Stifling Studies

The Gaza Strip is a windswept sliver of the eastern Mediterranean Coast, bordered by Israel to the north and east and Egypt to the southwest. The territory is 360 km2 with a population of over one and a half million. Half of the population is under age 15 and four-fifths is under age 50. Gaza has the fifth-highest rate of population growth of any territory in the world. Unsurprisingly, it is among the most densely populated places on the planet, with the Strip’s refugee camps reaching 74,000 people per km2  (compared to less than 30,000 per km2  in Manhattan). For years the rate of in and out migration to and from the Strip has been essentially zero. Such a tragically unique area of the world deserves much more intensive study than Gaza has received.

The Strip provides a unique opportunity to study the effects of de-development and military occupation—especially the extended and entrenched occupation that can be seen from Western Sahara to Tibet—on the occupied population.

To fulfill the practice requirement of my Master of Public Health degree, I decided to conduct an epidemiological analysis of spatial and temporal all-cause mortality in the Strip since Aug. 2005, when the Israel Defense Forces redeployed to the periphery of Gaza and Israel’s settlements there were withdrawn.

Unfortunately, the U.S. embassy in Cairo let politics get ahead of academic inquiry. I tried to enter the Gaza Strip to conduct my research in December and January. Egypt’s border with Gaza is normally closed, but Egypt does have a mechanism for allowing foreigners into the Strip: The citizen’s embassy faxes a copy of the person’s passport and their reason for travel to the Director of Palestine Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I asked the director’s office if embassies have sent these requests in the past. “Yes,” they replied, “we get them all the time.” Indeed, the Israeli press reports that 15,000 foreigners entered the Strip via Egypt in 2009.

Despite the existence of this mechanism and its regular employment, the U.S. embassy refused to send a fax to the ministry with only a copy of my passport and a letter from the Harvard School of Public Health explaining my reason for travel to Gaza. “We do not offer that service,” the Chief of American Citizen Services told me. “You don’t help Americans communicate with the Egyptian government?” I asked indignantly after having been in Cairo for two weeks. “Not about traveling to the Gaza Strip,” she replied.

No government should have the power to decide what one can or cannot study. I am not dismissive of the security concerns of the United States and Egypt, and my request was entirely reasonable—I did not ask the embassy for endorsement or special assistance. On the contrary, on Dec. 27, the first full day I was in Cairo, I went to the embassy and told them why I was in Egypt. They brought me a sworn affidavit, which I willingly signed, stating that I understood that the State Department had determined that travel to the Gaza Strip was unsafe. The affidavit explicitly states, “I assume the risk for myself…I also understand that the Embassy cannot provide me with consular services in the Gaza Strip.”

This is entirely reasonable. Having met many of the internationals who are attempting to enter the Strip, I can say that some are thrill seekers who want to “go where the action is,” as one put it to me. The Mezan Center for Human Rights, the respected Palestinian non-governmental organization that I was scheduled to work with, expressed reservations about having me in Gaza for exactly this reason. Hardly anyone doubts that people who are going to Gaza because they saw bombs exploding there should be told that the Marines will not rush in to save them when they get themselves into trouble.

But I am not an overgrown child seeking out a real life action movie. I will walk into Gaza with my eyes open and a deep understanding of the political and military situation there. I have studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for nearly ten years, I have edited a peer-reviewed book on the subject, and I have lived and worked in both Israel and the West Bank for extended periods of time.

Indeed, I confess that I dread seeing the human misery of Gaza in person, eating the contaminated and inferior food grown in a wrecked environment, drinking the saline, contaminated, and infected water, and walking through hospitals starved of medicines and surgical equipment. Research in a place like Gaza is inherently risky. But the work of academics like myself is important, both to me personally and to such disparate fields as public health and strategic analysis. I understand that travel to a land under siege and ruled by force is dangerous. But I accepted these risks. Why did the U.S. government block my work?

Feroze Y. Sidhwa is an M.P.H. candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health and a fourth year medical student in Texas.