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Gaza on Brink of Humanitarian Catastrophe

by Bill Dienst

This August, a group of 40 international human rights activists from 15 countries, including Palestinians and Israelis, will attempt to sail directly from the island of Cyprus into the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza. I will participate as the ship's doctor. Two ships, provided by an organization called the Free Gaza Movement, will challenge Israel's policy of imprisoning 1.4 million Palestinians within the Gaza Strip.

Gaza stands on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, with its population confined in a crowded area to which land, sea and air entry are all controlled by the Israeli military. Israel claims Gaza is no longer occupied, yet it denies the vast majority of the population access to jobs, travel, visitors, commerce, education, medical care and basic necessities.

Since last fall, in a form of collective punishment of Gaza's entire civilian population, Israel has tightened the screws on the territory by restricting the importation of food, fuel and medicine. This cutoff has resulted in a desperate situation, as Gazans are unable to pump water, run hospital equipment or even process sewage, which is now being dumped into the Mediterranean by the millions of gallons.

In my work as a physician, I have visited Gaza numerous times since 1985, collaborating with local health care organizations. My colleagues in Gaza report current conditions are extremely dangerous to the physical and mental health of most of the population, especially children.

The Israeli government also abuses the civilian population of Gaza in much more violent ways than through the slow misery of siege. I witnessed one example of such treatment two years ago in the town of Beit Hanoun, when a weeklong incursion by the Israeli army resulted in the deaths of more than 85 people. More than 300 were seriously wounded. I subsequently visited the graves of 16 members of the Al Athamna family, who had all been buried hastily in the sand in the foreboding presence of Israeli tanks.

The desperate situation in Gaza is not a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or an earthquake. This disaster is man-made, born of Israel's desire to make Gazans as miserable, and therefore submissive, as possible. The rest of the world does not have to ignore this situation, but many of those who have used the phrase "never again," fall silent when a new atrocity against Palestinians is under way.

The Free Gaza Movement intends to start a sealift in order to open Gaza to unrestricted international access. In our first attempt to sail into Gaza, we will bring much-needed supplies. If we are allowed to land, we will then attempt to return to Cyprus along with Gazans who need urgent medical care or need to exit Gaza for other pressing reasons.

As ship's doctor, my responsibility is preparing a medic team for the Free Gaza Movement's first sailing. It is possible that we will have an uneventful trip, where minimal medical assistance is needed. However, it could happen that Israeli forces block our passage, or even attack us, as they have frequently attacked Gazan fisherman.

One way or another, our greatest hope is that we will succeed in drawing international attention to the plight of Gazans. We will no longer remain idle in the face of the massive violation of human rights perpetrated against them.

Bill Dienst is a rural family and emergency room physician from Omak. For more information on the Free Gaza Movement, see freegaza.org.

©1996-2008 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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