Witnessing the siege

It is supposed that one can build factual perception by reading the statistics and getting all the hard evidence, but I recently realized that a complete cognitive process relies first and foremost on visuals — seeing the picture for oneself.

I joined a camera crew and producer shooting footage for a first-person interview on the Israeli siege on Gaza. The interviewee was Dr. Eyad El-Sarraj, head of the Palestinian International Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, a coalition of organizations and individuals set out to do just that. We met with Dr. Sarraj at his office and booked him for the day. Based on his humanitarian activism with the campaign, Dr. Sarraj would determine which areas were most pressing in terms of the crisis in Gaza, and therefore deserved priority over other aspects during the short interview. Dr. Sarraj confirmed what the producer and the rest of the crew had already mentioned — when it came to crisis in Gaza, the health sector and the economic sector were at the top of the list. It was decided we would visit a couple of hospitals and a factory to shoot the right footage. This is where the cameraman started taping and didn’t stop till the end of the day.

I cringed as I walked into al-Shifa hospital for the first time. Gaza City’s largest hospital, al-Shifa provides treatment for critical cases from all over Gaza, in addition to being the primary hospital for non-critical cases. That day the hospital was overflowing with the ailing, the wounded and the dying. We were lead to just one of over 1,500 patients who were denied permission to leave Gaza despite suffering conditions that threatened to be terminal or at best, permanently debilitating. A doctor explained that a 19-year-old young man with a drawn face propped up on a pillow, was at risk of having both legs amputated unless he was able to have a complicated medical procedure performed within the next few days, a procedure that is not available in Gaza. Upon further inquiry, we were informed by the young man’s mother that her son had been shot several times by Israeli soldiers.

A short walk to the dialysis unit revealed ten machines gathering dust in the corridor. We were informed that the lack of spare parts, disposable items such as needles, and medicines for dialysis patients prevented them from being able to operate the life-saving machines. Furthermore, both hospitals and pharmacies in Gaza have run out of 92 out of about 400 types of essential medicines used to treat other illnesses.

At the Children’s Hospital in the Nasser area of Gaza City, the doctor lead us straight to the infant care unit where several incubators were occupied and others lay unused in a corner. We peered at the unnaturally small newborns struggling for each breath. The food crisis in Gaza has lead struggling undernourished mothers to give birth to unhealthy babies. It dawned on me that despite the gravity of the medical crisis, the inadequacy or shortage of medical equipment bore no comparison to the lack of the most important human need of all: food.

The camera rolled on as Dr. Sarraj made his way back into the car clearly distraught and deeply upset about the seemingly predestined condemnation of life manifested in the frail little bodies laying in the incubators, helpless, flawless, yet already scarred for life. Dr. Sarraj cursed under his breath, scoffed a not-much-needed reminder of the hell we are all living in Gaza.

We made our way to a tile and brick factory that had been shut down due to the lack of cement and machine parts essential for it to function.

Entering the industrial zone en route to our third and final destination, I was struck by the brazen contrast between my distant recollection of the area — a once noisy, hectic bustle of trucks and machinery is presently an abandoned padlocked stretch of warehouses.

A guard ushered us through the gates and as soon as we drove in, it was obvious that when the factory owner had informed Dr. Sarraj that they had closed down over a month ago, and that he had come in that day only to talk to us and allow the crew to take pictures, he wasn’t joking. Except for the security guard, the owner and his assistant there was not a soul or a working machine in sight on the entire premises. “It’s not only that the 40 families of the factory workers that are out of a job no longer have any income” the owner told us, “we manufacture bricks, strong bricks used for sidewalks and streets. Because there is no cement, we are not able to make these bricks anymore.” The streets of Gaza we drove through on our way to the factory looked more like excavation sites than streets. I thought of all the 67,000 other factory workers and their families, also out of income. Then another shocking statistic that only then seemed to make sense — the annual per capita income in Gaza is $600. Compare that to $21,000, the annual per capita in Israel, barely a few miles away from where we were standing.

Dr. Sarraj had joked that the six or so hours of shooting would have to be condensed to three minutes. Three small minutes?! We had taken up his entire day and would take part of the next morning. He’s a busy man who not only heads the campaign, but he is also president of the Gaza Mental Health Programme, and president of the board of the American School in Gaza. Dr. Sarraj has an influential role as a Palestinian activist, political thinker and intellectual, with many things to say and many people to say them to. He was happy to give the producer and the cameraman his whole day, though.

Though Dr. Sarraj and these journalists are determined to get their story out there — no matter how much air time they get — it’s up to the rest of the world to listen.

Safa Joudeh is originally from Gaza and is currently completing her MA degree in public policy from Stony Brook University in the US. She returned to Gaza in September 2007 while training with Al Jazeera International.

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