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Oct 30 2012

Journey to Gaza

My first-ever trip to the Gaza Strip starts on a Wednesday morning, at Turgoman bus station in Cairo, on the 7.40am bus ride to Al-Arish. As I queue up to board the bus, the driver asks -or rather says- ‘Sharm el-Sheikh?’ perhaps because I’m the only non-local looking passenger, perhaps that’s where I’m supposed to go as a Western traveller. I simply reply ‘No, to Al-Arish’ with heart and mind at ease about heading to my final destination. And I can’t wait to go.

Gaza City seaport

Gaza City seaport

Five hours later, I get to Al-Arish where a small crowd have gathered around the bus, impatiently waiting for passengers to get off, ready to go fetch and carry bags for us to get some reward after. The ‘bus station’ looks like a random on-the-road stop, outside town, cast somewhere in North Sinai, with no sight of buses or public transportation except for one private taxi. After a little while of initial wondering over where I am, I find myself bargaining with the only taxi driver in the proximity who can take me to Rafah. Considering the presence of radical armed groups in the Sinai peninsula, and recent insurgencies following last August attacks, I resolve to move on from there.

Mohammed, the taxi driver, is a Gazan from Rafah, but holds an Egyptian passport instead. I suddenly become aware that, as an extension of Gaza’s isolation, Israel adopts an ID card restrictive system whereby Palestinians need to have Israeli approved ID cards, without which they cannot cross into Gaza. It’s another way for Israel to control Gazan population. That has consequently separated families, barred people from entering the Strip, and trapped others inside it. Mohammed lives with his family in Al-Arish, however there’s no Palestinian ID for him to go to Gaza and see his extended family. On the other hand, if he gets a Gaza ID, he’ll never be allowed to go to the West Bank and Jerusalem. Just like people who have a West Bank or Jerusalem ID cannot come to Gaza. That’s one layer of apartheid.

Half an hour ride takes me to the Rafah crossing, known as Al Maabar. As the taxi drives along the road leading to the entrance, a whole crowd come forward asking for stratospheric sums just to move baggage within a short distance, some youth lean toward the car window to sell local currency. The taxi driver kindly escorts me to the gate, mainly to prevent anyone from trying to take my bags and spare me from other annoyance.

A group of internationals are sitting well outside the gate, looking like they’ve been there for some time. Although I’m prepared to get through a rigid security process, I don’t quite know whether I should expect some hard time from the authorities (on either side of Rafah) or, in the worst case scenario, to be turned away. All I can anticipate is the process is a bit complex, and it may take some persistence and patience. I show my passport and the Egyptian permission letter to the guard at the gate. I wait while they authenticate my documents, after a brief check I’m invited to enter the crossing so I make my way through the terminal building.

Once inside the gate, nobody explains anything to me, I mainly follow what other people do. It’s just about 8 of us, luckily a low traffic afternoon for the Rafah crossing. I go to the passport control desk, sit in a sordid, ill-maintained waiting hall until my name is called out 15 minutes later and I know I can move along. I go by the entry/exit procedure, have my papers checked again and again by Egyptian guards, proceed through the end of the Egyptian side’s terminal. I’m charged exorbitant fees at every stage of the process. You are even supposed to purchase a ‘ticket’ for a coach that carries pedestrians less than a block’s distance to the Palestinian side of the border crossing.

As soon as I enter the Gazan terminal, I cannot not take notice of how strikingly different it is from the Egyptian side.  Much better organized, more professional, staffed with polite and helpful officers who also seem more well-versed in English. The interior of the building looks like a brand new, shining clean travel hall. Far more inviting. It feels like switching between two worlds apart. I present my document and Gazan permit (along with the Gazan-based organisation invitation letter) at one of the passport control booths. I’m asked pretty standard questions about the purpose of my stay, the location of my lodging in Gaza, etc. One guard looks through my visit schedule, I get the sense more out of curiosity than for official reasons. I’ve heard of people being asked about their religion (i.e. if they’re Christian). It hasn’t happened to me though.  The officers place a phone call to verify my accommodation contact, and alert him of my arrival. More paper checking, I continue through the terminal, and I’m finally out of the Rafah crossing. One hour and a half later, I have successfully entered the Gaza Strip.

Outside the terminal, one official follows me and kindly offers to arrange taxi transportation to my specific destination. An off-putting taxi fare is shouted out, there doesn’t seem to be other transport options that afternoon. There’s some bargaining (and arguing) between the greedy taxi driver and the terminal officer who is looking after me. Until when another private taxi appears, a better deal is fixed, and I’m ready to set off for Gaza City. I’m left amazed by the courtesy of the Gazan authorities upon arrival. Then, I remember I’ve been told they have a system there to ensure that international visitors receive the best treatment over their stay –even by providing body guards, in some cases- and likewise to ensure internationals are of good behaviour during their time in Gaza. I chat with the other passenger and the taxi driver along the journey. From Rafah, driving through villages, then along the coastal road, I start familiarizing with the size and geography of the Strip. On the map, and now on the spot, I can anticipate it would take less than two hours to travel from one end to another of this 40-by-6 Km slice of land.

The distance between Rafah and Gaza City is about 35 Km. Just over an hour journey, and I’ve come to my final destination.  As we pass in front of Abu Ghaloon building, right across from the sea port, I see murals on the wall side of Ahmad Orabi Str. in homage to Vittorio Arrigoni. Vik, as he used to be called, was an Italian activist working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in the Gaza Strip from 2008 until April 2011, when he was killed by suspected members of a Salafist group in Gaza. The murder was condemned internationally and by various Palestinian factions across the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

mural in homage to V.Arrigoni

mural in homage to V.Arrigoni

The taxi pulls over and Eyad, my ‘accommodation contact’ so to speak, turns up on the main street to greet me and show me the way. Eyad is used to seeing internationals coming to Gaza City, mainly NGO staff based in the immediate vicinity. Abu Ghaloon building, which is right next to where he lives, hosts a few offices of humanitarian and development agencies. Al Balawi building is where we’re heading. As we go up to reach the top floor, I’m told the flat where I will be staying is where

Arrigoni used to live. I drop my bags, and give myself an hour or so to relax a bit.

Eyad’s house is just two floors down. Later, I go to his flat to meet his wife Riham, and 1 year 4 months old child Jamal. I’m offered a coffee -widely reputed Palestinian hospitality never fails- and we have a chat. Eyad is originally from Ashkelon, 13 Km north of the border with Israel, Riham is from a town nearby, however they both grew up in Rafah. Before the so-called ‘disengagement’ in 2005 (the Israeli pullout from Gaza) families had been divided by Israel’s barrier splitting the Gaza strip in two since 1967. After being kept separated between Rafah and Gaza City, Riham and Eyad’s families finally re-united following Israel’s withdrawal.

Eyad takes me around Gaza City. Not an ideal time for a first visit (it’s dark, already) but it’s all good for me. Three main streets connect one end of the city to the other. Al-Jundi al-Majhool is a popular square, situated in the Rimal district, which is the ‘city centre’.

It only takes a short ride to realise that traffic is a big deal in Gaza City, with no priority given to either cars or pedestrians. Statistically, you’re more likely to die in a car crash than to be killed by other things in Gaza –this is what I’ve been told before coming here. Well before the traffic, something distinctive about Gaza that you see –or rather hear- right away is the electric generators and their non-stop noise day and night. Those generators operate at all times in response to electricity cuts applied by Israel (three times a day, for 6-8 hours each time). You take the generators out, then imagine what that means for businesses in Gaza and the Gazan economy, overall!

Eyad comes across as a positive person, with a noticeable sense of humour. The ironical part of Gaza City, he explains, is the street names carrying the meanings of ‘happiness’, ‘unity’ or ‘revolution’ -to name a few- which words sound hard to associate with anything you can think of in Gaza.

‘I don’t know what people told you before you came to Gaza, but we also have a life. It’s not all misery or poverty here. The two big problems we have are the siege and the restriction of movement’, Eyad says.

I then remember I need to ring my ‘key contact’ Amira, the PR officer at Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP) which is the host organisation that invited me to Gaza. Amira has looked after every step of my application process, and even initiated to organize a full schedule with visits and interviews to do throughout my stay. She’s done a superb job. I make a phone call mainly to reassure her I have safely arrived, and I’m happy to find a cheerful voice at the other end of the line.  We will meet the day after at GCMHP office.

After getting some basic supplies from a shopping centre, Eyad and I make another stop so I can get a falafel sandwich for a late dinner. It’s time to head back, and find my sober though serviceable one-bedroom apartment where I’ll spend the first night. As I enter the building and make my way up, I get my first blackout which lasts for a few hours, at least until I go to bed. Welcome to Gaza.

