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Gazan Writer: Protesters Are Seeking Freedom from World’s Largest Concentration Camp

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Funerals are being held across Gaza today for the 61 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, which opened fire into crowds of unarmed demonstrators protesting the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and the ongoing Israeli occupation. Among the victims shot dead by an Israeli sniper was 30-year-old Fadi Abu Salmi, who used a wheelchair and had both his legs amputated. Another victim was 8-month-old Laila al-Ghandour, who died early this morning after inhaling tear gas fired by the Israeli military, including tear gas dropped by Israeli drones. For more, we speak with Muhammad Shehada, writer and activist from Gaza and a student of development studies at Lund University, Sweden. He writes for Haaretz, The Forward and other publications. His latest article for The Forward is titled “All We in Gaza Want Is That Israel Recognize Our Humanity.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move from Jerusalem, where we’ve just lost our satellite feed, to Sweden, to Muhammad Shehada, writer and activist from the Gaza Strip and student of development studies at Lund University in Sweden, writing for Haaretz, The Forward and other publications. His latest piece for The Forward is headlined “All We in Gaza Want Is That Israel Recognize Our Humanity.”

If you could, Muhammad, talk about what is taking place right now? Your brother is on the front lines in Gaza of the protests?

MUHAMMAD SHEHADA: He actually was. He recently managed to get out of Gaza, after two years of waiting on Rafah border crossing, which was a miraculous divine intervention.

But speaking of the Gazan protest, virtually everybody I know in Gaza, almost all my friends, are going there to the front lines. And the problem that pushes them to the wall is that life at the refugee camps, they experience death thousands of times a day, while at the borders they either break free or they die for once. The point is that people are trying to undertake a mass jailbreak out of what David Cameron, the prime minister of—the former prime minister of Britain, called an “open-air prison,” what a Haaretz editorial calls a “Palestinian ghetto,” and what Israeli distinguished scholar Baruch Kimmerling calls “the largest concentration camp ever to exist.”

Then you have the call for return, which is the main theme of the protest. And that represents even deeper and deeper desperation amongst the masses. The call for return does not constitute, what Israel claims, an attempt to destroy the state of Israel, but it rather shows that Gazans have given up about the place where they are caged. They are trying to right the only wrong in their life, that causes all their misery—namely, being born on the wrong side of the fence. And that separation fence is what separates between life and death, future and going nowhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Muhammad, I wanted to ask you about this issue of the open-air prison. Most people around the world do not understand the—how contained the residents of Gaza are. Can you talk about how difficult it is even to get in or out of Gaza, for either Palestinians or even other international visitors?

MUHAMMAD SHEHADA: Well, for the Gaza Strip, what you have is, as Harvard scholar Sara Roy calls, 2 million people, most of whom who are children, are being slowly poisoned by the water they drink and the soil on which they plant. Moreover, those 2 million people are not allowed—virtually, not allowed to leave at all. Gaza is completely sealed from sea, air and land.

There are two border crossings that are almost virtually permanently closed. The Israeli border crossing, only about 500 people could manage to leave Gaza annually. If you put that into numbers, that’s absolutely nothing of the population. The Egyptian border crossing is far more disappointing and disheartening. It opens three days a month, at most. That’s the best of it. Last year, it opened about 14 days in the entire year. And when it opens, Palestinians experience endless waiting, suffocating heat, blackmail, and detention in rottening cells. What you have on the Rafah border crossing, from my own experience, is waiting for at least 18 months to come out of it. Then you are brought to this room of the Egyptian side of the border. You sleep there the whole night. Every 10 minutes, an Egyptian officer would come out and announce another name, and that name would be thrown back to Gaza without further explanation. And you absolutely don’t want to be the next one. So you would do anything at all not to be sent back into prison.

And the easiest way to get out is paying a bribe between $2,000 to $10,000. If you put that in proportion with the Palestinian GDP in Gaza per capita, it’s completely unaffordable. People, absolutely—70 percent of the population are unemployable—not only unemployed, there are no opportunities. You have an economy that is completely compromised and destroyed. You don’t have any person who could afford that amount of money, except for very few exceptions. This is called the coordinated passages. If you pay that amount, you could easily come out of Gaza. Otherwise, you would sleep there at least for one or two days in that room, detained, until you get your name sent back to Gaza.

And then, if you, by divine intervention, manage to break out of the siege and your name is accepted for departure, you will be sent in transit, in buses shuttled to the borders, to the airport directly, the Cairo International Airport, like a detainee or prisoner. On the way, you have at least tens, if not hundreds, of checkpoints, military checkpoints, in the Sinai Peninsula. And at each one of them, you are stopped, inspected, kicked out of the bus. Your bags are emptied, looted. Whatever they please, they could take. And then you proceed to the next one. And they are highly specialized at each checkpoint. At the airport, you are deposited in what is called the transit room, which is basically an underground prison cell. It has a door handle from the outside, not from the inside. When you go inside it, you will have absolutely nothing. They take all your electronic devices. They take your bags. They just send you in to sleep on rottening mattresses, until your flight is due.

