and Professor Mike Cushman from London School of Economics, both members of British Committee for Universities of Palestine(BRICUP), sailed from Larnaca aboard the Dignity. Jonathan Rosenhead was one of a small Jewish delegation that visited Beirut after Israel's 1982 war in Lebanon, to see the effects on civilians. Mike Cushman is active in Jews for Justice for Palestinians. On this voyage their main aim was to meet Palestinian students who have been prevented from leaving Gaza to take up college places. The boat was able to take a number of students out to Cyprus to begin their journeys to study.

Professsor Rosenhead said: “Our government has failed to uphold international law and defend the human rights of the Palestinians, including the right to study and the right to teach. On the 60th anniversary of the International Declaration of Human Rights, we are proud to join the ‘Dignity’ on its fourth blockade-breaking trip to Gaza. We hope that by the end of this week we will have liberated these Palestinian students, in accordance with international law, and enabled them to take up the places awarded them by universities around the world in recognition of their academic merit.”

Mike Cushman said: “As academics we are particularly pleased to be travelling on the Dignity on this mission to enable at least some of the hundreds of students trapped in Gaza by the Israeli siege to get out and take up their places at universities round the world. This siege is an affront to any idea of academic freedom or human rights. We, working for a British university, have the freedom to teach and study. This must be a universal right, not at the discretion of an occupying power. How can anyone justify preventing young people from fulfilling their potential and learning how to serve their community more fully?”

As Jonathan Rosenhead indicates, these exemplary actions by ordinary citizens and concerned professionals are not just giving what practical aid they can to those who so desperately need it, but are exposing the inactivity, indeed collusion, of governments, leaders and institutions who are either doing nothing to help the Palestinian people in Gaza or consciously assisting the blockade which has turned the Gaza Strip into something like a giant prison camp.

Film of latest Free Gaza voyage::
Continuing news and details on Free Gaza voyages;

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