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The first day of visit starts with some mix-up in directions and logistics. The point of reference is GCMHP office, which Eyad showed from my room’s window just yesterday. Very convenient, I think, as it will only take a walk two blocks away from here. I get to GCMHP office where I’m supposed to meet Amira, though no-one seems to know who she is when I give her name. Few moments later, I’m told that Amira works at GCMHP headquarters which is located at the other end of the city –I’m obviously at the wrong GCMHP office- then I’m asked to wait until she comes to pick me up. I’m eager to meet her. She finally arrives, her warm, deep though sad eyes contrast sharply with her lively attitude and ever present laughter. I have a small ‘thank you’ present for her.

We have a taxi booked for a field trip to Khan Younis, central part of Gaza, it’s time to go. Over the taxi ride, I have a first chat with Amira. She is a well versed, active young woman, fluent in both French and English, planning to do a master in humanitarian action abroad next year, and to work in a related field in Gaza one day. I learn that she is not member of staff at GCMHP but a volunteer, which I’m surprised about given the amount of work she puts into doing what she does. In her capacity at the PR Department, she is expected to act like a ‘guide’ for incoming delegations and international visitors in general. She will partly guide me on visits out and meetings with Arabic speakers, and I will manage my own time on other days when I meet English speakers.

We talk about the international presence in Gaza. I hear that under Fatah there used to be more foreigners visiting, in the immediate years of Hamas takeover (2006-2007) not a single foreigner could be seen around. Now, just a handful of internationals are based in Gaza –mostly NGO workers and a few activists- as many are still afraid to come because of Hamas being in power.

Amira asks what are my impressions about Gaza –still hard for me to answer on- and wonders about differences between the West Bank and Gaza. She’s keen to hear what Jerusalem looks like –holy, beloved Al Quds that Palestinians dream to see one day- and which towns in the West Bank I like. While aware of the disconnection between the Palestinian territories, I find it absurd, as a foreigner, talking to a Palestinian from Gaza about Palestinians from the West Bank simply because it’s impossible for the indigenous people of this land to cross from either side and meet, whilst living at a couple of hours travelling distance from each other. Fragmentation, again. Thanks to the Occupation!

We head to Khan Younis town where, after a short stop at the community centre, we aim to visit two families at the refugee camp. The first one is the case of Fidaa Abu Sahlouh, mother of two children aged 4 and 2, Wesam and his sister Malek, who drowned in a sewage pool in the Qatawa neighbourhood of Khan Younis camp. The incident took place on 6 December 2011, the children were playing outside and approached the 6 meter high cesspool, where they managed to get through a hole in the fence surrounding the pool, and dropped inside it. Their bodies were found by a relative several hours later. As we meet Fidaa, her brother in law and relatives, I’m left speechless by the way the family has moved on less than a year later, everyone getting on with their lives, despite the terrible loss.

The tragic deaths were just a reminder of the conditions faced by people in Gaza, where nearly a third of households are not connected to a sewage network, due to lack of infrastructure and construction materials, among other problems that stem from the blockade denying them the means to create a healthy living environment.

death of Wesam and Malek Abu Sahlouh

death of Wesam and Malek Abu Sahlouh

Early January, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UWAC) installed a new fence around the pool, as an emergency protective measure, but a more sustainable sewage system is being studied by water and sanitation aid experts, in consultation with community leaders.

Following the event, a delegation from UNRWA and the municipality –the same institutions that built the wastewater pool- came to visit the Abu Sahlouh family offering to build a new house, give them money compensation. Yet, the family refused the offers and demanded justice to be done. Although UNRWA and the municipality were summoned to court, they were not held accountable after all.

One day after the children’s deaths, a big demonstration was organized to march up to the offices of UNRWA and the municipality. The whole population of Khan Younis joined the protest.  Fidaa and her husband Ahmed had waited many years for children, and underwent extensive treatment for that purpose. After the incident, they were both very upset. Since then, Ahmed could not bring himself to sleep at home anymore, instead he sleeps nearby at his in-laws’ house. As a matter of fact, we don’t get to meet him. Fidaa shows us pictures of the children and videos taken from the demonstration, painful memories bring up tears.

We go to see the sewage pool and meet Nabil, a site engineer from Action Against Hunger (ACF) explaining that they plan to clear the pool and fill it with sand. As an interim step, the new fence erected is currently being monitored every day by him and members of the community to prevent further accidents in future.

sewage pool in Khan Younis

sewage pool in Khan Younis

Later, we walk away from the site and move on to the next family living nearby. As we approach the house, Na’el Abu A’beda comes towards us with a visible limp. We sit with him and two of his daughters. Na’el, father of 8 children, lost his wife on 19th February 2009. On that day, she was cooking with a mabour –old instrument fuelled by diesel- when he suddenly heard a loud explosion, and thought it was an Israeli airstrike so he immediately stepped aside. Na’el then heard his wife screaming -the kitchen was on fire- so he quickly rescued her. At that time, the children were at school, his neighbours came to help. His wife was rushed to Nasser hospital, transferred to Shifa hospital, later referred to Jerusalem hospital. There are no medical facilities for urgent matters in Gaza. She died from severe burns one month later.

The wretched event was another indication of the living conditions in Gaza as a result of the siege. The use of mabour for cooking is not uncommon in Gaza, due to fuel and gas shortages in conjunction with daily power cuts, nevertheless it remains highly unsafe leading to frequent hazards.

Since the incident, Na’el has sustained burns on his legs, which prevents him from walking properly. After what happened, he threw the mabour, he and his children now depend on gas and electricity –when available- and his two older daughters look after the younger kids. I look at the two young girls who are sitting around, and listening to their father telling us the story, and I can’t believe how amazingly strong that family is in coping with the still recent mourning.

Deir El-Balah, not far from Khan Younis, comes next on the schedule but there’s no time for that, unfortunately. We have an interview set for 2pm in Gaza City and we’re running late.  We go to PalThink for Strategic Studies, a think-tank working to generate rational public discussions and consensus for the well-being of the Palestinians and the region. We meet Omar Shaban, founder and director of PalThink, to discuss the future of underground tunnels in Gaza. On a separate note, Shaban clearly expresses his anger about Qatar’s recent aid intervention. ‘I’m very annoyed and humiliated by a country like Qatar now coming to help us’, he vents, ‘We are more productive and educated than all those Gulf states. They have nothing other than a bunch of dollars, they buy everything with their money, even the dignity of some leaders’.

The taxi drives us back into town, where Amira and I have a late lunch stop and spend free time. It’s a pleasant, sunny afternoon. As we have a walk around, I take note of the vertical urban growth wherever I look, Gaza City could be roughly described as a line up of high, squared, white buildings. The other visual feature of Gaza City is the graffiti paintings and murals running on concrete walls, whether it’s martyr portraits, political messages and slogans, portraits of figures belonging to Hamas or Fatah, etc.

graffiti in Gaza City

graffiti in Gaza City

We’re not far from Al Remal. Suddenly, Amira remembers Operation Cast Lead, sharing few moments of what she went through at that time, and explaining that Tal al-Hawa, Al Remal and Shuja’iyya were the most bombed civilian areas during Israel’s war on Gaza. She lives in Tal al Hawa neighbourhood. Amira later reveals that Gazans hate Egypt, in a way more than Israel or US –those are the ‘expected enemies’- she can’t understand how an Arab, Muslim neighbouring country turns out to be a traitor and aligns with Israel by maintaining the siege in place, and contributing to Gaza isolation.

Amira is full of life. She has an obvious ability to find a lot of things funny. Even when she talks about serious events, she would look for the humorous side. A great person to meet. We grab our shawarm sandwiches and head to the seafront. Bearing in mind the state of enclosure in which Gazans have to live, it’s not hard to understand how the sea is a vital ‘breath of air’. ‘If there was no sea, I could commit suicide’, Amira sighs.

Gaza City beach

Gaza City beach

Evening time, I jump on a taxi to the shopping mall as I have a little food shopping do to. I decide to return to my apartment on foot, but forget my way back as I haven’t walked to my address before. A small group of boys kindly escort me.

In the meantime, I’ve phoned a local journalist –whom I contacted before the trip- and we’ve arranged to meet. Adel turns up outside Abu Ghaloon building in his car with a kind smile and gentle manners. We go for a drive, very different from the one I had with Eyad. We head off in the opposite direction to the city centre, drive along the seafront until we get just off the city –there are some new areas under construction close by- and go past 2-3 checkpoints, which are very easy to cross.

