Letter from Gaza

By Chris Williams

As you pass through the Erez checkpoint that marks the entrance from Israel to the Gaza strip, you notice the complete change in condition in which people live. Usually as I enter Gaza I breathe a sigh of relief, but this time the air was thick with tension and the biting smell of burning rubber. The first signs that all was not well were the scorch marks on the asphalt, followed by the concrete blocks and overturned garbage bins in the middle of the road. Hanging from the trilingual Hebrew, English and Arabic sign declaring "Welcome to Gaza" was the outlawed Palestinian flag. With 600,000 people crammed into such a small area, it is difficult to find a scene which is totally devoid of human activity, but that is what I saw.

At night it is time to sit in your house, listen to the news, and wait. How many killed today? Will this be the house the soldiers choose next? Day is different. Men and women, and boys and girls stride forward to set up barriers on the road with garbage bins and blocks to disrupt traffic. Then they wait for the soldiers.

My first day in Gaza we visited Bureij refugee camp. Children as young as five were guarding a barrier, and refused to let us pass, despite our UN license plates. Farther down the street the older boys stood burning tires. The thick smoke rose into the air, signaling nearby Nuseirat and M'ghazi camps that Bureij was demonstrating. Looking in every direction, you could see that all the camps in Gaza were demonstrating that day, that they had all had enough of military occupation and economic exploitation of their land and their people.

We stopped inside a shelter that barely resembled a garage, a typical refugee home made of concrete -- cold in the winter and stifling hot in the summer. Inside there were two rooms. One was a small storage area, the other was ten feet by twelve feet and made up the kitchen, bedroom and living room for a young woman. She was 24 and three months pregnant. Her one-and-a-half year old lay asleep beside the bed. A few days previously, her husband had caught a stray bullet as he came home from worship. Before he died her future had been bleak. Her husband has been a laborer in Israel, doing the "Arab jobs," the ones Jews refused to do. For this he had been paid $20 a day, a third of which automatically went toward the cost of travelling the four hours to and from work. Then there were the taxes and the union dues, for which he received no benefits or services.

She knew that when her children reached the age of ten or eleven they would be taken from her to live with her deceased husband's family. In other aspects, the heavily male-dominated society has seen some breakdown of traditional roles, simply out of necessity. If the men are able to work, they are often six out of seven days in Israel working illegally. Women have gained increasing authority as their men are deported or killed. I hear numerous stories about women's intervention in the conflicts between the men and the Israeli soldiers.

Jabalaya Camp, with 60,000 inhabitants, is the most densely populated in the Gaza strip. The day we arrived the Israelis declared that supplementary feeding centres for children five to fifteen were to be closed as a security measure.

We continued on to a preparatory girls' school where about 100 women with babies had staged a peaceful occupation of the school. The scene was a disturbing one which had pitted 18- and 19-year-old boys dressed as soldiers against women who were asking why the Israeli soldiers kill their chidren.

One night we went from the teeming refugee camps of Gaza to the residence of the Canadian ambassador outside of Tel Aviv. We were there to meet John Fraser, speaker of the House of Commons. Five of us Canadians listened in amazement as he described Israel as a "free and democratic country." He talked about how he had personally worked on the freeing and reunification of Soviet Jews with their families in Israel. Later as I passed the checkpoint back into Gaza, I thought about the 5,000 Palestinians cut off from their families in Rafah, 30 kilometres away. The Camp David Accord had placed the Israeli-Egyptian border right through the town. The only way people could communicate with their relatives was through the "Shouting Fence." Any hope of reunification had been destroyed when the Israeli settlers had lobbied the government to reverse its decision to allow the Palestinians in Rafah back into Gaza.

vidence of the turmoil was clearly seen in the number of lawyers and parents waiting outside the Ansar II prison camp in Gaza town. My father lived very close to the entrance of the camp, and on a cold day took a supply of coffee to the waiting people, including the Israelis guarding the camp. One of the guards was a recent immigrant from the United States, serving his mandatory term in the forces, which included service in the occupied territories. He seemed confused. He told my father that he did not come for "this," as he motioned to the long line of worried parents and the squalor of Gaza farther down the road.

The image that will always stick in my mind was one from Jabalaya. The camp was under curfew and food supplies had run out. We stood at the side of a muddy street as a Volkswagon van came barreling around a corner in an effort to smuggle food to the hungry people. It was absolutely full of huge cabbages. There were so many cabbages in the van that the leaves were sticking out window looking like a crude attempt at camouflage. Israeli jeeps were in hot pursuit and managed to pull the van over. As we left we could see him inside the Israeli army camp, spreadeagled against the wall. I don't know what happened to the driver or his cabbages. p

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988

Peace Magazine Apr-May 1988, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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