It’s certainly not what I expected and I don’t really know what I did expect. Not this though. Beautiful sandy beaches with that mediterranean feeling to them and waves that any potential tourist region would be crying out for. And then you have the ‘Gaza’, the Gaza that the western media focus wholly on, the war-torn, besieged, bombed out, concrete jungle of fear, resentment, sense of forgotteness and utter isolation from the rest of the world.
The contrast of these two worlds that is merged together on this 42 kilometer strip of land is mind boggling. Life & destruction, an abundance of resilience and yet a sense of being burned out at the same time, development and de-development on the same street corner.
After two weeks in Gaza it feels a little like being thrown into the epicenter of one of the beautifully powerful waves that line the coastline of this hellish paradise and being smashed against the coarse sand only to be spat out the other side with a sense of calmness and the feeling of the warm Palestinian sun on my head.
The incredible welcoming I have received here in Gaza is not comparable with any other that I have received in any part of the world.
I have been shown Gaza from as many angles as one extremely complex piece of land can have. I have met with copious amounts of human rights, women’s, children’s, arts, sports and cultural groups from international to local perspectives. I have been introduced to political leaders and grass roots supporters from the main parties that exist in this part of Palestine and met those in favor militant and non-violent resistance to the occupation. I have even made it into the much talked about tunnels that many people here see as the only life line they have with the outside world.
As a small group from Ireland who came to run a marathon or two and support a children’s summer initiative and a freedom of movement project, we have been unable to achieve our original goals. The marathon was cancelled in Gaza due to disagreements between the UN agency that provides much of the support to the refugees in Gaza, UNRWA and the current Hamas government. Following this disappointment we were then unable to make the small trip from Gaza to Bethlehem to participate in the second ‘freedom of movement’ marathon because Israel closed the borders to internationals and more importantly to a group of elite Palestinian athletes who had been training to compete in the event. This event took place today, Sunday 21st in the West Bank just 70k away from Gaza city. ‘Hey, this is life here in Gaza my friends, what do you expect?’ is what we were told by the race favourite, Nader Al Massri who was denied access to run in the first ever West Bank sports event of its kind. Rather than feeling victimized around people who choose to see themselves as survivors, we have kept ourselves as busy as possible during our time in what many describe as the worlds largest open air prison.
We have witnessed some truly harrowing and hugely inspiring examples of life under siege and experience feelings of great empathy, anger, frustration and honest fear at times.
Evidence of the last military invasion of Gaza which took place less than six months ago is everywhere. It seems like every inch of the strip was attacked by air, sea and ground from every angle. The concrete rubble and metal from the buildings that were bombed litter the streets and reconstruction is everywhere you look. What is not visible from the streets however is the impact of the colossal loss of life and pain caused by grief of whole family’s being wiped off the face of the earth or those lying in beds in half broken buildings with mental and physical injuries from a senseless military onslaught which the world mostly turned a blind eye to.
We have been invited into so many family homes and asked to have breakfast, lunch, dinner or just cup of tea (chai in arabic) or arabic coffee and just sit and exchange conversations about life here and in our country. We are often asked the simple question of what we think about life in Palestine and those asking usually listen with great anticipation of what we have to say. I never know what to say to be honest. What do you say to people who have been cut off almost entirely from the rest of the world and who have been punished for electing a Government that the Western powers refuse to recognise or work with. Not to mention the constant bombardment of their towns and villages by F16 fighter jets, apache helicopters, tank and naval attacks.
This evening when sitting with a group of local UN staff who had invited us to one of their homes to eat dinner with them and meet their family, I was hit by a question from the younger brother of our host. He was quiet for most of the evening and clearly just listening to what was being said. Their was a lot of banter going on and as he was not engaging much I made the assumption that his English was not so strong. When he asked me his question and then explained what he wanted to do in University and with his life in Palestine I realised that his English was in fact very good and he was simply waiting for a good time to get his question off his chest.
He asked me what we were here in Gaza to do and if we had come to help his people, he looked me square in the eye and asked me how could we help the people of Palestine and Gaza. ‘How can you help lift this siege?’
I go to sleep tonight confused, without giving this 15 year old boy an answer.
How can we assist in the lifting of this siege of a people who have had enough and deserve more?