The relentless tragedy of Gaza

The Gaza soccer team were guests of honour at a Galway United FC game in 2016. Photo courtesy of Sean Ryan. http://sportsphoto.ie/

In Gaza, the trauma of the children never seems to stop.

Even when the bombing stops, and the focus of the international community turns away, the youngsters growing up in one of the most crowded places on earth face restrictions, shortages, and frustrations which would be unthinkable in Ireland or any European country in 2021.

An average 15 year old on the tiny strip has now lived through four major offences by the Israeli military, seeing buildings being destroyed, the lives of friends and family members cruelly cut short, and the terrible lack of hope in a place which has been described as the biggest open air prison on earth.

Long before the coronavirus pandemic, the children of Gaza knew what a lockdown meant. Hemmed in by Egypt and Israel, the borders sealed for months at a time, and no chance of escaping via the sea, there is nowhere to escape to.

There are no safe rooms or shelters to take refuge in when the buildings they live in are being blown to bits by one of the most highly funded armies on earth.

Three years ago in Galway, I helped to raise €4,425 to bring a team of talented young footballers from Gaza to Ireland.

The members of the Al-Helal Football Academy had delighted everyone who met them during previous trips in 2016 and 2017. Indeed, in 2016 they were guests of honour at a Galway United game and got to meet the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game. They were thrilled.

So my friend Hugo Seale and I were delighted when Steve Wall of The Stunning and local ‘indie’ expert DJ Foz agreed to come on board to run a benefit gig for the Gaza children in Galway in July 2018.

The Stunning played a sold out gig at the Big Top at the Galway Arts Festival and were happy to come on board for a late night DJ set at Massimo, the late night bar, afterwards. The night was such a huge success that we had to turn dozens of people away at the front door.

Management at Massimo described it as the best night of 2018 in the popular late night venue and we were over the moon to be able to transfer €4,425 to the organisers of the trip to bring them to Ireland the following day.

The DJ set at Massimo featuring The Stunning and DJ Foz was a sellout success

The boys were due to return to Ireland later that month and the funds raised were set to help towards the cost of their trip.

All of the preparations were made at the Irish end. Only … they were denied exit visas in 2018. And again in 2019.

The disappointment was unimaginable among the talented young footballers from all over Gaza who were keen to come to Ireland again to show off their skills.

But the children of Gaza are used to dealing with crushing disappointments.

Every day they hear the adults say “It’s God’s will”, such as when there are water and electricity shortages, they are prevented from visiting family members in the West Bank, or a cancer patient is prevented from travelling to Jerusalem for treatment because the Erez checkpoint is closed.

A cancelled football trip might not seem a huge priority in a place which was bombed to smithereens in 2008-9, 2014, and again last month when at least 67 children were killed during an 11 day bombardment of Gaza.

Because of that, the money we raised in July 2018 was still sitting in the Gaza Kids to Ireland account until this week. We raised the money so that traumatised little boys could enjoy a holiday in Ireland and we kept hoping they could come back every year. In 2020, the pandemic put paid to the best laid plans.

It’s the kind of news story you never hear about Gaza, that a brutal siege prevents young sports stars from showcasing their talents around the world. It’s collective punishment of two million people.

Half of those two million people who live in the strip are children and an estimated 75% of them are refugees or the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel. For 11 days last month, bombs were dropped on this tiny piece of land, displacing more than 70,000 people from their homes.

Because they cannot travel, I discussed the issue with Hugo and Steve last week, along with Kevin Healy of Massimo. All of us agreed that there was an urgent need to divert the money we raised in 2018 to medical aid for the people of Gaza.

Their needs are great and we decided to transfer the funds to the Trocaire Gaza in Crisis Appeal last night. https://www.trocaire.org/gaza-in-crisis/

Thanks so much to the Gaza Kids to Ireland project for agreeing to divert the funds at a time of such great need and we hope everyone who attended the gig in 2018 understands why we were compelled to transfer the money to Trocaire, as the boys won’t make it to Ireland for at least another year.

“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said recently.

The Gaza Kids to Ireland project transferred the money raised to Trocaire this week

The Irish people have always shown great support for the people of Palestine. Please remember the children of Gaza even as the eyes of the world turn away from the pain and suffering they experience in that tiny place by the sea every day.

No child deserves to grow up surrounded by such a lack of hope and such terrible tragedy.

Hopefully, the talented young soccer players will make it back to Ireland in 2022.

In the meantime, though, Trocaire and their partners on the ground are doing their best to deal with a medical and humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.  

Ciaran Tierney is a digital journalist, tourism officer, and an award-winning current affairs blogger. Find him at ciarantierney.com/ and on Twitter @ciarantierney

Why stand up for the Gaza boys?

