s a member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) involved in a Convoy as a partner to Viva Palestina, I fundraised with my Waltham Forest PSC branch for an ambulance which we filled with medical and educational aid. Our three woman crew took off on a grey 6th December morning with over 100 other vehicles on a 7000 miles long trip to Gaza. My plan was to stay and join a friend who was in Gaza with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an activist solidarity organisation supporting Palestinian peaceful resistance (www.palsolidarity.org).
We arrived in the early hours in Rafah and to everybody's enormous relief, crossed the border.
We feared until the last moment that the Egyptians would prevent us. The crossing looked deserted and I later learned why – the Egyptians keep it closed most of the time.
Since the blockade started almost three years ago, Rafah crossing epitomises the inhumanity the besieged Gazans are experiencing. There is no shortage of stories of seriously ill people desperate
for hospital treatment in Egypt waiting for days in Rafah with Red Crescent staff accompanying
them. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) last year 28 Gazans died while waiting to be allowed through and nobody was held accountable for these deaths.
We traveled to Gaza City in complete darkness. I had no idea at the time that Gaza's electricity
situation was dire and that there were prolonged power cuts in all of the Gaza strip around the
clock. I soon had to learn to organise my life around electricity and to get used to going to areas in complete darkness, apart from the car headlights, with children playing in the streets and life
going on as normal. Throughout the 35-kilometre long journey, uniformed men with machine
guns would appear from the shadows, some masked, and remind us that we were in a war zone, which could be attacked by Israel at any time.
In the evening, while sitting in the living room of the amazingly generous family of Mr Kamel Nassar who offered accommodation to more than 20 of us from the Convoy, we heard several loud explosions. When I asked what was gong on one of his daughters said 'Somebody has just been martyred, it happens all the time'. The next day sunny Gaza looked like any other pretty bustling Mediterranean town as we were driven to the welcome event hosted by the Gazan Legislative Council and the smiling and friendly Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Hannie.
If there could be one sentence that summaries my experience of Gaza so far, it would be ‘Nothing is as it seems'. I was pleasantly surprised to see beautiful modern buildings everywhere with trees lining the streets, but also witnessed the ruins of the destruction we had seen with such horror during the Israeli attack a year ago. I saw massive tangles of what used to be buildings which would appear suddenly in the middle of residential areas and even more shockingly right next to hospitals. Most of them were government buildings, such as the police station and the prison in Soraya in the centre of Gaza, which is now a massive pile of rubble and tangled iron, neatly prepared for recycling.
When I later met a senior officer of Gaza's Civil Defense, he told me that he was speeding by the Soraya prison on like a feather from the enormous pressure the blast created, ending up in hospital with many broken bones but lucky to be alive. On a closer look many buildings had broken windows and in some areas such as the one near Al Quds hospital, almost every apartment building had bullet marks or gaping holes where the rocket entered someone's flat.
Repairing the damage to buildings has been made as difficult as possible. Israel has decided to ban entry of cement and many other building materials on the basis that they can have a military use. To get around the ban the UN is building temporary homes from unfired clay, but seems to be powerless to persuade Europe and the West to take any action. Astonishingly, materials and spare parts for water and sanitation plants are also on the banned list. Consequently raw sewage is being pumped near the shore while destitute Gazans continue to fish for food and only about 10 percent of drinking water is safe to drink!
Nevertheless, walking through the main Saha market I thought that I had a better choice of quality fruits, vegetables, herbs and nuts than in many London supermarkets. Takeaways selling kebabs and falafel and pattiseries with attractive displays of sweet pastries are everywhere. There is no shortage of food for those who can afford it. But what about the 80 percent of Gazans who live under the poverty line? More than a quarter of Gazans have to limit the amount of basic food they buy because they cannot afford it.
Throughout its 1500 years long history Gaza has been known for its particularly fertile soil and its traveller described it as 'so rich in trees it looks like a cloth of brocade spread upon a land.' This is still the case to some extent. Following the dismantling of the Israeli settlements in 2005 when30 percent of the most fertile and water rich land was returned to Gazans, massive efforts have been made to use every bit of the land for agriculture. Gazans grow food and keep animals wherever they can. Many have kitchen gardens
and keep chicken and rabbits on the flat roofs of their homes and many fish for food in the sea.
In the villages all available land is planted with cereal wheats, fruits and vegetables but being a farmer is a very dangerous profession. Gaza strip is 45 kilometers long and 4-12 kilometers
wide and the bad luck to have a very long border with Israel going through the most fertile
land. Israel has decided that a 300 metre belt on the Palestinian side is a military no-go area which they are enforcing with live ammunition, but in reality farmers have been shot at while farming up to two kilometers away. As an ISM volunteer, I accompany farmers to those dangerous plots of land and on a number of occasions we have witnessed and filmed intensive and prolonged firing by the Israelis. According to PCHR there were 166 attacks in the border areas last year with 37 people killed, 69 injured and 26 properties destroyed. Fishermen receive similar treatment. They are forced to fish in a fish-free and polluted area near the shore and they are shot if they sail further.
Consequently Gaza’s 3500 fishermen catch only a third of the fishing quota, allocated to them under international agreements. Gaza's past has to a great extent been marked by thefact that throughout the centuries Gaza was an important transit and trading place on the crossroads of three continents.
In the midst of the blockade, this trading 'gene' became crucial for the physical survival of Gazans and it is keeping starvation at bay by ensuring that food and other basics flow into Gaza. This happens through a maze of about 1200 tunnels burrowed
under the border with Egypt which are a lifeline as well as a major source of jobs for thousands
of Gazans desperate to get any job while the unemployment rates are reaching 80 percent. The tunnels are also a major business for about 20 Gazan families which invest in their building and maintenance and a profitable outlet for the Egyptian economy. Some say that the benefit to the Egyptians is such that they are unlikely to open overland border crossings or obstruct the tunnels any time soon.
Many in Gaza worry about the building by Egypt of the wall with the metal section cutting deep into the ground and into the tunnels which would then be flooded. A friend frequently talks with fear about the return of times like those in mid-2007, when the siege started and before
the tunnels, when they had nothing, no food, no medicines, no petrol and no fuel for cooking.
'Tunnels saved our lives', he says. Others, including the Mayor of Rafah, are more optimistic and
believe that Egypt will never complete the wall, which they have only started building to pacify their major funder, the US. Throughout the night Gaza is restocked with fruits and vegetables, livestock, building material, furniture, cars cut in sections, motorbikes, petrol. Almost everything one sees in Gaza has travelled underground.
Gazans are used to finding ways to survive, but what seems to be the hardest thing for most of the people I meet is coping with the isolation and the lack of freedom to travel. After all being Palestinians and refugees, almost everybody's close family has been scattered around the world. Not being able to see their brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren is very painful. Life under siege is draining, many feel that their future is bleak and that they have no control over anything that affects them. But Gaza is not on its knees. The resilience, the optimism and the appreciation of good things in life is awe inspiring.
I am amazed and often overwhelmed with the number of people who want to socialise with us
and invite us as guests to their homes. Paradoxically, I recently walked alongside the beach and passed by a line of beautiful hotels and new ones being built. In spite of everything, Gaza is
preparing for a life of normality. Gaza is getting ready to welcome visitors and in my experience, there is so much that Gaza and Gazans have to offer to them.