Gaza Diary – Day 5 & 6 – Palestinian Gandhis, Refugee Camps and Goodbyes

Thursday 17th June

After a needed lie-in, we met together and headed to our friend Amani’s house for more food and more laughs. We were sad to leave them, as they truly are a one in a million family! But after this we drove to Jabaliya refugee camp, the largest in Gaza. It seems bizarre to talk about refugee camps, since 80% of Gazans are refugees anyway, but these camps are something to behold. They are truly the most densely populated strips of land on the earth’s surface. Jabaliya is 1 km by 1km, yet holds 120,000 residents. It is a jungle of concrete blocks, interspersed with the occasional UN school. The playgrounds in these schools are quite literally the only open space, except for roads and a large crater which in fact used to be a water well; it was here that Israeli soldiers in 1967 lined up all the men of the camp and infront of them all, shot dead around a dozen.

Jabaliya is also host to Al- Fakhoura school: a UN school which was famously photographed being rained down on by white phosophorous during the massacre. We met a resident who had been jailed for being a member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a secular, Marxist group. For this crime, he spent 15 years in an Israeli jail. We then went into the house of a refugee who’s family had been in the camp for more than 50 years. He was jailed in 1991 for participating in the nonviolent intifada (uprising) which had started at this very camp. He was tried in an Israeli military court, and was not released until 1999. Here was the one of thousands of Palestinian Gandhis, who had rotted in Israeli jails whilst the world declared that peace between Israel and Palestine was imminent; away from their homes and families for years, with no celebrity advocates, no stadium concerts in their aid. It was sadly a stark example of Gandhi’s Satyagraha (nonviolence) failing miserably.

It was also interesting to find out more of Gazan politics. During the 1970s and 80s, the PFLP were strongest in Jabaliya, as well as influencial throughout Gaza. We spoke to adults who had said that during this time, you would not have seen any difference in fashion and culture from London to Gaza city. Many people wore jeans, western clothing, and secular groups like the PFLP were popular. Yet our experience of Gaza in 2011 was altogether different: religion and religious parties were dominate, culturally and socially the society was conservative. This change has come about due to political reasons, not tradition or culture per se. It was the disastrous decision by secular groups such as Fatah and the PFLP to join in the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, and effectively become collaborators with the occupation, that paved the way for the religious groups to become the leaders of the resistance. It was only groups like Hamas who refused to participate in the ‘peace accords’, and this is the crucial reason they won the 2006 Palestinian elections. Of course with this rise to power they brought their only ideological and cultural baggage, which is what has shaped Gazan society of late. Extremely interesting, and another example of how colonialism interferes with the cultural, political, and social development of colonies and oppressed peoples.

Our Palestinian Gandhi talked about the early days of the camps. When the UN made the racist decision that it would not help Palestinian refugees return to their homes in Israel (the only refugee group in the world denied this), the UN set up UNWRA, an agency to deal specifically with the Palestinians. Hence why Palestinian refugee camps are not tents, but big breeze blocks of semi-permanent stature. During the early days these blocks had no bathrooms, just outhouses which whole streets would have to share. And since there is such little space, the only way to build is up. We went to the top of one such structure, about 8 stories tall. There was a stunning view of the area, and you got a sense of how densely populated the area is. How could Israel fire rockets into an area like this and claim it was hitting military targets? Complete madness! On one side you could see the brow of a hill, during the massacre Israeli tanks pulled up to this hill and fired tank shells into the camp.

After Jabaliya we headed to Beach camp. This is 0.5 km by 1 km and host to 80,000 refugees. Again, there was simply no space inside the camp, everything is squeezed together so there is no privacy, and the alleyways to get around are incredibly narrow. As one resident said, the only saving grace to this camp is the beach, which he said, “allows us to breathe”. On a side note, the Prime Minister of Palestine lives in this camp, it was an illuminating juxtaposition when compared with the Israeli government, whom have several ministers who live in settlements in the West Bank. During the massacre the electricity of the camp was cut, which left them literally with nothing. The Israeli navy fired missiles into the dense camp, and as a resident was describing it, I noticed a poster of a young guy on the wall. I asked the man who this was, and he described the story of how this guy, 23 years old (my age) died. During the massacre he went to the beach to collect sand in a water bottle, for a mud oven they were attempting to make in their home, since they had no electricity. An Israeli drone spotted him carrying a bottle of sand, and blew him to pieces. One assumes they thought this bottle of sand was a rocket. And just like that his family will never see him again.

After this we visited the first ever modern art gallery in Gaza, established in 2009. This date for this launch is symbolic, you can tell that art is a well used tool of resistance by Palestinians. Gandhi weaved his own clothes in defiance of the British, the Palestinian Gandhis paint the horror of their experiences, in defiance of the Israeli narrative that so dominates the political scene. The works were truly stunning, even for someone like myself who is not that engaged by art. And although many issues were covered in the art on display, you can see the influence of the massacre, and the occupation in general, is never far away.

After this we had a final meal at my good friend Dr Nazmi’s house. He is a Vice-President for the IUG, and his house was stunning. In fact, as we tucked into food in their garden as the sun set, we could have been in a nice boulevard in America. Then Nazmi’s father arrived, and I was frozen in awe of this man. He is 91 years old, and has struggle and resistance etched into his aged face. He has lived through British, Egyptian and  now Israeli occupation. He was dressed in the traditional Arab garments dating back centuries, and had vivid memories of the Nakba and the British occupation. He remembers how the British allowed Jews in Palestine to walk around with rifles, but “if a Palestinian was found with one bullet, he was thrown in jail.” He described how Gaza was full of Orange trees, but the British refused them to export. I was truly humbled by him, and for me he personified dignity in the face of such brutality.

After this we headed back to our homes for a final sleep.

Friday 18th June

It was a sad goodbye from where we started, at the Islamic University. We’d met some incredible people but, bundled into the car, we headed to the Rafah Crossing. It was another horrible experience; people lined up outside trying to get through, but being non-Palestinian we were waved through the first set of gates and found ourselves in the VIP lounge where we were just the other day. The Palestinians had our passports, and passed them over to the Egyptians. There need be nothing more to it, eight people crossing a land-border. Check the passports, scan the bags, simple. Three hours later we still heard nothing from the Egyptians. We heard that a couple of IUG academics had been turned away at the border. There was no reason for the delay other than the Egyptians teaching us a lesson in not coming to Gaza. Eventually, however, we were ushered through. The minute we stepped foot onto Egyptian soil we were surrounded by people begging for money. Yet 100 metres in the other direction was Gaza, an area with nearly 50% unemployment, and where we did not encounter a single person begging for money. I am writing this in our squeezed cars, with our wonderful drivers who have saved our lives again. The sun is setting over the Sinia desert, and right now I hate the Egyptian military with all my heart. I have the exact same feelings towards them as I did the first time I went through Ben-Gurion Airport. It’s the feeling of watching racism from the perspective of someone who does not suffer from it. However this is bigger than Egypt. Rafah is able to allow people and ambulances through, but not goods. The goods delivery crossings are all in Israel, so simply blaming Egypt isn’t enough. However I just feel sick that we have spent the week meeting people who are just like us in everyway, except their passport is Palestinian. With this cruel twist of fate they live 1% of the freedoms that we have. At the absolute bottom line that is plain wrong.

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