The Al-Helal football children from Gaza with President Michael D. Higgins after a Galway United game in 2016. Photo: Sean’s Sports Photos.

When a group of talented young footballers from Gaza visited Galway five years ago, they were absolutely thrilled to be nominated as ‘guests of honour’ at a big game between Galway United and Dundalk at Eamon Deacy Park.

United were flying high in the Premier Division at the time and produced their best performance of the season to beat the reigning champions 1-0 before a huge and vocal crowd. Home town hero Vinny Faherty scored the winning goal.

It was a magical night at Terryland.

The 14 boys and their two coaches who were allowed to travel to Ireland on a ten day trip, after a lot of bureaucratic troubles and delays, had tears in their eyes when virtually the entire main stand rose together midway through the second half to chant “Stand up for the Gaza boys!”

The little boys from Palestine played an exhibition game on the pitch at half-time.

After the game, United officials invited the members of the Al-Helal Football Academy to a room under the stand to meet President Michael D. Higgins.

“Is he the President of Galway United?” Mohamed, the only boy who could speak English, asked me.

“No, he’s the President of Ireland!”

Huge chatter ensued in Arabic among the delighted boys. What kind of city was this that would give them pride of place at the biggest game of the season, let them play in front of a big crowd, and introduce them to the president of the land?

Full of humility and joy, the boys left a lasting impression on everyone who met them that night, and on the families of Kinvara where they played a series of friendly games against local youngsters the day before. The Gaza boys won all the games on their ten day Irish tour and the Galway Community Circus put on a free show for them in Kinvara.

They returned to Ireland the following year, but in 2018 and 2019 bureaucratic hurdles got in the way and they were denied exit visas for a trip which is organised and sponsored by Gaza Action Ireland each year. The news that they could not travel to Ireland resulted in crushing disappointment for the children.

That’s the reality of life in Gaza for the two million people who live in a tiny strip of land which is smaller than Co Louth. The people of Gaza understood what “lockdown” meant long before the coronavirus brought the concept to Ireland. For most, travelling anywhere outside the tiny strip is an impossible dream. 

A young Palestinian student flies a flag in Galway last weekend. Photo by Ciaran Tierney

The two border crossings, linking them to Egypt and Israel, are closed to most Gazans most of the time. If fishermen travel more than a few miles from shore, they are shot at by the Israeli military. They have been living under a siege since 2007.

Half of the people who live in the strip are children and an estimated 75% (1.4 million) of them are refugees or the descendants of refugees from what is now Israel. For 11 days until Thursday night, bombs were dropped on this tiny piece of land, displacing more than 70,000 people from their homes.

There are many people in Galway and Kinvara who have built up links with the Al-Helal academy, who bring the best players from all over the strip together. Aged between 10 and 14, those Gaza boys were cowering under their beds again this week in the third major aerial bombardment of their lifetimes.

Yesterday, Gaza health officials revealed that 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, had been killed and more than 1,900 wounded in the aerial bombardments which destroyed buildings all across the strip.

Their own football ground in northern Gaza was bombed by Israel in both 2012 and 2014. Football gives them a little escape from the harshness of life in one of the most troubled places on earth.

Most of the boys who came to Galway in 2016 and 2017 were traumatised by the 2014 Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip. More than 2,250 Palestinians, including 551 children, lost their lives. So trauma is nothing new to these children.

“If there is a hell on earth, it is the lives of children in Gaza,” UN Secretary-General Antonia Guterres said on Thursday. 

It was because of the Al-Helal children, and other innocent children like them all across Palestine, that hundreds of people turned up for a “social distancing” vigil in solidarity with the people in Palestine in Galway last weekend.

It was arranged at short notice by people who did not want to break the guidelines on outdoor gatherings. 

People wanted to share their grief and anger at the ongoing injustice of how Palestinians have been living under a brutal occupation for so long and how little hope they have in places like Gaza.

Palestinians take inspiration from the Irish people’s long struggle for freedom and the Palestinian students who live in Galway were particularly keen to meet up in safety and show their support to the people back home.

People in the Galway arts and dance communities have built up wonderful friendships with performers in Palestine, including dancer Ata Khattab who performed a memorable show here in 2017 and Gaza artist Sohail Salem, who worked on the ‘Hope it Rains’ project for Galway 2020. Khattab was arrested in a dawn raid on his home in early February. 

It might seem pointless to wave a flag in Galway in solidarity with people facing a terrible injustice so far away, but videos and images from South Park and the Spanish Arch were shared all across the world last Saturday.

By Sunday morning, messages of thanks were being received by the Galway organisers from places like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Gaza City.

Among them was a message from Ayed Awni Abu-Ramadan, chairman of the Al-Helal club, who spent recent nights sheltering from the bombings with his wife and young daughter.