As we drive back, Adel points me to what used to be a governmental building, now turned into chalets along the beach, a media building, he shows me from distance fishermen’s ships and an orange light signalling the nautical mile limit. He then shouts out a few names as we drive past public buildings such as Shifa hospital, the Red Crescent clinics, UNRWA office, until we go past Al-Shati refugee camp and get through another checkpoint. We are only briefly stopped, having seen a foreigner in his car has apparently avoided us further questioning.

Adel explains to me that Gaza used to be unsafe back in time, partly unsafe until over 2 years ago, and it’s safer since after the killing of Vittorio Arrigoni. Several months ago, he adds, the Ministry of Interior instructed orders to facilitate internationals visiting Gaza as much as possible. That explains the special, kind treatment I got from Hamas border crossing officers upon arrival.

Adel reminds me how bad the traffic is here. He also points out that Gaza City has a lively night outlook with people preferring to get out and populate the streets while there’s no electricity inside their homes.  We stop for a late dinner in town. We go pick up Adel’s son from school, he tells us about an explosion at the top of a building nearby, we see smoke coming out of the rooftop in fact. Finally, Adel takes me back to my building and tells me to call him any time, he’s there to help –typical Palestinian hospitality, again.

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 Holy Friday is the ‘dead day’ for an international visitor in Gaza. Not only everything is closed but there’s hardly any public transportation to get around, nowhere to go -I conclude. So I take it easy, sleep longer than usual, spend time on the terrace –my flat sits on the top floor- have a look around from the roof, partly facing the seaport, it’s buildings all around otherwise.  Early evening time, I decide to go downstairs and visit Eyad and his wife.

Eyad tells me about his work. He is a community activist as well as program coordinator of a welfare association. He did a lot of education work in the past, two years ago he was running many activities despite restrictions and pressure put by Hamas. The most ridiculous instance, he recalls, was in connection with the distribution of a book that was due to printed with other books for students. The book entitled ‘Election Day in Savannah’ is the story of a jungle, traditionally ruled by the lion king, where a general election was due to be held. Among the candidates, a crocodile decided to run for the election and finally won. Sadly, since he took charge of the jungle, food and water were not commonly shared, and dissent grew among all the animals until they protested demanding the ouster of the king. The crocodile refused, so the animals convened to plot something: they made food, added poison, brought that to the king and chased him out of the jungle. Based on the story, Hamas officials ordered to halt distribution of the book -2,000 copies had been distributed- as they claimed their movement was mentioned in the book with green of the crocodile symbolizing Hamas(!)

Eyad continues telling about his involvement as a community activist before, during and after the 2008-09 war. He worked for children who lost their parents during the war -1,804 youth aged 0 to 22 years old were made orphans then- through a program focussed on compulsory education, career development, as well as health and psycho-social intervention. He also used to write poetry, but these days he finds little time for his writing so mainly remains a Facebook and Twitter active user.

Eyad flicks through pictures taken after Cast Lead, scenes depicting houses unravelled, olive groves destroyed, families made homeless, people searching under rubble, kids looking for their toys, buildings partly or completely gone.  I have a bizarre feel of being in a place that was under an all-out attack less than 4 years ago, while I feel partly de-sensitize by distance from a reality that is so different from mine. Eyad keeps a log of the 22 day-war.

On that 27th December, he was off to a work meeting, no-one really was prepared for a war at that time –Gazans hadn’t experienced bombings for a while- so when the first bombs dropped, he and his colleagues switched on the TV, and learned about the start of Israel’s military operation. Mobile connection was lost, so people used landlines to contact their families and friends. It was airstrikes and bombings everywhere, a tsunami of people and children screaming and running. In the following days, either mobile connection or electricity was cut off. Eyad used his creativity and manufactured a device to recharge his mobile, and connect to the radio. By the end of week 1, people were communicating on the net and wondering if a land invasion would take place…and it did. Electricity and Internet cuts followed alternately. Eyad started collecting stories after stories. When the war came to an end, he had collected around 100 stories, part of them were later published.

Eyad even keeps on Word doc SMS text messages received from his family, friends and colleagues during the 2008-09 war. He goes over the list and stops on one text (sent by a friend) that he later quoted in a poem:

My address is An-Nasser [translated: ‘victorious’]

My number is…

And I’m still alive

He reads out some of his poems, one is really moving. Eyad’s literary work is acclaimed in Palestine, however he hasn’t written for the last 3 years, I encourage him to resume writing. It’s late evening, I leave as if I have spent a day out –how much you can learn by speaking to one individual, already- then go back to my flat. Around midnight, I seem to hear a bombing not far off and wonder what damage Israel has done today?

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 First thing in the morning, I set off to visit the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organization Network (PNGO). I start realizing what I’ve heard about street directions in Gaza: navigation works by landmark, not address, so indicating the destination landmark to a taxi driver is key to finding your way. I meet Amjad Ash-Shawa, director of PNGO, whose work is aimed to contribute to the development of the Palestinian civil society by advocating for issues like national legislation and capacity building in the areas of transparency, accountability and democracy.

Ash-Shawa highlights the most important part of their advocacy work is to promote the rights of Palestinians. The right to participate in the elections is a fundamental one that neither Fatah or Hamas can confiscate. Through regular meetings with Hamas, PNGO continuously calls for the rule of law and transparency of elections in Gaza.

Ash-Shawa also identifies one major problem after the last war: many international NGOs flooded into Gaza for reconstruction projects however spent money on humanitarian aid, and most of them left when the money ran out leaving hardly any development projects running in Gaza. At a recent meeting, PNGO reminded that Gaza is not a humanitarian case, and international NGOs need to work in coordination with local organizations and the wider local community.

I need to move on to an interview next. I have some time until the meeting, so instead of taking a taxi I take a long walk along the seafront. I go past some houses under reconstruction, take pictures, and cross the look of a Hamas guard on his motorbike. He turns back, stops me and starts asking in Arabic –Hamas security guards seldom speak English- what’s my nationality, why I’m taking pictures, from which crossing I’ve entered Gaza. I answer back adding that it’s my first visit to Gaza. He then makes a phone call – to consult his boss, I gather- I’m not that worried, just a bit apprehensive, but remain positive, he finally lets me go. There you go, I’ve just got my first stop & questioning in Gaza.

I meet Ghazi Hamad, Deputy-Minister of Foreign Affairs, to continue the discussion over the future of underground tunnels in Gaza. In the meantime, Adel rings up and tells me to meet at his office. When I get there, he shows me the premises, introduces me to his colleagues. I wonder if he heard last night what I suspect was a bombing. He confirms saying that 3 Israeli airstrikes took place late at night: the first hit a Hamas training site in Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood, causing material damage, no injuries; the second targeted another training site at Nuseirat refugee camp, and the third landed in Bureij refugee camp (both located in central Gaza). I must have heard the first airstrike, then. Later, Adel invites me to join him to a press conference on with al-Zahar, co-founder of Hamas and today considered one of its more stubborn hard-liners. We briefly attend and go.

There’s a first change on the schedule, it seems I’m likely to see a member of Islamic Jihad whom I’ve planned to approach for interview. Better, Adel succeeds in arranging a meeting with Khaled Al-Batsh, senior leader of Islamic Jihad. I finally meet Al-Batsh to discuss Islamic Jihad’s ongoing resistance.

Khaled Al-Batsh, Islamic Jihad

Khaled Al-Batsh, Islamic Jihad

Islamic Jihad’s movement, Al Quds Brigades, was created to liberate Palestine from the Israeli occupation forces, and is the most active in the Gaza Strip in fighting armed resistance against Israel. As such, the movement believes it has a full right to resist the Occupation and end the suffering of Palestinians.

Palestinian militant groups have a fragile ceasefire with Israel, which Al-Batsh calls ‘truce’ rather than ‘ceasefire’ since it’s not a war being fought by two states with two armies, it’s one state against a resistance movement instead. Regular outbreaks of violence have taken place with Israeli strikes launched on the Gaza Strip, targeting a number of resistance fighters, and rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israel. Al-Batsh stresses the side that has breached the truce since the start of this conflict is Israel, and every time the factions in Gaza retaliate Israel would then call for a truce, after killing and destroying. If Israel violates the truce, he warns, there’s no other choice than to resist and fight back. Resistance factions in Gaza would coordinate their action, and agree to respond to Israeli attacks.

