The world’s largest prison break

February 1, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte reports on how desperate residents of Gaza flooded into Egypt through a breach in the border wall.

"IF GAZA is the biggest prison on the planet, this is the biggest jail break." This is how an Al-Jazeera reporter described the scene after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza crossed over a toppled section of the border wall with Egypt.

Defying police armed with batons and water cannons, Palestinians poured across the border into the Egyptian side of Rafah on the morning of January 23, after a series of explosions broke through a section of the 33-foot-high wall. The next day, hundreds of thousands more people passed back and forth, as Egyptian border police were forced to stand by.

Driven into destitution by a blockade on fuel and other necessities by the Israeli government, Palestinians rushed to buy supplies in Egypt--gasoline, milk, livestock, candles, cigarettes--that are either impossible to find in Gaza or too expensive to afford.

Fatan Hessin described to the New York Times meeting a childhood friend for the first time in years. "A few months ago, I thought I would never see her again," she said. "We are so tired of this life in Gaza--closure, unemployment, poverty, violence."

What else to read

For two eyewitness accounts of life in Gaza under Israel's siege, read "Rafah Today," an Internet blog by Palestinian independent journalist Mohammed Omer, and "From Gaza With Love," a blog written by Dr. Mona El-Farra.

The Electronic Intifada Web site provides updates on the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank.

Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. "War on Terror," by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad, documents the apartheid-like conditions that Palestinians live under today.

For background on Israel's war and the Palestinian struggle for freedom, read The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Lance Selfa on the history of the occupation and Palestinian resistance.

Hessin bought a large bag of flour, which costs $64.50 in Gaza, but is $17.50 on the other side of the border. "We thank Hamas for this," Hessin said. "I'm a Palestinian, not Fatah or Hamas. But I thank Hamas. This is the best thing they have done."

Egyptian soldiers tried to close the border again after a few days, but were met with fierce opposition. Eventually, a bulldozer--ordinarily a symbol of Israeli destruction of Palestinian homes--was used to push down another section of the wall, and Gaza residents crowded through once again.

With the cement and metal remains of the wall lying on the ground, people passed over into Egypt to see family and friends long separated. Some Gazans who had been trapped on the Egyptian side when the borders were suddenly closed in June were able to return home.

Others crossed simply to see Egypt for the first time. "I'm coming just to break that ice--that all my life, I'd never left Gaza before," Moussa Zuroub, a 28-year-old Palestinian, carrying his daughter Aseel, told the Associated Press.

THE BORDER breach is a welcome reprieve from the unimaginable poverty suffered by the people of Gaza.

The Israeli government ordered a blockade of Gaza last year, in retaliation for Hamas' takeover following their victory in elections in 2006. On January 18, Israel escalated its siege, completely banning all fuel supplies. As a result, Gaza's only power plant shut down.

Gaza's population of 1.5 million was plunged into darkness, with no fuel for heat or cooking. Bakeries stopped production of bread. Hospital workers faced the constant danger of dialysis machines and other equipment shutting down.

An already dire situation reached a new breaking point--no milk, no food, no fuel, no clean water, no garbage collection.

Hospitals can't get basic medicines and supplies, including syringes and tape. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "At the Nasser [Children's] hospital, doctors said eight premature babies had died in the last two weeks, including one who needed blood-clotting agents that they didn't have."

Homes and roads that have been destroyed by Israeli shelling cannot be rebuilt because there is no cement. Without fuel to run the pumps at sewage treatment plants, human waste backs up and floods into the streets.

"A stream of dark and putrid sludge snakes through Gaza's streets," wrote journalist Mohammed Omer, reporting from Gaza City for Inter Press Services. "It is a noxious mix of human and animal waste. The stench is overwhelming. The occasional passerby vomits. Over recent days, this has been a more common sight than the sale of food on the streets of Gaza, choked by a relentless Israeli siege."

When Israel sealed off Gaza's borders, it did so with the backing of the U.S. government. The Israeli government claims that the fuel blockade was its response to the firing of homemade Qassam rockets into Israel from Gaza. But no one has threatened Israel with power shutoff in response to its far deadlier bombing campaign in Gaza.

As Soumaya Ghannoushi wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper, "Since Annapolis [the November 2007 conference in Washington that Bush said would kick-start the peace process], the death toll of Palestinians killed by Israelis has soared 100 percent.

"The ratio of Palestinians to Israelis killed last year was the most unbalanced ever, at 40:1, up from 30:1 in 2006, and 4:1 from 2000-2005. The total death toll for 2007 stands at 322 Palestinians and eight Israelis. Of the eight, five were soldiers who died while carrying out military operations inside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."

As Socialist Worker went to press, it was unclear how long the border would remain open. And, of course, while the breach made it possible for Gazans to obtain some desperately needed supplies, it hasn't ended the humanitarian crisis created by Israel's blockade.

The Israeli government thinks it can dangle the Palestinian people by the end of a rope--turning on and off their food and their power, bombarding them with missiles.

The image of Palestinians streaming across the toppled border wall gave the world a glimpse of the hellish conditions caused by Israel's occupation--but also a glimpse of the determination of the Palestinian people to fight back.

Further Reading

From the archives