Breaking the Gaza siege, by boat

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah Crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, 1 July, 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

I’ve visited the Gaza Strip multiple times since 1985, partnering with local health care organizations. I have professional colleagues in Gaza who are also personal friends. They suffer under a catastrophic and brutal siege. My friends live in a surreal world where Israel, the powerful bully, is as violent as it wants to be without consequences from its financiers in the US or Europe.

Even though a truce between Israel and armed groups in the Gaza Strip has held for about a month, only minimal needs are being met and the humanitarian situation in Gaza worsens by the day.

I witnessed one of many examples of the siege on Gaza when I visited in November 2006. In the town of Beit Hanoun, an incursion by Israeli occupation forces resulted in the deaths of over 85 people with more than 300 seriously wounded. Israeli authorities justified this carnage as “retaliation” after one Israeli woman in the bordering town of Sderot was killed by a homemade Qassam rocket fired from Gaza.

On 8 November, after Israeli tanks and bulldozers had pulled out of Beit Hanoun, 120 extended members of the al-Athmina family were asleep. At about 4:30 am, the Israeli military fired multiple artillery shells directly into their large apartment for 10 minutes. Nineteen members of this family were massacred and 45 seriously wounded.

I found myself at the al-Athamina family apartment in Beit Hanoun a week later, climbing through the ruined apartment and interviewing survivors. I visited graves of 16 family members buried hastily in the sand under the watchful eye of Israeli tanks.

This massacre created an international incident. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was sent by the UN to investigate, but Israel denied him entry into Gaza for 18 months. He finally entered Gaza via Egypt in May 2008.

Israel is the fourth largest military power in the world. In contrast, Palestinians don’t even have an army, just lightly armed rag-tag militias. When Palestinians respond nonviolently to Israel’s 60 year experiment in ethnic cleansing, they’re ignored by the world press and the protests are brutally suppressed by the occupation forces. When they respond violently, they’re demonized as “terrorists” in the same way that Native Americans were denigrated in the past as “savages.”

Now, Gaza lives on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe in a cage controlled by Israeli land, sea, and air forces. Israel claims that Gaza is no longer occupied, yet it denies access to jobs, travel, visitors, commerce, education, medical care and other basic necessities.

Many of those who say “never again” fall silent, while it happens again. But this is not a natural disaster like a hurricane or an earthquake. This disaster is man-made. Spineless Western leaders, who have the means to stop this slow, painful death, do nothing.

This summer, a group of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals will sail directly from international waters into Gaza. We say: Enough already! I will be aboard as the ship’s doctor. The Free Gaza Movement vessels will challenge Israel’s policy of imprisoning over 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, while saying they are free.

Preparing a medical team for the Free Gaza Movement is my responsibility; it will be difficult. The best case scenario is an uneventful trip where minimal medical assistance is needed. However, the worst case scenarios range from long periods of being besieged at sea and exposed to the elements to being attacked by Israel and a mass casualty incident. It is possible that many of us could be killed and injured all at once; or over several attacks, and our small medic system could become overwhelmed. Although dangerous, it is a risk we are willing to take, because the cost of doing nothing is too high. Once there was the Berlin Airlift; we intend to start the Gaza Sealift.

One way or another we intend to open Gaza to unrestricted international access. If we are unable, we will demonstrate that Israel still occupies Gaza despite its claim to the contrary. We will no longer be idle while those in power continue to blame the victim.

Dr. Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from Omak, Washington. He is a graduate of the UW School of Medicine and Tacoma Family Medicine Family Practice Residency Program.

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