Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in Gaza

I'm back in Gaza. It's been almost a year since my last visit here and I don't quite know what to say or where to begin.

The situation has been terrible and dangerous in Gaza since my first visit in May 2004 (and much before). But each time there are new obstacles and difficulties for the ordinary people to overcome - military incursion, international sanctions, power outages, water shortages, closure - the list could go on for pages.

In May and August 2004 I came just after major Israeli military incursions that destroyed hundreds of houses and acres of orange groves and farm land. I can still picture Beit Hanoun in August 2004. The taxi driver stopped the car and I was sure that he had made a mistake and taken us to the wrong spot. I had been on the same street just a month and a half before and at that time both sides of the street were lined with houses and there were acres of orange trees behind the houses on the left. I was horrified when I recognized one of the houses that was left standing. The neighborhood was decimated.

Since August 2004 my visits to Gaza have been so infrequent that I can no longer be sure whether I have been to an area before. The landscape changes so drastically and the rubble from years of demolished houses, factories, and schools blend together; it's nearly impossible for my untrained eye to discern last week's destruction from last year's.

The long journey

I woke up early on Tuesday morning and phoned the liaison office at Erez Crossing which is run by the Israeli army. After five days my request had been approved so I arranged a ride to the crossing and packed my bags - stopping to get chocolate and cigarettes for friends in Gaza because both are now rare commodities with exorbitant prices.

I arrived at Erez at 2pm and submitted my passport to an Israeli police officer. They told me to sit and wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. There were only a handful of people crossing that day - a few foreigners who work at NGOs, a couple of Palestinians returning from meetings in Israel and the West Bank, and one or two journalists. They all came and went while I sat and read my book.

At 6pm I was finally able to speak with someone besides the woman behind the desk. He told me I didn't have permission but I insisted I did and showed him the call log on my cell phone that showed my phone call to Erez that morning. He sent me to another building to speak with someone from the army. The details aren't that important, just the absurdity of it as I went back forth between the army and the police. I was alternately told I had permission, I didn't have permission, I never applied and needed to send an application, and that I was talking to the wrong person. I was finally sent away at 7pm.

I came back the next morning and was allowed to enter. One woman from the liason office claimed there was a computer error on Tuesday and that everything was fixed now. I consider myself lucky to have been able to pass and to have gotten any kind of explanation, no matter how implausible. There are countless stories of Palestinians seeking medical treatment or wanting to travel for their studies or jobs and they are turned away again and again by Israel, locked inside Gaza with only a word of explanation: security.

First impressions

Most of my family and friends asked me not to come to Gaza. They saw the death tolls in the days leading up to my trip - 11 in 24 hours, 6 the next day including a mother and her children - and told me it was too dangerous. They're right. It is too dangerous in Gaza. Too many people have lost their lives: 290 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces in 2007 dozens more from internal fighting.

But, as always, life goes on. Just like life went on in Rafah after thousands of people were made homeless in 2004 for Israel to build a wall between Gaza and Egypt. And when sonic bombs terrified the population in 2005 because there were no longer Israeli settlers in Gaza who would have also been disturbed. And when the main power plant was bombed leaving much of the population without electricity and international sanctions increased the number of people living in poverty in 2006.

I have spent the past year reading articles and reports of human rights violations; rising poverty; shortages of food, medication, and other necessities; and many other horrors. These are an important part of the story but they are not the whole story. It's strange to say, but it's actually great to be here, surrounded by friends and co-workers, seeing a bit of the other side of life in Gaza. There is no doubt that the situation is hard for people and that they are suffering because of the policies of the Israeli government and the indifference of the international community, but people are making the best of these hard circumstances and I'm glad to be here to see it.

I'll post photos and stories later but need to stop here before the power goes out again.

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