Our penultimate morning in the Gaza Strip and it begins with a thud. No, not from an Israeli F-16 or sonic boom, neither from a resistance rocket. Rather it is of a more emotional kind as a bus idles outside our hotel carrying the first group of Convoy participants who will shortly say farewell to Gaza. They all will depart carrying a part of Palestine within them, most certainly dissapointed that they cannot take any more.
Fortunately, we are still here and the morning promises to be an educational one with our first calling at Gaza’s Islamic University. I recall once reading that Palestinians have the highest ratio of PhDs per capita in the world. Today at the welcoming campus of the University I am here to discover how.
They do it under highly trying circumstances like having their 2 main buildings bombed during the war. Valuable equipment is destroyed and progress in strategic fields like technology and engineering is severely hampered. But for a nation whose lifesblood is education, those are hardly setbacks. The president of the university tells us that all Palestinian universities were established under occupation and this one in particular began in a tent. I am pleased to see in the crowd Saeed Namruti, an academic at the university who is currently completing his Phd in South Africa with the assistance of the Al Quds Foundation. In an interview with him in South Africa a few months ago, he described how when Israel shut down all institutions of higher learning during the first Intifada, the Islamic University continued functioning through a discreet yet elaborate system of tuition with students meeting lecturers at homes, in cars and even on the street. Today the Islamic University is a vibrant and dynamic institution, matching the highest global standards. Buildings are clean and well maintained. Promotional material is glossy and video productions are cutting edge. It houses 10 colleges and offers bachelors degrees in over 60 disciplines. It even houses a 24 hour Islamic radio station and TV Channel on its grounds. All this for a university in which officially half of its 22000 students cannot afford to pay study fees.
This is definately a case of a people who although may physically be in shackles through the occupation, are not intellectually enshackled, as Moulana Abdul Khaliq points out. The trilogy of a good mind, body and spirit is essential for the healthy functioning of the whole. In a society the mind is represented by its educational institutions, the body by its health care system and the spirit by its religious structures. This is why it is imperative that our support for all these sectors in Gaza be strengthened. Regarding the last, we probably have more to take than give, given their incredible spirituality.
Two of the main roads that connect the extreme ends of the Gaza Strip are Harun al Rashid Road and Saluhudeen Street. Today, we travel on one of them to our destination very close to the border. Flowing with us all the way is the Gaza shoreline, and no matter how many times I turn your gaze to it, I am always struck by its immaculate beauty. There are also extreme changes in the urban landscape as we journey along. Whilst Gaza City, where we are stationed, is quite modern and is more home to a middle class, the refugee camps we pass are largely replicas of our shantytowns back in South Africa. Corrugated tin houses are squeezed in between concrete housing blocks, their fledgling roof sheeting held in place by huge bricks and water tanks. Sanitation is poor and huge unsightly puddles flow in the alleys. As a further testament to the extreme poverty, the most common mode of transport here, it appears, are donkey carts instead of cars.
There are also huge swathes of lush farmland in between. And then there are the former Israeli settlements. These ‘havens’ of illegitimate privelage were a source of great injustice for Gazans until Israel ‘disengaged’ from the territory a few years ago. In all probability however, it was the heroic resistance of the Palestinian people that became unbearable to the occupiers and ultimately forced their departure. The ruins of their oppression are still here. Some settlements have been adopted and reused, others have been completely destroyed and some just lay here desolate like the remnants of the haughty and arrogant of the past-a restimony to the inevitable fate of every oppressor.
It was on the pretext of the protection of these extremist settlers that many incursions into Palestinian towns and refugee camps occurred, families were fractured, movement was hampered and homes were demolished. It was in this area close to Rafah that the courageous Rachel Corrie was ploughed down by an American subsidized Israeli bulldozer. And it was here that students attempting to get to Gaza City for university classes were often held up for hours at a time at Israeli checkpoints, ultimately forcing them to board much closer to their universities.
Fortunately, for all Gazans, many of those indignities are no more. There is not a single Israeli soldier on the land of Gaza and in their fear, Israeli forces can only police the territory from the air, sea and within the Israeli border itself. Yet, the bloody legacy of their direct occupation still haunts Gazans every day of their lives.
This is especially true for Rafah, Gaza’s only access point to the outside world. It was this town that sacrificed the most martyrs during the second Intifada and as we drive through its humble roads, it still has all the scars to prove its pain. At the height of the uprising, Rafah was hemmed in from all sides by Israeli settlements, soldiers and the then Israeli controlled border. This result was sustained and aggressive shelling and bombing from all directions.The departure of the Israeli settlers have given Rafans some chance to rebuild and today at the municipal chambers we hear the mayor report back on reconstruction efforts. We hear that funding for major upgrades is a challenge in a city where 60% of its population is unemployed and tax income is minimal. Additionally, there is a serious derth of raw materials due to the siege. Nonetheless, he is proud to announce to us several promising initiatives that include waste water purification, road construction and desalination plants. Like at the Islamic University before, there is another special call to twin this institution with similar structures in our home countries.
