Gaza Peacemakers honored in D.C.

Ellen Hamilton Baugh
Staff Writer
December 5, 2009

Middle East Institute honors Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, Palestinian physician.

Dr. Abuelaish is a Palestinian obstetrician whose niece and three daughters were killed by the Israeli military when a bomb shelled his home during the January 2009 Gaza siege.

His daughters -- aged 20, 15, and 13 -- and his niece were among the thousands of civilians who were killed in the Israeli attacks on Gaza. Before the Israeli Operation Cast Lead, he worked as a senior researcher in the Sheba Hospital in Israel, going home to Gaza on the weekends. He dedicated his life to medicine and the pursuit of peace. During the shelling of Gaza, he was at his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp when it was hit. After he found his daughters and niece dead, he telephoned an Israeli journalist begging for help. The journalist broadcast his message live on television and the Israeli public heard his pleas. One of his statements was, “Is that how you treat a doctor who treats Israeli patients?” His final words at the girls’ funeral were that he hoped that his children would be the last to die before a ceasefire was imposed.

The Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. honored Dr. Abuelaish at its conference on November 9th and awarded him for his contribution to peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis. In a thoughtful address to the audience, he emphasized that despite his tragedy, he still believes there can be peace between Israel and Palestine. He said, “Only light can drive out darkness, only love can drive out hatred.” He spoke of his love for his daughters and the need for peace. He honored the words of Martin Luther King, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” He vowed that Israelis and Palestinians must be creative in seeking paths to peace and must build bridges to understanding each other. He considers himself to be a bridge between Israel and Palestinians.

John Ging, UN Director for Relief for Gaza, Speaks about Hope amid Tragedy in Gaza
John Ging spoke to a crowded hall on October 13, 2009 at the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C. A former officer in the Irish Army, Mr. Ging oversees the $400 million operation in Gaza that provides services to 750,000 refugees, half of the people of Gaza. UNRWA has served Palestinian refugees for 60 years and its purpose in Gaza is to provide education, health care, and other services to men and women, the disabled and youth. This large humanitarian challenge is particularly acute in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There are 4½ million refugees in the greater area and 1½ million in Gaza. The pillars of its mission are to provide human development, humanitarian assistance, and the repair of infrastructure.

Ging condemned the Israeli siege against Gaza which began in June 2007 and which intensified during Israeli Operation Cast Lead. He thanked President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John Kerry for their political intervention to relieve the hardships of the siege, but insisted that international law is clear that the Gaza assault was illegal. He explained that the siege continues to destroy the living environment of ordinary people and there is no economy in Gaza. The director’s list of issues was substantial. Whereas two years ago, 100,000 people had the dignity of work, now they queue for food. Water and sanitation conditions have deteriorated, adversely affecting health. The Coastal Aquifer is being devastated. Untreated sewage is going into the Mediterranean every day, because sewage infrastructure is being destroyed.

Beyond water, health, and employment problems, school infrastructure has also been affected. There are not enough school buildings, and this has resulted in truncated education, with morning and afternoon sessions. There are no extracurricular activities when they are desperately needed. Students have felt imprisoned because they cannot leave Gaza to use scholarships or get further education. He stated that every piece of infrastructure in Gaza is under strain and not meeting basic standards. About 50,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed. Not one bag of cement has been let in for repairs. All this human suffering has had a devastating impact on the mindset of the residents because the future does not exist for them. Frustration and despair are reality. The children and students are especially vulnerable.

He believes that Israel continues the siege because it wants to punish Gazans for having voted for Hamas, despite the fact that half of the residents (750,000) are under 15 and did not vote for Hamas. Although Israel argues that it has overriding security concerns, he believes that the “Agreement on Access and Movement” between the Palestinians, Israel and Egypt, brokered by the US in November 2005, sets out the parties’ responsibilities clearly. He claims that Israel’s security concerns can be alleviated because UNRWA is responsible for goods brought into Gaza and can do the same for cement and building supplies.

UNRWA has the mechanisms for being fully accountable for food and building materials. “We can’t just stand back and do nothing. Why can’t crossing points be also used for cement as bags of flour? Let’s use the same solution. Why not open the crossing points for longer hours? There are practical solutions for supplies coming into Gaza. That’s not being addressed, there are just statements about security,” Mr. Ging argued, “We continue to appeal to political leaders to put the needs of the people above the politics. It is the ordinary people who are paying the price, the impact on the children growing up will have long term effects.”

But Mr. Ging believes that there is good news. There is still unity in the Palestinian territories and social ties have not broken down even though there are political divisions. “It’s the good nature of the people that strikes you. The circumstances have not changed that good nature.

U.S. Congressmen are welcome with the hope that they can rectify the situation. You don’t get anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli rhetoric even if a shell has destroyed their house. They distinguish between people and the military. They understand the conflict and want people to focus on an end to it. It’s about the responsibility of the international community to enforce the law. Civilians caught in conflict must be protected. There must be proportional force and reasonable duty of care. The people of Gaza would be satisfied if those laws were upheld. They don’t accept that they are the ones who are paying the price.”

This is John Ging’s key message, that all is not lost. It is in the nature and potential of the population. He states that Gazans are good natured people and want to find a way to move forward. “These are not second class citizens in terms of abilities. They are first class and all they need is opportunity. With so many tragedies around the world, this is a manmade crisis. The people are well equipped to fend for themselves. They can’t now because we can’t overcome the [Israeli] security [apparatus]. There is massive potential for these people. They haven’t given up so we shouldn’t give up on them.”

When asked for his candid message for President Obama, he answered, “We are very encouraged by what President Obama has done and the people he has appointed, in particular, Senator Mitchell. We, from Ireland say thanks to him. There are many others who give us cause for hope. But we are running out of time at an alarming rate. On the ground is where the situation will get better or fail. The people on the ground have the right mindset and responsible attitude. But the siege, the condition of political failure is very damaging. It’s a society being destroyed.”

John Ging serves as Director of Operations in Gaza for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and has been in charge of UNRWA’s Gaza relief program since before Israel’s devastating Operation Cast Lead (December 2008 to January 2009).

Ellen Hamilton Baugh is an attorney and received the Master’s in International Policy and Procedure (MIPP) from the Elliott School. She is presently working on the Certificate in Middle East Studies at GWU. She studied Arabic in Jordan during the summer of 2009 and visited Syria and Israel. In 2008 she studied Arabic at the American University in Beirut Lebanon. MEBAUGH510@aol.com

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