Marty Chavez Eric Griego

| Main | 8/5-7, 8/20: Baseball for Student Backpacks at Isotopes Park »

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Lora Lucero Guest Blog: Gaza is the Largest Open-Air Prison in the World

Border crossing at Rafah in late afternoon.
There are usually long lines earlier in the day.

This is a guest blog by Lora Lucero, a long-time resident of Albuquerque, NM and an adjunct professor of law at UNM. She first visited Gaza in 2004 and this year was invited by the Islamic University of Gaza to present a lecture on the subject of climate change, which is the focus of her research and writing.

I'm sitting in Cairo, Egypt trying to break into the largest open-air prison in the world -- Gaza, Palestine. I don't exaggerate. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, John Dugard, and former World Bank President, James Woffensohm, and others have called Gaza an open-air prison.

Nearly 1.6 million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, which is 7 miles wide and 35 miles long. It has one of the highest population densities in the world. More than 80,000 people live in the Beach Refugee camp, which is smaller than one square mile. Compare this to only 25,000 people in a square mile of Manhattan, NY.

80% of Gazans are below the age of 50; 50% are below 15. All of the statistics are bad and growing worse -- unemployment, poverty, dependent on food aid -- the U.N. says 80%.

Gaza has only two border crossings for people to enter and exit: the Erez crossing on the north with Israel and the Rafah crossing on the south with Egypt. Up until former President Mubarak was ousted in February this year, Israel effectively held the key to both crossings. Mubarak did Israel's bidding; and in exchange, Israel offered Mubarak asylum, which he refused. During this transition period in Egypt, many are trying to learn what new rules Egypt might enforce at Rafah. Will Egypt continue to be the ruthless jail keeper or provide some hope for the thousands of Palestinians who want a normal life?

Camels get a free ride

Many have been turned away from the border crossings -- both foreigners and Palestinians -- for what seem to be very arbitrary reasons. Rumors spread like wildfire. An aid convoy of trucks from Scotland has been parked at the side of the road for weeks now, waiting to get permission to enter Gaza.

I was turned away on my first attempt to cross Rafah, and so I returned to Cairo to see how the US Embassy might help. Although my Congressman sent a request to his contacts in the State Department about my travel plans, the US Embassy in Cairo told me that no one has any influence or authority at the Rafah crossing but Egypt.

The US Embassy refused to call or send any request to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on my behalf, but they did issue a notarized affidavit warning me that I should not travel to Gaza and if I did, I was on my own. The US Embassy made itself perfectly clear -- it would not help me in Gaza. For that souvenir, I paid $50 US.

The US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Very fortified.

So I headed over to the Egyptian Ministry on my own to meet with Mr. Sharef, who I was told is in charge of Palestinian Affairs. Without an appointment, I was out of luck. One week and nineteen calls later, I struck gold (I think). I was invited to meet with Dina working in the office of Palestinian Affairs.

She informed me that Mr. Sharef had just moved on to another position. She asked me why I want to visit Gaza. "I've been invited by the Islamic University of Gaza," I said, and showed her my letter of invitation. She said the US Embassy must send over a written request, but I explained that I had tried and was not getting any help from the US Embassy.

Dina made a photocopy of my passport, my letter from the university, and my affidavit from the US Embassy, and said she would transmit it all to the Egyptian Intelligence Office for approval. Typically it takes one week, but the clock is ticking before I must return to the US. She said she would try to help.

The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo.

Whenever I feel frustrated and irritable about this situation, I think about my friends in Gaza who have lived their entire lives without the freedom to move, losing scholarship opportunities to study abroad because Israel refuses to let them leave; or the Gazans with medical emergencies who have died at the border because the guards would not let them through, or the dreams of the young people crushed because the jailer will not allow them to leave.

Israel controls the air space over Gaza, the land routes into Gaza, and the Mediterranean waters next to Gaza. Israeli naval attacks on the Palestinian fishermen intensified shortly after the British Gas Group discovered sizeable natural gas fields in Gaza's territorial waters. A coincidence?

Israel supports its tight grip on Gaza on the basis of security needs, but this is a travesty in which the US is shamefully complicit. I am convinced that Israel and the US are only increasing tensions and insecurities in the Middle East with this horrific occupation.

As Mazin B. Qumsiyeh wrote in the book Sharing the Land of Canaan,

One has to realize that the majority of Germans did not engage in the creation and running of the concentration camps but acquiesced to them. The majority of the Israeli Jews did not participate in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from 1947-1949 but acquiesced to them. The majority of Israelis do not participate in occupying or oppressing Palestinians but acquiesce to it. The majority of Americans did not participate in starving the Iraqi people but acquiesced to it. The majority of Palestinians do not engage in terrorism but acquiesce to it. 

