My settlement tour: Katrina meets Alice's Wonderland
Its almost 2 am, and I've very tired. I've spent the entire day touring the settlements-a tour of the surreal. I just don't know how else to describe it, but I"ll try. Here's a rough draft and more extended version of an article I wrote for Aljazeera:
Using roads that had been previously blocked off to them, Palestinian from all walks of life-the young and the old, men, women, children, and families, resistance fighters and security forces, slowly filtered into the former colonies after day break to take a glimpse of what was inside.
In the infamous colony of Nezarim, which had strategically split Gaza into two sections and was for so long a pillar and much-hated symbol of the occupation, nothing was left untouched by departing Israeli forces. Trees were uprooted, electricity lines were cut, and vegetation inside greenhouses and around the land had not been watered in over 15 days, leaving a dry and dead landscape.
Palestinians salvaged what they could from the rubble, including copper wires and scrap metal which sells for 8 shekels ($ 2) a kilo in this impoverished territory.
Some children picked large mangoes off a razed tree, while others took to scavenging for leftover toys and books; some found Jewish skullcaps and wore them while posing, oblivious to the irony, next to Hamas flags. Others tied orange anti-disengagemetn ribbons to their heads. All were elated and awe-struck, expressing relief and excitement at seeing the occupation depart. Everybody wanted a souvenir.
“We can finally move freely throughout Gaza and play without anyone shooting at us,” said one, 14-year-old Abdullah Yunis, as he surveyed the remains of ploughed over sniper tower that overlooked his refugee camp.
Amidst the curious crowds, a Palestinian photojournalist walked around in a vest stapled with pictures he took of Palestinians martyrs killed by Israelis forces in years past, including the youngest victim-4-month-old Iman Hijju of Khan Yunis.
“I want them to witness this historic moment with me. I want to also make sure that people never forget what they died for,” he said.
Palestinians wandered around in disbelief, trying to absorb the scene and the moment. For some, like 26-year old Omar Budran, who lost a leg to an Israeli helicopter gunship that fired at a group of Palestinians not far from the settlement in the crowded Nusseirat refugee camp two years ago, the day was particularly poignant.
“It’s an incredible day for me. I am overwhelmed with happiness, and I am optimistic what the future might bring,” he said.
Palestinian forces could do little to stop the largely curious crowds from touring the settlements, though officials say they will take control of the areas in coming days.
“No one in the world can prevent people from expressing heir joy at seeing an occupation depart,” said one Palestinian security officials futilely guarding the gates to the infamous former colony, adding that security forces were making sure the flimsy tarp and wire remains of the greenhouses were kept in tact.
Many Palestinian boys, backpacks still on shoulder, skipped school in favor of the exploratory visits to the abandoned colonies that for so long were a source of their grief and misery.
In the former colony of Kfar Darom, young refugee children from the camp of Dair al-Balah played in an abandoned playground.
“It’s the most fun we’ve ever had, there’s nothing like this in our refugee camp,” laughed 12-year-old Reem Idayn, as she slid down a slide.
Nearby, Palestinian security officers who had been up since 3am for the handover of the settlement lands dozed off under the shade of a large mulberry tree, while young children clamored for a photo opportunity in an abandoned but not yet demolished sniper tower that overlooked a pockmarked UN school.
Across the now-flattened electric fence of the former colony, 53-year-old Sulayman Tawaysha continued to watch the scenes in disbelief along with his six children. The entire family had been up since 3am to see the soldiers leave, at which point they erupted in ululations of joy and put on fireworks display.
“I feel free, for the first time, we all feel free,” said Tawaysha, as his youngest daughter, Buthoor, served coffee and date cookies to celebrate. Her mother, a newly hired headmistress, was at a local school trying in vain to convince schoolchildren to attend classes.
“Tonight will be the first time we can sit outside after sunset without the fear of being shot at by the nearby troops,” added Tawaysha.
The Tawaysha’s house was occupied over twenty times by Israeli forces throughout the Intifada, 17 donoms of their land and 3 buildings they own worth $600, 000 were razed to the ground.
Further south, Palestinians drove past the Abo Holi checkpoint for the first time in 6 years without having to stop and wait for orders to pass, though a traffic jam ensued as Palestinian forces took down a watchtower that Israeli forces had abandoned but not dismantled.
“I can’t believe it-I spent so many miserable nights sleeping here at the checkpoint, waiting for it to open, suffering at their whim,” said taxi driver Samir Dogmosh as he drove through unhindered.
In Neve Dekalim in southern Gaza, the large synagogue in the shape of a star of David, built in “memory” of the former settlement of Yamit in Sinai, was still standing. Flags of Palestinain factions were hoisted on top. Inside charred anti-disengagement literature and flyers advertising “tours” to Gush Qatif as “New Zionism plus Torah True Living in Action” littered the vacated, and mostly undemolished, former settlement stronghold, juxtaposed against the impoverished Khan Yunis refugee camp. “Let us help you to sense the magic being felt daily in this beautiful part of our homeland,” read the flyer.
Everything was in tact, including the settlemetn "town centre", the school, adn the marketplace. Israeli ani-disengagemetn graffiti was hastily spraypainted over and posters of Marwan Barghouthi were put up instead.
Beyond the former colony, Palestinians swarmed the Khan Yunis beach in the fertile and formerly fenced off enclave of Mawasi, which had been off-limits to them for since the start of the Intifada.
“Today I am here to enjoy this historic day with my only son, Abdullah,” said Khan Yunis resident Um Abdullah as she sat under a tin-sheet shelter erected by the seaside, her son playing in the sand nearby. "I came to swim," explained her 4-year-old son, expertly.
Young boys surfed on broken refrigerator doors; children ran boisterously around abandoned sea shacks and flew kites; and families took the day off to picnic.
I had an urge to jump in the sea, to scream and laugh and run unrestrained all at once just like those children. IT was, for a people long deprived of it, the sweet and intoxicating taste of freedom.
But in the end, somehow, I couldn't help but feel like a small hamster, who was released from the confines of a small, decrepit cage with a vexing obstacle course to maneuver around, to a more spacious, less restrictive one, basking in the elation of its new-found freedom, forgetting, for just a moment, that it was still walled in from all sides.
Check out some of my picturse at http://www.flickr.com/photos/gazawia/