Sunday Reporter Andrew Quinn talks to Derry Friends of Palestine member Gerry MacLochlainn about his recent visit to the Gaza Strip.
IT’S with equal amounts of sadness, anger, joy and fervour that Gerry MacLochlainn recalls his recent visit to the Gaza Strip.
Along with people from over 40 different countries, Gerry travelled as part of an international delegation to Gaza to learn about and highlight the ongoing Israeli siege of the Palestinian territory.
Gerry represents Sinn Fein on Derry City Council but was invited to be part of the Irish delegation because of his work with the Derry Friends of Palestine.
Gerry’s also a community worker for Hill Crest House in the Waterside and last month’s visit to the Gaza Strip was his third.
The journey was arduous but worth it says Gerry. After travelling from London to Cairo he managed a brief visit to Tahrir Square; a place synonymous with the Arab Spring.
Gerry entered the Gaza Strip with the rest of the delegation at the Egyptian border. He spent four days there visiting schools and hospitals and meeting with families who had lost loved ones as a result of the violence between Israel and Palestine.
“It’s definitely getting worse out there,” says Gerry regretfully. “There are some places in the world that experience poverty and awful living conditions because of a natural disaster, but when you think that what’s happening in Gaza is because of the decisions of human beings you can’t help but feel angry.”
Gerry was part of the Irish delegation which also included West Belfast Sinn Fein MLA Jennifer McCann, Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy and Fine Gael TD James Bannon.
“The fact that over 100 people from over 40 countries visited Gaza says a lot about how we intend to stand together when it comes to addressing and tackling the ongoing Israeli siege.
“It’s also important to point out that by travelling to Gaza we are challenging the siege. We bore witness to the every day experiences of people living in the Gaza Strip.”
During the visit the international delegation agreed and passed a resolution document demanding that governments all over the world assist in ending the Gaza siege.
Gerry explained that the onus is on every right minded person to ensure that the suffering endured by the people living in the Gaza Strip comes to an end and added that the resolution document is a step in the right direction.
“It’s a positive move in the sense that we have countries from all four corners of the globe reading off the same hymn sheet.”
The resolution reads:
“The time for words has passed. Governments and human rights organisations worldwide must employ all peaceful powers at their disposal to force an end to the siege.
“These actions should include economic sanctions, cultural boycotts and diplomatic actions such as ambassador recalls.”
It’s almost impossible not to feel moved when Gerry recounts several emotive anecdotes of his visit to Gaza last month.
It seems that every street Gerry went down in Gaza City or Khan Yunis brought with it its own unique story of grief, loss and suffering.
“Some of the stories we heard from the people we met were utterly heart breaking,” says Gerry.
“There was one little girl whose father was arrested and imprisoned by the Israelis when she was four months old. When she was four years-old her mother died and she was then brought up by her grandfather who also died. Her uncle then became her guardian but he was killed by the Israelis Defence Force (IDF).
“Her father is still in prison and her last living relative is her grandmother. Her grandmother is ill and each night the little girl goes to sleep in her grandmother’s lap - I guess it’s because she’s afraid that her granny may die in her sleep and she’ll be all alone again - this is the type of story you are met with every place you go in Gaza.”
The Israelis bombed an area close to the border crossing of Rafah when Gerry was in Gaza and the day after he left for Egypt it was bombed again.
“The place has been relentlessly bombed by the Israelis and because they say certain items and materials could be used to attack Israel they do not allow certain things into Gaza.
“The Israelis refuse to allow the people of Gaza to import cement because they say that it could be used to build a missile launch pad. As a result, the bombed buildings are not being repaired and new houses cannot be built.”
Gerry visited the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and described the facilities as nothing short of inhumane.
“I spoke to a few of the doctors and surgeons at Al-Shifa Hospital and they told me that because of the Israeli siege some 150 of a possible 500 vital medicines and items are at zero stock level.
“Many of the patients in the Al-Shifa Hospital and other hospitals in Gaza are not getting the care and treatment they need.”
During his visit to the Al-Shifa Hospital Gerry met with patients in the hospital’s dialysis unit.
“The patients there are not getting the treatment they need. They are only getting a few hours of dialysis when in actual fact they should be getting twice as much. This is reality for the people of Gaza - they have to live like this every single day.”
The Palestinian people living in the Gaza Strip also experience constant interruptions with their power supply.
Gerry said that the people can be without electricity for up to eight hours and added that in the past it has resulted in the deaths of babies in local hospitals
“The power can be switched off when the people are least expecting it,” he says. “Obviously they try to ensure they have back-up generators but that doesn’t always work.
“It doesn’t happen all of the time but there have been incidents when every single baby in a baby incubator unit has died as a result of the power being turned off. For this to even happen once is one time too many,” he says emotionally.
The description that Gerry gives of life in Gaza is raw and emotive. It’s of a people seeking some semblance of normality in extraordinary surroundings.
“The one thing that struck me was that despite the fact that the Gaza Strip is extremely over populated, unemployment is very high, the place is bombed constantly by Israel and 90 per cent of their drinking water is not safe to drink, yet the men, women and children are still able to smile and laugh - it amazes me.”
He added: “There’s a shortage of 250 schools in Gaza. Some of them have been destroyed by Israeli rockets and because of a ban on cement they cannot be rebuilt. As a result the children are also being made to suffer. It’s up to the international community to put a stop to this.”
Gerry also visited many of the territory’s refugee camps and said he was shocked at what he witnessed.
“How in this day and age can human beings allow other human beings to live like this?,” he asks.
“We visited the Jabalia Camp and I saw nine people living in a building with only two rooms. I don’t mean, just two bedrooms, I mean just two rooms.
“Some of the houses had no furniture or electricity. A few mattresses may have been on the floor and they had to use small candles in order to see in the dark.”
One experience in particular caused Gerry to feel great sadness and as a result the Derry Friends of Palestine have decided to try and help the people concerned.
“We visited a house where seven people were living in two rooms. The people were very welcoming to us but in the middle of the room lay a young child. She had been knocked down by a car and as a result she was completely paralysed. Because of the poor healthcare situation she was not able to get the help she needed and still needs. It was heartbreaking to see this and we at Derry Friends of Palestine are going to look into this case to see what help we can bring.”
If the Palestinians living in Gaza are to experience a better quality of life Gerry says that governments around the world must act now and they must hold Israel to account when it flaunts international law.
“Israel has acted with impunity for too long both at home and abroad. The Irish Government must take a firm stance with Israel.
“The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore opened an Israeli Film Festival in Dublin but only days before that the Israelis had kidnapped and imprisoned 14 Irish citizens in international waters.
“Let’s not forget that Mossad agents used stolen Irish passports to carry out the assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai.”
Gerry returned home to Derry recently but says that he and the rest of Derry Friends of Palestine will continue to promote the Palestinian cause and he said he has hopes that someday the people there will achieve normality.
“Gaza is a beautiful place and I have no doubt that if the siege was lifted and they were able to exist like any other country it would become one of the most beautiful, rich and cultural places on planet earth.”
For further information on the Derry Friends of Palestine visit www.derryfriendsofpalestine.org