Erin Cunningham is a 25 years old journalism rising star currently living in Gaza City. She’s collaborated with us in the past, specifically providing insight into the Gazean lifestyle post-Israeli strike last February, giving us fantastic photographic evidence of the damage caused by a rogue foreign policy practised by Israel. She agreed to sit down with us in-between two power cuts to talk about her career, Middle Eastern politics, and the future of Palestine.

Formerly based in Cairo for the most part of 2008, Erin perfected her knowledge of Middle Eastern politics, arabic, and honed her writing skills by being one of the first journalists allowed to cross into the Gaza Strip from Egypt after the Israeli raids destroyed the city in January. Covering the aftermath for the Inter Press Service, Erin witnessed first-hand the disaster that had been created by  a policy based on fear, intolerance, and unconsciousness. Shortly after her coverage, she briefly returned to her native California, only to make a swift trip back to Gaza. “What I saw during those three days, and the unbelievable destruction afterward, changed me. It changed the way I thought about war, about life, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about journalism and about finding greater meaning in my future work”, she explains. As for now, Erin is no longer a simple journalist, but chronicles the every day lives of a people she feels extraordinary compassion for. “I decided it was time to go back to Gaza to pursue not only what I felt would be meaningful and rewarding work for myself, but also a way of telling the story of Gazans that presents them not just as blood-thirsty suicide bombers, but as people. People who have dreams, who tell jokes, who love their children, love the sea, and whose spirits and lives are being crushed by this crippling economic siege — and now war. “

Now living in Gaza City like any other resident, Erin Cunningham is giving us a compelling glimpse of assieged life.

Erin, with neighbour Islam Shawhan

Erin, with neighbour Islam Shawhan

Semi-autonomous Collective: what are your actual living conditions, and what does it tell us about the siege Gaza City is currently under?

My living conditions are okay, but that doesn’t say much. Currently I’m living in the apartment of a friend who was forced to leave Gaza during the Hamas-Fatah clashes of 2007. It is a nice building, in a middle-class neighborhood, but power outages occur daily. They have become more frequent as of late, and I only have power for a few hours a day now. This means that I can’t heat water for baths (which I take out of a bucket because the water pressure is so low), and most of the food in my refrigerator goes bad. Of course, I have it better than most and remind myself of that every day.

Meat, fruits, vegetables and anything else not available in the food aid packets distributed by the UN are terribly expensive. They are not always available, depending mainly on the amount of livestock being smuggled in through the tunnels. “Supermarkets” are sparsley stocked, and don’t even think about variety. You’ll often find cans of tuna, beans, cooking oil and packets of salt and sugar. One thing Gazans have made sure gets in, however, is chocolate, and there is more chocolate in Gaza than anything else.

As far was water goes, the situation is pretty dire. The majority of Gaza’s water supplies are contaminated, mainly from the dumping of raw sewage into groundwater supplies as a result of dilapidated infrastructure, and are not safe to drink. Bottled water is expensive (3 shekels or $.75 for 1.5 liters), as is the installation of a water filter. Water treatment plants were damaged during the war, and it’s obvious given the size of the Gaza Strip (40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide) and the size of its population (1.5 million) that they are going to face major problems in the future in terms of not only securing safe sources of drinking water, but building the infrastructure to make it available.

Israel’s new Foreign Affairs Minister, Avgador Liebermann, said, during a recent trip in Europe,  that there was no way Israel would ever go back to its 1967 boundaries, and that in any case, it wouldn’t resolve the conflict; that East Jerusalem could never be Palestine’s capital city, “that it had always been, is, and will always be Israel’s true heart”. What do you think will happen to Gaza? Do you think it’ll eventually be wiped off the map or perhaps swallowed by new colons?

There’s already talk of the fact that Gaza may be Egypt’s “problem” once again, now that Israel has “disengaged” (meaning that while it evacuated settlements in Gaza, it retains control over the territory’s airspace, borders, and sea access) and effectively sealed its borders with the territory. Many are afraid that if the Palestinian factions reach a power-sharing agreement, and Egypt opens its only border crossing with Gaza at Rafah, that it will give an opportunity for Israel to wash its hands of Gaza once and for all while it increases settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The argument is they want Israel to continue to bear responsibility for Gaza, so that it keeps Gaza and the West Bank, also occupied by Israel, connected for any future Palestinian state.

If that were to happen, and Israel were to “wash its hands” of Gaza by creating facts on the ground, I think it would be devastating politically for the Palestinians. But I’ve talked to a handful of Palestinians here, even those in the Hamas-led government, that say if that did happen, it’s very unlikely Gazans would acquiese to become part of Egypt. Palestinians here seem much more fervent in their attachment to Palestine, and maintain the world’s highest birthrate. That spells trouble for both Egypt and Israel in the coming years, and as long as the idea of Palestine or at least a rump Palestinian state is kept alive, Gaza is unlikely to disappear into Egypt any time soon.

For most of the international community, the nightmare Gaza went through in January/February is over. You were recently telling me about airstrikes. How often do they occur, and what are their targets?

The airstrikes happen once or twice a week it seems, there’s no real pattern. They are obviously nowhere near the levels they were during the war nor are they as frequent or as deadly as they were even prior to the war, or last year at this time prior to the 6-month cease-fire.

What seems to be happening is the Israeli army and the armed Palestinian groups are doing tit-for-tat strikes. They both say they are reacting to the other, but in all it has been fairly calm. The majority of the bombing happens either at the border areas with Israel or on the tunnels. I believe it was two weeks ago when an F-16 bombed a blacksmith’s shop in Gaza City, probably the first of strike of its kind away from the border areas since the war.

Shelling from the sea is daily, however. Even inland (although Gaza is not that wide), you can hear Israeli warships firing on Palestinian fisherman. Rarely are people are killed, but it is a constant reminder that Gaza is under siege. It should be also noted that while air strikes don’t necessarily happen daily, that F16s do fly over the strip every day, and unmanned drones fly over the border areas 24 hours a day. You can imagine the damaging psychological impact it is having on the population.

The danger is and remains that the horror experienced by Gaza residents fall into the pit of oblivion, leaving a population of over a million deal with the increasing lack of food security, oppression and eventually displacement, if not complete disappearance, of what was once their home. Despite the constant insistence from the European Union and the slight shift in attitude showed by the Obama Administration, who is keen to insist on a double-state solution to the conflict, tiredness and reluctance from Israel to participate into any sort of peace process will eventually hinder the willingness to provide peace. Are we on the verge of settling for the worse instead of fighting for the best? Erin has no answer to the current state of affairs, but insists that everyone must keep in mind that the lives of millions of Palestinians do not reside in the hands of Hamas, but in those of a relentless international community committed to the respect of basic human rights. “It all of course depends on the continued will to create a Palestinian state among leaders in the international community. If Palestine isn’t created soon, and Gaza slowly becomes an appendage of Egypt, the international community may very well get fed up with the Palestinian cause later on and abandon it completely, no matter how many more Palestinians there are. A United Nations rapporteur on Gaza once said, ‘Gaza is a prison, and Israel threw away the key.'”

You can read more of Erin Cunningham’s works on Sift Through The Rubble @ Blogspot (with our friend and colleague Cassidy Flanagan), and Associated Content.