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In Gaza: one precious day

23 January 2010

We woke on the morning of Thursday 7 January to discover that our hotel backed onto a beautiful Mediterranean beach. The day was sunny and bright, but the halcyon vision presented by the little fishing boats dotting the near sea was blighted by the realisation that the long grey smudge on he horizon was an Israeli war ship. This reminded us that Palestinians are not in control of their own coastline; many beaches are mined, and fishermen who venture more than a mile or two out to sea in search of a decent catch are routinely shot at.

After breakfast, I had an interesting conversation with a few Palestinians who were chatting over coffee and shisha in the hotel dining room. They were among the few young Gaza residents lucky enough to have work, although tellingly enough, their jobs were all in the ‘aid sector’.

Among other things, they talked about how difficult the siege had made it for Hamas to deliver on any of their election promises of three years ago, and of the debilitating effect on the whole community of the fighting between Hamas and Fatah, which meant that many political leaders were in hiding, and added an extra layer of paranoia and complication to an already dire situation. They reiterated, as many friends in the camps had done, the need for national unity in the face of the Israeli occupation and siege, as the basic precondition for any effective resistance or negotiation.

After this, a bus came to take us back to the car park where we’d left our vehicles the night before, so we could pick up the rest of our personal belongings and hand over the keys to the aid distribution committee. Through this committee, the Swansea aunties had requested that our little bus and the medical equipment it carried should be passed on to a hospital in Jabalia refugee camp in the north of the strip.

Frustratingly, for the coach I was on at least, the planned trip to the northern areas, which would have taken us to refugee camps and places particularly badly damaged during last year’s massacre, was cancelled at the last moment, and we were instead diverted to an open-air rally held on the site of the bombed Legislative Council building in the heart of Gaza city. Several Palestinian MPs were killed during Israel’s assault on the building, which left only a small section of the structure standing. The rally was addressed, among others, by George Galloway of Viva Palestina and Bulent Yildirim of the Turkish IHH.

No English translation was provided of the other speakers, but brother George thanked the people of Gaza for their incredible welcome and their steadfast resistance, saying, “We will never give up trying to come to your side for as long as you refuse to surrender.”

He went on to say that the Palestinian struggle had become synonymous with freedom, and that the Palestinian flag had become the flag of all freedom-loving people in the world. He talked of the future convoys being planned in Malaysia, South Africa and Venezuela, and of his own hopes of returning by sea on a flotilla of siege-busting ships.

Referring to Egypt’s attempts to scupper the convoy, and its role in the siege generally, Galloway said that the people of Egypt deserved better than the bad government in Cairo. He called on Hosni Mubarak to change his compliant policy and stop building the wall of shame ordered by the US in order to try to squeeze the remaining life out of the people of Gaza.

Talking of the unintended consequences of the delays forced on the convoy, George emphasised the strong bond that had now been formed with the Turkish IHH and its leader Comrade Bulent, who he described as a “great lion”. He said that he and Bulent had made a British-Turkish pact in Aqaba that Viva Palestina and IHH would work together until the siege is over and Jerusalem in the free capital of a free Palestine.

After this rally, we spent a little time looking around the ruins of the Legislative Council building, before moving to a nearby cultural centre, where a big reception for the convoy had been organised by the government, and was due to be addressed by Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister. While waiting for this to start, however, I heard that one of our good friends from D7 (aka, the Derry boys) was in hospital round the corner, suffering from a particularly nasty attack of the gastro bug that had been doing the rounds of the convoy since Latakia.

As the hospital was so near, I siezed my chance for an unscheduled walkabout and took myself off up the road to check he wasn’t too seriously ill, or to miserable at wasting his precious time in Gaza on a sick bed. Since it was getting dark by this point, my clothes weren’t obviously foreign and my head was covered, I managed to be relatively inconspicuous, and it was a real joy to walk unaccompanied and unnoticed, just one more body amongst the bustling street scene.

