Wednesday 15 June
The day started with the formal signing of the statement of friendship between IUG student council and Goldsmiths Students’ Union. From there I met with Nazmi and Husam, two senior members of the university, to discuss academic cooperation we could achieve between the two institutions. It was also an opportunity for me to know a bit more about them both.
Just the day before, Nazmi had been traveling through Gaza meeting children who had been orphaned during the massacre. It was part of a program the IUG were setting up, encouraging orphaned children to consider entering higher education. The statistics were shocking; over 20,000 orphans in Gaza, 1, 870 (almost 10%) had been orphaned during the massacre. Nazmi, as we were to find out on the last day, was one hundred percent Gaza.
Husam, however, like 80% of people living Gaza, was not. He was originally from Majad, a Palestinian village near Ashkelon, now in Israel. When he was younger he was able to go visit his village and the huge amount of land his family owns there. As an adult he had bought land near the Gazan border with Israel, he now has no access to it since Israeli snipers shoot at people who get close to the border, yet regardless of this the Israelis have since destroyed his land anyway. He described how he used to tend the land after work as a past-time and how his two storey house on the land had been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. The sniping of farmers on land near the border continues to this day. Husam also described how his brother had gone to a wedding in the town of Beit Hanoun, a town very close to the border; Israeli snipers had fired at the wedding congregation and people were literally crawling on the ground to escape the bullets.
Again I was reminded of the arguments against the academic boycott of Israel, claiming it threatens “academic freedom”, yet Husam told me that just last week eight American academics who had been scheduled to meet with the IUG had been denied entry into Gaza. Academic freedom indeed.
After this we headed to a fairly new university in Gaza, the University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS). It was an inspiring visit, we had a great meeting with students at the university, discussing cooperation and general political issues. They showed us an animated video created by one of their students; in some ways it is similar to Goldsmiths, the students have real creativity. We got to visit a workshop where some interesting mechanical works were displayed, and was given a tour of the campus which included getting on the roof of one of their large buildings. Here one of the students pointed out the border with Israel in the distance, and small orange blobs in the air near the wall. They were air balloons, we were told, which Israel had deployed on the border with sensors which would fire at Palestinians who went too close to the border. The most innocent of objects as an air balloon, turned into a killing machine to enforce racism and occupation.
It was here that I got talking to one of the students, Ayman, who was one of the few lucky students that had managed to get out of Gaza last year to fulfil a scholarship in the UK. I was surprised to hear that he exited via Eretz crossing – through Israel. He told me it had been arranged by the British consulate in Jerusalem. Being the racist state that Israel is, Ayman was not allowed to use the airport, barely one hour’s drive away from Gaza; in fact he was not allowed to step foot in Israel at all. He had to be escorted the entire journey through Israel to the West Bank and from there to the border to Jordan (again controlled by Israel) until he could finally get to Amman airport.
During his time in the UK Ayman did advocacy work for Palestine, including speaking at the House of Commons. On his return to Gaza, again via Eretz, he was detained and questioned by the Israeli authorities. They produced to him a list of every single meeting he had spoken at during his time in the UK, and accused him of “delegitimising Israel”. Apparently this spying of Palestinians abroad was standard operating for Israeli secret services. Regardless of the intimidation and extensive spying however, Ayman said to them that he if went back again he would do the same; so they put him in a cell for three days.
Finally we headed to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) compound for the opening ceremony of their summer games, a sports event for youngsters. UNWRA symbolises the international racism that Palestinians suffer from, since UNWRA is for Palestinian refugees only, since every other race of refugees the UN helps return to their homes. UNWRA does not do this, however it does provide a lifeline for refugees who would otherwise be homeless, education-less, food-less and much more. I really enjoyed the ceremony, despite some pockets of typical Western-NGO arrogance, there were some fantastic performances including Debka, break-dancing and a flag waving opening.
We ended the day at Rawad’s place, we got to meet his family and stood on his rooftop watching an eclipse over the skyline of Gaza. It made me think of how wonderful a place Palestine could be, how painfully ironic it was that so much turmoil and oppression should be found here. As we looked over Gaza you could see a bustling, dense city, right next to the beach. One hour away to the East you could be in Bethlehem, one and a half’s hour drive you could be in the beautiful valleys of Nablus, an extra 30 minutes from here and you could be in the Dead Sea. Drive South and you’d quickly hit the huge Negev desert. Drive half an hour north and you could be in the ancient city of Jaffa, a bit further on and you’d be in Haifa with its bustling port. Such a beautiful country, such an ugly reality.