“We are all complicit”: an interview with Ewa Jasiewicz

Ewa Jasiewicz at Gaza’s al-Awda hospital. (Alberto Arce)

A year ago, Israel launched its invasion of Gaza. Dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israeli military, the invasion started on 27 December 2008 and finished on 18 January 2009. During those 23 days, more than 1,400 Palestinians were killed including more than 320 children. More than 5,000 Palestinians suffered serious injuries.

Originally from England, Ewa Jasiewicz was one of a handful of “internationals” on the ground. A human rights activist, union organizer and journalist, Jasiewicz has spent years working in occupied Palestine and Iraq with oil workers, refugees, paramedics and community groups. She is a coordinator for the Free Gaza Movement and part of the editorial collective of Le Monde Diplomatqiue Polish Edition. Her book Gaza: Getto Nieujarzmione (Gaza: a Ghetto Unbroken) will be published in Poland by Ksiazka i Prasa in March. A year later, she reflects on those bloody days with The Electronic Intifada contributor Frank Barat.

Frank Barat: You were in Gaza a year ago during Operation Cast Lead. Why and how did you and other activists go to the Gaza Strip?

Ewa Jasiewicz: Myself and several solidarity activists from Lebanon, Spain, Canada, Australia, Italy, UK, Ireland and Greece managed to get into Gaza aboard the Free Gaza Movement’s (FGM) Dignity boat. FGM has sailed five successful missions to Gaza from August to December 2008, bringing in human rights workers to build political solidarity activism, to break the isolation of ghettoized communities and directly confront Israel’s illegal and brutal siege.

FGM’s missions are political — we know Palestine is not a charity case, and that the solutions to a 60-year policy of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and militarized ghettoization are not extra bags of flour, medicine, new tents and millions in aid, but political will and direct action. This is currently unforthcoming from governments around the world, so our actions are about directly applying international law from the grassroots up because it isn’t being respected and is being violated, daily, from the top-down — the siege of Gaza and occupation of Palestine is international, the states supporting it either with their silence or direct complicity in economically supporting Israel are co-occupiers and collaborators in war crimes against the Palestinian people, along with Israel.

FB: Previously you spent some time in the occupied West Bank during various Israeli operations (more particularly in the Jenin refugee camp). What were the main differences between the two places and what did you expect to see in Gaza? Did you expect the attack?

EJ: I didn’t expect the attack — but people in Gaza and the Hamas authority did expect an attack because the ceasefire had expired and Israel was saber-rattling, threatening to eliminate, as always but with greater intensity and focus, resistance leaders — military and political — and their supporters. There was an increase in unmanned aerial vehicles flying 24/7. I had experience of smaller operations in the West Bank in Jenin and Nablus following Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. Operation Defensive Shield was massive, hundreds of Palestinians were killed, the heart of Jenin refugee camp was bulldozed and dozens of civilians massacred in the process. By the time I came, all the ruins and trauma were still very fresh but the worst of the destruction and killing had subsided.

The smaller invasions were carried out under curfew, involving hundreds of troops, carrying out house-to-house searches, and mass arrests with every man aged between 15 and 50 rounded up, interrogated and beaten. A typical operation, with groups of children throwing anything they can at tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) in the street — and often getting shot at for doing it. There would be sporadic resistance at night from fighters, but many of the most experienced had been killed at that point. Troops would carry out collective punishment like home demolitions using bulldozers or explosives and civilians would be used as human shields. What was different at that time in the West Bank was that a lot of the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) infrastructure and military infrastructure of the resistance — fighters and leaders — were destroyed during Defensive Shield by F-16 fighter jets. Israel was executing its cyclical strategy of having decimated the leaders of the armed and political resistance of major political factions, moving on to target the social infrastructure — community leaders, social activists — and continuing to arrest relatives of the “wanted” and trying to bait out and kill the younger, more inexperienced fighters.

Because of the tunnels, fighters in Gaza have had access to more sophisticated and threatening weaponry than their West Bank counterparts, so Israeli aggression has been more intense in Gaza and heavily reliant on aerial bombardment. Since the withdrawal of the colonists and military bases [in 2005], this has increased.

In the West Bank, activists could be much more mobile and confront and dialogue with soldiers. In Gaza 2009 that was impossible. I only once saw soldiers — a special forces soldier trained his gun and apparently shot at our ambulance. In the West Bank we were often between tanks and APCs and following and observing soldiers close-up. If you got close to soldiers in Gaza they’d kill you — that is what everyone kept telling us.

FB: What did you plan to do there? Did your plans changed once the invasion of Gaza started?

EJ: I planned, as had other activists, to work with Palestinian partners — civil society groups, unions, farmers and fishermen, local campaigns for the right to education and to end the siege. My role was going to be to coordinate and guide visiting delegations coming aboard FGM boats along with [Irish human rights activist] Caoimhe Butterly. Once the invasion started, it became immediately clear that what we needed to do as foreign activists was to fulfill our role of witnessing and reporting, mitigating the risk to those most likely to be attacked — which during invasions are the medical services.

