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END the Occupation of Palestine NOW.

Break the Siege of Gaza

Break the Siege of Gaza
The siege is a genocide and don't say you didn't know

Monday, December 4, 2006

Should we really blame ourselves?

On Wednesday night two weeks ago we heard the news that the Rafah border might be opened for Gazans to leave the following day. That night, thousands of people went to Rafah and spent the night on the crossing point to guarantee that they could leave as soon as it would open. (This has happened many times but often turned out to be a false alarm.)

On Thursday morning the crossing point was opened and some could leave.

Eitimad, a friend of mine, is a widow with two children, her daughter, Nida’, who is 19 years old and is studying in a university in the United Kingdom, and her son, Majd, who is 16 and will finish high school this year. Eitimad is also completing her P.H.D. in the U.K. but she is currently in Gaza for research purposes. Khaled, her late husband, who died in 2004, spent 18 years of his short life in Israeli prisons. The first sentence was for 13 years and after his release he married. When his daughter was one year old he was rearrested for one year. The third arrest was when his son was two months old and the sentence was for four years. Eitimad is a development expert who has been working for different NGOs in Gaza and she is now the Director of the Institute for Developmental Studies.

Like most of the people in Gaza, Eitimad had plans for this summer. She was hoping to let Majd go to Egypt with his aunt’s family and Nida’ would come from the U.K. to join him there, both spending part of the summer holiday in Egypt and then join their mother in Gaza. They were able to enjoy the first part of the holiday but it was impossible to come to Gaza. How could they? The crossing point has been closed since 25 June. Eitimad was suffering because she was not allowed to leave nor were her children allowed to enter. They all have limited time because Nida’ must be at the university on time and Majd must return to Gaza on time for school. After many calls with the children in Egypt and discussions with friends, Eitimad decided to make a very difficult decision. She would allow the children to go to the U.K. alone. Nida’ is used to this but Majd is still young and he is at a critical point in his life. He must finish high school this year. He is not happy in the U.K. He tried after his father’s death to spend a year with his mother and sister, who were both studying, and could not cope with the different culture and missing Gaza. Still, they decided that this would be the best solution and that they could control their emotions. Eitimad would try to see them as much as possible as soon as the crossing point was open.

It is therefore understandable that Eitimad was among the first to go to Rafah when she heard that Israel agreed to open the crossing point. Because she is alone she did not sleep there but when she arrived she already found thousands of people, old, young, women, men, children from all levels of society, educated people, workers, police, the poor. All levels of society were there. But at Rafah they were all equal. Everyone was waiting for the opening of the borders. There was no order at all, only chaos. No one knew where to go, whom to ask, what the procedures were, how they could get to the buses.

Eitimad tried to describe to me how she felt but I cannot even find suitable words for it. The most difficult thing for her was the memory of Rafah. It was almost the same time of the year, in August 2004, when Khaled died. At that time she and Nida’ were in the U.K. It was the first year of her studies for the P.H.D. The border was open at that time for a few days after a long closure. Eitimad and her daughter had to sleep on the Egyptian side for two nights before being allowed into Gaza. So she missed seeing his dead body and attending his funeral as well. She could never forget this experience and her feelings. “For Nida’ it was even more difficult and defined her relationship with the borders,” she told me.

This time it is worse on our side of the border. No one can help anyone. It depends on your physical power to push and fight for a place as near as possible to the gate, closed by the Palestinian security. It is a very narrow area in which at least 3,000 people gathered (the lucky ones who could reach the gate). “Men, women and children were crowded very close to each other, so much so that the parents had to hold their children up in the air so that they could breath.”

The policemen tried to organize people in a queue but many were angry and could not stand any more. “I will bring a Kalashnikov. I won’t only shoot at the walls but also at the people,” one angry young man suddenly shouted. He had been waiting for hours, trusting the policemen, but they said “We can do nothing, we cannot help, it is not our decision.” So people started to rant and rave, forgetting everything about order and civilization. “Each of us had a good reason to leave, schools, universities, work, residence outside, illness, etc.”

Eitimad went late that day, arriving at the border at 1.00 P.M. and hoping that the crowd might have dwindled and that she would have better conditions. She stayed until 4.30 P.M. when someone announced via the microphone that the border had been closed. That day, many people discovered that their families were divided, some of them able to cross and others not. “Some people decided to stay and sleep on the floor because they did not want to lose their precious places. I could not. I know that I am not strong enough for such a situation so I decided to go to Marwa, my friend’s parents’ house in Abasan Village, which is near to the border, instead of returning home to Gaza.” When Eitimad knew that the border would be open the next day she decided to try again and promised herself to cross this time.

