Glimpses of Gaza
It’s early afternoon in Gaza City on December 3, 2015.
Accompanied by two Muslim employees of a Christian NGO in the Strip, I’m sitting in the back of a white van as it cruises through the narrow streets, a bullet hole in the windshield a stark reminder of the last war, desperately trying to get my cell phone to connect to an Israeli service provider so that I can set this blog to “private” and not risk outing myself.
It’s been an interesting day and I only crossed the border this morning.
My parents don’t know I’m here. No one in my family knows I’m here. I’ve given a colleague back in Canada my parents’ phone number “just in case anything happens.”
Israel gave me permission to enter Gaza the day before. The Palestinian Authority had approved my request the day after I made it, weeks previously.
I’m here on behalf of The United Church of Canada, gathering audio-visual material about a partner organization, the Near East Council of Churches (NECC)-Gaza, particularly their health clinic and apprenticeship work.
To be honest, I was nervous coming here because of all the bad press Gaza gets. But I reminded myself that there was no active conflict at the moment – no rockets going out or bombs coming in – so I was likely as safe in Gaza as I was in Jerusalem at the moment, where tensions were high after a spate of stabbings. Jewish Israelis were on high alert after numerous stabbings – many fatal – by Palestinians. Palestinians were hyper vigilant because the Israeli army had given soldiers permission to shoot to kill if they felt threatened, and no one knew what that meant. Did it mean reaching into your pocket for your ID and the soldier thinks you have a knife? There were also rumours of knives being placed at the scene after unarmed Palestinians had been shot.
So with all of that going on in the background, maybe Gaza wouldn’t be so bad.
I arrived at the Erez crossing bright and early that morning, hoping for smooth passage through. It was relatively simple – the main Israeli border officer who looked over my permission was one of the nicest I’d dealt with so far, though I did have a minor hiccup when the previous Israeli officer switched my first and last names.
Then, I went through a maze of largely unmanned passageways and tunnels in crossing the border. No one waved me through – I would just stand in front of sealed doors, waiting for someone on the other side of the security camera to push a green button so I could pass through the long metallic-like corridors.
On the other side, I had to cross the security checkpoints of Fatah and Hamas (I can’t remember in which order), and was met by an employee of NECC-Gaza. From there, I visited the head office, two apprenticeship programs (one for fashion design and one for aluminum engineering), and a health clinic in Shijaia that focused on women’s and children’s health.
I met so many amazing people, some with stories of triumph and some with tales of horrendous pain.
One of the young women in the fashion apprenticeship program, Reem Alharzeen, had a message for those outside of Gaza: “The world thinks we’re are all suffering, but we are businesswomen too. We can be very successful.”
(It was here that I gave one of the women my business card, which links to this blog where I openly talk about being gay, and realized when we’d gotten back into the car that that might not have been such a good idea in an area that isn’t exactly gay-friendly. I’d been careful to “play it straight” in many countries and areas where I was travelling, but momentarily forgot the risk in the friendliness and welcoming I was receiving.)
At the clinic in Shijaia – a clinic that had been bombed by Israeli airstrikes a few years previously and had lost all of their files so is now using an electronic system – I met this couple. They were sitting in the prenatal waiting room for a checkup, having recently found out they were expecting twins. “Mubarak,” I told them, in my limited Arabic – meaning “Congratulations.”
This woman, Nisreen Alkhateeb, who works at the clinic as a cleaner, broke down during our on-camera interview as she told me about her son who had taken refuge in a UNWRA school during the summer 2014 war. The school her son sheltered in, along with a couple others, was bombed by the Israeli air force during the war. Her son and two nephews were killed; her aunt was injured. She said she hopes peace will spread all over Gaza – “I want to see all of Palestine at peace. We cannot tolerate any more wars.”
Almost everyone I met was incredibly welcoming and curious about why I was there, as I’m sure I was an unusual sight – this tall, blonde, white woman out and about in the streets of Gaza. One NECC-Gaza staff member took me, his wife, and their twin toddler sons to the beach as the sun set and to see parts of the city after dark. It was beautiful – I took loads of photos, and some local teenage girls wanted some selfies too of course.
However, one woman did stop us in a parkette area, asking who I was. The questions took an uncomfortable turn, and I got the feeling my Gazan friends were not translating everything she was saying. But the gist was, “Are you Muslim? Why are you not Muslim? I think you should become a Muslim.” I wisely decided that the best course of action was simply to say “Inshallah” (If God wills it) with a smile and move along.
From what I could see, Christians and Muslims get along quite well in Gaza. In my opinion, it’s likely from a common experience of oppression and war in what some describe as the world’s largest jail.
The description is apt – considering Erez is the only way to leave overcrowded Gaza and very few Palestinians are allowed to cross.
On the Friday morning I was there, we visited Gaza’s oldest – and possibly only – church, serving Gaza’s 1300 Christian people, mostly Greek Orthodox. It’s a 1600 year old Byzantine church – there were once two churches on the same site but one of the churches was gifted to the Muslim community for their worship, with the Christian community worshiping in the other. The church and the mosque share a wall, as can be seen in the photo below.
But of course, there were some glimpses of anti-Semitism, like the store named Hitler in downtown Gaza City or this sign on the Gazan side of the Erez crossing. I can’t read the Arabic, but I think the gist of the message is fairly clear.
After spending nearly two days and one night in Gaza, I headed back to the Erez crossing before it shut down for the Jewish Sabbath. Arriving before noon, I met the same Israeli border officer who had let me in the day before. She asked me some more questions, and when I said I was heading to Tel Aviv and had never been before, she said, “Well, I don’t want to keep you from experiencing all that Tel Aviv has to offer. Off you go!”
And so I headed back into Israel, on my way to interview some Israeli gay men for a story on surrogacy before I went to a queer Palestinian party in Jaffa put on by Al-Qaws that evening.
Thus completing one of the most surreal two-day experiences of my life.
But I did make one mistake – letting the Israeli border control officer stamp my passport, which would prove to be a HUGE headache when I was leaving Israel for Turkey the following week. (…to be continued)