Islamic Jihad’s stance on the struggle for resistance is a response to the nil result brought by 20 years of negotiations, going from failure to failure, stalling the peace process, and a reaction to Israel’s refusal of solutions on the table such as the two-state solution, namely by carrying on its settlement expansion in the West Bank. Islamic Jihad’s senior leader argues that, because there’s no honesty from Israel, the Middle East Quartet or the international community, the resistance movement cannot trust either peace negotiations or any promises to give the Palestinians their rights back, and the fight for liberation has to continue. Until a balance of power is established in this part of the world, he adds, Israel believes it’s entitled to do what it does, with the backing from the US and Europe, and has enough power to rebuff any proposed solutions.

Islamic Jihad is divided between the need to represent a radical alternative to Hamas, and the pressure from both Hamas and the public who reject militant attacks, fearing to attract Israeli retaliation. The main common point with Hamas is resistance, so coordinating with them is necessary. At the same time, Islamic Jihad maintains it has the right, like any militant factions in Gaza, to retaliate against aggression from Israel, and Hamas cannot object. So far, it seems there has been agreement on how to respond to Israeli military actions, though more dialogue with Hamas may be needed at times.  In recent times, there was apparently a talk of Islamic Jihad forming a united Islamist political front with Hamas on a national level. The debate is still underway.

I leave Al-Batsh’s office and head into town for a late lunch break. The last stop of the day is the French Cultural Institute. I meet the PR Officer who remembers Cast Lead very well, the institute was closed then but he was the only one going to the office, and taking a high risk as that part of Gaza City was a dangerous area during that time. Every day, he was sending reports to the French consulate in Jerusalem to keep them abreast of what was going on. It hurts him to remember the war time. The consulate would then share the daily reports among journalists, and send them to France to put pressure on the French government with regards to Israel’s offensive. Later, the PR Officer explains there’s a strict policy for the French Cultural Institute in relation to the choice of art works to be exhibited, anything political is rejected. His colleague shows me the mediatheque, talks me through the library and the CD/DvD collection.  I visit a small photo exhibition on sports in refugee camps in Palestine.

It’s evening time already, I head back towards my apartment. Over the taxi ride, I happen to talk to some young men asking those recurring standard questions addressed to foreigners: ‘where are you from?’, ‘have you been to Gaza before?’, ‘why in Gaza?’, ‘how do you find it?’, ‘do you like it?’ I’m surprised I still haven’t been asked whether I’m Christian or a believer at least, and what do I think of Jews?

Later, I’m back to my flat. I hear some shootings in the area, and recall what I’ve been told to expect here. Next to bombings and locally launched rockets, ‘celebratory gunfire’ is on the list…wonder if that’s some kind of celebration, then?

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 In the morning, Adel has arranged a taxi pick up for me. I’m heading to Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) to meet him. Adel turns up with a kind smile and a warm Ahlan wasahlan’ (‘Welcome’) in his distinctively calm appearance, though tired on his face. He announces some important news that kept him up overnight.  Hisham al-Saidni, leading member of Salafi movement Tawhid wal Jihad, was assassinated by an Israeli drone in Jabalia, northern Gaza, while he was riding a motorcycle with another member of his group. Jordanian of Palestinian origin from Al-Bureij, al-Saidni was one of the top Salafi leaders in Gaza. Earlier in March 2011, he was arrested by Hamas police. At that time, Tawhid wal Jihad had kidnapped Italian activist Arrigoni hoping to force Hamas to release their leader. According to Hamas police, the kidnappers killed Arrigoni before a deadline they had set for Saidni’s release had expired. Saidni was recently freed without charge after pledging not to disturb public order. Adel had to cover the story last night. He also informs me that another Israeli jet strike killed two PFLP fighters, who were reportedly plotting new rocket attacks against Israel.

It’s mid-morning time, I join Adele and the staff at Doha Centre for a generous Palestinian breakfast.  I meet Nahar, a bright young female journalist, who asks me about differences between the West Bank and Gaza, and how do I like towns in the West Bank –just like Amira did! Nahar saw Jerusalem once, when she applied for a US visa years back, but she has never been able to visit Al-Aqsa and pray there.

It looks like today’s schedule will majorly change. I have discussed with Adel the possibility to go to see the tunnels in Rafah, and there’s a likely chance to arrange a visit there in the afternoon. Meanwhile, I’ve tried to contact a BDS activist, based at Al-Aqsa University, with no luck. Some of the local contacts I’m trying to get hold of since my arrival seem to be hard to reach.  A pity I will miss that activist, I think, as it would be really interesting to hear how the BDS movement is coping in Gaza, given its total dependency on Israeli products and its state of isolation.

I’m off for a short visit to the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Centre (DWRC). DWRC works to defend Palestinian workers’ rights and promote principles of democracy, social equality and justice through the advancement of labour education and involvement in democratic unions. It started its work in 1993-94 by providing legal aid to Palestinian workers in the Israeli and Palestinian labour markets, and raising awareness of their rights. After the 2000 Intifada, DWRC’s focus of work shifted towards defending workers employed in the Palestinian labour market. Throughout the years, DWRC has incorporated additional services ranging from training and education to research and studies, freedom of association and the right to organize, to occupational health & safety and work environment programs.

I return to the Doha Centre. I’m supposed to meet a Hamas leader, but since this morning he’s been very busy with journalists following last night’s killings. The interview is postponed to tomorrow. Nahar wants to go into town and get prad, a lemon and banana extract, very popular in Gaza, a sweet speciality I can find only here. I must try it, then. She takes me to ‘Kathem’, in Remal, the best place for prad, which is crowded with youth queuing. I note the two separate men/women ‘entrances’ to the counter which I’m very unused to, even less in a shop.  We go back to the office, Nahar distributes prad to everyone –very sweet, indeed- and we make up our minds to go visit the tunnels.

Over the taxi ride to Rafah, Nahar and I have a long chat. She tells me how expensive cars are in Gaza –imported via Kerem Shalom crossing- with Israel taking 100% taxes and Hamas adding up 25% on the top! For some Gazans, the alternative may be buying cars from Egypt with 25% taxes applied, however you can’t be sure about those cars smuggled in illegally. As we drive through villages, I take notice of a poster with a martyr portrait on, the very same poster appearing on many streets of Gaza City. Nahar mentions the man’s name Fathi Shiqaqi, who founded and led the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In 1995, he was shot dead by gunmen thought to have been from Mossad.

Fathi Shiqaqi, Islamic Jihad martyr

Fathi Shiqaqi, Islamic Jihad martyr

There are two options to visit the tunnels. The legal way involves requesting a permission (tasreh) which often results into a long, complicated procedure lasting a few days. That means obtaining an authorization from Hamas via coordination (tansseq) with the Egyptian authorities. Consequently, the illegal way is going to the site and pretending you have your permission. We go for the illegal way.

I’ve been reminded that, although there’s no agreement with the government to have tunnels open along the Rafah crossing, Hamas of course knows about their existence. Nevertheless, there seems to be Hamas security guards sometimes patrolling the area, stopping and hassling visitors who go and take pictures, checking whether they have permissions. At the same time, they want internationals to come and see the tunnels, so they can witness and show how bad life is in Gaza. That sounds like a ridiculous contradiction. And it may just be a way for Hamas to flag its power grip over the Strip from time to time.

We cross Rafah town and approach the area until we find a hill where the taxi stops. A young photographer joins the two of us. We walk up the hill to reach the site, a bustling tent camp with generators buzzing, pulleys going up and down pits, workers moving around. We go to one of the 12 tunnels on the spot –there’s a total of 1,250 tunnels in Rafah- and meet a group of men inviting us for a visit. A tunnel owner asks if we have a permission, we reply ‘yes’ and go ahead. We get inside a low, horizontal shaped tunnel, the photographer goes further inside, I stay fairly nearby the entrance. After all, tunnels are bombed or collapse every now and then –not the safest place where to be.

DSCF6970 We get out, one of the workers shows us a vertical shaped tunnel measuring 13 meters high–I look from the top and don’t even see the bottom- I decide not to go inside, this time. Two workers are smuggling in construction materials. We are told that earlier this morning, it was possible to see some tunnels partly destroyed by Egyptian forces.

Everything you can imagine goes into those tunnels, from food to construction materials, medicines, fuel and cars –in reaction to Israel’s five-year blockade. Tunnels de facto exist as a result of the siege. Israel, instead, alleges tunnels are used by Palestinians to smuggle weapons and rockets.

We speak to one tunnel owner called Mohammed who surprisingly has no problem in giving out his full name, and has been in the business since when the first tunnels were dug in 1988 –one of the pioneers, so to speak. He estimates each ton of goods smuggled in is worth 15 NIS approximately. He takes half of the revenue, including money to pay for running the electric generators, and the other half is split among workers. On average, tunnel workers reportedly earn US$25 per day.

