What struck me most, what struck all of us, was to witness the incredible resilience we found here. None of us (except for Hagit, but that was a long time ago) had visited Gaza before. I don’t think any of us had a clear sense of what to expect. Of course we had certain ideas, but it is hard to retrieve them now, after the fact. Upon reflecting backwards, while I had rationally guessed to witnessing the rich-poor gap familiar from other places in the world, I think my hazy semi-conscious imagination had largely focused on witnessing wide-spread poverty and misery (which of course was there). So my first surprise was to see some nice, newly renovated buildings, and especially the hotel into which we were checked. (As I mentioned before, this was much too nice, and definitely more luxurious than what I had expected, or what I am used to!) During the first few days, it was not easy to see the reality on the ground, as we were hosted like royalties through our host university’s hospitality. And even though we visited places like Khan Yunis and its refugee camp and got to speak to very interesting people, a lot of the poor neighbourhoods in the streets we only experienced from our air-conditioned van (see e.g. my previous post Khan Yunis). The truth, of course is, that Gaza has a rich elite, and it also has a middle class. The three days spent at university, our personal encounters were probably concentrated on the middle class, although frankly, it is impossible for me to say which of the students I talked with, or how many of them, were coming from very poor backgrounds or refugee camps. (I know of a few where this is the case.) I need another visit, more prolonged one, to try to understand more of the close-nit social webs of this society. Short visits to nowhere in the world give you this kind of insight. The fact that Gaza is under a brutal occupation and siege where even the basic elements of human dignity are withdrawn by the oppressors, that it is a divided society (– surely not more than any other, but again, effects of division seem exacerbated under occupation and siege), presumably make it that Gaza is even harder to penetrate from an outsider’s point of view.
But what I wanted to say in this post, before I got side-tracked, is how amazed we all were at the incredible resilience of the people living here. There is a vibrant artistic, intellectual, academic community, and people somehow carry on with their lives, resisting occupation and the blockade. This certainly gained our admiration. (See for example Chomsky’s recent piece, Impressions of Gaza, where he mentions this aspect, although his focus is on the brutal aspects of the siege and its history.) This resilience is greatly helped by something towards which most, probably all, Gazans we met have ambivalent feelings: the tunnel trade. The tunnels have been called “the lungs through which Gaza breathes”. They are an excellent example of Palestinian resilience and creativity and have done much to help (some sectors) of the economy, to help many things being restored, and generally to help greatly reduce the stranglehold of the siege on Gazans as well as make Gazan society less dependent on aid. But the tunnel trade is something of a poisoned chalice. Due to the illegality of the tunnels and the almost complete control over them by Hamas, its benefits and revenues are unevenly distributed in the society and disproportionally benefit Hamas alliances. Human rights groups and others civil sectors have complained about a lack of transparency, irresponsibility (e.g. by being too lenient on allowing child labour – at least 160 children have died in tunnels), as well as corruption. There is a very informative, and as far as I can tell, insightful, recent article in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 2012, vol. 41.4: pp. 6-31), that I highly recommend reading to anyone interested: Gaza’s Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics Of Israel’s Siege.
What we were looking for when we went shopping in a Gazan supermarket for the first time were local products. (It was quite challenging to avoid buying products from the occupier. Note also, by the bye, that Gazans have to use the currency of the occupier: shekels.) Here is the hitch, local production has been cut to an infinitesimal part of what it was before the siege. It has suffered tremendous cut downs through Israel’s grueling blockade (internationally upheld through US, Europe, Canada, and legitimised by the “Quartet), and exports are entirely banned by the blockade. (See Gaza Ark for an ongoing project of building a boat to exit Gaza, in support of Gaza’s right to free trade.) However, some local produce can of course be found. Those that we particularly enjoyed included olive oil (a very generous present from our friend Ayah!), certain fruits (e.g. figs!), coffee, bread:
Also crafts items, for example the Atfaluna crafts center, which some of us went to (I missed it, sadly, but see Verena Stresing’s blog, which describes the visit), and from where you can purchase online (Christmas coming up!).
And, here I come to my favorite story of a local product that I encountered during our visit: honey. I was made a gift by our friend Hani, and brought back a most delicious, and most deliciously subversive honey: This honey was made by bees that live close to the border, and which therefore frequently cross over and get their nectar from Israeli plants! What a creative feat: subversive Palestinian bees breaking the siege by bringing nectar across the border! (I hope the Israeli defense forces will not use any bionic hornets to attack those bees, now that I’ve written about them. I also assume it must be dangerous for those who harvest the honey from the hives, as coming close to the border comes with a warning: you might be shot! E.g. a harmless man getting too close to the border was shot by Israeli soldiers only yesterday! )
For me it was positive and unbelievably uplifting to be able to witness how people do carry on their lives, continue living, educating, building, safe-guarding their families, their children as best as they can. All the while Israel (with a little help from US, Canada, Europe, …) is doing all it can to prevent a normal society from flourishing. I wish everyone could spend just one day in the open air prison that is Gaza. For anyone not yet converted to the cause of justice, this would change their mind on this issue, I have no doubt.
What can we do to help? The first thing is to not be indifferent. To pass on the message. Talk about it to friends, colleagues. Share information on it. Gaza is not a humanitarian crisis, as Israel and others likes to paint it. This is a very deliberate, artificially created, cruel situation. It is consequently easy to reverse, all it needs is political will. Debunk what the corporate media and our politicians tell us. This is one of the easiest cases to make, since the facts speak for themselves. (Here is a precious site: http://www.ochaopt.org/) The pretext of imposing this suffering for Israel’s security is a pretext that is so flimsy that it takes genius not to see through it. (I have to accredit the expression ‘it takes genius not to see it’ to Chomsky– I couldn’t resist stealing it here.)
And — eat honey from Gaza … This is what I am doing this morning, back in cold and wintery Montreal, but with my heart and mind half still in warm Gaza. (And yes, Hani, I’m thinking of you and Maya, again, and again! Greetings from my kitchen in Montreal.)