(These are thoughts, some fully formed – many rambling, most disjointed. It is a bit all over the place, but it is what I have for now.)
Gaza has been on my mind, in my heart and in my plans for years- like all of Palestine. But I never could quite get there. My first time in Palestine coincided with the pull out of the settlers from Gaza so I couldn’t go. Since then I’ve tried to march there (Gaza Freedom March) and sail there, along the way meeting detention, sabotage, kidnapping and imprisonment. So this time was to be straightforward – permission secured from the Egyptian authorities…. After some wonderful days in Cairo wandering around, seeing the changes from being there during the Mubarak regime, when thousands of police and soldiers were deployed to stop a solidarity action with our Palestinian sisters and brothers in Gaza, chatting to, and being inspired by the revolutionaries; we headed for Rafah. We being my friends and comrades from Gaza Action Ireland, which was formed by Irish activists who were involved in Irish Ship to Gaza both on board the MV Saoirse and as shore team. The aim of the group is to highlight and help undermine the illegal Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Watching the sun come up driving through the Sinai felt unreal, in fact nothing felt real until we got into Gaza which felt more real than almost anything I’ve ever experienced. At the Rafah crossing the mayhem and delays that people are put through were patent. It is outrageous that people living in Gaza have no way of their own to exit their country and that they can’t get into the rest of their country, it is criminal. We had a couple of hairy hours there as there was some issue with our paperwork and three of us were told initially that we couldn’t cross into Gaza. Having had very little sleep and having so much invested emotionally in this, I was totally freaked out until, thanks to our friend Claudia, we eventually got our clearance. We used some shekels that we had been given by Irish embassy staff when in Givon prison in Israel in 2011 to pay some of our taxi fare from Rafah, I sure enjoyed spending them that way.
Our purpose in going to Gaza was to create links with civil society groups there with the intention of raising awareness of the effects of the siege in Ireland and also doing what we can to help break the isolation that people are being deliberately subjected to. The visit was also to inform ourselves so that we can be better advocates in Palestinian solidarity. Personally, every time I’ve been to Palestine I’ve come back invigorated and determined to do my best to support the Palestinian struggle. This time will be no different I guess.
While there we were busy, we met the PNGO, members of the BNC (Boycott National Council), Al-Helal football club, people from the UNRWA medical teams, the Palestinian Olympic Committee, the fisherman’s union, artists, paramedics, playwrights, friends and of course our wonderful hosts the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).
Before going, I found it hard to visualise life going on in Gaza amid the terrible war crimes perpetrated by Israel on the people there. It was the same before I visited Al Quds and the West Bank, I couldn’t imagine ‘normal’ life amid the checkpoints, the wall, the apartheid. It’s so far from our privileged experience living in Ireland that even though you know it, read it, hear it all the time, it’s difficult to get your head around. That’s one of the most inspiring things about Palestine, and this was brought home to me again in Gaza – the people are so unbelievably resilient. There is so much life and vibrancy, the history and culture of the place is striking. Visiting the museum, walking the streets, seeing the hustle and bustle in the main square, Gaza comes to life and boy is it great. The minute I got to the city I smelled Palestine, a smell I love, I saw Palestine, a country I love and I met Palestinian people, a people I love and admire so much.
Something that came up a lot in conversations and in meetings was that people there do not want Gaza to be seen or represented as a separate entity – it is as much part of Palestine as Jerusalem, Nablus, Bethlehem… I guess being part of a group called Gaza Action Ireland, we could be construed as solely Gaza focused but we are in solidarity with the people of Palestine, all of Palestine. The blockade and Israel are what attempt to set Gaza apart from Palestine but just as the people there resist that, so must we all. To me it is everything, Jerusalem, West Bank, Gaza – all of Palestine from ’48.
Before I sailed on the flotilla in 2011, I visited the parts of Palestine I could get to as I knew I would get a 10 year ban if picked up on the Saoirse. My main impression then, even more than on a previous visit, was of how Israel is trying to divide Palestine into three separate entities and make it impossible for the people in the different parts to be with each other, to be unified. The opinion was expressed often that Israel wants to push Gaza into the Sinai, the West Bank into Jordan and to cleanse Jerusalem. What we also heard time and time again was that they are going nowhere, this is their land and they will stay, they will resist and apartheid will end. This is the will, the sumoud, the resistance that makes the Palestinians so strong and underlines how, despite this decades long and brutal occupation, they continue to live, to breathe, to love, to exist. Sumoud is my favourite Arabic word, it shows me the soul of the Palestinian struggle.
