Palestinian doctor paints picture of Gaza under siege

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CHICAGO — Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal the horror of oppression most vividly.

Dr. Mona El-Farra, speaking here as part of a 17-city U.S. tour, related how recently a Palestinian woman in the Occupied Territories had gone into labor and was heading to a hospital.

“She was about to give birth, but she was detained at an Israeli checkpoint for three hours,” El-Farra said. “Amazingly, she eventually got through and was able to deliver her child.”

“But it was only after she left the hospital and returned home with her baby that she saw that her house had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers while she was away.”

El-Farra, a Palestinian physician in the northern Gaza Strip, noted that over the past three years, 59 Palestinian women have given birth while waiting to cross an Israeli military checkpoint.

“It’s not just the numbers,” she said. “It’s a matter of human rights. Just one case would be bad enough.”

El-Farra certainly knows her numbers, however. As vice president of the Gaza Red Crescent Society, the equivalent of the U.S. Red Cross, she has a firm command the grim statistics that define Gaza today: 140 square miles, 1.4 million people — one of most densely populated areas on earth.

Sixty-one percent of the population is age 19 or younger. Nearly 1 million are officially registered as refugees. About 75 percent are unemployed and nearly half suffer from hunger.

The situation facing Palestinians in Gaza only grew worse with the so-called Israeli disengagement from the territory.

“It wasn’t a withdrawal,” El-Farra said. “It was a redeployment. Israel pulled its troops out of Gaza but it still controls it. Gaza is still under occupation. It is like a big, open-air prison” — a prison that has only become more unbearable with the U.S.-Israeli blockade of Gaza after the election victory of Hamas.

Although she was trained as a dermatologist, El-Farra’s medical work today is wide-ranging. In addition to her leadership in the Red Crescent Society, she directs the Rachel Corrie Children’s Center in Gaza and works out of several clinics, ministering to Palestinians with both physical and psychological injuries.

It was at one of the hospitals that she works at, Al-Awda Hospital, where she helped receive Huda Ghaliya, 7, the only surviving member of a family of eight who were victims of an Israeli bombardment of a Gaza beach in June 2006. The shelling incident provoked worldwide outrage, but it was not an isolated case.

“Our emergency rooms are overflowing because of the continuous assaults,” she said. 'It’s not an easy task for us to offer emergency treatment or major operations. We are constantly working under fire.”

Aside from direct injuries sustained by Palestinians in Gaza, El-Farra pointed to the enormous human suffering caused by the destruction of the area’s infrastructure. “Bridges, buildings and other structures have been destroyed by the Israelis in a form of collective punishment,” she said.

“Take, for example, the Israeli bombing of the largest electrical power plant in Gaza last summer. Without electricity, there is no refrigeration. Food and medicines spoiled in countless households, including my own. With no electricity, there are no water pumps operating — so there is an acute water shortage.”

The U.S. government bears a heavy responsibility for the situation, she said.

“We are being attacked by American weapons. The Israelis couldn’t attack us in this way without U.S. aid, money and arms,” she said. “At the same time, we clearly understand that there is a difference between the U.S. government and the U.S. people.”

The health and psychological well-being of children have been a major focus of El-Farra’s work.

“Children in Gaza today have no safe homes, no safe streets, no safe atmosphere and no safe schools,” she said. “My youngest son is 15 years old, and for the last three years, on each morning he leaves for school, I wonder if I will ever see him again — if either he or I will be killed.”

The Rachel Corrie Children’s Center, named after the 23-year-old U.S. activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while she was trying to protect a Palestinian home from demolition in 2003, provides psychological counseling and therapy to traumatized children.

El-Farra said the center serves as a safe haven for some of Gaza’s most troubled children. “We encourage the children to do painting, drama, story writing and other artistic activities,” she said. “We promote education through play, and give them a place of their own. You can’t imagine how much they appreciate this. It’s like heaven to them.”

Noting the help of international volunteers, including from Australia and Sweden, in her work, El-Farra said global solidarity with the Palestinians “is an important part of our ability to keep on living.”

“Solidarity gives us strength; it empowers us and it inspires us to work harder.” She said the Palestinian cause “is not a charity case, but a movement to claim our inalienable rights to peace and security. Support to us from abroad means a lot.”

She also underscored the importance of worldwide support for the right of return.

El-Farra expressed dismay over the recent events in Gaza. “Hamas won the election; they were clearly the Palestinian people’s choice. The Israelis and the West immediately imposed an embargo and sanctions, and taxes collected by Israel that were owed to the Palestinians were withheld. The situation in Gaza changed from worse to worse, and one could only expect there to be clashes.”

“Certain factions were supported by the American administration,” she said, alluding to some of the leaders of Fatah. “But I blame both sides for the strife, even as I understand the underlying reason for it is U.S. interference in our internal affairs.”

Upon completion of her 45-day tour of U.S. cities, El-Farra traveled to Egypt with the aim of returning to Gaza by way of the Rafah crossing. But like approximately 6,000 other Palestinians, she was trapped on the Egyptian side because of the crossing’s closure, now nearly two months old.

While waiting, she learned that her mother was deathly ill in Gaza, but she was unable to come to her bedside. “I cannot cross the borders, I cannot cross the Rafah crossing,” she wrote on her blog, “From Gaza, with Love.”

“In her last hours I cannot be there; my hands are tied,” she wrote. “My throat is dry, my eyes are full of tears. This is unjust, inhuman. This is the occupation. … Goodbye, mum. I hope you rest in peace, a peace we do not enjoy in Gaza.”

Her mother died on July 23.

malmberg @pww.org

Dr. Mona El-Farra’s June 23 appearance in Chicago was co-sponsored by Arab American Action Network and Not in My Name, a predominantly Jewish peace group. Her tour was facilitated by the American Friends Service Committee. For more information about El-Farra’s work with children, visit the Middle East Children’s Alliance, .