(This is a report from Thursday, August 27)
Another long day! I have come to realize that these Elders did not come to be world figures by lolling about and getting massages at the hotel. One of the hallmarks of a great leader, it seems, is stamina…I can only imagine how daunting the schedule of these folks while they were in office. (Parenthetically, despite the 8am – 10pm schedules with virtually no breaks, I am convinced that we were all just slowing down President Carter).
Before the trip, we had decided that travel to Gaza would be a bit too difficult to navigate, so instead we conducted some videoconferences from the World Bank headquarters in Jerusalem. I’m pleased to say that the World Bank was not too opulent, quite frugal in fact…a good sign, as I had expected marble columns and lavish offices.
Our first videoconference was with five civil society leaders in Gaza.
In the meeting we learned that the humanitarian conditions in Gaza are bad and deteriorating:
- - Sewage is a big problem; millions of litres of raw waste are being dumped into the sea daily.
- - The quantity and quality of water is poor or salty.
- - Medicine is not in short supply, but it is of poor quality, mostly expired, and doctors do not have proper training.
- - There are few or no spare parts for machines.
- - Food is barely ample, there’s insufficient variety of food to prevent malnutrition, and children’s growth is stunted.
- - 10 percent of the population is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- - The borders are sealed; no import or export.
- - They badly need seeds, spare parts for machines / factories / cars / computers / hospitals
One of the civil society leaders,a middle aged human rights activist, said the blockade was “only breeding more hatred of Israel and more suicide bombers.”
On that happy note, we moved on to a videoconference with three youth in Gaza. We heard that more than half of the people in Gaza are under the age of 18. The youth all expressed their disenchantment with the situation, both with Israel and with their own leaders, who they feel do not take them into account when making decisions.
One of the conference participants was a young man who digs tunnels from Gaza to Egypt. He said that he employs 24 laborers around the clock. They dig tunnels 20m below ground, with lengths from 100m up to 1km at a cost of $100 per 100m. They use a cutting machine they call “Congo,” a compass and Google Earth (!) to determine where to connect the tunnel on the Egyptian side. The tunnels are 120cm tall and 80cm wide. The tunnel builder said he has chosen this line of work as he has “no other alternative to make a living.”
The group then went to the controversial village of Bil’in. Bil’in is a small agricultural village in the West Bank where a large Israeli settlement has arisen and the separation barrier has claimed much of the prime land. The village has organized non-violent daily or weekly protests since 2005. In 2007, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the path of the wall was illegal and ordered it moved. Two years later, no progress has been made. Our group, led by a dynamic, young human rights lawyer, Emily Schaeffer, witnessed the scene of the protests. With barbed wire and gnarled concrete, an acrid smell hung in the air from “stink” bombs and the ground was littered with casings of tear gas and sound grenades launched by the Israeli Defense Force. Archbishop Tutu and President Carter spoke out harshly against the violent reactions of the IDF to the non-violent protests. A New York reporter accompanied the group and an article about the visit was printed in the paper the next day
After the site visit, the group met with the village protest leaders, including Mohammed Al-Khatib and Abdullah Abu Rahme. This village is clearly one of the flash points of the overall conflict and it bears monitoring to see how Israel ultimately deals with the protests here.
Richard and I were not present for a meeting that the Elders had with several Hamas officials that afternoon. We understand that The Elders found the conversation unnerving, as some of the harshness and inflexibility of Hamas was exposed during that meeting.
We then went on to visit one of the Palestinian families that had been evicted from their home (since 1948!) in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Israeli court had ruled that the property had been owned by a Jewish family prior to 1948, but was seized during the war of 1948, and now had to be given back. Of course, this really made us wonder how the court could pass such a ruling and at the same time discount Palestinian “right of return” claims. But that would be a whole other essay.
One of the coolest parts of the trip was when our delegation sat down to review a letter to President Obama, drafted by President Carter. I looked around at Archbishop Tutu, President Carter, President Fernando Cardoso (former President of Brazil), President Mary Robinson (former President of Ireland), Prime Minister Gro Bruntland (former Prime Minister of Norway), Ela Bhatt (whose SEWA initiative has two million members), Richard Branson and Mabel van Oranje (the wonderful CEO of The Elders) and wondered how I got a seat at that table… I have to admit that was a pretty awesome moment.
The day concluded with a dinner with a number of United Nations representatives. The Elders then went to Ramallah to meet with President Abbas while Richard and I stayed behind with the UN folks for dessert… I then got the UN folks (slightly) liquored up: one must do what one can for peace!