This morning I had the opportunity to join a group who met with Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D-NM) in Albuquerque. She’s a first-term member of Congress who admits her strength is social services and health policies, not foreign policy.
She acknowledges having a high learning curve when it comes to the Middle East, but says she tries to attend every Congressional briefing on foreign policy. She has noticed over the past 6 months that there’s a shift among her colleagues in Congress, they have “a new level of concern” and “want more balanced and clear recommendations.” She leaves these classified meetings now “feeling unsettled.”
When I learned that this meeting in Albuquerque had been organized, I turned to my American friend in Gaza for permission to share some of his photos of the horrific destruction in Gaza. I gave 22 photos to Rep. Lujan-Grisham, along with a copy of the letter my friend wrote. I hope she reads it and takes it to heart. (The letter is reprinted below.)
Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi meet with Congresswoman Lujan-Grisham (D-NM)
I also shared a photo of a meeting in her DC office this past April with Refaat Alareer and Rawan Yaghi. Refaat is a Professor of English Literature at the Islamic University of Gaza and the Editor of Gaza Writes Back. Rawan is one of his students and contributed a short story to the book.
None of us knew when we met in her DC office in April that Israel would launch Operation Protective Edge a few weeks later, killing over 2000 Palestinians in Gaza. When she saw the photo this morning, Rep. Lujan-Grisham asked if Refaat was OK. I told her that Refaat’s brother was killed this summer and his home was destroyed. She was speechless.
Meeting with Representative Michelle Lujan-Grisham
Even for a strong, articulate politician, there are no words. I hope the news gave her pause to think more deeply about U.S. policy in the Middle East. I hope she takes the time to read Denny Cormier’s letter.
September 22, 2014
Dear Representative Grisham:
We need your support in Gaza.
My name is Denny Cormier. I am 68 and am currently retired.
I have lived in Santa Fe for the last 15 years but I am currently volunteering in Gaza as a human rights activist and a citizen journalist reporting on what I am discovering here.
I have been living here in Gaza City for six months now (since March 2014), and I also traveled here in June of 2013 as a citizen journalist.
What I knew about Gaza and the Palestinian issue before coming here was limited to reports that I received from the Western media, and the distance between Santa Fe and Gaza might as well have been a million miles.
But based on many conversations with young Palestinians and university students in Gaza over 2 years, I decided to travel to Gaza myself in 2013 and to investigate personally the differences between my own discoveries and what I read (or saw) in the media. My personal discoveries and the media narrative were so totally different – in fact, they were totally at odds. And I had to know.
Frankly, my first visit to Gaza was an eye-opener. In fact, it was a life changing experience to put it mildly.
I was immediately welcomed as a United States citizen… the people in Gaza love Americans… they welcome me warmly wherever I have traveled in Gaza. People greet you in the streets with the warmest of welcomes – when they discover I am an American, it immediately brings smiles to the faces of adults and children alike. The immediate reaction is – We Love You. I have made many lasting and strong friendships in Gaza. And I fell in love with the Palestinians and with Gaza. I received a similar welcome from university students and business owners and from people who welcomed me on behalf of the government.
This was not a place of terrorists. This was a place of a warm, friendly people – people of great faith – people of generosity that is unparalleled in my experience.
I could not wait to return to Gaza, and did so earlier this year in March.
And I am glad that I did.
This recent 6 month visit has increased my understanding of the issues here, and I have seen how the issues of siege and of economic devastation have brought great suffering to these people, many of whom I know personally.
Although I had the opportunity to leave Gaza before Operation Protective Edge with the assistance of the U.S. State Department and the government here in Gaza, I chose to stay on during the 51 day attack and to be a witness.
What I saw and experienced can only be characterized as horrific. The attacks on the border cities of Gaza were particularly barbaric. I reported to representatives of the U.S. State Department that I was a witness to war crimes, and the effects of the war crimes continue even if the attacks have stopped.
Although I live in an area of Gaza where other internationals live and in a place that is normally considered a safe haven for them, I began to feel strongly that my life was in serious danger – that there was no safe place in Gaza during those 51 days.
