A mission for solidarity

By Sister Patricia Chaffe
re-posted from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
I recently accepted with enthusiasm an invitation from the Free Palestine Movement, a California nonprofit organization, to join its delegation of U.S. citizens aboard the boat of the International Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.Why did I accept?

In June 2009, I visited Gaza with the human rights group Code Pink. I saw the devastation wrought by the 2008-2009 invasion by Israel, which killed approximately 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including over 300 children. I heard Palestinians in Gaza lament the loss of their loved ones. It reminded me of other horrors I have heard of over the past three decades – apartheid in South Africa, contra-ravaged Nicaragua and Iraq following the U.S.-led invasions of 1991 and 2003.

The Palestinians of Gaza also talked of the loss of their homes. One spoke to us amid the ruins of his village near the Israeli border, which had been leveled “so that Israeli forces could have better visibility for their ground invasion.” His home, he said, had three stories where his sons’ families lived in apartments. “That pile of rubble you saw as you turned off the main road – that was my home.” Others told similar stories.

Five months after the bombing, we saw rubble and shattered buildings everywhere. People repeatedly told us that the Israeli government did not allow materials for rebuilding to enter Gaza. We could only imagine the lives that were also shattered and wonder how they would heal.

The main lament I heard, however, was about the lack of freedom, not material things. The people could not leave Gaza: “I have been accepted by a university in Connecticut, but I can’t leave.” “I have been invited to speak at a conference in Madrid, but I cannot leave.” “I cannot visit family and friends in the West Bank.” “My father needed treatment for his eyes, but we couldn’t leave.”

As I listened, I myself felt the weight of imprisonment. I, more or less free to come and go as I please via Egypt, began to feel the stone that was holding Palestinians in place. And part of the weight was the fact that the generous aid to Israel provided by my government – the United States of America – enables Israel to oppress Palestinians.

Under pressure after the fatal attack on the flotilla of 2010, Israel began to loosen somewhat the restrictions on humanitarian aid and building materials to Gaza. Although portrayed as Israeli generosity, it was never enough. The borders remained closed, the prison doors locked. After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the media reported that the Gaza-Egypt border had been opened, except for men between the ages of 18 and 40. Palestinians trying to leave, however, tell of weeks of waiting and the frustration of arriving at the crossing only to be refused passage.

Some of the ships on this flotilla will bring medicine and concrete, both essential and in very short supply in Gaza. For many of us participants, however, the primary motive for our sailing is not to supply humanitarian aid but to break the blockade, which violates international law by imposing collective punishment upon a civilian population. In addition, the blockade is potentially a war crime because of the degree of harm that it has caused, including the death of people denied adequate living conditions and medical care.

I gave an enthusiastic “yes” to the invitation to join the 2011 flotilla because I feel compelled to say to the Palestinians of Gaza that the aid given to Israel by my government, enabling them to imprison more than 1.5 million Palestinians, is given not in my name.

Sister Patricia Chaffee of Racine has been a human rights advocate for 30 years, focusing recently on upholding Palestinian human rights. She has traveled to both the West Bank and Gaza.

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