GAZA - A Dangerous Place!
By Dr Eyad El Sarraj
12 June 2003:
My son Wasseem and I met in Cairo a few weeks ago. We planned to travel together to Gaza by road. Wasseem, coming from London where he lives, wanted to feel Gaza and relate to its people.
Only two days in Cairo, and the Israeli Government declared Gaza a closed area for foreign nationals. This was due to repeated incidences in which foreign nationals were killed by Israeli soldiers. The Israeli government was already under attack for that and for its surprising demand that foreign nationals should sign in a statement relieving the Israeli army from any responsibility in case they are killed by its soldiers.
The latest decision meant that Wasseem as a British citizen would not be allowed to enter Gaza, his birthplace. Only diplomats are allowed in. So we had to part. Wasseem was to stay in Cairo as I travelled to Gaza, alone. It was not easy for either of us but then again this is only an expression of our life, brief meetings and saying good bye.
By a lucky stroke, an official discovered that Wasseem is entitled to a Palestinian identity number since he was born in Gaza to a Palestinian father, and that meant he can enter Gaza. So Wasseem arrived but with Israeli conditions that he will only leave Gaza with a Palestinian passport and that he is not allowed to cross the borders to Israel
Immediately we started the process of obtaining a Palestinian passport for him. All was done on time for us to travel back to Cairo, where Wasseem would return to London while I fly to join the world Psychiatric Association meeting in Malta.
By seven o’clock on Sunday June 8th, we were ready to start our journey, Samir, my friend and driver joined us for breakfast as usual. As usual Samir switched the television on Aljazeera when he learnt that four Israelis and three Palestinian fighters were killed early that morning at the northern border of Gaza. Samir knew from experience what that meant. It could be a strict closure, and /or bombing. He was right. The two gates of the Gaza strip were closed. No one, not even diplomat were allowed in or out. Professor Jan Ter Laak of psychiatry from the Netherlands arrived to the Eretz border post on Friday night and was denied entry to Gaza. He was to teach at Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. The Dutch embassy advised him to find a place to stay in the nearby Ashkelon, and they promised to help him to find a place to stay in the nearby Ashkelon, and they promised to help in crossing the border. On Sunday he and the Dutch diplomats were denied entry. He is not the only one.
When foreigners come to the border crossing they usually meet surprised Israeli soldiers who wonder why these civilised people come to Gaza. Some are suspicious sometimes hostile and they don’t hide their disgust at what they think is betrayal if not anti-Semitic behaviour of these civilised westerners.
Many foreigners are warned not to go into Gaza. They are told that Gaza is a dangerous place, because Palestinians live there. Israeli officers do not tell the whole truth. They don’t say that throughout the first and the second Intifada not a single foreigner was hurt by Palestinians. The only American ever killed in Gaza was Rachel Corrie, the peace activist who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer. Two British journalists were killed recently by Israeli snipers; James Miller, and Thomas Hurndall who is clinically dead hanging to a life machine.
We later learned that even without the Israeli closure of Gaza, it was not possible for Wasseem to leave the strip through Rafah to Egypt. That now he is a Palestinian means that he would not be able to travel without a prior Israeli permission, a military rule that is applied to all Palestinians under thirty five years of age. Of course flying through Tel Aviv airport is not allowed for any Palestinian without prior Israeli military permit. Wasseem took all that in his stride and suggested that he could do some work for me while waiting, and that he could also learn Arabic. He was consoled by my sister Shadia, who said jokingly “ we have arranged it with the Israelis so you would stay for Saleh wedding”.
On the morning of the 10th , Wasseem has left with Samir to buy a suit for a the wedding of Saleh. I started writing an email to Professor Ahmad Okasha, President of the World Psychiatric Association explaining why I am not with them in Malta. Then all of a sudden there was a huge sound of explosion, like thunder. My first reaction was to reach the telephone and find out about Wasseem and Samir. The mobile phone of Samir did not respond, a familiar problem as the Palestinian company Jawwal has sold more sim cards than it can handle, resulting in the network failure whenever you really need the phone while the company officials blame Israel for not allowing the needed equipment.
It turned out that Israeli gun ships have sent several rockets in the middle of Gaza in an attempt to kill Dr Rantissi, a Hamas leader. Instead they killed a woman and her child, and injured 35 civilians.
I was so angry. This act alone should disperse any illusion about Sharon and his declared desire to bring peace. Wasseem came home later with Samir. He was happy for the suit which he put on and showed me. He is such an elegant boy, I said to myself. In fact his Arab name means literally that.
Samir told me that while he was driving back home he realised at on moment that he was immediately behind a car that was carrying Ahmad Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas. Samir said he stopped for a while before resuming driving, just in case!.
One day after the failed attempt to assassinate Rantissi, Sharon ordered the killing of another Hamas leader who reportedly was conducting a seize fire talks with Abu Mazen.
Tragically and typically Palestinian militants responded. Fourteen Israelis were blown off in a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem bus.
Wasseem was glued to the Television screen, following the streams of blood in horror. At night we heard people shouting and pointing to the sky. Wasseem and I looked up and we started counting Israeli jets. Among the clouds there were more than fifteen. I had a sinking feeling that Israelis are going to destroy us with their massive power. I was terrified. When I looked up again there were no jets, only stars. I realized then that it was the moving clouds that gave us the illusion of so many Israeli jets. Wasseem and I confessed that we were affected by the communal hysteria and stress.
Nevertheless Israeli Apachi copters landed few missiles killing seven people in Zaitoon, the old part of Gaza. AT 2 o’clock in the morning we went to bed. I was so worried about it all.
It is only because of the Israeli occupation, that Gaza has become a dangerous place, but particularly for the Palestinians who lost in the last two years alone more than 2500 people killed by Israeli fire. Several thousands were maimed and some are handicapped for life.
If Palestinians and Israelis are equal in anything it is their thirst for revenge. Only the suicide bombings with horrific scale have balanced the Israeli F16 evil bombing and its brutal occupation of Palestinian land for the last four decades. Today while Wasseem and I are trapped in Gaza, many Israelis are trapped in fear.
And every one wonders if there will ever be an end. Will Abu Mazen bring security to Israel? Will Sharon end the Israeli occupation? Will Bush make his vision of a Palestinian state come true?
There are no indications that any of these questions is positively answered. Abu Mazen has the internal power struggle and the extremists to crush him. Sharon has his dreams of greater Israel and the Zionist militant right to defeat him. And Bush is surrounded with the Neo-conservatives.
It will not be surprising that together with Sharon, Bush will decide soon on the removal of the regime of Arafat and Abu Mazen altogether, to reoccupy the entire West Bank and Gaza in order to “liberate” its people!
Did they not try it in Afghanistan and in Iraq? Why not Palestine?
Yet I’m clinging to the hope that the day in which Israel will be liberated from fear, from racism and from military extremists will come. I’m hopeful that Palestine will be liberated from the humiliation and inhumanity of military occupation. I am hopeful that our children in Israel and in Palestine will live in peace and in dignity. The day will come when Wasseem will be able to travel as a free man.