Looking at the cheerful, busy people all around, there was surprisingly little evidence in their faces of the harsh realities of life in Gaza. It was hard to imagine that, since the bombardment of the infrastructure last year, drinkable water has become a rare and precious commodity here; that electrictity cuts take place daily; that local industry has ground to a halt; that more than 80 percent of people need food aid to survive; that most of the few remaining jobs are for the government or for aid agencies; and that almost all children in Gaza are suffering from some sort of psychological damage as a result of having seen friends and relations killed and of living with the ever-present threat of further bombing.

Arriving at El-Shifa Hospital, I had no difficulty finding the patient; doctors and nurses were falling over themselves to be helpful and friendly. And while we were chatting in his room, there was a constant stream of visitors, as various people working in the hospital came to shake the hand of a convoy member and thank him for coming to Gaza.

Not long after I arrived, a doctor told our man he could be discharged, so I hung around and we walked back to the cultural centre together, arriving just as the meeting ended and the audience spilled out onto the steps and the street below. Within two minutes of getting there, I was surprised to hear my name being called by two Palestinian boys nearby. I was amazed to discover that these were Gazan students who had joined my Facebook group and had been following the convoy’s journey online. Knowing where we would be, they had come down to say hello and had recognised me from my profile picture!

We chatted and took pictures on the steps, and the boys presented me with a little enamel Palestinian flag badge. They then introduced me to their friends, who were all keen to thank the convoy for coming, as well as to explain that the solidarity shown in highlighting their cause and breaking the siege was what they really needed even more than the aid itself, however valuable that was. They stressed again that they do not want the world to see them as a charity case, but as a dignified people wronged by great powers and fighting with principle for their rights.

There were so many conversations going on on the steps of the cultural centre that it was impossible to focus on just one for any length of time. People were flitting around, greeting each other excitedly and trying to cram as much interaction as possible into an all-too-brief hour. Before we knew it, buses were leaving for the hotels and we had to rescue our luggage and say goodbye to our new friends. Then it was back to hotels for showers and a rest before calling up a friend who had promised to take us out and show us a bit of Gazan nightlife.

When we finally got out again, the town was strangely quiet. We soon discovered why. Sitting in a nearly empty caff eating shwarma and houmous, we heard on the radio that Israel was at that very moment dropping bombs just a couple of miles away. Israel regularly targets other parts of the strip, but this was the first time since last year’s bombardment that anything had been dropped on the city itself. As several Palestinians remarked to us: “Israel has prepared a warm welcome for you.”

Intial reports indicated that no-one had been hurt, but we heard later that three people had been killed and another badly wounded. We also heard about a 17-year-old boy who had been crippled for life by an Egyptian bullet in the back that he received while waiting for the convoy to arrive at the Rafah border.

So we went back to our hotel, to sit up drinking tea, smoking and talking; reluctant as ever to go to bed and miss out on anything interesting, despite being ridiculously tired. When we finally turned in around 3.00am, we had been promised that coaches would collect us at 8.00am to take us on the tour of the strip we’d missed out on the day before, but it was not to be. The next morning, we had fresh orders: Egypt was threatening to re-arrest the seven convoy members who had been released as part of the deal struck the morning after the fighting in El-Arish, and we were all being evacuated post-haste to the border while embassies were contacted and fresh negotiations started.

So before we knew it, after just one day in Gaza, we were on our way back to the border, with no chance to say goodbye to any of our new friends, to look around at the city or the rest of the strip, or to meet up with any of the other contacts we had been provided with before we arrived. It was just one more part of Egypt’s petty revenge on the convoy, but, frustrating as it was to be forced to leave again so soon, nothing could take away from the reception we had been given by the Palestinians or change the fact that the siege HAD been broken, and Egypt’s role in that criminal blockade had been laid bare before the world.

Things we have learned since the last things:

1. Even though they’ve already been waiting for days and most of the convoy has now passed, some lovely souls will still wait out in the middle of the night to greet every last vehicle. This is very cheering to those poor fools at the back who have managed to miss all the fun and fanfare of the big arrival at Rafah.

