Largest Open Air Prison

The first time I visited Gaza was in 2004 before Israel’s siege and lockdown. In fact, I remember seeing Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and many checkpoints manned by Israeli soldiers. After the election in January 2005 (which the Carter Center said was conducted in a manner consistent with international standards) and Hamas came to power, Israel declared Hamas (and by implication everyone who voted for Hamas) a terrorist, and severely restricted movement into and out of the Gaza Strip.

The purpose of my visit was to accompany an American psychologist who was presenting an international award to Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj at the Gaza Community Mental Health Center. Israel forbade Dr. El-Sarraj from leaving the Gaza Strip to travel and accept the award himself. I clearly recall sitting across the room observing and taking photos as my friend made the presentation, and thinking: “This Palestinian reminds me of my grandfather, a kind and gentle professional in the medical field. Why on Earth would Israeli authorities prevent him from traveling?”

Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj

The next day, a driver took me to Rafah on the southern tip of the Gaza Strip to see the site where the young American activist, Rachel Corrie, had been crushed and killed by an Israeli bulldozer in March 2003. Those two experiences (Dr. El-Sarraj and Rachel Corrie) opened my eyes for the first time to the brutal and inhumane reality that Palestinians experience daily in the largest open air prison in the world.

When I returned to Gaza in 2012, I could see the horrific impacts on the economy and the lives of nearly 2 million Palestinians who were prevented from traveling. That year the United Nations predicted that the Gaza Strip would be unlivable by 2020.

Fifteen years after the 2007 closure, more than 2 million Palestinians remain locked down in the Gaza Strip. In a report just released by Human Rights Watch

“Israel’s sweeping restrictions on leaving Gaza deprive its more than two million residents of opportunities to better their lives, Human Rights Watch said today on the fifteenth anniversary of the 2007 closure. The closure has devastated the economy in Gaza, contributed to fragmentation of the Palestinian people, and forms part of Israeli authorities’ crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution against millions of Palestinians.

Israel’s closure policy blocks most Gaza residents from going to the West Bank, preventing professionals, artists, athletes, students, and others from pursuing opportunities within Palestine and from traveling abroad via Israel, restricting their rights to work and an education. Restrictive Egyptian policies at its Rafah crossing with Gaza, including unnecessary delays and mistreatment of travelers, have exacerbated the closure’s harm to human rights.

‘Israel, with Egypt’s help, has turned Gaza into an open-air prison,’ said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch. “As many people around the world are once again traveling two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gaza’s more than two million Palestinians remain under what amounts to a 15-year-old lockdown.”

TWO LESSONS

Israel has demonstrated that it can remove large settlement blocks and settlers from Palestinian territory, as it did in August 2005 when Israeli soldiers forcibly removed Jewish settlers from Gaza. Israel could remove the settlers from the occupied West Bank if there was political will and international pressure to do so. Obviously, there’s none of either.

Israel and the U.S. have been conjoined allies ever since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Israel is also the recipient of the largest amount of U.S. military aid, to the tune of $3.8 billion/year. After Israel so effectively labeled, demonized and punished Hamas and Palestinian men, women and children with years of imprisonment in the Gaza Strip, with U.S. complicity of course, I wonder today if the US government will take a lesson from that playbook and label, demonize and punish whichever political party is on the “outs” in this country? (Not such a far-fetch thought given the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021.)

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