Lauren Booth: Egypt to Gaza – The Gate and the Key
It’s been exactly a year since I was last in Gaza.
In that time another terrible attack has been unleashed by the Israeli military and government on the trapped Palestinian populace.
On my previous visit, months after Egyptians elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power, there was little sign to the visitor of any real easing of the punitive behavior of officials at the Rafah crossing, towards Palestinians, wishing to travel to and from their homeland.
What changes would I see this time?
The team I work with at Peace 2012 stack our boxes of stationary and children’s toys onto trolleys at the dreaded crossing. ‘Dreaded’ because it has for decades been a symbol of the Mubarak regime’s ruthless willingness to carry out the dirty job of persecuting Palestinians at the behest of the Israeli government.
I remember feeling dumbfounded on my first visit to Gaza in 2006.
Read our interview with Lauren Booth during her visit to Cairo, Egypt:
On hearing Gazan’s mutter bitterly that it was ‘better’ to fall into the hands of the Israeli soldiers, than Mubarak's boot boys. ’You expect things from your enemy but the violence of your brothers – this hurts in another way’ I heard many times.
Outside the Egyptian terminal, the same anarchy as always – a sea of clawing hands grabbing at our cases and boxes. Not to help us, certainly not! The hands here hijack your bags, walk them a hundred paces then menace you into paying as much as 60 US dollars, forcing a loud, near violent exchange, before we give up shouting and empty our wallets – of much much less! Same old, same old!
|Instead of a mocking faux interrogation (as in years gone by), today, all is tea and coffee pleasantness. Assurances are given that Palestine is at the heart of every Arab and every Muslim.|
I am hoarse with shouting; ‘this is NOT Islam’ to the bemused, couldn’t-care-less, muggers.
In 2008, I joined the 1.8m Gazans experiencing the realities of the siege, when I was refused exit via Egypt or Israel for a month. I visited Rafah some six times trying to gain freedom, to return to my young children in France. Each time I was mockingly refused by the Mubarak team in the offices.
Today, something strange… After our thirteen assorted packages pass through the security scanner, our Palestinian co-worker, Yasser, walks briskly over and says ‘the officials want to see us all in the office, sister.’
‘Here we go,’ I unconsciously reach towards my bag for my copy of ‘Fortress of the Muslim’ for prayers to recite asking Allah to grant calmness and patience.
Inside the office sit the same man and the woman I faced in 2008 during Mubarak's reign.
‘La Illaha IlAllah’ I whisper under my breath.
Instead of a mocking faux interrogation (as in years gone by), today, all is tea and coffee pleasantness. Assurances are given that Palestine is at the heart of every Arab and every Muslim.
And, with no hassle at all we reach the final passport and visa ‘check.’ I feel faint, with gratitude to Allah. Not for myself and my own momentary discomforts this border, but for the thousands and thousands of Palestinians whose entry to return from the rest of the world may (may) now become near to what passes for normal in Egypt.
No more sitting on cases with sobbing, thirsty, children for 18 hours. No more hospitalizations from heat stroke in stalled buses. No more mocking loathing from the officials at Rafah – can it be?
Hard politics on the ground in Cairo is beginning to force hearts to soften in some old regime hot spots. Benefits are beginning to be felt.
Through the Dusty….
|All I can focus on is the peaceful, rustic beauty of the sea and the humble villages.|
Other changes are easy to see as we travel towards Gaza city through the dusty, bustle of Rafah. It is early evening and what passes for rush hour. Donkeys and carts and lads on speedy Chinese motorbikes trot along or throttle past.
We move at a leisurely speed through Khan Younis, along the blue rimmed coastline. ‘Unspoiled’ a travel agent could optimistically describe the make shift huts of retrieved wood and giant palm leaves on the empty beaches. ‘Undeveloped’ a real estate agent would shudder, more accurately.
Gone are last year’s fuel queues which stretched for miles from every available pump as the supply of gas from Egypt simply dried up. But gone too are many of the family cars. Automobiles are expensive to run here and costly to mend properly. Parts come through the few remaining tunnels and although available are marked up with the ‘bak shish’ (tips) demanded by professional smugglers the world over.
Tonight all I can focus on is the peaceful, rustic beauty of the sea and the humble villages.
Gaza casts her gentle charms around me.
The next morning, I wake up in brother Yasser’s house to find that he, his wife and baby asleep on sofa cushions on the floor, having given their bed up for visitors.
In the children’s room his five girls aged from 15 to five years old are asleep with the light on. It is a bright energy saver bulb and in the dawn light blinds me. How do the girls sleep with that on, I wonder? They are also still in their clothes from the night before. I put this down to the hard-days travel we had just endured and a very late night packing gift boxes for poor children.
