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Worse than an Earthquake: Peace Activist Kathy Kelly on the Destruction in Gaza

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President Obama has dispatched George Mitchell on his first trip as Middle East envoy. Mitchell is set to begin in Egypt today, followed by Israel, the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. My next guest has just returned from the Gaza Strip, where she witnessed the Israeli attack. Kathy Kelly is the executive director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama has dispatched George Mitchell on his first trip as Middle East envoy. Mitchell is set to begin in Egypt today, followed by Israel, the occupied West Bank, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Speaking at the White House, Obama said Mitchell will be charged with bringing about “genuine progress.”

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The charge that Senator Mitchell has is to engage vigorously and consistently in order for us to achieve genuine progress. And when I say “progress,” not just photo-ops, but progress that is concretely felt by people on the ground, so that people feel more secure in their lives, so that they feel that the hopes and dreams and aspirations of their children can be met. That is going to be our task. It is not something that we’re going to be able to do overnight, but I am absolutely confident that if the United States is engaged in a consistent way and an early — in early fashion, that we can make genuine progress.

    Now, understand that Senator Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton. So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us. And I’m hopeful that during this initial trip, one of the earliest initiatives that we have taken diplomatically, that not only is he able to communicate effectively how urgent we consider the issue, but that we’re also going to be able to listen and to learn and to find out what various players in the region are thinking. And more immediately, we hope that Senator Mitchell will be able to give us some ideas in terms of how we can solidify the ceasefire, ensure Israel’s security, also ensure that Palestinians in Gaza are able to get the basic necessities they need and that they can see a pathway towards long-term development that will be so critical in order for us to achieve a lasting peace.

AMY GOODMAN: George Mitchell has no immediate plans to visit the Gaza Strip, site of the three-week-long US-backed attack that killed more than 1,300 people, injured more than 5,000. A State Department spokesperson said Mitchell might make it to Gaza.

Well, my next guest has just returned from Gaza. She witnessed the Israeli attack. Kathy Kelly is executive director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, veteran peace activist, founder of Voices in the Wilderness, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. She joins us in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kathy.

KATHY KELLY: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: How long were you in Gaza, and how did you get in?

KATHY KELLY: We were there, Audrey Stewart and I, for a total of six days, and we had entered after going back up to Cairo and getting an official-stamped letter. You had to swear before the United States embassy in Cairo that you were going in on your own responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you see? Where did you go?

KATHY KELLY: We went to Rafah, and we were very fortunate. A family that had fled from their own home and was living in a home that was lent to them in-laws invited us to stay with them. And we were immediately outside the area where people were told to evacuate. And so, we timed it. Every eleven minutes, there would be a huge bomb thudding down on the neighborhood. This was very close to where the tunnel industry had been in full activity prior to the December 27th attacks.

And so, we heard many of the bombs falling, we heard Apache helicopters firing, and then traveled with young people, students, up to Gaza City after the ceasefire was in place and the roads had been cleared and could see just how stunned the students were at the extent of the devastation. And then, from there, we visited inside the hospital, the burn unit, in a major — Shifa Hospital in Gaza, and then went up to Beit Lahia and Audrey over to Tufa to further see the extent of the damage.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking with doctors in the hospital, seeing patients, what struck you most?

KATHY KELLY: The doctors said that the majority of their patients were non-military. They were civilians, grandmothers, teenagers, children. They were shaking with rage, honestly, because the world had watched for twenty-two days while this affliction just went on and on. They talked about patients lying on the floor, dying before their eyes, because they couldn’t open up operating rooms, they didn’t have enough materials to try to save all of the people who were coming in desperate need.

They said they had never seen injuries like this before, doctors with fifteen, twenty, thirty years of practice, particularly with regard to the burns. They’ve now, they believe, proven that white phosphorus was used. They had sent one patient’s tissue out for a biopsy in Egypt, and elements of white phosphorus were found in the tissue. And what actually kills people, when the white phosphorus, which is poisonous, goes into the circulatory system, is that the liver can’t process it. And two of their patients died of cardiac arrest after being transported to Egypt.

They also told about the way that surgeons had to work as teams — a vascular surgeon, a neurosurgeon, an orthopedic surgeon — trying desperately to save lives. And the extent of the wounds that each patient came in with, they said, was nothing like they had ever experienced before.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Kathy Kelly, about this brewing controversy in Britain. Two of Britain’s major broadcasters, the BBC and Sky, are continuing to come under criticism for refusing to air a charity appeal for the victims of the Israel attack on Gaza. The appeal was put together by the Disasters Emergency Committee, or DEC, which includes thirteen of Britain’s main charities. The DEC asked broadcasters to air the three-minute appeal during primetime on Monday, seeking donations for Palestinians affected by the conflict. The appeal aired on many British channels last night, but the BBC and Sky refused. This is an excerpt of the appeal.

