It has been an intense 24 hours in Gaza - so intense and busy that I didn't have time to write there. But a 24 hours that has been worth every minute. The ridiculous and lengthy wait at the Rafeh border on the Egyptian side (both coming and going) has faded from my mind, but I will make a quick observation ....border crossings can be horrific for people and the less status/money you have the more you are the mercy of systems and petty bureaucrats who love the power they wield. And in case we think Canada is superior in this regard, let's not forget about Mr. Robert Dziekański.
The first person we meet at the Rafeh crossing trying to get into Gaza was a Canadian Palestinian from Edmonton trying to see his sick father. He was quite surprised to see two Canadian MPs next to him. I am pretty sure he did not make it thru, having come that long way. He may have ended up going in via tunnels (more on that later).
Once inside (and "inside" is a more apt description than you'd think, as in a jail like setting), you are struck by the beauty of the Gaza strip nestled beside the Mediterranean Sea. In past years, it was a popular holiday destination for people in the region and there are echoes of grand houses and villas overlooking the sea. But now, a million litres of sewage spills out into the sea, 80% of the roads are badly in need of repair, and the cosmopolitan air of Gaza city is reduced to a crumbling infrastructure. Further north, whole neighbourhoods are flattened and shelled.
Gaza once had a vibrant agriculture industry and the remains of rows and rows of greenhouses are evident. We hear that the strawberries were delicious and always awaited in Europe in December (like Canadians await the treat of mandarin oranges). But the blockade means no replacement for the canvass covers that rip in the wind, no glass, no seeds, no supplies, no tools, and no building supplies; useless.
Well at least there's the sea - abundant. But that too is "contained". When we meet with the fishers at 5:30am, the sun rising atop the minarets in the east, and the graceful wooden fish boats coming in from the nights catch, there isn't much to unload. Sardines - and small they tell us. Israel restricts the fishing limit to less than 3 miles (much less than outlined in the Oslo agreement) and so the once robust fishing industry that used to export to Israel is gone. The fishers scrape out a living and load the containers of sardines onto flat-bed carts driven by horse or mule. Only 20% or the boats are used now. And once out to sea they keep a wary eye open for IDF gunboats that fire warning shots.
The more you ask, the more you don't want to hear, but must hear, to register the impact of the more than 2 year siege of Gaza and the 22 day war.
You never know in advance what it is that will get to you, so I am surprised that for me, it’s the Karni industrial area. It’s not the parliament building, a cascading wreck of concrete, nor the shelled and bombed houses, nor the horrendous refugee camps (800,000 of Gaza's 1.5 million population are refugees) that have existed for ever. Nor is it the garbage, dead animals here and there, and the vacant empty buildings with broken windows and doors hanging off. It’s this industrial area in the north-east part of the city - flattened and obliterated by exiting forces of the IDF. In the last 48 hours of the war they left via this area and destroyed it on their way out. There were 4000 factories and industries. Now there are 250. Gaza was famous for its furniture making. There were biscuit factories, ice cream factories, and machine and industrial enterprises, to name a few. Almost all gone, almost as a parting shot on their way out. It’s only then that I begin to get it - we are so used to the messages that the war was about destroying terrorists. But this was about destroying the economy and livelihood of the whole of Gaza society.
We met a number of local business people. They patiently explain what they are facing. You can tell they have explained it many times, but will continue until they are heard.
"We are not all Hamas or Fatah, or anything, but just people who want to live".
"We are human beings looking for a good future"
"We did business with Israelis, we had imports, exports, and good workers".
"But we have nothing called the economy now".
These are some of the things the business people say as they describe the devastation of their economy and society. But the one that sticks in my mind is one the man who says, "The last neighbour you want is someone with nothing to lose".
It is chilling and real in many ways. And maybe that feeds into the stereotype of the terrorist threat. But it is also thoughtful and full of concern about what has happened and could still happen.
Every single person we meet, NGOs, doctors, aid workers, fishers, young women, and families, say there must be peace and a Palestinian state. Every single person we meet wants a normal life and an end to physiological, physical and political warfare. And they have hope for this. Every single person wants to come and go, just like other people, and not be subject to forced containment. If you're in you can't get out(with a few exceptions) and if you're out you can't get in.
And on it goes, only getting worse.
More later on our visit with UNWRA and the significant work they are doing and the tunnels, which we visited.