I arrived in Gaza on Thursday. This the first time I’ve been back to any corner of Palestine since I was deported by Israel in January.
It took a week of paperwork and waiting in Cairo to get approval from Egypt to enter Gaza. After obtaining the permit, I met up with Kristen Chick, the Cairo correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and together we hired a driver to take us to Rafah at one in the morning on Thursday. We raced across the Sinai in a taxi that appeared to be held together with scotch tape.
Arriving at the crossing around 6:30 AM, we were among the first to enter the terminal when it opened at 9, alongside a hundred or so Palestinians, many of them carting huge piles of luggage. One woman brought a refrigerator in a box. Another, brass-colored curtain rods.
At the border I was smiling to hear Palestinian Arabic, which I can understand better than the Egyptian dialect. I remarked to Kristen about the impressive cultural unity of the Palestinian people. Despite the separation imposed by Israel between the populations of the West Bank, Gaza, Palestinians inside Israel, and the vast refugee/diaspora populations elsewhere, roughly the same Arabic is spoken by all of them, and, I think, the same national consciousness. Palestinians waiting at the border ask me, “So, you’re going to Palestine?,” instead of reducing it to the particularity of “So you’re going to Gaza?”
Adel, friendly employee of the Egyptian Ministry of Information, guided us through the process of crossing the border, liaising with the mukhabarat who control the border. (Overall, crossing was much easier than my first visit to Gaza one year ago, when I joined the Rachel Corrie Foundation’s delegation. Last year we waited for two days at the border before being allowed in.)
By noon on Thursday we were standing in the parking lot on the Palestinian side of the crossing. I had forgotten that one of the first sights you see when you enter Gaza is an abandoned white building that is so riddled with bullet holes that it has altered the shape of the building – it’s no longer square, the edges are rounded off.
We shared a taxi to Gaza City with the curtain rods lady, who is apparently from one of the wealthier Gaza families. She asked me if it was my first time in Gaza and then remarked, “The foreigners always arrive when there’s war.” My guess was this was a reference to the International Solidarity Movement activists, like Rachel Corrie, who have been trying for years to use their bodies to protect Palestinian life and property.
On the taxi ride to Gaza city the realization began to take hold that I was back in Palestine, the country where I lived and worked for much of the last three years before my deportation. With this realization, the adrenaline began to flow, overcoming my exhaustion.
My euphoria was in contrast to the downbeat feeling at the Ma’an office in Gaza. While my colleagues there welcomed me warmly, they seemed tired, more depressed than last year. I suspect this was the inevitable effect of life under siege, but the staff were also discouraged by recent cutbacks imposed by the Ma’an management in Bethlehem. When I visited last year the phones were ringing, the police scanner crackling. This time the office seemed empty.
Emad, the director of the Ma’an office, took me to lunch where we talked politics. He apologized, as usual, for his English, which, of course, is very good. “You know I was 15 when the [first] Intifada began,” he explains. “None of us when to school in those days. Then I was in [Israeli] prison for four years, and after that I finished a bachelor’s and a master’s in American Studies.”
After eating, Emad and I went to a phone store to investigate why my Palestinian Jawwal phone was not working. After five minutes we experience one of Gaza’s notorious power cuts, which incurs moaning and eye-rolling from the guys in the shop. A few minutes later they drag a generator out onto the sidewalk and the electricity blinks back on. As we leave the street was filled with the roaring of the generators.
Emad told me that the situation in Gaza is “quiet,” this despite that the day I arrived, Israel launched multiple airstrikes in Gaza, injuring as many as a dozen people. One strike was overnight – one of Israel’s routine attacks in response to the homemade rockets lobbed over the border by Palestinian fighters. The second was an apparent attempted assassination on a group of guerillas from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The strike wounded three people. More on that later.