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I receive permission to enter Gaza soon.

Sign at the border crossing -- turn around and head back to Arish or proceed to Rafah.

This is a guest blog by Lora Lucero. If you'd like to submit a piece for consideration as a guest blog, contact me by clicking on the Email Me link at the upper left-hand corner of the page.

August 3, 2011 at 12:55 PM in Guest Blogger, Human Rights, Middle East | Permalink


This has long been the epitome of evil in the world, and this heinous crime could not exist without the full support and complicity of the US government through military, diplomatic and financial aid.

With long standing atrocities such as this, the global economic meltdown, and the ongoing collapse of our democratic system at home, one despairs that 21st Century will descend into a chaos that will eclipse that which marked the first half of the 20th Century.

Posted by: Art Jaquez | Aug 3, 2011 1:31:24 PM

Those 1.6 million people could easily be relocated to one, or several, of the 19 or so Arab states that surround Israel. But their Arab brothers prefer to watch them attack Israel (and perhaps covertly supply them with weapons). There is certainly no "Palestine" historical presence in the Gaza strip, so why shouldn't they settle in Saudi Arabia, or Jordan, etc? Heck, I'm a third generation immigrant to the US myself. I'm proud of my Norwegian-English-Irish heritage, but have always considered myself an American.

Posted by: Ellen Wedum | Aug 3, 2011 6:49:57 PM

Ellen you talk about the Palestinians like they are subhumans who should be ordered about by the "important people." Many of them have lived in the general area for generations, including many who have been pushed out of Israel by horrible treatment and other means. The concept of nation states was brought in by colonialists so that measure you use doesn't make much sense.

Turns out the British Empire is to blame for many of the problems we have today in the regions where they set up shop as conquerors. When they then abandoned these places, chaos reigned and often continues today. The Brits meanwhile payed no real price for their slavish colonialism.

Posted by: Eden | Aug 3, 2011 7:20:19 PM

I guess the relocation of Natives and aboriginals to reservations was fine with you Ellen?
I know that this is very hard for most of you to understand but there is such a thing as geographical loyalty and attachment as a cultural heritage. We have people here in NM like that.

Posted by: qofdisks | Aug 3, 2011 11:35:29 PM

I agree with Eden that the British are responsible for most of the Middle East mess. But I did a lot of research on this about 15 years ago, and the Israelites have been unmercifully attacked ever since Jewish farmers were RELOCATED into the lands granted to them by the UN in 1948 (so blame the UN?) after six million of them were murdered by the Germans in WWII. The nation of Israel is only 5 miles wide in its middle portion. The Golan Heights are exactly that-- a 2,000 foot high bluff from which Israeli homes were shelled by Lebanon. The logo of the "Palestine Liberation Organization" is a map of the nation of Israel with guns crossed over it, and their goal was to completely destroy the state of Israel.

So now you blame the Israelis for evolving from peaceful farmers into a (successful) defensive people?

Posted by: Ellen Wedum | Aug 4, 2011 8:11:01 AM

What does that have to do with the horrible mistreatment women, children and families are getting in Gaza today? Do you support that Ellen? You say you did research 15 years ago. Maybe you need to do some more on the horrible treatment Palestinians are getting today. An open air prison like Lora says. The Israelis are also building illegal settlements and their behavior has been heavily criticized world wide except for here where AIPAC rules with its money in politics.

Posted by: Eden | Aug 4, 2011 8:39:25 AM

This is a link to one photo in a series. Use the left arrow to review the others in the series of 10 shot in Israel and Palestine a few years back by a friend of mine, Alan Pogue.

I feel that the US is too supportive of Israel without questioning or criticizing where it is merited. The cruelty that has been visited on the Palestinians is beyond shocking. It is one of the all time great tragedies.

The situation is a perfect dilemma. The logical political solution is really a multicultural state. But, Israel is a theocracy and cannot allow suffrage for those who might become a non Jewish majority. This is a conundrum that may never be resolved. The other logical conclusion is pretty unthinkable. It means allowing the Palestinians only a second class citizenship, contained within a military reservation, and in time, annihilation as a people.

The British set this up in 1948. It is probably an enduring prescription for endless bloodshed.

Laura Lucera has done a wonderful job of describing experience in traveling there. Thanks for your writing. More people should do more of this.

The media avoids this because they always get a very aggressive battery of complaint from pro Israel and anti-Palestine extremists. .

Posted by: Stuart Heady | Aug 4, 2011 10:11:40 AM