Gratefully I survived the bombings in my own neighborhood, but not so others in Gaza City and in cities throughout the Gaza Strip. Many hundreds died in these attacks… many thousands more were seriously injured… thousands of homes have been flattened by the weaponry that Israel used during the attacks and are now sitting in piles of rubble.
I have visited and documented the destruction in three Gaza cities – Khuzaa, in Shujaya and in Beit Hanoun (and of course, in Gaza City). If you had been able to accompany me on these visits after the war, you would have wept… I did.
What I saw was nothing short of total devastation of civilian homes. I would be happy to send you photographic documentation if you wish…. But what I saw and witnessed would make you shudder…
I have heard hundreds of stories of people of all ages who ran from their homes in the middle of the night as shells fell on their homes without warning….others were given just a few minutes to evacuate their homes before rockets or bombs wiped them out…. My dearest friends ran from their homes in bare feet and lost everything they owned and treasured.
Some homes were bombed while the families were sleeping. They received no warning from Israel. Entire families were wiped out
Children shuddered in their homes and it has been reported that 90% of the children in Gaza now suffer from PTSD.
Children were particularly targeted in these attacks.
Four young boys from the Bakr family were killed by shells from Israeli gunboats just off shore…. They were killed on the beach when they were playing football very close to my home… I met the only survivor of the attack on the same Bakr family home just days later.
I spent most of two months during the war acting as a human shield at Al Shifa Hospital, the major health facility in Gaza. There I met hundreds of refugees and interviewed the injured. I saw the dead being brought to the hospital, many of them children… what I saw is the stuff of nightmares. On one of the days there, hundreds of ambulances arrived over several hours delivering the dead and the injured….. The doctors I spoke to have told me that the injuries to their patients were worse than any war injuries that they have witnessed here and in other war zones.
I have seen many destroyed or severely damaged civilian facilities, including schools, mosques, hospitals, police stations – in some cases entire cities.
Before the war I was also witness to the devastation to the economy and to the infrastructure of Gaza – and the destruction of the human spirit during this too long siege. I learned to live with 8 hours of electricity a day (now 6 hours a day)… I learned to live with the water that comes from the taps that cannot be used for anything safely… I learned to live with miles of beaches that have been destroyed because of the need to dump raw sewage into the sea. I learned to live with stories of suffering that are caused by a huge unemployment situation in Gaza…
I cannot tell you all that I have discovered first hand during this current visit to Gaza, but it could fill books, and one day it probably will.
I can tell you that what I witnessed are gross breaches of international law and gross breaches of agreements relating to collective punishment of a civilian population.
I can tell you that I will encourage the Palestinians to bring charges against Israel to the International Criminal Court.
I can tell you that it is my honest opinion that the suffering of the people of Gaza are a direct result of an illegal siege and blockade and a de facto Occupation…. The Israelis left Gaza some years ago but they have an immense and negative impact on the lives of ordinary citizens in Gaza long after they left this area and surrounded it with fencing and military outposts.
I can tell you that I was personally shot at when visiting the city of Shujaya. As I explored the damage and was hundreds of meters from the Israeli border and the buffer zone that they have set up, bullets were fired above me and on both sides of me by the Israelis….. Warning shots perhaps…. But I was nowhere near the area where people are regularly killed and injured along the Israeli border…. My only weapon was a digital camera. I had to back up several hundred more feet before the shooting stopped. Children who were in the same area were also fired at as was my guide.
I can tell you many things based on first hand witness and observation, but I must please ask you to reconsider anything you ever learned from the media or from the State Department or White House regarding Gaza – in fact, question everything you have been told.
What you have been told… what we Americans have been told…. Is a lie.
I would be happy to meet with you when I return to the United States, but I must warn you now that the ongoing support of the State of Israel in its attacks on the Palestinians, especially on those living in Gaza is a great shame on the American people. The financial support offered to Israel without proper concern and restrictions based on human rights is a great shame for the American people.
As a representative of the good people of the United States, I urge you to look very closely at the good people of Gaza and to reconsider what we have done to them in the name of Israeli security.
In fact, I would be pleased to personally be your guide should you elect to visit the Gaza Strip and should the Israeli government allow you entry for a firsthand experience of what I have witnessed and experienced.
The people of Gaza need your support.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(currently Gaza City in the Gaza Strip)