Two weeks ago I returned to Gaza after an absence of 2.5 years. My last trip was in May, 2009, the third trip in 2009 following the Israeli attack on Gaza that killed 1440, wounded 5,000, and destroyed the homes of 50,000. The brutal attack also destroyed 700 businesses and factories, including all of the construction firms in Gaza, 18 schools (250 schools damaged), 89 police stations and security compounds, 45 mosques and 10 government ministries. All hospitals in Gaza were severely damaged.
I have attempted to go back to Gaza three times during the past 2.5 years-- in December, 2009 when the Egyptian government refused to allow 1,200 of the 1,300 from 55 countries to enter Gaza during the Gaza Freedom March; in May, 2010 when the Israelis brutally attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla killing nine and wounding 50; and in 2011 when the Greek government did the bidding of the Israeli and U.S. governments, and in violation of international law, refused to allow 8 boats in the Gaza flotilla to sail from Greece into international waters.
Returning to Gaza with a Parliamentary Delegation
November 20-25, 2011, I returned to Gaza with a Parliamentary group of 70 delegates from 20 countries, including 20 Parliamentarians from 12 countries, the trip was organized by the Council for European Palestinian Relations.
Israel is the top destination travel spot for US Congresspersons-virtually none have come to Gaza
There were no US Congresspersons on this large international Parliamentary delegation to Gaza. In fact, only 10 out of the 535 members of the US Congress have made fact-finding missions to Gaza in the past 10 years, despite the horrific Israeli attack on Gaza and the continuing international crisis of the Middle East. Senator John Kerry and Representatives Brian Baird and Keith Ellison visited Gaza on February 19, 2009, and were the first members of the US Congress to visit Gaza since 2000.
But, not surprisingly considering the tremendous support for Israel in the US Congress, Israel is the top destination in the world for Congresspersons and their staffers. In the 11 years from 2000 and 2011, 731 Democrats and 649 Congressional Republicans took 1,387 privately financed trips to Israel, according to the congressional transparency website.
In one month, August, 2011, 81 Congresspersons, or nearly 20 percent of all members of the House of Representatives, traveled to Israel on trips paid by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), the "non-profit" arm of the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. House ethics rules prohibit most congressional travel paid for by lobbyists; AIPAC circumvents the prohibition by using AIEF to pay for the trips.
Discussion of Unity Government between Fatah and Hamas brings Israeli threats of cutting off tax and customs revenues, water and electricity
While our delegation was still in Gaza, on Thursday, November 24, 2011, Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal held talks in Cairo, Egypt, at which they announced a new era of "partnership" in forming a unity government.
In response to the Palestinian leaders' meeting, the next day, Friday, November 25, Israeli government ministers decided to continue to freeze the transfer of $100 million in tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority stating that the suspension was "intended to deter President Abbas from bypassing peace talks with Israel." Palestinian Authority President Abbas has stated numerous times that before talks with Israel can begin, Israel first must halt all construction in the Palestinian West Bank and Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Tax revenues make up a large percentage of the Authority's monthly budget and were frozen initially by the Israeli government on November 1 as a punitive measure after the Palestinians were granted full membership into the UN cultural organization, UNESCO.
On Sunday, November 27, officials of the Palestinian Authority stated they will not be able to pay the next round of public sector salaries that support nearly one-third of Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority says Israel cannot legally refuse to transfer the $100 million of monthly customs charges and other taxes which form nearly two-thirds of the local revenue of the Authority. The Israeli government collects tax and customs duties for the Palestinian Authority as a part of the 1990s interim peace agreements. The Palestinian Authority pays Israel a fee for collecting customs duties and value-added tax on imports that come through Israeli ports that end up primarily in the West Bank and a portion of money held from the paychecks of Palestinians working in Israel.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urge Israel to transfer funds to the Palestinians -- but to no avail
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to transfer the funds. On November 29, Ban Ki-Moon, in his message on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, again called for the customs and tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority to be "transferred without delay."
Moon also cited Israel's illegal settlements as a major deterrent for negotiations ...