“God bless Ireland and its people,” he said. “Thank you so much for your continued support. To get calls from Ireland or to see messages on social media relieves a lot, because it shows us that the people of Ireland are standing with us, unlike most other people who are not really caring about the situation. From here, I send you all of our love and friendship.”

Later in the week, Ayed spoke live from Gaza City on ‘Morning Ireland’ on RTE Radio One after another night of bombardment.

“It’s very dangerous to leave the house,” he said on Tuesday. “We could hear all night the bombing of buildings. We have seen on TV the killings of innocent people in their homes. More than a hundred buildings were bombed. More than 5,000 housing units were bombed.

“I can’t trust going out of my home, especially leaving my family behind. I am trying to be with my family all the time, so that whatever happens happens to all of us. Of course we are scared, we are actually traumatised. It’s beyond description, with bombing and shelling all night. It’s really scary.”

A ceasefire was declared late on Thursday night, but the injustice goes on for the people of Palestine who cannot enjoy things we take for granted in Ireland – such as travelling to visit family members in other parts of the country or even to visit the sea. Many people in the West Bank find it impossible to get permits to travel the relatively short distance to the Mediterranean.

The bombing may have stopped, but the injustice goes on for some of the nicest and most appreciative people many of us have met in our lives.

Which is why people in Galway will continue to advocate for justice for the people of Palestine, whether by gathering outdoors to fly a flag or lobbying Irish politicians to enact legislation which would ban goods from the settlements in Palestine which are illegal according to international law.

·         A socially distant vigil for the people of Palestine takes place on the Salthill promenade today (Saturday) at 2pm. People are asked to wear a face mask, not to gather in large groups, and to fly a flag or bring a placard for an hour. The Galway event is part of a global day of action for Palestine and there are at least 17 similar events taking place around Ireland. https://fb.me/e/3Z7X9Rcr

Ciaran Tierney is a digital journalist, tourism officer, and an award-winning current affairs blogger. Find him at http://ciarantierney.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ciarantierney

The head of the large march in Galway last weekend. Photo by Ciaran Tierney

Galway meeting to discuss Israeli ‘settlement’ goods ban

Senator Frances Black with the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek, during a public meeting in Kinvara in July. Photo: Ciaran Tierney Digital Storyteller.

In July of this year, a packed town hall in Kinvara, Co Galway, heard Independent Senator Frances Black talk about her plans to ban goods from illegal Israeli ‘settlements’ in the West Bank from Ireland.

A few days later, against the odds, the Irish Senate voted in favour of her Occupied Territories Bill 2018 after opposition party Fianna Fail agreed to support the bill.

The vote made headlines all across the globe as, when passed, this bill is set to inspire similar legislation in other European countries.

I wrote about it for Electronic Intifada, the biggest English language Palestinian news site in the world, and the reaction was overwhelming at the time.

Later this month, the bill enters the crucial second stage. And on Tuesday night people in Galway city have a chance to hear an update from Senator Black, a passionate campaigner for human rights, and local activists who have been to Palestine.

Senator Black’s resolve to do something for the people of Palestine was strengthened by a visit to the West Bank and Gaza in May of this year.

“What I saw over there was a hundred times worse than what I expected,” she told me at the time.

“I knew it was bad before I went out there, but what I saw was so much worse. They are living in horrendous conditions. One woman in Gaza asked me why the international community had abandoned them. That really struck a chord with me.”

Senator Black with a family in the West Bank, May 2018.

 

Now she is coming to Galway next Tuesday night (7.15pm) to give people in the West of Ireland an update about her Occupied Territories Bill.

The first vote was historic, after Niall Collins of Fianna Fail pledged his support. He, too, was shocked by what he saw in Palestine during a trip just before that Seanad vote in July.

Senator Black will outline why she has tabled the bill, the next steps it will have to go through, and the reaction she has received across the globe.

The Irish Government, led by Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, refused to back her bill but the support of Fianna Fail got it over the first hurdle.

The evening will also feature personal accounts from local members of the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign and political representatives. It takes place at the Harbour Hotel on Tuesday, November 6, at 7.15pm.

All of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are illegal according to international law and the occupation has gone on for 51 years, with no sign of justice for the people of Palestine.

There is a growing belief among international law experts that trade with Israeli settlements is illegal, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International have called on governments to impose such a ban.

The meeting on Tuesday starts at 7.15pm. All are welcome. Ciaran Tierney is the winner of the Irish Current Affairs / Politics Blog of the Year award 2018. You can find Ciaran on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

Find Ciaran on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ciarantierney

Ciaran Tierney, winner of the 2018 Irish Current Affairs Blogger of the Year award in Dublin, October 2018.