    DEC APPEAL: The children of Gaza are suffering. Many are struggling to survive, homeless and in need of food and water. Today, this is not about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. The hospitals have been overwhelmed with the number of casualties and need more resources to treat them. This is why the DEC has launched this appeal.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, the BBC has come under broad criticism for its decision not to air the appeal. This is Caroline Thomson, chief operating officer for the BBC.

    CAROLINE THOMSON: It is a matter of a big national, international controversy. There is a big debate about the rights and wrongs of the war and the causes and so on, and we would want that to have stabilized and the situation on the ground to have stabilized before we could reconsider and feel it was something we could do.

AMY GOODMAN: And here is what the BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson had to say.

    MARK THOMPSON: We believe that the BBC’s reputation of impartiality is so important and so integral to the BBC’s reputation and its trustworthiness here and around the world that it’s very important that we adhere strictly to our principles.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, the charities behind the appeal include the Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children and Christian Aid. Kathy Kelly, your response?

KATHY KELLY: Well, many of those charities had even prior to the December 27th attacks issued a scathing report showing how the economic war, the state of siege that had been imposed on Gaza, was something that was in violation of international law. I think that these charities have had on-the-ground experiences, and they should certainly be listened to.

Surely, the humanitarian is political. That’s just a reality that we should all accept. But I think that the journalistic integrity would be most respected if in fact there would be clear reporting on the ways that these assaults, the Israeli assaults on a civilian population, 50 percent of whom are children, violated international law and any standards of human decency and, I believe, should be examined under the questions of genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Israel said that they would stop during that attack if Hamas stopped launching the rockets. What was the response of Palestinians inside? Has Hamas increased in popularity or decreased?

KATHY KELLY: It’s difficult to answer that question. I, myself, sensed that when people heard the word “victory,” that gave people pause. I mean, you couldn’t look at the extent of the damage and devastation and the amount of time it will take to repair and speak of victory, if in fact you are going to live in that situation for a long time. But I think that the rage that was felt in every conversation that I heard, in terms of the international community allowing this devastation to go on for twenty-two days without stepping in, was a cause of ongoing chagrin. Now, how that will affect Hamas’s political standing, it’s difficult to say.

AMY GOODMAN: How did this compare to your experience of other conflict situations? I mean, you’re famous, Kathy, for traveling the world to conflict zones. You were in Iraq before the invasion and during. You were in Lebanon in 2006.

KATHY KELLY: You know, in Iraq, when people were trapped under the economic sanctions, it seemed as though there was nothing that average, ordinary people could do except be punished again and again and again.

I was impressed by the tunnel industry. In the town of Rafah, which is bisected by the border, people have found a way to deal with the state of siege that was imposed on them imposing collective punishment. And they created a network of tunnels so that — actually, the first day that people could kind of basically come out after the bombing had ended, the stalls in Rafah were pretty stacked with goods. And I thought, well, how did they ever get there? And people just said, “The tunnels.” And so, I think where there’s tremendous need, people don’t like the idea of burrowing underground in order to get food and water and benzene and needed goods, but I think that there’s a great survival ethos that is —-

AMY GOODMAN: Israel said the tunnels are used for weapons smuggling, and Tzipi Livni came to the US in the amidst of the attacks to get the US to vow they would stop this weapons smuggling.

KATHY KELLY: But oughtn’t we just use that as a segue into understanding the extent of the United States weapon delivery to the Israeli government? I mean, the planes that were flying overhead were using aviation fuel given free of charge by the United States taxpayers. The drones that are flying overhead doing surveillance represent state-of-the-art modern technology. The amount of money the United States gives annually, $2.6 billion, to Israel -— this is a delivery that doesn’t even require any kind of smuggling, because the world has said, yes, the United States and Israel can collaborate, and they can beat up on Palestinian people, pounding them into the ground as much as they want, and there will be complicity.

AMY GOODMAN: What about George Mitchell going to Israel now, going to the occupied West Bank, but at least at this point they’ve not announced plans for him to go to Gaza?

KATHY KELLY: He has such an opportunity to make tracks out of the comfort of offices and salons in Tel Aviv and go to Gaza. Ban Ki-moon did it. My hope is that he would go and stay for several days, that he would make a thorough tour of the Gaza Strip. And I hope that everybody in the United States who’s tuned into his travel will encourage him to avail himself of what is a crucial opportunity to state his own desire to listen, as the President has instructed him to do. He should be listening to the mothers, to the children, to the doctors, to the people who are trying to now rebuild after a fierce and horrible assault.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you leave Gaza?