Before breakfast I shower and grimly note the array of Israeli hair products I will have to use. In the UK we can boycott such things but here…
Over breakfast Amal, the children’s mother, sighed as she opened the milk.
“Israeli’ she said pointing to the lettering on the front. The Israeli Occupation government has since its creation, assured itself of a captive consumer base – literally.
With strategic trade borders under occupation control, importing goods in a regular, structured way has proved difficult to impossible for the Palestinians in Gaza.
The famous painter Layla Shawa, once told me, how she remembered the ruthless and deliberate way the Occupation forces had time and again targeted Gazan orange groves – razing them to the ground – during her youth in the fifties and sixties.
Today, the luscious crop is enough for locals only with export having long ago failed. Meanwhile Jaffa oranges, from the famous Palestinian village occupied by Jewish terrorists in 1948, is now an internationally recognized brand worth billions.
|Milk from Al Khalil, Hebron, is for six Shekels. That’s a 50 per cent mark up on every carton for the Occupation economy.|
Milk is the staple that mothers here give their numerous children every morning in a traditional attempt to nourish bones and help them grow. Also, as far as I see it is the only drink during the day, that children, rich or poor, receive, which is not sugar laden (more of that later.)
Amal brought me another identical carton of milk ‘Falistini’; she smiled proudly. Same packaging, same product – different producers… Yet milk from Israel is far more prevalent in Gaza due to the siege which stops ease of inter Palestinian trade. And what about the costs, the same surely? No. Israeli milk costs nine Shekels here per carton.
Milk from Al Khalil, Hebron, is for six Shekels. That’s a 50 per cent mark up on every carton for the Occupation economy. Sweet, easy, business…
Coca Or Pepsi
We move, move, move, back and forth across Gaza, trying to see as much as possible whilst we are here. Stopping to visit families benefitting from our projects in Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahial; every impoverished, blast-pounded family has certain similarities.
One of the most instantly visible problems is health and diet. Particularly worrying is the prevalence of fizzy drinks and sodas that have crept, like a silent cancer, into the households of the already minerally malnourished.
Every cement bare room we enter, Coca Cola or Pepsi, is glued to the hands of the barefoot children. There is no lower age limit for these liquid time bombs… Babies, barely 18 months old, sip cola to the ‘Aww! Isn’t that cute’ sad-smiles of the mothers.
These tins of sugar death are seen as the children’s only ‘treat.’
|This major colonization controlled prime Gazan land, the area's main aquifers, and approximately one-third of the total Gaza coastline. Thus vegetable produce, herb growth, farming and fishing were badly reduced for the Palestinian populace. The best production was stolen for the Jewish-only community and exported.|
This is not a problem (as in the West) of lackadaisical parenting, however. It’s another major symptom of the rapid decimation of the traditional, diet, of Gazans.
In 1948, tens of thousands of refugees from Palestinian lands were forced into the tiny Gaza strip as a result of Jewish terrorism.
Almost overnight the natural abundance of fruit and vegetables produced by this majority farming community became a shortage. The population leapt as a result of internally displaced refugees from around 60,000 in early 1948, to some 200,000 a matter of months later.
To add to this demographic Nakba (catastrophe), in 1970 the Israeli government gave the go-ahead for the renewal of a defunct Jewish colony right at the heart of Gaza, called Kafr Darom. This was the forerunner to the infamous Gush Katif settlement- the first of many ‘Israeli’ agricultural vulture projects in the Gaza area.
This major colonization controlled prime Gazan land, the area's main aquifers, and approximately one-third of the total Gaza coastline. Thus vegetable produce, herb growth, farming and fishing were badly reduced for the Palestinian populace. The best production was stolen for the Jewish-only community and exported.
In 2004, just months before the infamous colony was removed, the agricultural production of Gush Katif represented some 10% of all agricultural production raised in ‘Israel’, plus 65% of its organic export industry; 45% of tomato exports and 95% of Israel's cherry tomato exports.
Total annual revenues for the occupation of this colony alone, were around $60-70 million, revenue that belonged to the people of Palestine but, like a healthy diet was denied them.
Citrus fruits, olives, almonds, vegetables, strawberries, flowers and field crops were traditionally the most successful here.
However, nowadays, the agricultural sector encounters a plethora of destructive factors. During my visit, Palestinian farmers in Gaza, regretfully, set fire to three tons of herbs, set aside for export to Europe. Due to yet another prolonged closure of the crossing into Israel, (over which they have no say whatsoever), the produce is burned.
Source: Gilad Atzmon