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Gaza, Elections, and Democracy

by Hannah
January 27, 2006

Finally, after several years of wanting to go to Gaza, Dunya and I managed to spend two days there under the auspices of election observation. It didn’t take very long for Dunya to observe that the elections in Gaza City were far cleaner than those in Ohio in 2004, where she was working at the time. Lack of democracy is not Palestine’s problem.

We stayed in Gaza City with Khaled Nasrallah and his family, one of the two families who had been living in the house in Rafah that Rachel Corrie was killed defending in March 2003. They now live in an apartment in Gaza City while a new house is being built, with the help of the ‘Building Alliance’. Most of the people in Gaza who have been displaced by home demolition have been displaced at least once before – in 1948 – and some of them more than once. They’ve lived in a constant state of terror for the past five years, and according to some, it got worse after the “disengagement”. Israeli shelling is not uncommon, not to mention the sonic booms that only started since the settlers have left. A 9-year-old girl was shot and killed by the Israeli army on Thursday in Gaza, probably just a few miles from where we were.

The Gaza International Airport is really something else, like any other airport, but with more beautiful design. And it is deserted. The control towers have been bombed by Israeli Apaches. The runways have been bulldozed every couple hundred meters. According to security at the airport, the only employees currently working, it was opened in 2000, and was forced by Israel to close early in 2001. Israel still forbids Palestinians from even beginning to reconstruct the runway. Palestinian Airlines only flies now between Egypt and Amman.

And then there’s Rafah. The row of houses along the border of Gaza and Egypt, are shot up thousands and thousands of times. That is, the houses that are still standing. More of them are in rubble. With bullet holes through the windows, doors and walls… it looks more like war than anything I’ve ever seen. Our hosts described to us some of the terror of their last two years in Rafah: never knowing which rooms were safe to be in, Israeli bullets flying through their windows at all hours, the young daughters waking up in the middle of the night and screaming. The girls are still affected, their mother Samah told us. The oldest, now five years old, remembers a story from Rafah. The family had been sleeping in the garden because it was safer than the house. At one point they were all in different places, someone in the garden, someone in the house, someone on the stairs. The shooting started, and young Mariam remembers the bullets flying towards their house, hitting a tree, and watching a guava fall off a tree and hit her father on the head. Her mother told the story laughing, saying “alhamdulillah” – thank god we weren’t hurt any more than we were.

Hope looks different, too, as Dunya pointed out during our visit to the former settlements. At every turn our driver explained that the Israelis used to be here, and here, and here. This is where this person was killed, this is a school that was bombed, this is an old checkpoint. And then we entered the old settlement of Netzarim. The scene looked remarkably similar to me to demolished Palestinian homes. The Israelis are good at destroying things, we joked to each other. They destroy Palestinian homes, and they also destroyed the settlers’ homes. This is hope, I suppose. Can rubble be hopeful?

Gaza City is bustling. We arrived our first evening, met the family, ate dinner, and then Khaled asked, “Do you want to walk around the city?” We were shocked that he would go out at night, especially with two female internationals, but it was completely normal to him. The shops were open, everyone was buying ice cream at the local ice cream parlor, last minute campaigning was subtle (campaigning is banned for 24 hours before election day, but nobody can be prevented from driving their cars, vegetable trucks, or donkeys with party flags on them). Apparently Gaza City is the Ramallah of Gaza, a thriving city where poverty is somewhat less apparent than other parts of Gaza.

Gaza is beautiful. I’ve heard about it being the most crowded place on earth, so I wasn’t prepared for the open space, the parks of palm trees, the plazas with monuments and wide roads that are pedestrian friendly. In contrast, while driving south along the road with the Mediterranean to the right, we could look left and see refugee camps that look more like I expected refugee camps to look before coming to Palestine. The camps in the West Bank have slightly narrower streets than cities and villages, and a few more visible signs of poverty. Some of these camps in Gaza are different, and with their tiny buildings and narrowest of streets they certainly look like they could be described as the most crowded places on earth.

You couldn’t be in Palestine and not be doing some sort of “election observing” during these past couple weeks. In an American context where civic engagement is among the lowest in the world, it excites me to be somewhere where even with such difficulty living under occupation, at least 75% of eligible voters voted. I know too that 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners can’t vote from Israeli prisons, that the Israeli government only permitted 6% of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the Palestinian elections, and that the 2/3 of the Palestinian population that lives outside of Palestine, do not have any say in who will be representing them and potentially negotiating away their right to return to their land. Not that negotiations will be happening any time soon here, since Israel refuses to negotiate with a Hamas that doesn’t disarm. I wish Hamas would refuse to negotiate with an Israel that doesn’t disarm.

The most common joke I’ve heard made in the past couple days, if it can be called a joke, is that I’ll have to start covering myself fully. A man joked today that he’s already starting to grow his beard. I was in Dheisheh refugee camp yesterday where the kids were discussing the election, and the teenage girls unanimously decided they would never wear hijab, even if Hamas legislated for it. We had a vote on the title of the exhibit that we’re putting together with the children about the trips we took them on, with suggestions like “Life Within Two Days,” “New Life”, and “Destroyed Villages”. At the end of the voting one of the kids suggested, “Hamas won!”.

And there is still occupation. I was able to meet my friend Fatima’s mother in Rafah, who hasn’t seen her daughter since 1997 because people in Gaza can’t get out and people in the West Bank can’t get to Gaza. A 20-year-old man we spent some time with in Gaza did not go an hour without saying, “Take me with you to the West Bank.” He’s never been there. Our crossing out of Gaza showed us firsthand for the first time what can only be described as indentured servitude. Thousands of Palestinian workers – those lucky enough to have permits – were standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting for hours to be allowed to cross back home to Gaza after a long day at work in the fields or building construction.

The occupation and injustice goes on in all of Palestine, regardless of its status. In Gaza, in the West Bank, and in Israel, Palestinians do not have equal rights. Someone tried to convince us yesterday that while Palestinians inside Israel don’t have equal rights, at least they have some rights. Unequal rights are not rights, Dunya pointed out. I know the Gaza “disengagement” caused people around the world to start thinking that occupation is over and everything is okay but Palestine still needs all the support it can get.

Photos from my trip to Gaza: http://community.webshots.com/album/546824389rbKVnd