As our bus drove slowly through the night towards the Rafah crossing, it was suddenly filled with the most disgusting stench. It came from Gaza’s only sewage treatment works, which is completely inoperable because Israel refuses to allow in the parts and equipment needed to maintain it. Raw sewage is being pumped into the sea off the coast of Gaza instead.
For our delegation of 60 Members of Parliament from throughout Europe representing 13 different countries this was a minor inconvenience at the end of a visit of solidarity to a people under siege. Our bus was powered by fuel brought in through the tunnels to Egypt, like nearly all the other essentials that Gazans rely on. Goods are lowered laboriously down shafts on the Egyptian side of the border, dragged through the tunnel and then lifted up again.
All the while the Rafah crossing, an enormous series of buildings and departure halls and waiting rooms more like an airport than anything else, remains eerily empty and silent. Under a 2005 crossings agreement no vehicles are allowed through, only foot passengers. Our delegation seemed to be among the few people able to cross in and out of Gaza.
Gaza was bombed by Israel a year ago as part of Operation Cast Lead. People’s homes, schools, medical centres and UN facilities were destroyed. The Israeli soldiers’ vandalism also destroyed the minarets of mosques, killing utterly defenceless civilians.
During my visit I spoke with many families who were in their homes at the time of the Israeli soldiers’ arrival. One man, who spoke fluent Hebrew having worked in Israel, had asked the soldiers to leave them alone as they had no weapons. His wife described how he had been shot in cold blood at point-blank range. His traumatised and shocked son had then protested and was similarly killed. The family were refused permission to move his body, which lay outside their door for 18 days.
We also met people whose homes had been destroyed to create a free-fire zone for the Israeli forces just north of Gaza City, and visited sites that were among the 181 schools, 57 clinics and 18,000 hectares of agricultural land wantonly destroyed. We heard evidence of how prisoners had been taken by the Israelis, blindfolded and made to stand in front of advancing soldiers to act as human shields.
Many of those who were badly injured a year ago are still suffering physical disfigurement. Because of the siege they are unable to travel to hospitals outside Gaza.
Standing amid the rubble and the ruins, you only have to crane your neck a short way over the hill to see the razor wire fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Not far beyond stand the European-style homes, hospitals and schools used by Israeli civilians as they go about their first-world lives.
However, other aspects are more hopeful. The administration in Gaza does ensure a semblance of order and effective administration. The UN Relief and Works Agency provides education, health and whatever care it can in the face of tremendous difficulties.
But the estimable John Ging, head of UNWRA, was withering in his anger at the frustrations of trying to run an aid operation with the endless delays to getting any equipment through. He is concerned about the collective imprisonment of people by the Israeli siege. “If you can’t uphold international law you concede to the rule of the gun,” he warned.
He also pointed out that his agency is doing its very best to educate 200,000 children, care for refugees and look after 100,000 in special hardship, despite the fact that the huge amount of money for reconstruction pledged by the international community last year has not arrived because Israel refuses to allow cement, building materials or metal of any description to enter the Gaza Strip.
Our delegation was welcomed, as are all of those who are prepared to visit Gaza. The people of Gaza are keen to explain how they are surviving and their wish to be part of a united Palestine.
The bombardment by Israeli forces included the destruction of the Parliament building. We were fed a takeaway dinner on tables in the wrecked debating chamber during our long meeting with Hamas Prime Minister Khaled Mashaal.
We raised the issue of the need for a unified Palestinian position and an effective Palestinian voice representing people in both Gaza and the West Bank. By not dealing with the elected government in Gaza, the European Union and the quartet are effectively supporting the Israeli strategy.
Contact between the two parts of Palestine is limited and the economic relationship non-existent.
Britain has played a long and inglorious role in the region. It delivered the Balfour Declaration that established Israel after promising independence to the Arab peoples during WWI. Understandably it is viewed with suspicion by Palestinians who have seen their country divided, their land stolen and their children killed.
There is something deeply disturbing about a world that can watch the bombardment and killing of civilians and now stand aside and allow hundreds of thousands of lives to be subjected to the strangulation of this siege.
On our return through Cairo, our delegation held meetings with Egyptian officials and the general secretary of the Arab League, who assured us that he is planning to visit Gaza in the near future. I think it’s time that David Miliband did the same.
Democracy produces elected leaders and, if we have respect for democracy, we must talk to them and recognise the wishes of the people. And none more so than the Palestinian people, who have for so long been mistreated and now face the day-to-day consequences of the international community’s neglect.
This article was also published in the Morning Star.