Blue sky, toxic sea

Palestinian fishing boats in a Gaza City port, May 2008. (Wissam Nassar/ MaanImages)

For the three days I’ve been in Gaza I’ve heard nothing but horror stories. My friends, the journalists, the health workers, the students, the taxi drivers, the intellectuals, they all speak with a certain heaviness and a guttural frustration that gets trapped in the back of throats, in the smoke they exhale from chain-smoked cigarettes, over and over and over.

Last night I saw a friend, Mohammed, whom I haven’t seen in three years and sadly lost touch with in between. Since I was here last, he got married, had a baby, and now has one more on the way. After a week-long trip to Europe last year as a part of his work with an international aid organization, he was held first for five days at the Cairo airport, in a small room with ten other Palestinians from Gaza, before they were transfered to a detention center and held for 60 days in al-Arish, in the seam zone between Egypt and Rafah crossing in southern Gaza. The Egyptians did this in an act of collaboration with the Israelis. With friends in the West Bank, the Jordanians use the same tactics of interrogation and humiliation at the border, but detention without reason doesn’t happen. Yet.

But Mohammed said that he’d do it again, just to get out. He told me between cigarettes that he’d be happy to spend three days out in the world even if it meant another 60 days in an Egyptian detention center.

On a massive and wide-ranging scale, every single aspect of life in Gaza is punctuated by the Israeli occupation and the blockade. There are 1.5 million people here, trapped and hermetically sealed, in this 22-mile by 6-mile strip of devastated open-air prison compound. Fuel is scarce and the streets are thick with the soupy smoke of cooking gas, falafel oil and benzene as Israel’s collective punishment policies force people to fill their cars with their families’ gas rations.

This trickles down. Hospitals, grocery stores, butcheries, fishing boats, administrative centers, schools, factories, clinics, they all either run on generators or have been forced to quit operations altogether because of the fuel crisis. In the sewage treatment facilities, the fuel shortages mean that sewage plants can’t operate at full capacity — and remember, there are 1.5 million people here — so millions of gallons of raw sewage are being dumped into the sea, untreated, making the ocean extremely toxic.

Giardia, dysentery, cholera — diseases not known just five miles up the beach, in the cities of historic Palestine (some call it Israel), where toilets flush and water is safe to drink, where people lay in the mid-day sun getting tan and drinking pina coladas and speaking a language resurrected just in the last hundred years, unknown to the indigenous and dispossessed here in Gaza — are now common. And once Palestinians get really sick, hospitals try to do all they can to alleviate the pain and eradicate the disease, but, as my friend told me, since the blockade began last summer, there are 95 medicines on the “blacklist” — prohibited from entering Gaza.

The number one medicine that is becoming scarce? Try to guess.

I visited al-Awda hospital in the northern Gaza Strip. The pharmacist took me into his small supply warehouse and showed me around. He took me to the small shelf where they store all the anesthesia medications, and said that they have only a two-week supply left. Israel is banning anesthetics from reaching patients in Gaza, as well as chemotherapy and heart medications.

Banning anesthetics — a sadistic, wretched, unbearable policy. It’s clear that the Zionists want the Palestinians in Gaza to feel as much pain as possible, literally. “We can’t even live month-to-month,” the doctor told me. “We have to just live day by day, hour by hour.”

We honor the doctors and medical workers at al-Awda. We praise their work. We pray that their ambulance, a donation from the Spanish government, has enough fuel to reach the injured in the next Israeli air strike or gunship attack or sniper assault.

It’s hard not to lose sight. It’s hard being here. It’s painful to see friends and colleagues suffer like this, uncontrollably and unmitigated.

People can’t hang on much longer. There is a collective buzzing in the bones. This is an untenable situation. Human beings should never have to live like this, oppressed and sickened and terrified and malnourished and imprisoned in the eastern Mediterranean, while up the beach a nuclear-saddled military occupier state congratulates itself for possessing the “most moral army in the world.” Shame on Barack Obama for slithering up to Israel and its financial enablers.

So Palestinians in Gaza, 1.5 million people, the vast majority of them dependent on foreign aid, 60 percent unemployed and 100 percent depressed and traumatized in one way or another, keep struggling and looking up toward the endless sky. Even though the sea is toxic, they still swim and fish and fly kites above the waves. I am trying to figure out what it is that sustains them. Every time I ask someone how they cope, they smile and say, “Because I have to — for my children, my spouse, myself.”

A resilience, a steadfastness — sumoud — that we westerners can’t even fathom.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is the Senior Producer and co-host of Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio and travels several times a year to occupied Palestine to document the situation. She is also a freelance reporter for Inter Press Service. She can be reached at norabf AT gmail DOT com. Her website is