KATHY KELLY: You know, the electricity was sporadic. The internet connections were not so available. We felt we had a story to tell, and so we decided — it was a difficult decision to make. We decided, though, that it might be best to leave. But also, the people giving us hospitality, I think, were a bit worried that they were becoming too high-profile. I’ll have to acknowledge that people are afraid of what the Hamas authorities might think of what they’re doing in housing two Westerners, and, you know, shepherding them around the area was perhaps, with students, beginning to become worrisome.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask what you think of your fellow Chicagoan who has just become President of the United States, Barack Obama, who says he will double the force, for example, in Afghanistan, though has vowed to draw down troops in Iraq.

KATHY KELLY: This is a grave disappointment. I think we can still hold out hope in the reports that he said once, maybe four years ago, that his leading lights were the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. But I think that the pressure that he has buckled under, in terms of adhering to the demands of people who are weapon makers and war makers, is a pressure that won’t bring security to his fellow citizens in the United States or to the world. I hope he’ll step away from US exceptionalism and see the United States as part of the family of nations, not as a nation that has an indispensable role in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: I’ll never forget, not that I was there in Iraq when you were, right before the invasion, but the scene described — I think we talked to you around then — of you holding a protest outside the US embassy right before the attack and the journalists surrounding you, almost attacking you, for what you were doing. Can you explain that scene? They were calling you a collaborator with Saddam Hussein for protesting the imminent attack.

KATHY KELLY: I have a pretty vivid memory of that day, as well. We were in front of the United Nations compound, and we had a big sign that said “No blank check for war.” And Jeremy and others — Jeremy Scahill — had gone over to the prison just prior to that where people had been released by Saddam Hussein. And I remember John Burns, in particular. He was so angry with —-

AMY GOODMAN: John Burns of the New York Times?

KATHY KELLY: Yeah -— with my belief that in fact, you know, we had a prison-industrial complex in the United States that perhaps should bear scrutiny and attention and that maybe what Saddam had done might be something that the United States could consider, as well. But I have to say that after the war, after John Burns was kind of stuck in the Palestine Hotel in a staircase, at some point, at some risk to his own life, he pulled me over while he was with another group of reporters, and he said, “This is the person to go to if you want to hear the humanitarian story in Iraq.” So, you know, I should probably add that part, too.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you saying he was, in a sense, apologizing to you?

KATHY KELLY: Oh, that might be a stretch. But at any rate, it didn’t seem to be a relationship fraught by conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the anger that was being expressed to you right before the invasion? I mean, these reporters were supposed to be covering your point of view, but they were arguing with you.

KATHY KELLY: Well, I think that the reporters were very, very angry at Saddam Hussein’s regime, in part because they would be bounced out every ten days and have to pay enormous amounts of money, which all went —- in order to come back into the country every ten days. And that went to the Ministry of Tourism. Well, believe me, there was no tourism in Baghdad before the war. So, in a sense, it went right into the pockets of the Mahabharat, the secret service agency that was hounding them and tracking their every step. They were very, very angry, and I think they had a right to be. Saddam Hussein’s regime was ruthless and horrible.

But it wasn’t fair to say that we were the silent servants of Saddam Hussein. We were trying to say that you don’t punish children; children couldn’t be held accountable for that government. And John Burns deemed the demonstration we had as a demonstration that Saddam Hussein loved to see, but we saw the headline that he used as a headline that George Bush loved to see. And these kinds of -—

AMY GOODMAN: And what was that?

KATHY KELLY: Oh, it was a headline, exactly that, saying that it was a demonstration Saddam loved to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, with Barack Obama now the President of the United States, are you strategizing differently? You are one of the most well known international peace activists.

KATHY KELLY: I think if we take a wait-and-see attitude, that could quickly morph into inertia. And so, I think it’s just as imperative and as much of a responsibility for adults in the United States to keep trying to identify the grave dangers that exist as we continue to pour resources into military projects. And I think we should continue to say, “Abandon these military projects.” They don’t bring us security. And at a time when there are so many environmental concerns, when the financial collapses of so many industries are affecting people, we should be taking that money that we’ve given to the Defense Department and putting it into things that really ensure security and then continuing to demand that President Obama pay attention to these kinds of vital concerns.

We camped outside his home for nineteen days in Arctic temperatures in Chicago — I left in the middle to go to Gaza — what we called Camp Hope. And we did want to be respectful of the neighbors of the Obama family, of all the many people who are feeling great congratulatory happiness. But I think that we have to recognize where — well, that President Obama has now become the chief arms exporter in the world. He’s in charge of the most massive killing machine in the world. And it’s our responsibility to continue to hold forth those visions of another way without extending the arm of imperial menace and might all over the world — instead, to be extending a hand of friendship and to share resources as best we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathy Kelly, I want to thank you for being with us. Kathy Kelly is executive director of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a veteran peace activist, founder of Voices in the Wilderness. She has just returned from Gaza. She lives in Chicago, when she’s ever home.

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