Monday 13 June
After a decent night’s sleep (finally!) we headed to the Islamic University of Gaza for a grand welcoming from the faculty staff and student council. It was great to finally meet the students who I had good friendship with yet had only ever met via email or Skype! After this we had a tour of the campus. It is very beautiful, large buildings with nice architecture, but as you turn a corner you see the devastation from the massacre. In the middle of the campus is a huge crater, as deep as two persons. This was the engineering, medicine and science building, hosting many labs, which was completely destroyed by Israeli fighter jets. It is a particularly upsetting sight given the beauty that surrounds it. I spoke to one of the students, Mohammed, an incredibly friendly, smiley guy who I really bonded with. He’s the kind of person that you could not imagine without a smile on his face. He told me how he was studying engineering at the time of the massacre, but since the building was destroyed he had to drop it and now does English literature instead. Next to this crater is the library, half of which was destroyed during the bombardment. There is scaffolding up as it slowly gets repaired. I remembered that it has been over two years since the massacre, yet given the state of the area it could have happened last week; Israel to this day is still not allowing cement in to repair buildings. We went into a large hall which was also bombarded, though some repairs have taken place here. I was told that they hold their graduation ceremonies here; how barbaric to target something as innocent as this.
After this we headed to the International Red Cross Centre, where there is a memorial area for prisoners. Another heartbreaking sight, so many pictures of young men who had been in Israeli jails for years; someone for 35 years. All of them tried in a military court in Israel: if they had done something wrong why were Israel scared of a fair civilian court? The Red Cross staff were strictly impartial and weren’t willing to delve into much at all, however we found out that Israel had not been allowing families to visit their loved-ones in jail. The best the Red Cross could do was pass on messages from families. I shuddered at the thought of spending decades in a rotten prison in the Negev desert, without even having family visits.
From this quick visit we then headed to Al-Aqsa university. We were greeted by a Vice-President, who described how Israeli tanks had come right up to the building we were sitting in, and how they had lost 15 students who were murdered during those three weeks of the massacre. In fact, he said that just yesterday the husband of a staff member had died from wounds he had got from the massacre over two years ago. There is a memorial for the 15 students outside, and the Vice-President, talking about the siege, pointed out that he had had 5 visas in recent years to go to Europe for academic visits. Every single time he had been denied exit from Rafah. This reminded me of the opponents of the academic boycott of Israel who state that such a boycott is an attack on “academic freedom”. Perhaps a military siege is more of a hindrance.
After this we headed back to the IUG where we had a meeting with the Student Council there. It was a fascinating meeting, we discussed detailed ways of cooperating, the image of Palestinians in the West, and much more. Despite the patriarchal conservatism of the institution, it was always the women, many wearing the Niqab, who contributed the most and raised issues. All in all it was a very productive meeting.
We headed to a beautiful restaurant for lunch then on to a youth centre where we met my hero Haidar Eid, an academic at Al-Aqsa, with his fellow members of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). Most excitingly, we were also joined by leading members of the Palestinian STUDENTS Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PSCABI). Haidar gave a fantastic speech, speaking with the confidence of Malcolm X and the righteousness of Nelson Mandela. The most exciting part of the meeting was talking with the PSCABI activists. It was really incredible to hear that one of the reasons for launching PSCABI was the wave of occupations in the UK after the Gaza massacre in support of the Palestinians. They are leading very important work, especially around getting artists to refrain from playing in Israel. Now we have made contacts we’re hoping to work very closely in the future. Before the meeting ended, Haidar reiterated the importance of boycott. He stated a truly chilling fact; when Operation Cast Lead began, at 11.25am, 28th December 2008, 270 people died in the first three minutes. By all accounts that is a massacre, yet there is no punishment for war crimes. If international law won’t hold Israel to account, then international civil organisations should.
After this meeting we visited Al Shifa hospital, the largest hospital in Gaza, and the busiest. It was a depressing visit. It’s accident and emergency ward holds 12 beds. During the massacre they were receiving 400 casualties per day. We stood in a corridor as the doctor described how bloodied people were simply lined up either side of the corridor. What is more, the Israeli army blew up a nearby mosque; the explosion shattered the hospital windows. The massacre took place in the dead of winter, so the hospital became freezing cold and since the siege banned glass from getting in, the windows could not be replaced. The doctor stated that child casualties double over the summer, since schools close and there are no playgrounds so many children play in the street and are hit by cars. As the doctor was talking I noticed a “martyr’s poster” on the wall. He was an ambulance driver shot dead by Israeli snipers.
Next was something more light-hearted. We went to the American Language Centre, organised by our good friend Amani, who works for UNWRA in Gaza, another ex-student from the IUG. She is a one in a million character, extremely chatty and bubbly, her perfect English making this all the more easier! The centre was a nice opportunity to chat to students informally and I had an opportunity to chat politics to my good friend and comrade Sameeha.
After this we headed to our respective family homes, I was lucky enough to be staying with my good friend Rawad, and the two of us met my friends Refaat and Mohammed; again the first time I had met friends face to face. We headed down the main shopping street in Gaza city. Due to the siege and the Israeli bombing of the only power plant in Gaza, electricity is in scarce supply and regularly cuts out for huge chunks of the day. Therefore the high streets are littered with small generators connecting shops to power when the electricity is shut down. It is the sound of a thousand lawnmowers, and means you can barely talk to each other when you are walking through the street. We walked past a decades old prison, destroyed during the massacre – many prisoners were killed and those who survived obviously escaped. We visited one of the few parks in Gaza, (I was reminded that this is the most densely populated region on earth) which was compact to say the least, and since the electricity was out we didn’t get to appreciated much since no lights were working. At the end is a water-fountain, it has stopped working. My friend Mohammed makes a cutting remark which will stay with me for a long time, “You see, everything in Gaza used to be”. We get food, talk resistance, Malcolm X and Orientalism, and then have a midnight chillout on the beach. When looking at the sea you are reminded that Gaza is in the real world, just suffering unreal injustice. Whatever image you have of Gaza in your head, that’s not it. It’s not a wasteland of destruction. It has nice shops, restaurants, hotels and of course nice universities. But it suffers terribly from infrastructure limits due to the siege. Garbage collection, hospitals, roads, electricity, all are incredibly under-resourced. Despite the devastation from military bombardment and the strangulation by the siege, everyone here continues to defiantly attempt a normal life. Earlier in the day we were told a phrase that came to my mind whilst looking at the sea: “Existence is Resistance”.