It is an informative afternoon crowned with the now familiar soft drinks and bottled water which are liberally handed out to us at every engagement. But from this reasonably formal setting, I hear hushed whispers as members speculate our next destination. And sure enough, on this drowsy Gazan afternoon, we get the news that we are heading UNDERGROUND!
There can only be a few things more cloaked in mystery than the infamous Rafah tunnels which offer a lifeline to Gaza amidst the siege. Over the years, we’ve all marvelled at the ingenuity of their inventors in constructing them. We’ve heard of the more colourful ‘merchandise’ that had passed through them-from lifestock to human beings and even zoo animals. And more often than not, it were reports of Israeli strikes on these trenches that spiked our interest.
But today as the bus clanks through the narrow streets of Rafah and as the Egyptian landscape draws ever closer, it is hard to say exactly where we will unearth the reality of these tunnels. In our immediate vicinity are many tents resembling the makeshift greenhouses we have seen along the way. And it is precisely here, at this unlikely juncture that our bus grinds to a halt.
Off the bus, we are directed under the canopy of one of these tents, and sooner than expected I find my legs sliding to lower ground and entering a much dimmer realm. I am currently in one of Gaza’s only umbilical cords and thoughtlessly am bearing witness to the unshakeable human instinct to survive. Fear seems to evaporate and is eclipsed by a penchant for adventure. The descent is sharp but manageable. A steel shell conceals the earthen walls of the tunnel making it much more stable. The temperature seems well regulated and there is ample space for a bunch of people to manouevre, eliminating any possible claustophobia. As far as we wander, there are even fluorescent electric lights. As someone observes, its all quite compararable to a horizontal mine shaft.
As we near the end of our mini walk and are about to turn back, there is traffic from the other direction: Incoming human traffic; 2 dishevelled and exhausted men who have just completed the short but daunting journey from Egypt to Gaza, emerge. And here in the belly of the earth, far from the prying eyes of inconsiderate border officials, corrupt politicians and roaring F-16’s there are spontaneous congratulations exchanged with these bold men who have just played their part in defying the unreasonable and unjust.
It is a rare opportunity that we cherish even more when one of our guides, who has lived in Gaza all her life, tells us that this too is her first odyssey into the tunnels. I try to capture as much of these environs into my minds eye as photographs are explicitly forbidden. There are many questions too that tickle the brain about the exact functioning of the tunnels, but we decide they are better left unanswered. The existence of these tunnels are an open secret; the functioning of them, rather not.
Still in awe at our experience, we are told that the length of these tunnels can vary between 200m and 1km. Our bus now heads away from the border and as we pass yet more refugee camps, their bullet riddled walls expose just how much battering they have taken from the occupation.
Our destination is Beit Lahiya and this time no one really knows why we are here. We pray the afternoon Salaahs in a huge mosque and then surprisingly are allowed to walk freely for scores of metres on the streets. With numbers behind us, it appears like some peaceful rally or fun walk through the town. We turn up at the city square and first spot a whole troop of boy scouts standing at attention. Then I see the biggest bunch of press microphones we’ve encountered thus far on the trip, tailed by rowdy reporters and cameramen. Soon enough, the press briefing begins, this time with even more vocal and focused messages from Convoy organisers. The real limelight this time however belongs to the interior minister who has called the briefing to announce the inauguration of some special projects funded by the Convoy.
The entire contingent snakes up to higher ground passing on its way colourful high rise blocks with shrapnel sprayed exteriors and wardrobes hanging from their windows. We call in at a chillie and brinjal farm that was apparently set in motion by a previous convoy. Holding some of the fruits of Palestine aloft in this plantation, Dr Esam Abu Yusuf whets all our appetites when he asks if we too are ready to plant more seeds of life and greenery into this blessed land.
We head over to a nursery/orchard deeper into Beit Lahiya. The greenery is absolutely breathtaking. Rows and rows of young trees embrace you and fill your lungs with crisp, fresh air. As Brother Salim Goga observes, it is truly miraculous to see such fertility springing from land which otherwise looks so dry, parched and desert-like. Everyone knuckles down to claim a stake of real estate of this Holy Land. They roll their sleeves up; some grab spades whilst others remove the plastic covering on the trees in preparation for planting. Today we plant grapefruit and olive trees in a symbolic commitment to peace and renewal of life in this war-torn land. Everyone choruses in, layering handfuls of sand atop the delicate roots. The holes dug for planting are remarkably shallow.
