Live from Gaza, Eoin Murray, Trócaire

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Entry to Gaza - the land of forgotten people

Taxi journeys in Gaza are among the most illustrative and educational journeys possible. In a matter of minutes it is possible to assess the mood of the people (taxi drivers all over the world always encapsulate a montage of public opinion) and to witness the situation first hand.

I was excited to cross the border-line from Israel into the tiny, densely packed Gaza Strip [around 1.5 million people squeezed into an area around half the size of county Wexford]. But the Beit Hanoun/Erez [Arabic/Hebrew names] border crossing is always the first obstacle to any journey. It is not a checkpoint in the traditional sense, the way we might imagine it - with two or three soldiers standing idly by a barrier in the road. Instead it is a military complex; a sinister version of Hollyhead ferry terminal, surrounded by walls and imposing concrete watchtowers.

This terminal used to be the passage point for tens of thousands of Palestinian workers gaining a livelihood in Israel - now it is closed to all with the exception of the few foreign journalists and NGO workers who are still interested enough to pass.

Five of us, four journalists and myself, sit and wait for the wave of a gun that means we may approach, and if we have proper security coordination (arranged a week in advance) pass through. We wait for more than a few hours, from 7.00 AM, in the searing, sweaty Gaza heat. One of the journalists is from China - she laughs with a mild embarrassment when we raise issues such as China's oil-driven interest in the Middle East and Africa and the heavy arms trading China is involved in around the world. But she speaks with a remarkable confidence when she recounts her views that the people of Gaza are 'a forgotten people'.

Forgotten, indeed.

When we eventually pass through the series of offices, tunnels and electronic gates which lead us to the Palestinian side it is easy to see just how forgotten Gaza is. While I wait for my own taxi to arrive I talk to one of the regular drivers who sits at Beit Hanoun/Erez checkpoint each day waiting for people to cross. Usually, a brief Q&A session with Ahmed reveals little new - but today he seems truly defeated. For the first time his refrain to the traditional series of 'how are you?/what's the news?/how is your health?' is more than the usual series of polite platitudes and stoic resignation('Il Ham d'Allah'- thanks be to God). "The life' he tells me 'in Gaza, since your last visit (in February when the HAMAS government was elected) is different. Now, we have really nothing. No electricity, no water, no gas, no petrol, no bread.' His list of nothings continues almost endlessly and depresses me deeply. The lines in his face - usually carriers of hardship, defiance and even happiness - are broken, etched in seemingly permanent sadness.

My own taxi driver continues this sorry story as we drive into Gaza City, passing the Jabalya refugee camp on our right [Jabalya is the largest refugee camp in the Middle East, 120,000+ people in 2 sq km, half of them under eighteen] 'What they have not destroyed here is not worth destroying. And, yesterday, at Rafah crossing they opened it for three hours and fifteen thousand people turned up - only a few hundred passed through.' [Rafah crossing point is the only access point from tiny Gaza to the outside world, through Egypt, still controlled by the Israeli military and closed for almost two months now - meaning tens of thousands are trapped outside and 1.5m trapped in.

Over a very late brunch of Humous, Foul, Falafel [various types of beans mixed and mashed with spices in various tasty ways], and eaten with thin Arabic bread, in the offices of Trócaire partner, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights [PCHR], the conversation is again tinged with sadness. 'I saw grown men crying yesterday when I went to Rafah crossing yesterday- sweating, fainting, crying, slowly dying' says Annwar, a friend whose own family have been victims of the 39 year old Israeli occupation in many ways, an occupation the UN declared to be illegal.

Around three years ago the Israeli air force dropped a one tonne bomb on a house in Gaza city, aimed at killing a HAMAS leader. 15 innocents, many of them children, died in their sleep - almost all of them from Annwar's family. Nieces and nephews, cousins, uncles and aunts. And this is only the part of his long history of loss. There have also been losses on the Israeli side as this conflict drags on.

Director of PCHR, Raji Sourani, is one of the few whose Blitz-spirit remains intact. As per usual he is full of analysis and strategies designed to place the Israeli occupation back at the centre of international discourse, because 'no one speaks now about the occupation, or international law or protecting civilians, no one at all.'

I press him on the unusually frank responses I received from the taxi drivers and he admits that life is not easy now for anybody, that people are in an unprecedented situation - even himself. I can see it, again, carved into his expressive face - a bewilderment at how bad things have to get before the world will act.

As I sit now it is evening. There are only two constants in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: that the sun will rise and fall; and that the musical prayers of the Mosques will echo back against the sky, calling for assistance from a God who doesn't appear to be listening.

As I absorb the simple events of the day - a taxi journey, a brunch, a meeting and conversation with old, dear friends - my worst fear is not that the Israeli occupation will destroy more of the roads, the bridges, the schools or the hospitals - rather that it will continue to undermine the resilience and the dignity of the population here, and in so doing destroy the already buckled spirit of the people.


At 9:07 AM, Blogger David White said...

"120,000+ people in 2 sq km"? wow..that's incredible. The quality of life must be appalling. I took a look at Jabalya on Google Earth, and it just looks like concrete and nothing else.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Eoin Murray said...

Dear David,

It is something remarkable to see and experience. It is just concrete, asbestos, a tin roof on every house. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer.



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