And for people to come in, basically, Israel denies entry for virtually any person who’s trying to come to Gaza, with very limited exceptions of press personnel with press credentials, international NGOs, high officials, etc., etc. But there has been many cases where Israel denied entry for even the highest ranks in the United Nations. If you take, for instance, the high commissioner of human rights, Zeid bin Ra’ad, he was denied entry into Gaza several times. If you take the diplomatic missions in the West Bank, the European diplomatic missions, I know many of the representatives there who were never allowed to Gaza except once in their entire servitude.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, we just spoke to two leading lawyers: Vince Warren, head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Katherine Franke, a Columbia law professor. They went to Israel. They were deported right back to the United States. Muhammad, you have written many pieces, for The Forward, for Haaretz, the newspaper in Israel. Among the pieces, “What If It Were Your Child Killed in Gaza?” And you start it off by saying, “My mother started to scream on Friday, when she learned [that] my 18-year-old brother went to [the] Gaza border protests without telling her. She cried on and off all day [long], in a state of hysterical panic until he returned back home safely [late] at night.” And you wrote an opinion piece for Haaretz, “Marching in Gaza, My Brother Risks Death—to Feel Free,” and “We Must Speak Up Against Israel’s Slaughter in Gaza,” another piece you did for Vice. Muhammad, talk about the organizing of these mass protests that have been going on since March 30th, supposedly culminating today.

MUHAMMAD SHEHADA: For the mass protest, the main target or goal is basically finding life. People’s livelihood has been completely destroyed behind the fence. Their future is glittering, literally, after the fence, if they manage to break out of Gaza. Although, virtually, these are waiting, they are no longer prisoners. And that’s exactly what they want. The separation fence is a window for the people of Gaza to always stare at Israelis on the other side leading a normal and organized life. This window does not awaken only jealousy, but also extreme anger and outrage. For how come on Earth that the entire world is watching 2 million people chained to the ground, dying slowly, and doing absolutely nothing?

And then you have the Israeli response to the nonviolent protesters. The logic behind it is basically best captured in recent footage released by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, where one Israeli soldier in the West Bank advises his fellow soldier not to shoot at people from a distance, but to actually wait until they come closer, and then turn one of them into a cautionary tale, because the soldier believes that this will prevent the rest from throwing rocks on the soldiers, when one of them is put on a wheelchair for the rest of his life. This is exactly the same scenario repeating itself in Gaza. Israel is determined to teach Gazans a lesson: that nonviolence is not the way forward. Nonviolence cannot get you anywhere.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Muhammad, I wanted to ask you—

MUHAMMAD SHEHADA: And for the people—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the visit of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the daughter and son-in-law of the president, to Jerusalem yesterday, because the White House talks about a propaganda effort, but, really, this visit, in some degree, was a propaganda effort, because there is no embassy. This is just—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This was just to announce the beginning of creating the embassy there, moving it, but there’s no embassy there. Could you talk about the impact on you and other Palestinians of this decision of the Trump administration?

MUHAMMAD SHEHADA: Well, the decision of the Trump administration represents, for most young people in Gaza, one extreme indication. The world is moving on. The status quo will not only be perpetuated, but is going to be worse. In Gaza, yesterday is remembered with such fondness. Today is insufferable misery, unbearable, slow death. And tomorrow will be worse. That’s the rule. And if you’re sick of your life, two shekels, half a dollar, will take you to the borders. This is the pattern of life that we have here.

The visit of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to Jerusalem yesterday was disappointing, in the sense that the people of Gaza are relatively resilient to what they have endured and experienced. The tribulations, unspeakable tribulations of life, they pass through it alive. But the thing that kills their hopes the most is seeing that the world is standing ignorant and turning a blind eye to what is happening. And while at least 60 people in Gaza were killed and massacred in a bloodbath, Jared Kushner was making an optimistic and happy speech about the success of Israel and the strong American-Israel relationships that are based on democracy. And then, what was the most extreme about it is, I think, what you mentioned already: when Jared was saying that the people in Gaza who are marching and risking their lives and walking towards death bare-chested are part of the problem, not the solution. Then what’s the solution, in his head? Just exterminating the entire population.

AMY GOODMAN: Muhammad Shehada, we want to thank you for being with us, writer and activist from the Gaza Strip, a student of development studies at Lund University.

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For Palestinians, New U.S. Embassy Is a Symbol for Gaza Protests—But Mass Oppression Is Root Cause

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