The Israeli occupation forces killed 16 rescuers in 22 days and injured dozens more. By volunteering with medics we attempted to deter attacks on them by informing the media and our embassies that we would be accompanying all services — 13 of the medics killed were from the Civil Defense services. We did not differentiate between “independent” and “government” services; all must be protected under international law. Also, we didn’t just sit in the ambulances, we physically carried the injured and dead and tried to assist where possible Secondly, we could remain mobile — ambulances were the only vehicles moving around 24 hours; we needed to be able to document and report on the attacks as fully as possible. Thirdly, in our mobility and proximity to the front line we could witness the effects of the bombardment on civilians in their homes, and take testimonies from families and Palestinian human rights workers inside hospitals.

FB: Could you describe a day in Gaza during the invasion?

EJ: The constant sneer of surveillance drones, repetitive bombing and crashing sounds, some close some further away, muted panic, empty streets, rubble everywhere, ambulance sirens wailing endlessly, screaming relatives coupled with the groans of the bloodied and dust-covered crushed and injured, medics praying and smoking, heart-beating perpetual ratcheted-up adrenaline, a constant readiness for the next strike and yearning for it to all end, endless stream of bodies and blood-soaked stretchers, cyclical dread, pierced with fresh-surges of shock and horror unabsorbed, and a deep fear of the night and whether we would make it through and whether each ambulance run might be the last. None of the fear paralyzed us but nevertheless it was present. But we all early on accepted we could die, and took on the risks because it was worth it, the Palestinian people are worth it. We wanted to save lives and I know I let go of my attachment to mine, inspired and encouraged by the bravery of those around me, and their willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of others.

FB: What was the feeling of the population on the ground? How were they surviving and responding?

EJ: Everybody was terrified but defiant. The feeling on the ground was that anything could happen, all the red lines had been crossed. Not just with this operation, we have to remember that Operation Cast Lead was only an intensification and a drastic one at that, of an existing policy of massacre and deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, but in [the northern Gaza refugee camp of] Jabaliya, many of us were expecting another Sabra and Shatila with all witnesses banned from seeing the worst and with media being attacked, and tanks moving in closer and close, we felt that the atrocities already happening signified more could come and on a much wider scale. [Editor’s note: Sabra and Shatila were Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where a massacre occurred during Israel’s 1982 invasion. Israeli forces surrounded the camps and allowed and supported the militia of the Lebanese Phalange Party to conduct the massacre inside the camps.]

FB: What was the most useful thing you think international volunteers were able to achieve and contribute? What did Palestinians in Gaza think of your presence there?

EJ: The community were glad we were there and kept telling us, “Please report what you see, we cant even believe this is happening to us, let the world know, it’s your duty to speak out about what you witness.” And that’s what we did, through TV and radio interviews, our own written reports, some of us wrote books too: for example, Vittorio Arrigoni (Italy) Gaza, Stay Human, Sharyn Lock (UK) Gaza Beneath the Bombs, myself Gaza: A Ghetto Unbroken. Some of us made films, like Fida Qishta and Jenny Linnel, and documentaries on the phosphoric bombardment of Khoza. Alberto Arce and Mohammad Rujailah produced To Shoot an Elephant.

I think we contributed to the testimony of the Palestinian community that white phosphorous was being used, that civilians were deliberately being targeted, that hospitals, schools, emergency services were being targeted. And that counteracted Israel’s propaganda. Also, I know for a fact that we lifted the spirits of the medics we worked with; they felt they had a witness with them in case of their death, and a possible small bit of protection against Israeli attack. Everybody needs a witness when they’re going through hell — wherever and whatever that hell is — it’s a form of solidarity, of verification, that the unbelievable really is happening to you. Also, we were urging people on the outside to step up their protests and direct actions and advocacy for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Getting that narrative out was important too, peoples’ eyes were opened and many people wanted to get involved and deepen their activism.

FB: Could you recount one event that truly shocked you during the invasion?

EJ: There were so, so many. Probably the bombing of a house by an F-16 just a few feet away from four of our ambulances. I was in the passenger seat with my hand on the door, my friend and driver told me just wait, wait a little, and suddenly there was this enormous explosion — everything went bright fire orange and rubble and debris showered our ambulance. One of our drivers was injured and needed to be carried out on a stretcher. Our exit route was blocked by rubble, a family was screaming and gathering their belongings and getting out, we were stumbling with our casualty and surveillance drones were thundering above, and we feared a repeat strike, more casualties, and losing four ambulances when every single one was vital. We cheated death that night. The Israelis saw us and our lone movement in the streets of Jabaliya, and bombed a house less than 10 feet away from us — this is a criminal, reckless use of force.

Another was the bombing of the Beit Lahiya Elementary School with white phosphorous. We arrived in our ambulances after evacuating dozens of residents suffering from phosphoric inhalation and after the school had taken a direct hit. I was masked up but the stench and smoke was still penetrating, and when we got there a second round exploded above us, I was frozen to the spot and could see these burning blobs raining down next to me, I had to be screamed at to move and find shelter. The refugees in the school were screaming and crying under a flimsy metal shelter in the school yard. The third floor of the school was on fire. We brought Bilal Ashkar, aged seven — just this limp boy — into our ambulance. He’d been hit by the phosphorous shell and thrown down the stairs of the school by the force of the explosion. He was dead on arrival.