2. If you’re tired enough, and have a chair to sit on, it is impossible to bring yourself to care whether you have a bed for the night or not at 3.00am. If someone offers you a cigarette and a cup of tea, you will quite happily wait another hour in the hope that someone else has the energy to sort the situation out.

3. For a war zone, Gaza is really amazingly peaceful and civilised, and its resilient people are embarrassingly hospitable. Convoy members who made it to the camps reported that even there, in the midst of tremendous poverty, the people were exceptionally friendly and plied them constantly with food and drink.

4. In trying to dehumanise the Palestinians, Israelis have only succeeded in dehumanising themselves. In the face of intolerable difficulties, Palestinian society is remarkably cohesive and smoothly-run. Meanwhile, the Israeli army tells its soldiers that Palestinian babies are enemies in waiting who deserve no mercy and deliberately targets their schools, hospitals, mosques and homes.

5. In Palestine, it is really true that ‘Existence is resistance!’

6. A visit to a Gaza hospital will show you why Palestinians need medical aid in particular. Even the main hospital in Gaza city is pretty-well empty of all the usual equipment and sanitation aids you expect to see in a modern medical establishment. A single room consists of a bed, a stool or two and a basin, but the walls are clean and the floor is swept.

7. Simple steps to outing a discreet minder: wander off somewhere without telling anyone; force minder to locate you; minder will then have to get others to translate in order to find out what the flip it is you think you are doing wandering off.

8. It turns out Hamas minders are exceptionally sympathetic and cooperative. Although clearly itching to get us back to where we were supposed to be, ours very politely waited around for hours while we gossiped in the hospital. He wasn’t even cross when we gave him the slip and finally wandered back to the meeting without him.

9. Despite a lack of high-end medicines and medical equipment to treat complicated surgical or acute medical cases, and despite having no access to advanced levels of training, the Gazan medical establishment does somehow continue to function. Every doctor and nurse we met was friendly and helpful, and determined to continue with their work.

10. When visiting a sleeping patient, polite people tend to sit quietly and read a book. Those less skilled in the art of self-effacement, on the other hand, will barge in, shake the patient awake, invite all and sundry inside, and proceed to turn the hospital room into a party zone. It is a moot point which of these approaches is more appropriate.

11. As I may have mentioned before, unexpected presents are the best, especially when given by new friends. Some of the little things I have been given on this trip have more significance to me than most of the contents of my house.

12. It is embarrassing to be called a hero when all you have done is take advantage of your privileged position as someone from the imperialist world to have a slightly extended holiday and visit some interesting places and people on the way to a destination that is denied to the millions who ought to be living there, but apparently open to the rest of the world.

13. The hassles we went through in getting our aid to Gaza were as nothing compared to the tribulations faced by Palestinians every day. They welcomed us as heroes, but no-one on the convoy was in any doubt as to who the real heroes are.

14. Despite all the attempts to divide, dishearten and demoralise us, there is no-one on the convoy who wouldn’t love to go back to Gaza.

Joti 2 Gaza Facebook group
Let Us Study Facebook group

Convoy members taking photos overlooking the sea.

Dazed and confused: no-one told us it would be so bright and beautiful here!

Speakers on a platform with photographers and a man waving flags.

Galloway addresses a rally at the ruined Legislative Council building in Gaza city.

Close-up of twisted metal rods sticking out of the ground.

Builings have bones: much of the rubble has been cleared away since last year's bombardment, but there are lots of half-ruined buildings showing innards like these.

Two Palestinian students.

My Facebook friends!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Éanna permalink
    24 January 2010 9:09pm

    good stuff Joti, really well written!!!!

  2. Sari permalink
    9 March 2010 12:14am

    Dear Joti , Palestine & Gaza are proud to have a lovely friend like u

    ur writing is clearly showing the deep effect of our case & life on u , in addition to ur love.

    I wish to see u soon in Gaza inshALLAh.

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