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One year later...and the doors to the world's largest prison are still sealed shut

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It has been nearly one year since Israel launched "Operation Cast Lead," on Dec. 27, 2008. It was at 11:30 a.m. that 88 Israeli aircraft flew above the Gaza Strip and simultaneously struck 100 targets within a span of just 220 seconds. Thirty minutes later, a second wave of 60 jets and helicopters struck an additional 60 targets. Among the "casualties" were all civilian police stations and government administration buildings, along with the American International School -- paid for with U.S. tax dollars. At least 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 700 injured on that one day alone.

Twenty-one days -- and more than 1,000 Palestinian lives -- later, the invasion officially ended. The international community heaved a sigh of relief and proceeded to turn its back. On the ground in the Gaza Strip, however, the invasion feels very much like it never ended -- only this time it appears designed to finish the job with a slow death, well out of the radar of the global spotlight. We must not let that happen.

On Dec. 29, more than 500 human rights advocates from around the world will converge on the Rafah Crossing from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. The goal of the Gaza Freedom Marchers: to enter Gaza, join in solidarity with the 1.5 million Palestinians literally imprisoned there, and -- on Dec. 31 -- march in non-violent unison to the Erez crossing into Israel. Our demand: Israel -- and all governments that enable it, including the United States -- must open the borders in and out of Gaza now.

Since January 2006, when Palestinians had the audacity to choose their own government (led by Hamas) in elections widely recognized as free and fair, Israel has imposed collective punishment on the people of Gaza in the form of a crushing blockade. Less than a quarter of the volume of supplies they normally need have been allowed in since December 2005 -- and in some weeks, the trickle permitted by Israel is significantly less.
Israel maintains a list of "duel-use" items such as steel pipes and fertilizer, which it says could be used to manufacture weapons. These are never allowed in, with rare exceptions for "special humanitarian cases."

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Other materials are not permitted to enter simply because Hamas might benefit as well, by allowing government buildings to be repaired, for instance. These include building supplies -- cement, glass, wood, etc. -- that are desperately needed to rebuild or repair the more than 20,000 homes and 90 percent of private businesses that were damaged or destroyed by the Israeli army. As a result, many Gaza residents are forced to live among the rubble, in the ruins of their homes or in pop-up tents never meant to house families of eight -- and certainly not for longer than a few weeks. I traveled to Gaza in March of this year, and then again in June, and when I returned for the second time, many of the tents UNICEF had put up were much worse for wear. As the cold, rainy winter of Gaza approaches, I shudder to think what life will be like for these families -- and wonder just how the children are able to concentrate in school when they surely can't get a good night of sleep and are often hungry. (More than 80 percent of Gazans depend on handouts from the United Nations' Relief and Works Agency -- UNRWA -- for food.)

Other than a relatively small number of items that are always banned or allowed (such as basic medicines), no specific list of what supplies are and are not permitted entry is disseminated. In other words, it's a deliberately cruel guessing game. UNRWA reports that items that have been inexplicably refused entry include light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta and tea.As the school year began this fall, chronic shortages of everything from paper, textbooks and ink cartridges to school uniforms, school bags and computers were rampant.

The bottom line: The UN trade and development agency says 90 percent of Gaza's residents are currently barely living beneath the poverty line, and damages caused by Israel's Operation Cast Lead are estimated at $4 billion -- a sum the agency claims is three times larger than the Strip's entire annual market performance. Yet no rebuilding can begin, and no industry can thrive when the borders are hermetically sealed.

However, what most wrenched my heart during my last visit was the lack of plans and hopes for the future. As one of my friends in Gaza told me recently, "every day is the same: all I see before me is an endless monotony -- no way to use my skills to support myself or my family, and no prospect of relief." There are virtually no non-government jobs to be had, and as the Strip's five universities churn out more graduates every year (due to the high value placed on education by the Palestinian culture), the palpable mood of desperation and futility spreads broader and deeper. Although many young men and women in Gaza would like to study abroad, particularly due to the very limited range of master's and PhD programs available there, the prison doors remain shut to them as well. Between July and September 2008 (the most recent figures available), no more than 70 students managed to leave Gaza via Israel -- the vast majority of whom had won scarce, prestigious scholarships like the Fulbright. More than 1,000 students from Gaza apply to universities around the world every year only to discover they can't get out.

It is these young people who will decide the future of the Gaza Strip, and of the region. What are Israel's stated reasons for keeping the "prison door" shut? Arieh Mekel from the Israeli foreign ministry was recently taped telling ABC News: "Education is not as urgent as the need for medical care. And anyway, the problem is in Gaza and with the people of Gaza who voted for Hamas. We do what we can, but while Gaza is still ruled by Hamas, and while rockets are still being fired at Israelis, Palestinian students seeking education are not a priority."

Yet, is there a more effective way to counter extremism than to encourage secular education and exposure to other points of view, while giving the people hope for their future? The policy of depriving Palestinians of a competitive education as well as gainful employment makes that goal nearly impossible.

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One young man from the Gaza Strip, who will complete his bachelor's degree in English literature in January, has this to say about his dream of studying journalism in a master's program in the United States or United Kingdom, then returning home: "We would not be fair to Gaza if we leave it to the control of thugs and those shouldering rifles." Writes 24-year-old Mohammed Said El-Nadi in his blog, "There are more than one thousand reasons that push people to leave Gaza, and not come back. However, this is our only homeland. We must roll up our sleeves and start right away to rebuild what has been destroyed. We must bravely accept the challenge and start forging ahead to restore our glory. We should have faith, and believe in our potential" Perhaps that is just what scares Israel the most."

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Pam Rasmussen is a communications professional and activist with CODEPINK and Peace Action Montgomery (MD). She will make her third trip to the Gaza Strip this year, with the Gaza Freedom March ( Pam will be working in Gaza (more...)

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One year later...and the doors to the world's largest prison are still sealed shut