Thursday 16 June
The morning started with the second of our oral Arabic classes with Karama from the IUG. It was very useful, and despite us being badly behaved students, learnt a lot of basic Arabic that we could try out at our next destination – the market.
We headed to a souk in the old city of Gaza, it was bustling, and just like any market you would see elsewhere in Palestine. I got a good taste of Arabic culture when a policeman who was helping us through the market came and chatted to me. As we were talking about football and Arsenal (of course!) he held my hand, fingers interlocking, as we continued our banter in broken English and my newly learnt Arabic phrases. There is a wonderful picture of the pair of us holding hands, looking like a newly-wed couple. Whilst chatting to him, like so many conversations I had, it transpired that during the massacre he had lost his brother, also a policeman, when Israel fired rockets into the station he worked from. Absolutely everyone we met had a family member murdered during the massacre.
During our visit of the souk we also walked past a one thousand year old mosque, and went inside an ancient Turkish bath, one of the oldest in the world. We really got a sense of how much of a history Palestinians have in this land, despite Zionist narratives to the contrary. We also stopped at an artist’s workshop. It was staggering. He had dozens of works on display, all of them created by simply burning a slab of wood. The pictures were truly stunning, it was hard to believe that they were done through the burning process alone. What an unbelievable talent, yet cruelly caged in like a bird, due to the siege. We also visited an embroidery shop, where traditional Palestinian clothing was made. It was beautiful but what impressed me the most was the cultural continuity that Palestinians have upheld, despite the Nakba and ethnic cleansing. So for example, the shop owner showed us dresses with traditional Palestinian design from Jaffa, Ashkelon and other Palestinian towns that were ethnically cleansed and now lie in Israel, barred for Palestinians to even visit. It showed the stupidity and racism that is embedded in the concept of the “two state solution” – as if Palestinians have no right to be a part of these lands that they have cultural, historic roots to. I could visit these towns next week if I wanted to; she, with her stunning designs dating back to her grandparents, cannot.
We then headed to an institute run for deaf people in Gaza. Their main work is organising workshops and production lines where deaf people can gain employment, the goods made varied from embroidery to ceramics. After a tour of the facility and purchasing some goods we met the director of the institute, who was also one of the biggest lawyers in Palestine, and had a fascinating discussion with him. He said that this organisation was proof that Palestinians don’t need aid, but political solidarity that will end the siege and gain freedom for Palestinians to look after themselves. He also made a piercing comment which will stay with me forever. It was a good metaphor for discussing the use of violence by the oppressed; “If you corner a cat, don’t get angry when it scratches you.” This theme of anti-colonial violence would continued later at Haidar’s house.
Our next stop was back to the UNWRA compound, meeting with Amani again and receiving a presentation from one of the staff members, herself a refugee. We then visited the site which was destroyed by Israeli fighter jets during the massacre. The site was a large warehouse for food, to be distributed to some of the poorest people in Gaza (today was also the UN announcement that Gaza officially has the highest unemployment rate in the world – 45% of working adults). The UN give all governments the coordinates to every one of their facilities in the world. At first Israel claimed it was simply a mistake, then they claimed their satellites had spotted someone running through the compound. Two points were raised here – one is that the compound has tight security, as we witnessed. The second was that modern military satellites are so powerful that they can read the time on a person’s watch – if the person was armed they would have known – yet no evidence of this was given (or even claimed). The warehouse was completely destroyed, we stood in the site, which is now used as a car park. Yet again another solid example of the urgent need for boycott campaigns to attempt to hold Israel to account in the face of this international intransigence.
After this we headed to our friend Amani’s house for an incredible lunch. It was the finest Palestinian food has to offer and we were completely stuffed. Her family are really incredible. Her father is a refugee, brought up in Gaza, however Amani’s mother is from the West Bank. They married before the siege, and spent some time in Libya (where Amani was born) before settling the family in Gaza. Since the siege Amani’s mother has been unable to meet her family in the West Bank, it was heartbreaking to hear that one of her brother’s had died, and to this day she cannot even see his grave, let alone visit her family. Amani has never met her uncles and aunts from that side of the family. In fact an uncle she has never met before from Libya had arrived just the other day, managing to slip through the siege.
Again we got a taste for life in Gaza, as midway through the meal the electricity cut out.
As we relaxed in their sitting room, Amani’s father began describing the family’s experience during the massacre. He described it as worse than hell, you simply did not want to be alive during that time. With such a wonderful family, god knows how a parent could endure that continuous bombardment for over three weeks. A tank was positioned near their apartment block, and Amani described how stink bombs were launched at their house, an unbearable smell that forced them to move to their Grandma’s apartment which was not facing the street.
The family were so much fun, and we had great fun there, especially with her sisters Hanadi and Sameera. Sameera is extremely intelligent, and speaks near fluent English (she is only a first year English student). Hanadi is hilarious, the youngest sister, and spent most of the time taking the mick out of me and Soren in particular!
Our stay there was sadly cut short, and we headed to a youth centre called the “House of Wisdom”. Here we had a brilliant meeting with student activists from different universities in Gaza. They have launched a group called the Palestinian Youth Advocacy Network (PYAN) and we received an interesting presentation about their work of improving their advocacy work and how they present the Palestinian cause to the rest of the world. We had in-depth discussions about advocacy, how we could work together, and the boycott movement. We met some seriously good activists who we are hoping to work with for years to come.
After this we held an interview back at the Islamic University, then from there to Haidar Eid’s house for dinner. This was another great opportunity to talk about Palestinian politics in-depth, as well as the boycott work from inside the Palestinian HQ as it were. We had a fascinating discussion about violence. Despite being one of the leaders of a mass non-violent boycott movement internationally, Haidar held the right of the oppressed to use violence to liberate themselves as a key principle that Palestinians had a right to. It is interesting that we can read about the independence movements in Africa and Latin America, where the use of violence was a standard part of the movement, and not blink an eye-lid. Yet at the mention of Palestinian violence, the huge international racism towards them holds that they must not use violence for their freedom. For Haidar it was a question of what method tactically worked best at what time. Regardless of tactical questions however, he held that the right of oppressed peoples, including Palestinians, to use violence for their freedom, was an important principle to be defended. He gave examples. When Nelson Mandela was released, in his first speech to his people, he re-stated that the armed struggle must continue, despite negoitations with the apartheid regime taking place. In Sweden’s constitution, it is stated that if militarily occupied, Swedish citizens have an obligation to arm themselves to defend the country’s freedom.
We were also treated to a musical performance by Haidar’s young son, I had never seen this instrument before, it looks like a xylophone by with dozens of strings, rather than chimes. It is almost like a harp on its side, and the sound was beautiful. From here we headed to a seaside café; an academic who was with us at Haidar’s was driving us and told us how his father was the mayor Ashkelon before it was ethnically cleansed during the Nakba in the 1948. His family owned a huge amount of land in Ashkelon, which he now cannot even visit.
This again highlighted for us the crucial importance of the right of return for refugees. This isn’t some abstract, politically-indoctrinated, unreasonable demand imposed on poor little Israel. This is absolutely at the heart of the oppression and racism Palestinians suffer. Just like I may one day like to live in Brighton, where my grandparents lived, worked and socialised, so Palestinians want the opportunity to do the same. This man’s father was the mayor of a big town in Palestine, of course he should want to return to that town to discover his family history. Even more so since, unlike my family, his were forcibly removed from their home town through terrorism and coercion.
After tea at the café we sleepy headed back to our homes in preparation for what would be our last day.