FB: A ceasefire was declared on 18 January 2009. Did things change much after this? What did Gaza feel like and look like after the ceasefire?

EJ: The Israeli occupation forces flew F-16s over people returning to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives in Ezbet Abed Rabo [neighborhood near Jabaliya], drones continued to sneer above us every night. There was this hollow humiliation and undigested horror, and loss, such a profound sense of dislocation and loss — of lives, of the loved, homes, whole communities, streets, mosques, shops, gone. People literally felt physically lost in their own neighborhoods. It was like another Nakba [the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 when Israel was created]. People felt mocked by the international community. “They’re laughing at us, the whole world doesn’t care, they’re mocking us,” was what we frequently heard. It felt like a tsunami had hit.

FB: Many reports coming from UN bodies, aid agencies and human rights organizations came out very quickly in the months following the invasion. Most of them agreed on the fact that war crimes and possible crimes against humanity were committed during the Israeli attack. Did you ever witness actions that for you were crimes of this magnitude?

EJ: Absolutely. The targeting of civilians and civilian areas, the reckless and wanton destruction of property, the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force, seen with the bombing of the Beit Lahiya School, the Samouni family massacre, the F-16 bombardment of the Hamdan children in Beit Hanoun, the utter disregard for our ambulances, the blocking of access to the injured resulting in hundreds of deaths, the extrajudicial killing of Sayed al-Seyam and Nazar Rayan and scores of their family members. We picked up so many shredded men (and some women too) axed by heavy-duty bombs released by surveillance drones — these can carry a 150 kg payload and are sophisticated enough to detect the color of a person’s hair. According to the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, proportionally, most people killed [during the invasion were] by UAVs followed by F-16s.

FB: A few weeks ago, 16 aid agencies issued a report saying that the international community had “failed Gaza.” On the ground things have not changed at all for ordinary Palestinians in Gaza but have gotten worse. Keeping this in mind, what do you think is the role of popular resistance or citizen activism?

EJ: Yes, the international community facilitates and pays for Israel’s occupation, and pathologizes and de-develops Palestine in the process. Ordinary citizens have a responsibility not to fund or politically support [an] industry which hides a relentless project of ethnic cleansing and colonization of Palestine. [Instead, citizens have a responsibility] to build a critical mass of political pressure by all means available — through BDS and direct action — to bring about sanctions against Israel and to enforce international law by targeting the companies that violate it with respect to Palestinian human rights, and to expose Israel in the same way [apartheid in] South Africa was exposed and eventually brought to an end.

FB: What in your opinion is most urgently needed in Gaza? What can people do to help and change the status quo?

EJ: Palestinians in Gaza should answer that, but what many say, is that what Gaza needs is the rest of Palestine. People living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank want to be reunited with their families and homes. The inalienable and legal right of return for Gaza’s and all Palestinian refugees needs to be enacted. The Israeli tactic of divide and torture, of chopping up the Palestinian community, is a long-term tactic designed to break down the strongest weapon against ethnic cleansing that Palestinians possess — memory, community, family. As long as you have a people who remember their homes and lands, and know each other, refer to one another as cousin, uncle, sister and brother, and can ask, “Which home/family are you from?” then the struggle can never be alienated or abstracted. Palestinians in Gaza need to have the means to speak and act for themselves and not be spoken for, and to have access to the rest of the world — twinning relationships and projects between schools, mosques, universities, hospitals, youth groups, initiatives — these are all means to break the isolation inside and build a more intimate and motivated solidarity movement on the outside. Aid is not the answer. Solidarity is.

FB: A year after the war, people marched in hundreds of cities around the world to “commemorate” those horrific events. What do you think of those demonstrations? What type of effect do they have on Palestinians in Gaza? Are they useful at all in your opinion?

EJ: The rallies are a focus point; we do need collective mourning, remembrance and action in our streets. But its also important to target companies violating international law and which are key in perpetuating Israeli apartheid, which we must always remember is not limited to Gaza — the West Bank is 15 times larger than Gaza and is full of mini Gazas — Bantustans surrounded by Israel’s apartheid wall. Companies like Veolia, Alstom, Caterpillar, Elbit Systems, CRT Holdings and Carmel-Agrexco could be charged with aiding and abetting war crimes of ethnic cleansing and illegal colony-building. The boycott, divestment and sanctions call from Palestinian civil society needs to be responded to and supported — actively, daily. We are all complicit in the reproduction and reinforcement of the occupation — it is an international occupation, it is an international issue, and international solidarity for Palestinian human rights can create the conditions for a local solution.

FB: Will you ever go back to Gaza?

EJ: I am going back! I only meant to leave for a month, I deeply miss Gaza. It became like a home to me, I miss my friends and “family” there. Like so many activists that go to Palestine, what we witness never leaves us. We learn from and are humbled by the people that we work with, and it’s an honor and a privilege to participate in this struggle.

Frank Barat is a human right activist and coordinator of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. He lives in the UK.