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The Guardian/UK

From Goma to Gaza, Mr Miliband

While the foreign secretary is keen to be seen in Congo, another invisible humanitarian crisis receives none of his attention

Victoria Brittain

David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner were quick to fly to Kinshasa and Kigali this weekend to be seen to be responding to the sudden visibility of the long-running horrible humanitarian crisis of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Whether they achieve much more than another temporary truce among the assorted warlords whose troops have been living by rape and pillage in the area for more than a decade, is of course another question.

But Mr Miliband and Mr Kouchner have another invisible humanitarian crisis on their hands in which some highly publicised flying around could have a dramatic effect on the ground. They should announce visits to Jerusalem to speak to Israel's leaders, and then arrive by helicopter (the airport is destroyed) in Gaza City, breaking the Israel military's 17-month siege of Gaza.

They would be able to do it with ease, unlike the handful of people who made the trip recently in two boat trips from Cyprus, bringing medicines, hearing aids for the deaf, and hope that the world could hear the horror of what is happening to them.

The two European leaders could see for themselves in Gaza how Israel's collective punishment of 1.5 million people has crippled Gaza's economy, cut fuel and electricity, leaving its desperate people hungry, deprived of medicines, with hundreds barred from travelling for operations or healthcare, or for education. Only last week, camps in Gaza City and Khan Yunis saw waist-high water flood homes and roads after heavy rains because the pumping system was not working.

All this suffering is there to be seen.

And they could hear about the many avoidable deaths, and learn the names of men from 77 to 21 who died at Erez checkpoint when their permits were delayed, and about children, like one-year-old Bayyam Abu Hilu, who died at home when she was denied a permit "for security reasons".


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They would hear how underlying these realities the mental health needs of every family - particularly for children - are overwhelming.

Last weekend I was among about 100 foreigners due to arrive in Gaza for a medical conference on the impact of siege on mental health. The World Health Organisation was a co-sponsor of the conference, Walls versus Bridges and, with other international organisations, had applied to the Israeli military authorities for permission for each individual to enter. Everyone - mainly doctors, psychiatrists, academics from the US, Canada and Europe - was barred, and had to fall back on a blurry video conference from Ramallah.

Among the grim testimonies of psychiatrists from Gaza, such as Dr Eyad Saraj from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, which organised the conference, with WHO, was a video from the former US first lady, Rosalyn Carter. Mrs Carter deplored the fact that "the closure of Gaza is making it impossible for people to lead normal lives," and said she looked forward to the conference's recommendations.

Do Miliband and Kouchner really not know what Mrs Carter knows about the devastating impact on people of Israel's continuing control over the Gaza Strip's borders, airspace and coastal water? Or about the effect of Israeli military occupation, checkpoints, and the wall, in crushing economic, social and intellectual life for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank?

They should go to Gaza now and see for themselves, as Tony Blair has so shamefully failed to do in his role as Special Envoy for the Quartet. Mr Miliband and Mr Kounchner might then want quietly to tell the Israeli government it will become more and more difficult for them at home to resist the calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions which Palestinian civil society has been asking US and European church and other human rights groups to work for.

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Victoria Brittain is a former associate foreign editor of the Guardian. Her books include Hidden Lives, Hidden Deaths and Death of Dignity

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