Solidarity visit to Gaza
Delegates had frank and robust discussions with cabinet ministers of the unity government
In July 2014, 56 of the Right Livelihood Award Laureates from 35 countries had signed a statement condemning the killing of hundreds of children and innocent civilians in Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces, the indiscriminate firing of rockets by Hamas against Israeli civilians, and mourning the continued suffering of Gaza’s inhabitants.
Deeply concerned about the restrictions faced by Laureate Raji Sourani (2013, Palestine) and his colleagues at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) in the Gaza Strip in exercising their fundamental freedoms and human rights, the Right Livelihood Award sent a delegation to Gaza from 27-30 October 2014.
The delegation included Jakob von Uexkull Founder President of the Right Livelihood Award; Archbishop Emeritus, Church of Sweden, Anders Wejryd, European President, World Council of Churches; Agneta Johansson, Deputy Director of the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC) and Member, Board of Trustees, Right Livelihood Award Foundation; and Laureate Helen Mack Chang (1992, Guatemala).
On the first evening, en route to the Gaza Strip, the RLA Delegation had consultations with Israeli Laureates Uri Avnery from Gush Shalom (2001, Israel), and Dr. Ruchama Marton (HYPERLINK), Founder of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (2010, Israel), in Tel Aviv. They discussed the challenges the Israeli Laureates face in working for peace and human rights in their country, the current state of the Israel-Palestinian peace process and the prospects of ending the occupation.
The RLA delegation crossed into Gaza via the Erez checkpoint in the morning, and immediately traveled first to the neighbourhood of Beit Hanoun and later to the area of al-Shuja’ya where extensive Israeli bombardment took place during the recent war. Agneta Johansson, one of the delegates, observed: “The destruction was absolutely massive and in some areas the sight reminded of the pictures I have seen from Berlin after the Second World War.” The delegates met and talked to several people who lived in the area before and who now live in temporary shelters or with relatives in other areas of Gaza.
Following a brief lunch, the delegation met with the families of victims of “Operation Protective Edge”. All the families are clients of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) – PCHR is helping them to seek compensation from Israel due to their losses. Agneta Johansson reports: “From the stories we heard and the answers we received, these attacks seems to be clear examples of attacks directed towards civilians and civilian property. It is not collateral damage as a result of an attack against a military target.”
Women whose husbands and sons are in Israeli prisons told the delegation about the hard conditions in these prisons, and also how difficult it is for family members to try and visit.
The day concluded with the delegation hearing from PCHR staff the challenges of seeking justice for victims human rights violations in the Gaza context. The delegation also had meetings with several officials including Dr Faisal Abu Shala, Member of PLC (Palestinian Legislative Council) and Mr. Kamal al-Shrafi, Presidential Advisor for Human Rights.
The day began with delegate Archbishop Emeritus, Church of Sweden, Anders Wejryd interacting with representatives of the Middle East Council of Churches and the Christian community in Gaza.
The other delegates met with representatives of eight different women’s organizations. These organizations focused on a wide range of activities including lobbying the Palestinian government and advocating for women’s rights, supporting women and children who are victims of domestic violence, and supporting women who are running small businesses. Agneta Johansson reports: “When the recent Israeli military operations started, the focus shifted for all of these women. They were all involved in trying to support families with the absolute basic needs – clothes, hygiene articles. Women living in temporary shelters tried to lobby, beg or force the UN to arrange separate places where the women could wash themselves, visit the toilets and give birth! There were no private places for anything, which is very important to keep some kind of dignity. Several women stressed how many people, especially children, were severely traumatized after the attacks. In many cases, the whole family is in bad need of psychological support. Leaders of women’s organizations told us that they are working to provide this for as many as possible, but as one woman expressed it, ‘the whole population in Gaza needs some kind of counseling this summer because there was literally no place in the whole of Gaza Strip where you felt safe.'”
The delegation then discussed with representatives of a broad spectrum of Palestinian political parties the challenges that Raji Sourani, PCHR and other human rights defenders face in carrying out their work in the extremely volatile environment of Gaza. Delegates found that all political parties expressed respect and support for the work of Raji Sourani and PCHR. The delegation also noted that all political parties are now united behind the “consensus” government that was installed in June this year, which has a mandate of reuniting the administrations of the West Bank and Gaza, to rebuild Gaza and to prepare for new elections.
Delegates had frank and robust discussions with cabinet ministers of the unity government, namely Minister of Labour H.E. Maumoon Abdul Hadi Hassan Abu Shahla and Minister of Public Works H.E. Muhammad Salim al-Hasania, and also with former Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
After a meeting with PNGO, a consortium of Palestinian NGOs working on issues of human rights, health and disability issues, the delegates addressed a press conference in Roots Hotel, where Raji Sourani, Helen Mack, Anders Wejryd and Jakob von Uexkull made brief statements. As part of his statement, Jakob von Uexkull said: “I realize that words of support and sympathy will mean very little to you after all of the horrors you have experienced. I apologize that we have not been able to do more against the unforgivable crimes committed here. Many in Europe are angry and frustrated, our governments are afraid to speak the truth and act to end the impunity for Israel’s barbaric actions, which break every law and every ethics of our global community. (…) In the 1990’s, when Serbia terrorized the people of Bosnia and Kosovo, no-fly zones were enforced and the USA and Europe forced Serbia to withdraw. Why is there no internationally enforced no-fly zone over Gaza?”
Over 100 persons including victims, UNRWA staff and a broad range of Palestinian civil society attended the reception that followed the press conference. There, Jakob von Uexkull encouraged Palestinians to engage in active nonviolent resistance and consider incorporating the tactics developed by American theorist Laureate Gene Sharp (2012, USA) as part of their strategy to end the occupation of Palestine.
After saying goodbye to Raji Sourani and his colleagues, the delegation left Gaza for Israel via the Erez Checkpoint. Immediately afterwards, delegates traveled to the Israeli border town of Sderot to have a discussion with Roni Keidar. She is an activist with The Other Voice, a remarkable group of Israeli citizens living by the border working for a civilian solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Other Voice calls for an end to the siege of Gaza, and tries to facilitate dialogue between Israeli border communities and Palestinians. In the meeting, Keidar shared with the delegation how she and her family had for many years lived in continuous fear of being bombed by Hamas rockets. At the same time, she expressed her empathy with Palestinian victims of Israeli bombardments of Gaza, and after listening to the delegation’s experiences in Gaza, said that “people in Gaza and in Israel have the right to a free and peaceful life”. She agreed with the delegation that “mobility is a human right” for Raji Sourani and his colleagues. The meeting ended with Keidar showing the delegation where her house had been hit by rockets that had been fired from Gaza. The delegation committed to linking Keidar and her colleagues with Raji Sourani and PCHR to foster greater dialogue and cooperation between the two groups.
The delegation concluded the mission by having a wide ranging dialogue with over a dozen representatives of Israeli human rights organizations including members of Amnesty International-Israel, Adam Keller (Spokesperson of Gush Shalom, RLA 2001) and Ran Cohen (Executive Director of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, RLA 2010). Jakob von Uexkull shared his experiences in Gaza, and participants at the meeting deliberated on what actions they could take to strengthen PCHR and other Gaza-based human rights groups. Helen Mack Chang discussed the importance of addressing the issue of mental health of war victims in Gaza, noting that: “There is no peace without mental healing. Often, violence is a self-mechanism resulting from the traumatizing experience of war.”