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Working in tunnels is not risk free, quite the opposite. Workers are exposed to common hazards like being hit by Israeli airstrikes, or dying under tunnels collapsing. Just last week, Mohammed says, one worker fell down and broke his neck and back as he was trying to climb up a tunnel. Medics say hundreds of workers have died either in tunnels or caves since Israel imposed its tight siege.

We take a short walk around. We are very close to the border crossing, I can see the Egyptian flag from a little distance. We are told that, if one wanted to opt for a shortcut and walk into any of those tunnels, it would take only 10mn to reach Egypt.

It’s late afternoon, time to leave. Not without talking over the tunnel experience during the journey back. In Gaza City, Nahar and I stop at a well reputed local restaurant named ‘Ma’touq’ for an early dinner. I finally try the famous fatta, a delicious –though notoriously heavy- dish of Palestinian bread, spiced rice and stuffed chicken. Later, I also go by the ‘tradition’ of falling asleep and taking a nap –what happens to anyone after eating fatta.

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 I go to see Adel at Doha Centre, where he gives me the latest. Two more militant fighters -belonging to Al-Nasser Salah Addin’s Brigades- were killed in Deir El-Balah yesterday afternoon. That makes 5 people killed altogether in the last 24 hours. We must be in Gaza. It’s good to be kept abreast with what’s happening these days, not having Internet at my flat –and finding public access to a computer in Gaza is mission impossible!  Later, I jump on a PC at the office and catch up with the news.

The interview with Hamas spokesman Fouzy Barhoum is due. I meet him to discuss Hamas’ discourse with regards to national reconciliation and the unity government, in the backdrop of the latest agreement signed in Cairo last May. Like previous unity deals, the recent reconciliation effort has brought no results. According to Barhoum, the main cause of division between Hamas and Fatah lies in the direct interference in their internal affairs, and the unchanged pressure put by Israel and US on both factions. Fatah, on one hand, depends on financial aid granted to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and is pushed not to deal with Hamas. Hamas, on the other hand, is being isolated since after the movement won the 2006 elections –to lead a legitimate, democratically elected government in Gaza- through Israel’s siege and conditions imposed by the Middle East Quartet.

Fouzy Barhoum, Hamas

Fouzy Barhoum, Hamas

Based on the Cairo accord, the two rival factions need to agree upon all 10 points. One main point appears to be the formation of a unity government. Both parties agreed to form a consensus government of technocrats and independent figures to prepare the elections. Hamas accepted that President Abbas lead the interim administration until new elections are called at the end of the 6-month term. This deal too has however failed since Abbas recently announced local elections would be only held in the West Bank, Hamas spokesman suggests, which has entrenched the split between the two movements. He argues that can’t be called ‘elections’ without Hamas and other parties participating.

Since last year’s unity accord, talks on holding presidential and legislative elections have stalled on several occasions. Barhoum questions the guarantee for transparent and fair elections in the West Bank, as the majority of Hamas members and supporters are persecuted or put in jail. Three years ago, the PA ordered a mass arrest targeting all Hamas chairmen of municipalities across the West Bank. With the PA-Israel security coordination in place, arrest campaigns directed against Hamas indicate little readiness to include Hamas in the West Bank’s electoral process.

Hamas spokesman rather encourages reconciliation, and the formation of a new government, before holding any elections. With Fatah pushing for elections before a unity government, whilst Hamas is prioritizing reconciliation, it’s hard to see what could be a good compromise.

Back in May, Hamas allowed an elections commission into Gaza to begin work towards elections. At the beginning of July, Hamas decided to suspend work of the election commission just a day before it was due to start registering voters, putting the reconciliation process on a standby. The decision for suspension was apparently due to suspicion of Fatah planning to falsify results of the vote, and the PA-Israel security coordination with continued crackdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Barhoum insists there must be equal circumstances in both Palestinian territories in order to hold elections, and the PA must stop any political or security attacks against Hamas and other resistance factions.

Nevertheless, some reports say that the people of Gaza have come to see Hamas as putting factional interests ahead of national ones. The mounting frustration among Palestinians at both Fatah and Hamas leaders is clearly there, given the deadlock over national reconciliation. Barhoum acknowledges such anger and frustration are justified, but doesn’t respond to criticism directed at Hamas. Similarly, he doesn’t directly comment on pro-unity protests in the Gaza Strip –the latest demonstrations were staged by women’s groups last month- and rather points at Abu Mazen’s weak stance on the reconciliation issue.  Meanwhile, it’s not hard to see how the Hamas-Fatah split benefits the Occupation.

The Middle East Quartet says that any Palestinian government that includes Hamas must renounce violence, and recognize Israel in order to join negotiations. Israel refuses to negotiate with a government involving Hamas. Hamas spokesman highlights the double standard showed by the international community by labelling Hamas a ‘terrorist organization’, and dismissing resistance in Gaza as ‘violent’ whilst, according to international law, an occupied people has the right to use ‘’all necessary means at their disposal’’ to end their occupation –such resistance is therefore legitimate.

He rejects the conditions imposed by the Quartet against Hamas, maintains there’s no accountability for Israel’s breach of international law instead, and such conditions are only there to exclude Hamas from the political debate and create further divisions.

National unity in the Palestinian territories would lead to the reactivation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) allowing Palestinians to speak with one voice and enact one common strategy. Based on Cairo agreement, the PLO must be reformed. A new committee made up of all Palestinian factions was formed to that effect, and convened a few times following the agreement. Talks, however, stopped due to the internal rivalry. It’s all hanging on Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, again.

It’s time for me to go. I try to contact an academic at Al-Azhar University, but can’t get hold of him.  I realise that most of my scheduled is changing so far. I just have to go with the flow, day by day, which is fine -especially because things hardly go according to plans in Palestine!

I head towards Al-Azhar University, where I’m supposed to meet Amira and move on to the afternoon plans. She will help with translating -there won’t be English speakers. As I approach the university entrance, I see guards and students watching by the gate, ‘wary’ that I could enter any time. Then, a small group of female students warn me against going in -it’s forbidden to women who aren’t fully dressed up to the feet. Jeans and long sleeves aren’t enough, I would have to wear a long galabeya on the top. I realise the taxi driver has dropped me off at the wrong university, that’s the Islamic University in fact. Al-Azhar is supposed to have a more moderate dress code policy.

I reach Amira, we get in touch with Jamal Abu Habel, coordinator for Popular Committees of Gaza Strip refugee camps, and he’s ready to meet us. Jamal talks through the situation inside camps in Gaza, largely marginalised with a high population left in poor living conditions. Among the problems commonly faced, refugee camps are over-crowded with Jabalya camp alone counting 125,000 people within 1.5 K, which leaves very little privacy. Schools are also crowded, diseases like cancer spread quickly, depression and psychological diseases are widespread too. There’s poor housing quality and no personal space inside homes creating major problems, particularly within large families. On top of that, rising unemployment and drugs consumption among youth are big issues.

UNRWA initially did its best to serve camp residents (from 1949 to 1982) without leaving anyone out, from delivering basic food supplies and financial aid to providing medical care, creating jobs, offering school materials to students aged 7-15. Following the first and second Intifada, UNRWA provided help not just to refugees but to the wider population. Today, much pressure on the government and UNRWA is needed in Gaza. There has been some small improvements such as road paving, construction of five wells giving access to drinkable water in Jabalya camp, and some financial help raised by international organizations.

On the other hand, Hamas puts a lot of pressure on Popular Committees. Back in 2007 –on the very same year when Hamas took power in Gaza- Hamas members confiscated the Popular Committees’ headquarters, and money was stolen from the office. At that time, Jamal was even told by someone from Hamas to stop working. Nowadays, the relationship with Hamas has changed a little in that Hamas wants to ‘cooperate’ with Popular Committees by supervising their work, expecting to be reported, and kept informed at every single step. Jamal accepts such liaison with Hamas as a trade-off for the good of Gazan people. He intends to continue his work whether that means going via Hamas coordination or in another way.

Jamal takes us to Jabalya refugee camp and Beit Lahiya next, where he has arranged visits to two families. The first family is made up of a mother and two daughters. We talk to the mother who tells us about her husband. He had diabetes and, one day, was caught by a heart attack. He was taken to  hospital, then discharged, but couldn’t work. His conditions deteriorated until he died 4 years ago.