The next day she went earlier, arriving at 8.30 a.m., but the place was already full of people. This time Marwa took her by car and tried to help. She forgot all about Marwa and followed a young man of 17. “I felt that he might help me. It seemed that he knew all the ways that could let me enter. I even paid him to help me.” He carried her bag and took it to the hall. It was more organized that day. Women were sitting on the right side and men on the left. It was very hot and humid. “The young man left me after giving me my bag and then, after two hours, we discovered that it

was the wrong place. People started to leave the hall. I asked some where to go, no one answered so I simply followed them, carrying my bag and pushing everyone in front of me. Suddenly I found myself very near to the gate. This is an achievement, I told myself. It means that I will pass through today with a little pushing and patience. I was so happy with myself and I thought that I could even stand there for seven hours.”

“All the social reservations disappeared. It was all right if the head scarves of the women accidentally came off, revealing their hair, because there was no possibility to put them on again, no space to move. Everyone was pushing and shoving. It was all right to touch the other sex accidentally, without any reservations, because there was no space. We forgot all about customs and traditions in this moment. The only focus was to reach the gate and to leave. It could happen that your shirt was open but no one would look at you. You might touch a man in a sensitive place but no one felt that. No one looked at me in a weird way, as they usually do.” (Eitimad does not cover her hair and there were very few women like her in this crowd.) She continued, “It was very hot. Well, it is August, after all. Everyone was pushing. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt thirsty and this frightened me. I looked for water but could not find any.” At this minute I saw an old man fainting and falling, another father was holding his little daughter and threw her to the other side over the fence in spite of the fact that she might get there alone and be lost without her family.”

After a while the police intervened, brutally. They first shot a few bullets in the air to separate the crowd but no one moved. “How could we move? We were very near to the gate and we might succeed in going to the other side,” Eitimad said, so the police started to push the crowd, using bamboo sticks. Still people refused to move. “Frankly, I was afraid. I found a spot by the wall and it was relatively quiet. I stayed there, waiting for another hour and a half. We were all wondering whether the border had opened or not. We were hoping for some confirmation either way.”

This inhuman situation continued. “I do not know. There is something beyond dignity and normal thinking. A mother took a towel from her bag and made a
small tent to protect her children from the sun. But this same mother is the one who shouted at her young daughter who was eating the sand, “you idiot, you animal, you stupid child”. Another mother started to shout at her daughter in front of everyone. The daughter started to cry. It seemed that she was not used to such behaviour from her mother.”

During the entire, humiliating time Eitimad asked herself “Should I stay or should I leave? Can I bear this humiliation? Will I lose my children if I return now? Is it possible that I do not have the will to bear more of this suffering for the sake of my children? I decided to stay and I smoked, can you imagine? I lit a cigarette in front of everyone there. No one saw me but even if they did, I did not want to see anyone.” (It is not usual for women to smoke in public in Gaza. We do not smoke in public places nor in the street.)

“I finished my cigarette and waited for another half an hour. After that, I made up my mind and at l.00 P.M. I decided to return. Everyone was surprised at my decision when they saw me holding my bag and leaving my precious place. I left but I did not

want to go home. I felt so lonely and decided to go to Marwa’s parents’ house. As soon as Marwa opened the door I started to cry and continued to cry even when I saw her old parents. I could not help it. I was feeling guilty. Why am I not physically strong enough to jump over the fence like the young men? But what could I do? I thought I would die. This was my limit!”

Eitimad’s children called her. They were waiting on the other side of the border. They were very angry, blaming her for being unable to do anything. “We saw people coming out. Why couldn’t you just try and push harder to come out, too? We miss you. We need you here. Can’t you overcome your weakness and come through the crowd?” Naturally this made her feel guiltier and she could not reply so she hung up and continued to cry. She could not eat anything and stayed like this until 9.00 P.M.. All that time she was thinking, “I might not be able to see my children for a long time, maybe even for a year. Or perhaps I will be lucky and see them in a few months.” I called them later and explained the situation to them and told them that I could not do anything.

I saw Eitimad several days after these events took place. It seems that she is coping with the fact that she has to live without the children for a while. Some of her friends managed to let her see them through the video conference facility, which is very expensive (approximately 60$ per hour) and she was very happy to have such an opportunity. She felt that her children, particularly Majd, have become independent at an early age but she can rely on them. Majd has promised his mother that he will be good at school and that they will keep in touch with her.

Now, thanks to technology she can see her children via internet. Of course, when Israel allows her to have some electricity.

I wonder if it is Eitimad’s fault that she could not see her children. Is it the Palestinian Authority’s fault? Or is it the fault of the occupation?

Isn't it obvious who is to blame for the chaos on the border? Is it not the controlling power, Israel, which can open and close the border, which can control the life of each and every Palestinian living under its occupation?

Lama Hourani
Gaza City
24 August 2006


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