Tuesday 8th May
On the hotel terrace in the morning, The Godfather has replaced Titanic as theme music of the day. Instead of mushy romance we now have eerie menace, punctuated by a series of sonic booms rolling in over the sea. Somewhere out there, invisible in the clear blue sky, are Israeli fighter planes breaking the sound barrier. It adds to the strange sense of being trapped in a huge oen air camp. Unlike in the West Bank, where the Israeli presence is clear and present in the form of watchtowers and surveillence as well as armed soldiers and checkpoints along with the omnipresent wall. From the hotel terrace at night, banks of fierce white floodlights emerge over the water, shining out of the darkness. These are a reminder of the three miles limit. The fish are beyond that, of course, and yesterday two fishermen were picked up and taken away by an Israeli patrol for trying to catch sardines.
Around midday we head along the coast to Rafah. The road runs alongside a thin strip of sand fencing off the sea. The water here is not clean enough to bathe in. At Museirat the river is choked with raw sewage. Water is a serious issue in Gaza. The Coastal Aquifer is not replenished sufficiently to provide enough clean water and the blocade means materials needed for repair to the system are not available. As a result large quantities of untreated sewage are released into the water system which in turn brings health problems.
The Israelis cleared some 21 settlements out of this part of Gaza in 2005. It is rich, fertile land filled with palm trees which give the name to the Deir al-Balah refugee camp. In Rafah, we visit the Rachel Corrie Center named after the 23 year old International Solidarity Movement activist who was killed there in 2003. Rachel was acting as a human shield, trying to protect Palestinian homes from being demolished by Israeli bulldozers. The centre provides activites for children. Many have nowhere to go outside school and here they have the chance to act in plays, to draw and to paint. There is a library and films are shown. Children with behavioural problems are provided with conselling by child psychologists.
From the centre we walk up to a tattered tent with an armed guard which marks the frontier zone. Many of the houses along this side of the town were destroyed by the Israelis in 2009. Some kids trail alongside and cheerfully point out which houses have been rebuilt. To them, everything happened ‘zamaan’, as in a long time ago. Such is the memory of a young child. It all blurs into the distant past. One day they will learn all the details but for the moment it is all just a game.
The street ends abruptly in a storm of fine sand whipped up by heavy lorries that grumble out of the cloud and disappear down into the streets beyond. The guard post is a shelled ruin of a building occupied by disgruntled police officers whose meal we have have just disturbed. A tin bowl of beans and a handful of round loaves lie on a bare table. There are no walls, no doors, nothing to stop the dust blowing through. Some fuss is made over our cameras which are duly put away. The lorries continue lumbering through, cutting their way through much less robust vehicles – cars, taxis, motorcycles all struggling through the mayhem.
Beyond you glimpse a cluster of shelters, some of them collapsed buildings, others flimsy shelters of flapping canvas. Grinning phantoms emerge from the shadows; men coated from head to foot in white powder that paints every eyelash and wrinkle, earlobe and hair. Tunnel diggers come to stare at us. We are the spectacle. A group going by on the back of an empty lorry wave as they bump past, to be swallowed up by the billowing sand.
After much to and froing, the guards accompany us across the soft sand to a shelter where we are invited to peer down into a well of darkness. It is twenty four metres deep and the only way down is on two bits of wood looped together into a seat that is winched up and down with an electric motor. ‘The power has gone,’ one of the men explains, without saying if there is anyone stuck down there waiting to come up. The ground beneath our feet is honeycombed with tunnels. There are rumoured to be a thousand of them, varying in length from 200m to almost a kilometre. There used to be five times that number. Some are only a metre square, while others are tall enough for people to walk through. Cars are brought through in sections although apparently there is rumoured to be one tunnel big enough to drive a car through at 20,000 dollars a go. Of course, they collapse on a regular basis. It is an indication of how desperate people are that there prepared to risk their lives and those of their sons. Young boys working the smaller tunnels earn a hundred dollars a day. The men operating the winches earn half of that. They bring in everything from medicine to cement. As if to prove this an articulated lorry loaded high with potato crisps goes by.
Opinion is divided about the tunnels but many Gazans are against them. They earn money for people on both sides, one reason why they are not closed. They also give people an excuse to attack, under the pretext that weapons are being smuggled in. There are aso those who argue that if the tunnels did not exist to alleviate the effects of the blocade, the world would be forced to take action to bring it to an end.
Gaining popular support for the Palestinian cause is also the subject of the meeting we hold with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions coordinators in Gaza later that afternoon at the hotel. Inspired by the anti-Apartheid campaign in South Africa as well as earlier movements such as India’s struggle against British rule, BDS group is determined to raise awareness here and abroad about the importance of boycotting Israeli products, academic institutions and participation in sporting events. There are suggestions about what Egypt can do to aid the boycott, like providing goods that are currently only available from Israel. In the U.S there is growing support for the divestment campaign as well as the boycott. Articles on the subject in the press have multiplied in recent years. Gradually, more and more people are beginning to realise that it is one of the few avenues open to try and bring about real change by non-violent means. The longer Israel is allowed to present itself as a normal country on an equal with any democracy, the longer the illegal occupation and the oppression of the Palestinian people will be allowed to continue.
On our way back from Rafah we pass by the remains of Yasser Arafat Airport. Once a symbol of progress being made along the road to Palestinian statehood the opening in 1998 was a fanfare event attended by people like Bill Clinton. Three years later it was bombed by the IDF and the runways bulldozed. The ruins remain a testimony to that failed dream. The local coordinators are nervous as we wander around. In the distance the Israeli watchtowers can be seen.