Barely a few hours on the Blessed Land and we’re already celebrating Eid. Buses are already idling outside by 5.30am and we are ushered onto them hurriedly. Security personnel form a ring of steel around us and don’t allow us to stray too far for our protestion. The movements of the various parts of the group are well co-ordinated. Buses do not move without all passenger being on board and the guides are constantly communicating over 2 way radios.
This morning, the streets of Gaza are desolate due to Eid. The bus driver hurries on at a frenzied pace, but along the way something goes horribly wrong and the bus grinds to a halt. A smaller vehicle picks up some members of the group and get them in time to the Eid Gah. The second group are not so fortunate and miss the Salaah altogether.
The Eid Salaah takes place over a succession of streets in front of the Khan Yunis municipality. The crowd is overwhelming-yet the Convoy are afforded a special place quite close to the Mimbar. Flags flutter overhead and security presence is tight at all access and exit points. The speciality of this gathering is that it is being addressed by none other than the Prime Minister himself. The overiding message is one of hope-Hope from the developments of the Arab Spring, Hope from Palestinian Unity and Hope from the resilience of the Palestinian people. He impresses on the attentive crowd the importance of having certainty in the Help of Allah. And he repeats the well known Palestinian slogan-Eiduna Awdatuna (Our Eid is Our Return).
After Eid, more fascination and interest from Gazans in our story. We also bump into a Palestinian who had the opportunity of studying in South Africa.
The scenic drive back to the hotel brings to life places we’ve only ever heard of in the news before. Like Deir Al Balah, which incorporates a refugee camp. We learn that it is called such due to the many groves of palm trees that can be found here, which we witness ourselves.
Our little drive to Khan Yunis and back brings to light the relatively small size of the Gaza strip. Getting from one place to another is hardly a challenge in a sliver that is only 40km long. And in that sense, mobility is far less an issue here than the West Bank, which is littered with Israeli checkpoints.
On this day of Eid, Gaza looks like a ghost town. There are hardly any people on the streets and shops have come to a complete lockdown. On probing further, we learn that it is tradition in Gaza to spend the morning hours celebrating and enjoying meals at home. It is only closer to the afternoon, that people emerge to socialise and children pour out onto the streets.
A noisy little lorry breaks the silence. Draped in colourful Hamas flags and manned by cartoon looking characters, it rides through the streets of Gaza playing Eid Anasheed and calling out to children over the PA system. At every block, the cartoon characters emerge and hand out candy and gifts to the children. Unusually, they also pay the Gaza International Hotel a visit. Whilst I’m still on the telephone doing an interview, a smiling elephant dressed figure approaches me, drapes his truck over my hand and gives me a wafer chocolate. They also make special announcements welcoming the Convoy to Gaza. Separately, it also reveals how sophisticated internal communications in the Gaza are.
One of the advices of the the Prime Minister this morning was to encourage Gazans to visit the families of the ill, martyred and injured as part of their Eid celebrations. Our guides allow us to do just that with planned visits to many homes across Gaza.
Although none were apparently expecting us, their doors are constantly open and they have no qualms with such a horde descending into their space. In house after house this morning, they reveal to us the shattered reality of their lives.
Our first stop today is at a rundown cottage looking out to Gaza’s mediterranean coast. In other parts of the world, this would be prime property and holiday makers and property developers alike would pay a purse for such idyllic views.
Not here. This family has no furniture nor cupboards to house their meagre possesions. Clothes are strewn in neat piles across the rooms. And dishes and implements in the kitchen appear to have been used for generations. To add to the woes, father is not here to spend Eid with his kids today as he is suffering from a psychological disorder.
“Psychological disorder.” How often do we hear those words in Gaza today. The wounds of the siege and ongoing occupation go well beyond the physical wounds.
For Abdul Haleem Hassan though, its all about the physical. 30 shards of shrapnel in his body bear testimony to the cruelty of war. He underwent close to 100 hundred operations. He visited the hospitals of the same oppressors who created his misery and he was told he would die.
Another victim we visit, sits calmly on a chair. He would love to stand up and greet us. He would love to be on his feet to celebrate Eid with his family today. More than anything, he would dearly love to walk to be given the ability to defend his beloved homeland. But none of that appears plausible. He has been injured irrevocably by war and will never walk again. All that is not sufficient though, to prevent him from smiling, which he does resolutely.
Across the road from him, is a home that for me is an oven. I find myself shedding some of my outer garments but to no avail as the heat continues boiling my brains. It is unbearable, but it the place this Gazan family calls home. But that too is an incomplete picture. Like many homes we visit, the family here are renting, the breadwinner unemployed or unable to work, due to health conditions. Without stipends form the Ministry of Social Affairs, the situation would be even more precarious. And the effect of such a furnace as we observe are unsightly heatboils on the bodies of little infants.
Visits to the families of martyrs, on the other hand, are more about hope than sorrow. It is painful to look into the eyes of the orphaned child, but families of the deceased make it totally clear that they are proud of their relatives achievement. For some families we visit, the wounds are fresh, dating back just a few months. For others, martyrdom is a family business whose story is told by the collection of frames on their living room walls. And for Shady al Jumaah, it is a living dream.
This brave man sacrifced his leg for Al Quds a while ago, but his internal fire to continue defending his land and his people continues to burn brightly.