Since after his death, the mother is the head of the family and runs two shops, just near the house. The earnings from both shops  make 150 dollars per month. The older daughter looks after the house while the younger is at her third year of university. Given the refugee status, UNRWA covers 50% of university fees, and 50% is paid by a welfare association. The mother has tried to secure 300 dollars per month from the association, but can’t get this money compensation. She suspects Hamas authorities objected because the family owns two shops, however the shops together don’t make a great income at all. Things seemed to go better before Hamas took power in Gaza, she thinks. So daily life is by no means easy, living on 150 dollars per month and with no man in the house. Thankfully, people inside the camp are very supportive, the family is not left alone and Jamal himself has helped them a lot too. One major problem resulting from the siege is undoubtedly regular power cuts. That particularly impacts on the younger daughter who –like other Gazan students- can only do her homework based on the electricity cuts: if there is electricity she studies, if there isn’t she doesn’t.

Memories from Israel’s 2008 onslaught on Gaza come back. It was a very difficult time for this family, being a dangerous area here. Bombs dropped near the house, all of them were gathering in one room away from windows, five people living next door were killed, it was terrifying. Their neighbours advised them to find safer shelter in a UNRWA school, but they preferred staying at their house at their own risk. Many shops were kept closed, it was hard to stock food supplies, they were afraid to go out so they would try to keep up with the food they had. When the war was over, the mother explains, they were so used to bombings and killings that none of them developed a form of trauma. I’m left in complete astonishment, with little left to say.

We move on to the second family living in Beit Lahiya. From a first look, it seems a poorer neighbourhood. We enter what should be the house, a whole open space with no pavement, sand under our feet instead. It’s all very spartan to say the least. We meet a couple, waiting for us, and sit down along with Jamal. The father tells us about their story. The house conditions are enough to indicate the state of poverty in which this family lives. There’s no proper roof to protect them in winter, no adequate kitchen or bathroom. They have six children, five girls and one boy, the youngest is aged 6 and the eldest 15, so they need to buy books and school materials for them -on top of regular expenses. Holding a refugee status, UNRWA grants 40 shekels per family member for 3 months, so it works out 320 shekels as a family every 3 months -it’s nothing!

visit to refugee family in Beit Lahiya

visit to refugee family in Beit Lahiya

The mother’s medical case is the other big problem. She has suffered from diabetes and other health problems for 5 years, and her medical record has particularly deteriorated in the last 3 years. She also has mental disorder, which is why her husband can’t work because he’s afraid she may commit suicide –as she tried to do once- so when he’s there, she feels comfortable at least. Like his wife, he suffers from mental disorder though on a smaller scale. UNRWA covers medication for diabetes and blood tests, but she has to pay for other medicines which cost150 shekels every month. So she has borrowed money from her neighbours in order to face medical expenses.

Their house had 3 rooms in good conditions before 2006, which were destroyed during Israel’s incursion, then the rest was probably bombed during the 2008-2009 war. UNRWA is now working to build a new house for them. The reason why there’s been such a long delay is, because of the siege, Israel has prevented UNRWA to get construction materials into Gaza until now. And that would apply to other poor families waiting to have their houses rebuilt. This family is one of the 217 poorest families in Gaza.

The father notes, under Hamas rule, international aid has been reduced -which has made things harder than before- and the current government itself shows little support. He argues that, if he was affiliated to Hamas, their family would perhaps get some attention, but because he isn’t, they don’t get any help.

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A very disheartening story, it’s hard to tolerate hearing such injustice. I’m cautious about taking pictures around the house, not wanting to upset anyone, though I’m told it’s ok after all. As we leave the family, I manage to hold back tears. Something I realise the more I speak to people in Gaza is this amazingly brave endurance in coping with such harsh life circumstances and human tragedies. Behind signs of depression that you can more or less see from some looks, there’s an incredible resilience and drive to get on with daily life.

Driving on the way back, Jamal points us to whole parts of Jabalya and Beit Lahiya bombed, including civilian homes and one school bombarded during the last war, craters left by rocket shelling. Amira and I were supposed to go visit fishermen at the seaport in the evening, but the visit has been cancelled due to a misunderstanding. We’re going there tomorrow. Back in Gaza City, I stop by an art deco shop as I’d like to buy a gift for Adel (and his wife).

I ring Valentina, an Italian NGO worker I ran into two days before as I was coming back to my flat –Abu Ghaloon building is just next door, and that’s where all Italian NGOs are based.  She mentioned about a recently founded centre of Italian/Palestinian culture, in homage to Vittorio Arrigoni. So I pay a visit and meet activist Maher, who tells me about what the centre has done so far from organising visits for incoming delegations, cultural exchanges between Italy and Gaza, running Italian language classes, dabke dance courses, etc. Later, I go to Valentina’s flat where I share dinner with few people, and I hear about their work and life in Gaza.

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 Today is my last day. The schedule looks filled up with more visits left, and strictly Arab speaking so Amira will join to my great benefit. Shortly after I get up, I seem to hear some random shootings from the flat. Amira comes to pick me up in our taxi, we’re heading to the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) and from there we’re going on an organized visit to rural Gaza to learn about problems faced by farmers. We meet Mustafa Arafat, UAWC’s coordinator who’s taking us to Beit Hanoun and later to Beit Lahiya. We set off and take AlBahar [translated: ‘the sea’] the main street stretching along Gaza City, a new street that was built with rubble and destroyed materials from bombings.

The plan is also to see the ‘buffer zone’, a military no-go area imposed by Israel that extends inside Palestinian territory along the entire Gaza Strip’s border with Israel. This border area contains much of Gaza’s most valuable arable land. The buffer zone allegedly responds to Israel’s security concerns, but in fact the unilateral expansion of this band and its enforcement results in Palestinians being unable to access their lands located inside the area. Overall, the land restricted area is estimated at 17% of Gaza’s land mass, and 35% of its agricultural land. Israel treats this area as a free-fire zone meaning Gazan residents are warned not to move within a few hundred metres of the border fence, or risk being shot at. Israel also regularly sends troops into the border areas to keep the lands razed of agricultural activity, Israeli F16s or drones are seen flying over the buffer zone.

We drive up to north-east of the Gaza Strip. As we approach Beit Hanoun, I receive a text message from Valentina –like other foreign NGO workers, she’s connected with an update service keeping informed about developments in Gaza. She has just forwarded me an update warning on reports of IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) firing from north of Beit Hanoun. Amira reassures me not to be afraid, we won’t go close to the Israeli border. Technically, we’ve already entered the buffer zone. We’re crossing the first part of the zone, which is the populated area of Beit Hanoun. The width and boundaries of the buffer zone are unclear, I can’t tell where exactly we are now. We then proceed through the outer area, where I’m pointed to farmers working the land from distance. The second part of the buffer zone is further up, an open space where agricultural land is surrounded by Israeli bulldozers along the border. Amira says we can’t go further than 500m now –that’s the dangerous bit – we are 1Km 500m from the Israeli border. I see the border fence from afar, in fact, and Erez crossing is there.

We’re going to visit a group of farmers. As we get off the taxi, I look around and see an odd mixture of green land and, further ahead, unwelcoming empty land. It feels surreal, and a little uncomfortable at first, to be in this part of the Strip.

'buffer zone' off Beit Hanoun

‘buffer zone’ off Beit Hanoun

Before 2000, Beit Hanoun was resourceful counting on drinkable water and good produces. Agricultural work was thriving, residents were exporting goods abroad and earning money from their lands. Beit Hanoun was the centre of Gazan economy. There used to be buildings, houses and cultivated fields where we are now, but it was all destroyed over repeated military incursions after 2000 and during the last war. Most of the land is unused now. We see what’s left of the agricultural land, a farmer is working with his son, few other men are there too.

We’re greeted by Yousef, UAWC’s manager of northern Gaza, Zaki, who also works at UAWC, and the farmer AbdelKareem. They’re all from Beit Hanoun. AbdelKareem has worked in the area since 1984, he used to have good land, there were lots of fruits and vegetables to plant, he was supervising 21 workers. After 2001, this area was razed by Israeli bulldozers five times, every time the farmers resumed work -it took them nearly 5 years to prepare the land- and now it’s just AbdelKareem and his son in the fields, the other men are only neighbours chatting with them or helping out occasionally. The impact has been devastating with farmers losing their lands and work, since the only income in the area comes from agriculture. There’s a high level of unemployment, as a result, it’s very unjust.

visit to farmers in 'buffer zone'

visit to farmers in ‘buffer zone’

This land is the only source of life for AbdelKareem. He’s very upset but doesn’t intend to give up, even though the production has worsened in recent times. He thanks UAWC as the only organization in Gaza that has helped him to work the land by securing a project funded by UNDP. The project was implemented in 2001, UAWC has built wells, fences and infrastructure to prepare the land and plant. Neither UAWC nor the farmers have given up until today.