There is hope, there is immense strength but there is also terrible pain and suffering, all imposed by apartheid Israel. At our first meeting with our hosts the PCHR, the director Raji Sourani gave a talk that would grab you by the throat. Burning with the injustice of it all, he outlined the brutality and inhumanity of the siege, describing the restriction of movement, war crimes, the prevention of the sewage treatment system being repaired, the disaster that is the water situation and so many more examples of Israel’s barbarity. He likened the situation the people of Gaza have been put in to Animal Farm, this is very resonant to me as I have long felt that what is being perpetrated on Gaza is a cruel and brutal social experiment. For sure weapons are tested on the people there too. The evidence of the most recent Israeli attack on the Strip is everywhere, as is that of the murderous 22 days of 2008/09.
On our last morning we saw the shell of a house that was bombed during the last attack on Gaza, the owner of the house had gotten a call from the Israeli military telling him his house was about to be bombed, he got his family out but didn’t have time to warn his neighbours and five people were killed. This kind of state terrorism is routine, straight from the apartheid playbook. In Rafah there is a mini museum to the November assault with some graphic pictures of the dead and injured. One picture really struck me, it is of an old man sitting in the midst of rubble, gripping his walking frame and looking utterly lost – it is heart wrenching.
So, while I am happy to have experienced and to write about all the vibrancy in Gaza, I can’t gloss over how all-pervasive the siege is, how it impacts almost every aspect of people’s lives. There are so many instances, so many stories of how the last attack, or the one before that or the blockade, hurt people, harm their lives. From the dire medical situation, the high rates of anaemia among children and pregnant women, the unemployment, the students studying whole years without books, the siege damages and blights lives and it has to end.
Meeting with the fishermen at Gaza Seaport was powerful, their experience is so raw and their job so elemental. Through their spokesman Zakaria Bakr, they told us of how they are subject to constant terrorism by apartheid Israel. Their boats are routinely thrashed, they are beaten, detained and shot and have seen their livelihoods decimated. We met a man who had been shot by the Israeli navy, detained and then dumped on the road two days later, left to crawl back to his home from Erez untreated. These men come from long, proud traditions of fishing and just want to fish safely, freely and with dignity. What kind of abnormal situation prevails whereby people are prevented from going about their daily lives by brutal military assault? How is it possible for this to happen, to continue? I honestly believe that if people outside the solidarity community realised the extent of the violence of Israel’s actions against the Palestinian people, they would be campaigning for this to end. The media just gives skewed snapshots with the Palestinian narrative painted out and then goes away again until they report on the another Israeli atrocity- all through the prism of ‘balance’ of course.
The setting of Gaza Seaport was especially resonant as it was where the MV Saoirse would have sailed into. Fintan Lane GAI co-ordinator had been sailing alongside the Mavi Marmara when Israel murdered nine of its crew in 2010, the monument to those nine men there is a real testament to solidarity .
Meeting the kids of the Al-Helal football club was sweet and lovely – they presented us with mini jerseys and we watched them training. Earlier that day we had watched some of their senior team’s match where the Israeli settlements used to be. Going to matches is something I do a lot, and with the sun shining, this was an idyllic setting –that’s part of what makes Gaza so difficult to process. There is so much ‘normality’, so much of people trying to live as best they can, yet it is in the context of this totally abnormal and crippling siege. The dissonance is big. Israel’s aim is to stop all the ‘normal’ stuff, to make it impossible, yet watching the kids running around, the people strolling through the city square, the life of it all, you realise they can’t make it impossible, the Palestinians won’t let them. This is “we teach life sir” country and it has power.
There’s so much more to report, meeting the incredible human rights defenders, the young BDS activists, meeting new friends – all of it was intense, informative and rewarding. I loved being brought around, breaking bread, having arghile and chatting to people. We went to the reading of a play, Tales of a City by the Sea, by Samah Sabawi and a brilliant questions and answer session afterwards, we walked the beach and watched the fishing.
It’s hard to know what will happen, the prevailing view of people we spoke to was of short term pessimism but long term optimism. The imminent situation there is dire and precarious, the Israeli war machine is unpredictable but global solidarity is growing and the people’s will is unbreakable. All I know for certain is that those of us who are privileged to live in safety, who have the choice to move, to be secure, to go there but to leave – we have to do our very best, work as hard as we can to support the Palestinian struggle, to campaign hard, to work for BDS because this has to end.
Being in Gaza was my dream, it was beautiful, it was shattering. The people we met were so great, I am honoured to have met them and overwhelmed by their kindness and courage. My friends and comrades on this journey are brilliant, they are fun and funny and good. One of the most positive things about being part of this movement is the people you meet along the way – I guess it comes from walking in solidarity with the very best of people.
But Gaza is also grim, it is hard, it is beyond my imagination and a visit is just that and I returned to my safe life with all that entails. The siege is brutal and the isolation from the rest of Palestine and the world wrong, the very concept of it is cruel and twisted. You wonder how the people can bear it but they do. They have sumoud.