4 February 2011 | Nathan Stuckey, International Solidarity Movement Gaza
After spending six weeks waiting in Cairo I entered Gaza two weeks ago. I never would have guessed that Egypt would explode so soon after I left. Congratulations to the people of Egypt. The trip from Cairo to the border at Rafah was uneventful; we weren’t stopped at a single military checkpoint. The border was easy, no questions from the Egyptians and the Palestinians only wanted to know where I would be staying, what I would be doing, and how long I would be here. They were very friendly.
Life in Gaza has been a bit surreal so far. On the day I arrived the ISM moved to the new apartments by the harbor. I share a nice two bedroom with a great sun porch with Adie, a British ISMer. The women live upstairs in a rather nicer three bedroom. It is a little strange to live on my own in Palestine, in the past I had always lived with local families. It is in an area with a lot of foreigners. The local stores are relatively well stocked, but everything is quite expensive, so most people really can’t afford to buy anything.
Drones and F16’s can often be heard in the air overhead. Thankfully, since I arrived, there haven’t been any strikes that I know of. Gaza is densely populated but the streets are very quiet. Unemployment is brutally high because of the siege, few imports, and exports are impossible, so you don’t see many cars or people on the street. They don’t have jobs to go to, and they don’t have any money to shop with.
The apartment has a generator, so it took me a few days to realize just how often there is no electricity in Gaza. If you don’t have a generator there is electricity for less than half the day, and you never know when you will have it. As part of the siege on Gaza, Israel limits the amount of electricity supplied to the region, they also bombed Gaza’s power plant during Cast Lead, Israel’s last major assault on Gaza, which further restricts residents from producing their own electricity. Not having electricity when you want it is a real pain; it definitely lowers productivity. Today our landlord came by and said that because the tunnels from Egypt were closed supplies of gas for the generator will be quite limited. No more hot water or refrigerator when the generator is running.
My first task in Gaza was going with Adie to teach the Samouni children English. Many of you have probably heard the story of the Samouni family. During Cast Lead the Israeli army herded the family into a house, and then shelled the house. Ambulances were not permitted to help the wounded. Twenty six members of the Samouni family were killed. You can read a longer account of their story here. The children are really cute and really eager to learn. It really wasn’t until my second visit that I began to notice all that was wrong with the picture. So many of them have missing limbs, disabilities, and massive scars which you don’t immediately notice. Amal, whose name means hope, has recently started failing her classes. She used to be a very good student, but after the massacre she can’t concentrate, she still has shrapnel inside her head. The missing fathers aren’t just away at work, not all of the brothers and sisters you see in family pictures are with us today.
Later that week I visited a family in Khuzzaa. Our guide was a 21 year old university student named Shathem. Her father was recently kidnapped by Israel during an incursion. She lives at home with her mother and sisters. One of her sisters is getting married soon, so the house is a whirl of activity. Khuzzaa is right next to the buffer zone, and Shathem’s family lives on the edge of the village closest to the buffer zone. Israel has declared that no one is allowed to come within 300 meters of the border, this is the buffer zone, violating the buffer zone is likely to get you shot. Of course, the buffer zone is on Palestinian land, not Israeli land, similar to the wall in the West Bank-annexing Palestinian land for “security.”
Unfortunately for the villagers, not only has Israel banned them from going to much of their land, the soldiers are not really a very good judge of distance. 300 meters, 500 meters, one kilometer, apparently all of it looks about the same when you’re looking through the sights of your M16. In Khuzzaa, the school is on the edge of the newly declared buffer zone. The soldiers shoot at the school. We met a young woman who had been shot in the knee on her way to school one morning. Her neighbors have been forced to put giant stone shutters on their windows to stop the soldiers’ bullets from coming into their living room. The town has erected 20 foot tall concrete blocks on the streets that face the border to stop the soldier’s bullets from killing even more people.
Over the weekend we went down to Faraheen to help a farmer who lives by the buffer zone. Most of his land has been lost to the buffer zone. We joined Jabur, his wife Leila, their son, their five daughters, and assorted cousins in planting onions in a field next to the buffer zone. It is easy to forget just how much work farming can be, a full day of crouching while I transplanted onions left me with two very sore legs. All day long the IDF wandered up and down the border with their bulldozers, and giant armored trucks, thankfully they never crossed the border. We had lunch at the house by the onion field that Jabur had to abandon because it was too close to the buffer zone. He has since moved into town, too much shooting at his old house.
Jabur’s wife Leila walks with a pronounced limp. As is far too common, at first I didn’t really notice, then, I assumed that maybe she has arthritis or something. It wasn’t until the second day that I noticed just how severe it was. It turns out that during the first intifada she had come upon some Israeli soldiers beating local children for throwing stones. She tried to intervene to help the children and one of the soldiers shot her in the hip. Hearing Leila’s story I was reminded me of a recent article on one of the first videos to shock people with the brutality of the occupation, you can read the article at Ha’aretz, or watch the video below. I am in constant shock at the number of scars and wounds from the occupation you see here. Often, at first, I don’t notice, then someone moves, or some skin exposed, and the endemic violence of the occupation is in front of you again.
The next day it was raining in the morning, so instead of planting more onions I taught two of Jabur’s daughters English. They were very competitive; they kept trying to distract each other as soon as I asked a question so that they could be the first one to answer it. They study English in school, but there are 43 students in each class, so learning a language is rather difficult, they obviously do not get much time to speak. Their vocabulary and reading skills are quite good though. About noon, the rain stopped, so back to the fields to plant more onions. That evening we came back to Gaza City and home sweet home. Going home was probably a very good idea, because I spend the next couple of days sick.
The buffer zone might not seem like such a big deal, after all 300 meters isn’t very far is it? But 300 meters isn’t really 300 meters, farmers complain that the soldiers shoot at them from even a kilometer away, and anything closer than 500 is quite dangerous, because who knows were exactly 300 meters start, not you, and not the soldier doing the shooting. Gaza is only about 8 kilometers wide, so 500 meters is a significant chunk of land. It is a total disaster for farmers whose land is in the buffer zone. God help those whose homes are next to the buffer zone, or even worse in it.
I think the most surprising thing about Gaza so far has been how liberal it is. The levels of gender-based segregation are much lower than I expected. I am meeting, and talking to young women. This did not happen in the West Bank, and it did not happen much in Syria. I’m sure that part of this is that the families we are in contact with are more liberal than average, but the whole society seems much less conservative than I expected. You see women in the streets, in the stores, working, and in cafes smoking shisha.