Both Zaki and AbdelKareem talk, look angry and express resentment at the government primarily, and international donors, none of whom has shown interest or done anything for this land. The Ministry of Agriculture hasn’t offered any help after the land was razed. It was estimated the damage was worth 80,000 dollars -AbdelKareem holds official papers stating this amount is owed to him- until now no compensation has been given. At the early phase of the project’s implementation, the donors estimated the resulting profit for the farmer would be 20,000 dollars. So the Ministry of Agriculture detracted 20,000 dollars from the project’s funding, and amended on paper the 80,000 dollars compensation due, which ‘mysteriously’ became 60,000 dollars.  Even so, AbdelKareem hasn’t seen a dollar to date. The Ministry not only doesn’t compensate him but even claims taxes on agricultural devices. The only thing the Ministry’s authorities did for him once was issuing an invoice to purchase gas – it’s hard to get gas or petrol supplies individually in Gaza- however it was for 20 litres of gas which kept generators running for 1hr 20mn only. More than that amount is, of course, needed to work land.

As we speak, we see a white balloon from afar in the sky and wonder what that is. We’re told it’s Israeli authorities taking photos around the area. We’ve probably just been photographed, I wave my hand to say ‘hi’.

Donors are not cooperative either. They get funding for agricultural projects focussed on planting, stick to the project’s scope, and don’t hear the farmers’ needs. There’s no follow-up with provision of water supply, tools or other devices. Besides, projects in Gaza are only 6 months or 1 year long, far from enough for agriculture work demanding 5 years, instead. The current project has one-year duration, UNDP has continued to fund projects there since 2001, but every year there’s a new project to reapply for in order to extend funding.

AbdelKareem on his land

AbdelKareem on his land

AbdelKareem and other farmers went to the Ministry of Agriculture more than once in the past, and regularly protested. Nevertheless, the Ministry didn’t hear their concerns or addressed their needs under Fatah, nor has it done anything under Hamas. Farmers also appealed to UNDP, FAO and the Red Cross, but these organizations have so far implemented projects without pressuring the Ministry. AbdelKareem has a lot to say, no doubt!

We’re ready to leave the fields and head to Beit Hanoun town. We enter Ghasan Kanafany building –we cross children coming out of a kindergarten- and go up to the roof where the view gives a good idea of what’s around there. From the rooftop, I’m pointed to the Separation Wall built inside Palestinian territory to steal more land –just like in the West Bank- and 300 metres of empty land, no-one can go beyond that point. Again, it was agricultural land before but was then razed by Israeli bulldozers. I see houses still partly destroyed -from last war’s bombings- and I’m told there used to be factories but they were all destroyed, inflicting a hard hit on the economy. I’m shown from afar a watchtower, where the IDF shoot from, and further away is Erez crossing. Israel’s white balloon makes another appearance in the sky.

view from rooftop in Beit Hanoun

view from rooftop in Beit Hanoun

Later, we drive off Beit Hanoun. Over the taxi ride, Mustafa points us to lands that used to be farmed –all gone now- then we see from distance Gaza’s border running along the road, with Israeli tanks stationed, all looking far but close enough. The sea is visible too, with some Israeli boats further away. That’s where I can tell, with my eyes, this strip of land is controlled by Israel by land, air and sea -the ‘open prison’ that people commonly refer to. We drive through an area known to be target of airstrikes, a young man on a horse cart passes by and tells our driver to move on quickly. Mustafa also shows us a settlement block –where there used to be around 7 Israeli settlements- we drive through central Gaza, and soon after we go past Kerem Shalom crossing.

Our next stop is Zeitoun district, where we’re going to visit the well-known Samouni family. By the time we’re on the spot, we see a group of houses belonging to the extended family, and drive past the house where all family members gathered during Operation Cast Lead, and came under heavy attack by the IDF. We then go straight to see the mother, who’s more than used to have people visiting and wanting to hear their story.

Samouni family houses, Zeitoun

Samouni family houses, Zeitoun

Ghalia is mother of 5 girls and 2 boys. On the first day of the Israeli incursion in the Zeitoun district, 4th January 2009, she was with her husband and children, and her married daughter and sister were also there with their children. Ghalia heard voices of Israeli soldiers coming, she and the other family members were all hiding in two separate rooms –split between men and women- when soldiers invaded the house and forced them out. The same applied to the rest of the Samouni family, who were at their homes nearby and didn’t know what was happening, when soldiers came and ordered them out. There were more than 40 tanks in this area. Some members of the family were told to leave Zeitoun, and go to Rafah or Khan Younis. The Samounis were told to gather in a nearby home.

Houses were shelled killing and injuring the occupants, and later demolished. Other residents in the area were forced out of their houses too. One attack on civilians occurred in the house across the street, where family members were sheltering from the fighting outside when the IDF came and deliberately shot at them. Another assault involved other members of the family who were ordered to leave their home quickly. In the group, a woman was running late with her child, so soldiers shelled the room and they both died under fire. In another incident, a man –the owner of the house- told soldiers he had children with him, afraid, and pleaded for them to hold their fire. But soldiers shot him dead and killed his little son too.

Members of the Samouni family were then forced to move again to another building, with over 100 members in one particular house. They sheltered there to avoid attracting the attention of soldiers who were in the area. They spent 2 days without food, one half of the family staying in one place, the other half in another -those were the hardest days. One day, a soldier from the window pointed his gun at Ghalia and other relatives, while they were praying, but they managed to run away. She says it was Alllah’s mercy if they were not shot.

Ghalia then decided to go to her father’s house, to be safe, while other relatives gathered on the main street looking to go anywhere far from the soldiers. When Ghalia and her family got to her father’s, she realised there were too many people, so they also decided to walk to the main street. At that moment, her brother’s wife gave birth and was then carried out as all of them had to go. On the main street, the Samounis reached their neighbours. Shortly after, they were at gunpoint and had no other choice but to keep moving as the area was surrounded by soldiers. It was frightening. Since after the war, Ghalia and her family have lived in a new though modest house, they all sleep in the same room –terrified and sticking together. Two of her children show us a banner with some printed faces of Samouni members killed.

Samouni members killed

Samouni family massacre

A total of 49 members of the Samouni extended family were reportedly killed during 2008-09 Israel’s onslaught on Gaza. A large number of the dead were women and children. According to a report released by United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs, the attack on the Samouni family was one of the “gravest incidents” in the war. What happened in Zeitoun was a massacre.

A truly upsetting story, unbearable to listen to. It’s so difficult to know if I should say anything and what. Ghalia is certainly sick of telling people what they went through back then. It brings back painful memories every time. When we leave the house, I have a sense of dizziness after hearing such a horrible account.

We head back to Gaza City, and stop by Amira’s house for a quick lunch. I meet her lovely family. There’s little time to hang out with them. We’re ready to make our way to the seaport, where we’re supposed to meet Zakaria, manager of UAWC’s fishing committee in Gaza City –UAWC has 28 committees, 20 agriculture and 8 for fishing- as well as long-standing activist.

Zakaria first talks about what he does. Coming from a family of fishermen, he was a fisherman himself for 16 years. Until it became dangerous for him to do his work, after facing a number of violations, so he stopped fishing after 2000. He, however, continued his activism and for the past 3 years he’s been fully involved with the fishermen’s cause. Zakaria documents Israel’s violations against fishermen, and liaises with local media as well as Mizan Centre and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). Reporting every day about violations taking place helps the media to keep abreast with what’s happening, and human rights organizations to divulgate information about ongoing incidents –and to act in response to such violations, in future. In the last few years, protests have been staged including rallies outside the Red Cross office to denounce Israeli attacks against fishermen. Last 30th September, a big march took place from the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to the Red Cross, and that became day of solidarity with Palestinian fishermen. Many activities have been organized in memory of Vittorio Arrigoni. More than 10 international delegations have visited Gaza this month. Soon, ‘Estelle’ solidarity ship will be welcomed over another mission to break the naval blockade on Gaza and deliver humanitarian supplies.

seaport at night

seaport at night

Zakaria and other activists want to use every opportunity to raise the fishermen issue in the public debate, and make it an international case to put more pressure on Israel to stop denying the fishermen’s right to fish. Internationals coming here and eye-witnessing can then go back to their countries, and talk about what’s daily life for fishermen in Gaza. ‘The only demand of a fisherman is to do his job, and be treated in a human way. Is it a crime?’ Zakaria vents.

