Palestinian doctor paints picture of Gaza under siege
By Mark Almberg
CHICAGO — Sometimes it’s the little things that reveal the horror of
oppression most vividly.
Dr. Mona El-Farra, speaking here recently as part of a 17-city U.S.
tour, related how recently a Palestinian woman in the Occupied
Territories had gone into labor and was heading to a hospital.
“She was about to give birth, but she was detained at an Israeli
checkpoint for three hours,” El-Farra said. “Amazingly, she eventually
got through and was able to deliver her child.”
“But it was only after she left the hospital and returned home with her
baby that she saw that her house had been demolished by Israeli
bulldozers while she was away.”
El-Farra, a Palestinian physician in the northern Gaza Strip, noted that
over the past three years, 59 Palestinian women have given birth while
waiting to cross an Israeli military checkpoint.
“It’s not just the numbers,” she said. “It’s a matter of human rights.
Just one case would be bad enough.”
El-Farra certainly knows her numbers, however. As vice president of the
Gaza Red Crescent Society, the equivalent of the U.S. Red Cross, she has
a firm command the grim statistics that define Gaza today: 140 square
miles, 1.4 million people — one of most densely populated areas on earth.
Sixty-one percent of the population is age 19 or younger. Nearly 1
million are officially registered as refugees. About 75 percent are
unemployed and nearly half suffer from hunger.
The situation facing Palestinians in Gaza only grew worse with the
so-called Israeli disengagement from the territory.
“It wasn’t a withdrawal,” El-Farra said. “It was a redeployment. Israel
pulled its troops out of Gaza but it still controls it. Gaza is still
under occupation. It is like a big, open-air prison” — a prison that has
only become more unbearable with the U.S.-Israeli blockade of Gaza after
the election victory of Hamas.
Although she was trained as a dermatologist, El-Farra’s medical work
today is wide-ranging. In addition to her leadership in the Red Crescent
Society, she directs the Rachel Corrie Children’s Center in Gaza and
works out of several clinics, ministering to Palestinians with both
physical and psychological injuries.
It was at one of the hospitals that she works at, Al-Awda Hospital,
where she helped receive Huda Ghaliya, 7, the only surviving member of a
family of eight who were victims of an Israeli bombardment of a Gaza
beach in June 2006. The shelling incident provoked worldwide outrage,
but it was not an isolated case.
“Our emergency rooms are overflowing because of the continuous
assaults,” she said. It’s not an easy task for us to offer emergency
treatment or major operations. We are constantly working under fire.”
Aside from direct injuries sustained by Palestinians in Gaza, El-Farra
pointed to the enormous human suffering caused by the destruction of the
area’s infrastructure. “Bridges, buildings and other structures have
been destroyed by the Israelis in a form of collective punishment,” she
“Take, for example, the Israeli bombing of the largest electrical power
plant in Gaza last summer. Without electricity, there is no
refrigeration. Food and medicines spoiled in countless households,
including my own. With no electricity, there are no water pumps
operating — so there is an acute water shortage.”
The U.S. government bears a heavy responsibility for the situation, she
“We are being attacked by American weapons. The Israelis couldn’t attack
us in this way without U.S. aid, money and arms,” she said. “At the same
time, we clearly understand that there is a difference between the U.S.
government and the U.S. people.”
The health and psychological well-being of children have been a major
focus of El-Farra’s work.
“Children in Gaza today have no safe homes, no safe streets, no safe
atmosphere and no safe schools,” she said. “My youngest son is 15 years
old, and for the last three years, on each morning he leaves for school,
I wonder if I will ever see him again — if either he or I will be killed.”
The Rachel Corrie Children’s Center, named after the 23-year-old U.S.
activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while she was trying to
protect a Palestinian home from demolition in 2003, provides
psychological counseling and therapy to traumatized children.
El-Farra said the center serves as a safe haven for some of Gaza’s most
troubled children. “We encourage the children to do painting, drama,
story writing and other artistic activities,” she said. “We promote
education through play, and give them a place of their own. You can’t
imagine how much they appreciate this. It’s like heaven to them.”
Noting the help of international volunteers, including from Australia
and Sweden, in her work, El-Farra said global solidarity with the
Palestinians “is an important part of our ability to keep on living.”
“Solidarity gives us strength; it empowers us and it inspires us to work
harder.” She said the Palestinian cause “is not a charity case, but a
movement to claim our inalienable rights to peace and security and the
right of return. Support to us from abroad means a lot.”
She expressed dismay over the recent events in Gaza. “Hamas won the
election; they were clearly the Palestinian people’s choice. The
Israelis and the West immediately imposed an embargo and sanctions, and
taxes collected by Israel that were owed to the Palestinians were
withheld. The situation in Gaza changed from worse to worse, and one
could only expect there to be clashes.”
“Certain factions were supported by the American administration,” she
said, alluding to some of the leaders of Fatah. “But I blame both sides
for the strife, even as I understand the underlying reason for it is
U.S. interference in our internal affairs.”
Upon completion of her 45-day tour of U.S. cities, El-Farra traveled to
Egypt with the aim of returning to Gaza by way of the Rafah crossing.
But like approximately 6,000 other Palestinians, she was trapped on the
Egyptian side because of the crossing’s closure, now nearly two months old.
While waiting, she learned that her mother was deathly ill in Gaza, but
she was unable to come to her bedside. “I cannot cross the borders, I
cannot cross the Rafah crossing,” she wrote on her blog, “From Gaza,
“In her last hours I cannot be there; my hands are tied,” she wrote. “My
throat is dry, my eyes are full of tears. This is unjust, inhuman. This
is the occupation. … Goodbye, mum. I hope you rest in peace, a peace we
do not enjoy in Gaza.”
Her mother died on July 23.
//Dr. Mona El-Farra’s June 23 appearance in Chicago was co-sponsored by
Arab American Action Network and Not in My Name, a predominantly Jewish
peace group. Her tour was facilitated by the American Friends Service
Committee. For more information about El-Farra’s work with children,
visit the Middle East Children’s Alliance, www.mecaforpeace.org.//