This seemingly passive act of farming is in itself a powerful form of resistance. Thousands of trees across the Occupied Territories have themselves earned the wrath of the Occupation forces for at least the last decade, being pummelled and bulldozed to the ground. With their destruction comes an attempt to wipe out a rich Palestinian legacy of communion with the earth spanning centuries. Olive trees have an average life span of hundreds of years and many in Palestine are said to be almost 2 millenia old.
Before we leave I am gifted with yet more fruits of Palestine-a soccer ball sized grapefruit and some fresh lemons from a nearby greenhouse. I graciously accept them but doubt they’ll ever be able to make the lengthy journey back to South Africa.
What I do hope will accompany me home at least, is some merchandise that can be called ‘Uniquely Gazan.’ Our shopping Convoy tonight makes its first stop at a glitzy mini-mall at the heart of Gaza City. The clothing floor has all the latest apparel from mens formal wear to trendy youth gear and glamorous abayas. Some stop over at the shoe department to see what it is like ‘walking in Palestinian shoes.’ I head back to ground level and trowl through the isles of the well lit supermarket. I grab a few bottles of Gazan olive oil and other preserved food items that carry the ‘Made in Gaza’ tag. I notice that there are many products that carry Hebrew writing and as I cash up with my US Dollar bills, I reluctantly take possession of hundreds of Israeli Shekels for the first time ever. It is quite distatesful carrying these plasticised notes, especially with many of them sporting the faces of former Israeli leaders whose role in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people is beyond doubt. Regardless, it is just another reminder that we are in the midst of a normal society which is being force-fed the abnormalities of occupation, including the oppressors goods, currency and monetary system.
Mahmud decides to sweeten the mood. Although no one really seems too keen, he gets us to stop over at the local sweetmeat shop. There is a colouful array of delicacies on offer, all on display in large circular trays. We tuck into the Kunafa, a well known Palestinian speciality, with a cream cheese filling in the center, that I understand comes in different variants. I am also surprised to note that the shop has its own restaurant-type sitdown section for clients who would like to tuck into these specialities on the premises. After browsing around briefly, we leave the premises licking our fingers and thankful to Mahmud, but rueing the fact that due to its freshness and packaging we cannot take some of this sweetness of Palestine home.
Our final stop for the evening is one everyone has been persistent to get to. A place to stock up on lots of small gifts and memorablia to prove to everybody that we were here. Enter into the small but well stocked PLO Flag Shop.
A first glance at the contents of this store suggests that some of its best customers should be the governmental departments we touched base with over the past week. We see many beautiful frames and commemorative plaques on display similar to the gifts handed over to the Convoy during our earlier interactions. Unless it is possible for this shop to export some of its wares, I think, there is hardly any other market for these products locally, especially in the abscence of tourists. The variety of merchandise on offer is bewildering-Palestinian mugs and cutlery, flags, stickers and T-Shirts. Many back home have requested the ‘original’ hand sewn black and white Palestinian scarves and the PLO shop has just what they ordered. I see that the smaller ‘neck’ scarves that are available in many designs are also flying off the shelves particularly fast today. I am quite impressed to see a black womens scarf, made here, that is hand embroidered with well known Palestinian symbols and has both the Palestinian and, to my great surprise and pleasure, South African flags as well. I don’t waste a moment and add it to my cart. The Palestinian tasbeehs with beads in the characteristic green, red, black and white are also particularly beautiful, and I snap up a few of these too. Some today are particularly interested in purchasing replicas of the deep green Hamas scarves imprinted with Arabic insignia and slogans, that they perhaps have become accustomed to seeing on TV and in pictures. The shopkeeper gladly produces the goods. Somebody then naughtily asks if he has Fatah and Islamic Jihad scarves too, to which he grinningly replies in the negative. It seems that the owner of the so-called PLO shop has firmly nailed his colour(s) to the mast.
The range of keyrings on offer is also impressive. Most feature the Palestinian flag prominently, others Masjidul Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, some look like medallions and yet others are cast in the shape of historical Palestine. I really love one that is shaped like a key itself with Masjidul Aqsa on one side and the map and flag of Palestine on the other, and I grab as many money can buy. I pray that it will remind me and others each time we open our doors and locks that the doors to Al Quds and other areas of occupied Palestine still need to be unlocked from oppression.
I open the door to my hotel room and soon I am embalmed in a blissful sleep. This is our final night in Gaza and like all preceding nights, I sleep like a baby. Besides some firecrackers and possible celebratory gunfire at a wedding earlier in the week, Gaza has been a haven of tranquility during our stay. This has helped to dissipate the fears of many of our families in South Africa and helped us concentrate on our mission rather than be consumed by our emotions, which could have possibly been the outcome in the event of any attack. In just a few hours we will say farewell to Gaza. The most pressing question of the hour though is, Will the same tranquility prevail after we leave?