Zakaria then introduces the issue of fishermen, giving some facts and figures. There are around 4,000 fishermen in the Gaza Strip, 1,800 of them work in this port, which is the main seaport of Gaza. Until 2005, fishermen could fish out to 12 nautical miles from the coast –limit illegally reduced by Israeli forces from 20 nautical miles, as it was set under the Oslo Accord. Between 2005 and 2008, they were allowed to fish up to 6 nautical miles off the shore. From 2008 until today, fishermen can fish within a 3-mile limit –which is far from adequate, considering there’s very little fish to catch in the 3 miles off the coast. Until 2005, the productivity was estimated at 4,000 tonnes per year, after the siege it’s only 1,400 tonnes per year. Before the siege, the fishermen’s income was 1,050 shekels per month, after the siege it has gone down to 300-400 shekels per month.

In terms of Israeli navy’s violations against Gaza’s fishermen, the years 2011-12 have given the worst human rights record. Palestinian fishermen have been subjected to a wide range of violations: daily  shootings at boats, confiscation of 35 small boats and 12 powerboats, 50 people injured, 1 person killed, 14 motor generators damaged, 100 detentions. Other abuses include artificial waves, generated by Israeli navy, causing fishermen to fall off their boats, use of automated technology to shoot at boats, breaking of fishing nets, shooting at mile limit marks to prevent fishermen from going ahead. More inhumane treatment involves throwing sewage at fishermen, dropping hot water on them, ordering fishermen to take off their clothes and swim at night, in winter.

Palestinian fishermen and their sons go fishing anytime, they usually set off by 4pm and spend the night out in the sea. Even though fishermen can fish up to 3 miles from the coast, practically they can’t go beyond 2.5 miles. This is due to the mile limit marks set by Israel –with cameras installed- which fishermen are warned not to approach.

Zakaria discusses the involvement of internationals. Arrigoni himself worked a lot for fishermen. He was accompanying fishermen to fish, documenting Israel’s abuses via photos and videos, and exposing facts in the Italian media. Many international solidarity groups and activists have come here by sea, in defiance of the siege, and documented Israel’s violations. Despite being stopped by Israeli navy, detained or threatened not to come back, more internationals return home, attract a larger number of activists to board more boats and head to Gaza. An Italian activist named Rosa currently monitors violations against Gaza’s fishermen on a daily basis.

While international groups show solidarity and bring some relief to fishermen, there’s no help from the Ministry of Agriculture. They are now planning to create a pool to grow fishes, which would be not just a very expensive project but also something useless, not addressing the problem. Also, there’s a lot of sand in the water by the shore. So if the government doesn’t step in, in 2 years time there will be no water. Besides, Fatah and Hamas are so focussed on their internal rivalry that they don’t give any attention to fishermen –just like for other issues in Palestine. None of the factions has done anything to date. Zakaria is very angry. The government seems not to connect with fishermen, or understand their needs.

Likewise, the municipality does nothing. Every year, they take 1 million shekels besides taxes without doing any works or improvements at the seaport. They’re supposed to build a market but there’s still no marketplace, so fishermen have to sell their fish on the street. There are no facilities nor washbasins for fishermen -one wonders where all that money goes.

Instead, the UAWC has been the only helpful organization in Gaza. Initially, they were mainly delivering aid to fishermen. They then started providing equipment and tools for fishing. They supplied small boats to 20 fishermen and new fishing nets, fixed around100 boats, nets or any equipment destroyed. They also provided a camera device detecting depth of water, location of fishes etc.

Over the years, new plans have been put forth. Next year, the UAWC is planning to set up a documentation and monitoring unit, which will operate a worldwide database gathering press releases, fact sheets, and more information. Anyone who wants to learn about fishermen in Gaza will be then able to access the database and refer to the information there. They’re now working to have a team of journalists who can update news about human rights violations, and develop their website. They want to run training on how to report, document, monitor, as well as how to use lobby and advocacy to pressurize Hamas, Israel and Fatah, and facilitate matters for fishermen. They also want to organize first aid workshops so fishermen can train in how to rescue others in the sea. They may even establish a legal unit in the future.

I’m impressed by how resourceful a local organization can be here, despite such a challenging environment and the many restrictions in place. Which proves, again, how resourceful Palestinians are in getting on with their lives no matter what.

We go to meet a small group of fishermen sitting nearby to hear their stories. They’re setting off in an hour. Their sons went fishing around 4pm today. They’re now waiting for the young men to come back, so they can go after.

They all express frustration at how bad things are since Israel imposed its blockade.  One fisherman says what he earns is just enough to feed him and his family, but has no means left to repair old equipment or buy new devices. Another can’t pay for his children’s education, accommodation, or transportation. One has grown up children but can’t help them to get married. The four fishermen have10, 7, 5 and 4 children each, which puts them in a very difficult financial position with the poor earnings they make from fishing. They can’t even estimate how much fish they catch on an average, as things change a lot day-to- day, week by week. One day, they may make 20 shekels each, another day nothing and so on. Yesterday, they caught around 12 Kg of fish between all 16 (four fishermen and their sons).

Like other Gazan fishermen, they have suffered numerous violations out in the sea. One was once forced to strip and swim for a long distance without his clothes on. He was also thrown sewage. Israeli navy opened fire at his boat destroying generators. Another was ordered to swim to an Israeli boat, even though he had health problems, he was shot at his leg, put in jail, and his boat was confiscated.  One went fishing with his son up to 2.5miles from the shore, their nets were taken and some shots were fired just to chase them. One had his boat destroyed, so he had to stay out of work for 2 months until the UAWC got a new boat for him.

The fishermen feel they are under much pressure from their families. A lot of the times, they wish they didn’t need to go back home, and see their wives and children. It’s a constant reminder of what their responsibilities are, regardless of the daily struggles they face up to.  One of them is worried all the time about how to make enough money to pay university fees for his children –education is a big deal for Palestinians. That has become the main concern of his life. He feels sorry he can’t do anything for the national cause, his own daily struggle keeps him too busy to think about other matters.

Which makes me realise I’ve heard this from Palestinians many times. And I see it as the best opportunity for either Fatah or Hamas to keep people preoccupied with their own issues, so they have to struggle so much that they have no time for anything else. That’s precisely to have Palestinians just to think about providing daily bread, and keep them distracted from the national cause. The more leaders do that, the more the Occupation is normalised.

Zakaria and the fishermen are all very upset. Fishing is their only source of income. Yet, their right is violated if not denied. At the same time, neither the government nor the municipality helps. They get more help from foreign countries than from here –it reminds me of the same issue discussed by the farmers earlier today. The fishermen feel like a wire between scissor blades: one blade is Hamas government, the other blade is Israel.

Later, Amira and I go for a short walk to the beach, where a group of young men are coming back from fishing. It’s been a very insightful visit. The distress among these fishermen is obvious, and so is their determination to carry on fishing.

fishermen back from the sea

fishermen back from the sea

I’m leaving Gaza tomorrow. It’s time for the goodbyes, sadly. I leave Amira thanking her for being a great tour coordinator, translator…and a fun company! Next, I call up Adel to see him briefly. So I go to my flat to pick up the gift for him and his wife. I’m more than grateful for all his help over my stay. He’s an amazing person to know. I finally drop by Eyad’s house and say bye. Eyad says that, after the last chat we had –when he was telling about his experience during the last war- he’s motivated to resume writing poetry. Later, I’m in my flat packing. Generators keep operating all around the block.  I then hear a peculiar buzz from outside, which sounds as if an airplane was flying at close reach, above the building. That goes on for a while, maybe 15-20mn. Night time, I still wonder what that noise was??

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My trip ends on a Wednesday too. I have my taxi to Rafah booked for 8am. Exit from Gaza could take from 30 minutes to a few hours. It’s time to head off. I’m leaving Gaza with mixed feelings, as it probably had to be expected. From shock to anger, gratefulness, admiration, fondness for the people met, just to name a few. It’s certainly been a big eye-opener. I do realise now the unique opportunity I’ve had to visit this small strip of land yet with so much to tell.

DSCF7008

 

At the time of writing, I couldn’t anticipate a new onslaught on Gaza would come only a month after my trip. So much heard about Operation Cast Lead, Gazans still shaken since then, but also many expecting another war to come any time soon.

Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense on 14 November 2012. A ceasefire was brokered by Egyptian leaders on November 21. Israel-Hamas deal included an expansion of the distance allowed to Gaza fishermen to six nautical miles offshore. Some reports also indicated greater access to the 300-meter ‘no-go zone’ imposed within Gaza’s land border. 

Just few days after the ceasefire, Israeli soldiers shot dead a young Palestinian as he attempted to place a Palestinian flag near the border during a demonstration. By no means, a temporary truce puts an end to the siege on Gaza. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 comment

  1. Doris Norrito

    Very engaging reportage! Wish I could have been there with you, but reading your experience, I felt I was!
    Great job!
    Doris

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