A common thread in discussion over the entire day so far has been the desire expressed by Gazans that the next Eid, for them and us, be celebrated in Masjidul Aqsa and al Quds itself.
Our last call for the day is at the Dr Abdul Aziz al Rantisi childrens hospital. For me, I am most broken by the heartbreaking encounters I have here. Children, barely months into their earthly existence, suffer from unexplicable ailments, all rooted in the siege and occupation. Kidney failure and renal ailments are most common. A mother clinging on to her baby whose entire body is puffed up due to poor water drainage is one particularly shattering sight. How will we be able to stand before our Lord, telling Him that we slept soundly, whilst even unborn babies in Gaza suffered?
Reaction to the days visits form Convoy members have been varied. Some break down into tears immediately. On the other extreme, members like Junaid van De Plank are visibly angry and vent their fury quite loudly at such a shameless system of oppression.
The sordid experiences of the day make many forget that it is Eid. But we are reminded again of this special day when we notice kids doting around on one of the many horses you see on the roads of Gaza. There are also small ferris wheels which children enthusiastically push over and over. Little girls are dressed up smartly sporting some posh handbags. Boys on the other hand are very proud of their new plastic guns which they run around with like cowboys fighting an imaginary battle with the enemy. These are scenes repeated in various neighbourhoods across Gaza.
Maghrib is performed at a local mosque. The design of its dome and mimbar are all inspired by the domes of Masjidul Aqsa-yet another device to remind Gazans of their ultimate goal. Whilst performing Salaah, I experience a sudden realisation. I have just made Sujood on the blessed earth of Palestine. This is no trivial honour. Moosa AS prayed to the Almighty that he at least be buried in or as close as possible to the Holy Land. And here was I in communion with my Creator in this Land of the Prophets. After Salaah, I hurriedly make another Sajdah of Shukr to prolong the ecstasy.
After Salaah, another demonstraton of rich Palestinian hospitality. The muezzin invites the entire delegation home to some tea and date biscuits. The process of invitation is instant. No lengthy negotiations with home executives to ascertain whether the time is opportune or whether anything is ready. Their doors are perpetually open to their Muslim visitors but concurrently, tightly shut on any foreign invaders. The host proudly introduces me to his kids and speaks at length about their names and achievements.
Barely a day in Gaza, but so much to tell. And Moulana Igsaan Hendricks is one man who wants to listen. He calls for an extended sitting of the group tonight at the Commodore Hotel where some of the group is staying. He shares how he thinks this journey is different from previous trips and how much easier conditions have been. He speaks about the great Barakah of time in Gaza and how he perceives a Divine cloud over the Convoy. The overland convoy had experienced not a single puncture over its arduous journey and Moulana himself speaks of his impeccable health on the trip.
And then he hands it over to the audience, who despite only being in Gaza for a day, are already deeply touched. What are their stories and reflections? He wants to know. Sister Fatima Ismail speaks about a pledge she has made today to spend at least a part of her Eid every year with orphans, when she is back home. Rabia Gabriels recounts being jolted when visiting the home of a child who had a sibling killed by a bomb that went off just metres from where he was sitting. Moulana Salmaan speaks of his desire to start a family and how he is viewing these plans through a new prism after the days encounters with the children of Gaza. The rigid Junaid van de Plank breaks down as he thanks the Almighty for giving “a former alchoholic” the opportunity to enter Gaza. Since the beginning of the journey, he says, convoy members have been calling him ‘The Pyramid’ because he appears so hard and unemotive. ‘The Pyramid’ he officially announces is broken. Todays sights and sounds appear to have been too overwhelming for him too.
Boeta Rashaad reminices on his mothers Dua for the success of the Convoy and wonders aloud if she is the reason the trip is proceeding so smoothly. He remembers too, the young girls in South Africa who called him aside to specially give him R5 which they tasked him to take to Gaza.
For Shakir Baker, the story began years ago when he was admitted to the Ennerdale Darul Uloom. His mother then told the principal, Moulana Ahmed that she will keep the bones, but the flesh was his. Years later, it was a pleasant surprise to find him working with his former principal on such a pioneering initiative. In his elation, Shakir describes the night of arrival in Gaza as Laylatul Jaizah or the Night of Prize Giving. He reaches a crescendo when he describes how he managed to see a fig and olive tree growing side by side on his travels today. This for him is an embodiment of the Quranic chapter, At Teen. Moulana Igsaan takes the analogy further and informs him that he could add another aspect, that of al Balad al Ameen, which quite literally is what Gaza has been since we’ve come.
There is a welcome surprise for us too in the South African woman who is married in Gaza. Originally from Cape Town, she has heard of the Convoy and has come across to exchange her support. She reminds Convoy members to develop a deep-seated commitment to Gaza and not to make it appear to Gazans that this is merely a tourist stopover.
I find particular resonance in the story of a Capetonian member of the Convoy, who states that her journey began not just a few months or weeks ago but rather way back in 2001, when she attended the epic march in Durban to the UN World Conference against Racism(WCAR) that equated Zionism with Apartheid. It rings a bell because I was there too. So was I at the World Summit(WSSD) when we rallied from Alexandria to Sandton in 2002 for the Palestinian course. And there would be numerous smaller protests and solidarity events in between. We have been talking about the crises for long enough. But today we had saw. And with that comes much contentment and gratification.
Alhamdulillahi Rabbil Aalameen-And all Praise is Due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds!