Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The blog back

I’m not sure how to begin after such a long absence. Maybe my apologizing to my readers for leaving you in the blue like that. Maybe by offering that it was a combination of factors- exhaustion, preoccupation (life, work, family…, maybe by saying there is no excuse at all. Sometimes you need a break from it all.

So much has happened since we left Gaza and in such a short period of time. If was mentally exhausting being there, it is even more overwhelming being away. And processing it all.

I was in Gaza during the months of May and part of June shooting a film (ok, two films) with my friend and colleague, one about the tunnels along Rafah’s border, another about the remarkable story of Fida Qishta and her attempt to establish Rafah’s only true recreation center amidst everything that is going on there. It was exhausting-but rewarding-work. We were in traveling to Rafah form Gaza City almost every day, for the entire day, in the middle of internal clashes that gripped the City where we live.

We had planned to leave Gaza around the beginning of June, with tickets booked out of Cairo June 7. My parents were to come along with us for a visit. As is often the case in Gaza, things don’t always go according to plan.

Rafah was open erratically during the month of May, and closed entirely in the week prior to our departure. We received word that the Crossing would open around midnight of June 6. Wonderful, we thought, at least we could make our flight, if only barely.

We spent 14 grueling hours on the crossing, along with thousands of other Palestinians, desperate to either leave or enter the Strip. Busload after busload, entire families and their children and spouses were clinging to the ceilings, crushed inside, or piled on top of the luggage in back. Some fainted. Others erupted in hysterics. Everyone had a reason to. There were mothers separated from their spouses. Students needing to return to college. The ill. The elderly. And those with nothing particularly remarkable to preface their reason for traveling with-it was their right, after all.

In the early hours, there was a chill, and we warmed up with sugary mint tea and bitter coffee. But by noon, the midday sun was fierce over our heads with no place to take shade. And so we waited. And we waited. And every time a bus would heave forward a few inches, our spirits would lift a tiny bit, everyone would cheer…

At one point, hundreds of anxious passengers, each following the advice passed down along the Rafah Crossing grapevine from those who had successfully made the journey across, began to pour across the fence into the Palestinian terminal-throwing their bags over first then climbing across themselves-‘it’s the only way you’ll get through today…in a place where there is no order or sense or logic to why and how this damn place opens, you have to find your own way across”. I thought of the tunnels, how one tunnel lord told us some people pay him $5000 just to get into Gaza via a tunnel when the Crossing is closed.

The Europeans “suspended” their operations as a result of the “chaos” for several hours. They eventually returned, but by the time the crossing closed at 2:30pm, we were left stranded on the Palestinian side of the crossing, with the Egyptian side only metres ahead.

It difficult to put into terms what it means when a territory of 1.4 million people’s only passage to the outside world is for closed for the majority of the time, and open for only a few meaningless, infuriatingly slow hours when it is open at all.

We returned to our home in Gaza City exhausted, demoralized, dehumanized. We received word the crossing would open again the next day. We debated whether or not to attempt to cross after the day’s events. We had already missed our flights out of Cairo, and attempting to explain Rafah to distant airline customer service representatives was never a simple task.

A few hours later, we were on the road again. We clung to the hope that at the very least, the crossing might be less crowded the next day. We were sorely mistaken. There was perhaps double the amount of people we saw the day before. This time, the packed buses extended way beyond the crossing. We waited till the afternoon. IT was only then we began to hear –through the taxi drivers-that some skirmish had broken out between Fateh and Hamas in Rafah, that the Fateh-led preventative security building there was surrounded. But we made nothing of it. “Same old cycle”.

Never could we have imagined what would happen in subsequent days.

We waited until the later afternoon. The prospect of our crossing became grimmer with each passing minute, and each bus that didn’t pass. We felt like we were going backwards, not moving forwards. Demoralized, my father decided he wanted to go back to Gaza City – “let’s just wait until next week, maybe it will be less crowded. We already missed our flight.” “No, wait, let me try one more thing” I suggested, remembering the advice of one passenger the days before-“you have to find your own way across”.

I had refused to give in to rule of the jungle the day before. But today, I realized if I didn’t do something quick, we would never get out.

We talked to a taxi driver we had met the day before-a sly, strong headed type you don’t want to get into an argument with, from the Abu Eid family in Rafah. He owned a beat up peugot that had seen better days. He mentioned he knew a way around the crossing-a path reserved for vehicles belonging to the security forces. Desperate, I asked if there was any chance he could take us through that way.

There were no guarantees we would be allowed through, but he could try. And so in a last ditch effort, he drove us to a security gate. We were met with staunch refusals , and “are you crazy-what will they do to us if we let you through!”…we pleaded with them, told them how we had waited 14 hours the day before. But still no pity.

Then, an empty bus on its way back from the crossing drove through. Our driver negotiated with him. He too refused, until he heard our story, saw Yousuf, and finally said “what the heck, come on, I’ll see what I can do…”. And so we crossed, albeit backwards. We drove into the Palestinian side of the crossing, passports already stamped from the day before. An officer saw us, remembered us from the previous day, and let us through hurriedly. As we were getting ready to depart, a European monitor greeted me. “Hello, how was your day?”. How was my day? Is this guy for real?

“Difficult. The crossing is very difficult.”

“Oh but at least, it’s better than yesterday, at least people are crossing.” It was then I realized these monitors were completely detached from the reality beyond the few square metres they…well…monitored in the sanitary confines of the terminal, and back again, 1 kilometre, to their headquarters in Kerem Shalom.

And so by evening, we were in Cairo. And slowly, within the coming days, news began to filter through about what was happening in the Gaza we had only just left behind, the Gaza whose gates were closed shut just after we had left it, and whose gates remain shut to over 6000 people, 19 of whom have died so far.

So maybe you can begin to understand what I mean by mentally exhausting, having left a place where I desperately long to be, even in the worst of circumstances, and yet where I would have been stuck against my will, away form Yassine.

My parents are with me. It is a mixed blessing. My grandmother passed away last week, and my mother couldn’t be there to grieve with her family. Some Palestinians with foreign passports have been allowed through Erez into Gaza, but for those with Palestinian Authority passports (which we carry, and which Abbas has decreed null and void unless issued from his new dominion in the West Bank…) there is no alternative other than Rafah. I’ve had so many thoughts about what’s happening. But it’s all been so overwhelming, so unbelievable; that there can be such collusion, both regional and global, so much bullshit, with so little protest…

And of course the icing on the cake is the recent Haaretz report that Palestinian sources said PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas asked Israel (and Egypt) to keep the crossing closed to prevent the movement of people from Egypt to the Gaza Strip for fear that “thousands of people without supervision” could enter Gaza and strengthen Hamas. Something, not surprisingly, that Erekat and co. deny.

Rafah Crossing has been closed for 45 days now. There are food supply shortages. Electricity shortages. Yet the internal situation remains calm, say family and friends.

When, I wonder, will the global conscience finally awake?


Blogger iNFaMoUsJeSt said...

Laila! Thank God you are all right! I was really really glad to see an entry. It is really good news to know that you are all right.

I am sorry about your grandmother passing away and I sincerely hope she is in a better place now. I do too share your hopes that the world wakes up and puts Palestine as an issue to watch out for! The US needs to have Palestine back in its agenda... though honestly Tony blair is not the best candidate for being a convoy. It needs to be someone both sides acknowledge.

I haven't actually heard how Gaza is doing these days... well at least Alan Johnston was released and a number (though small compared to the rest) of palestinian prisioners were release and that is already something. It is better than nothing.

Please take care of yourself and say hola to Yousuf from DC.

11:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Leyla

I was shocked to follow the news in Gaza especially at the Rafah Border . they have been there over a month , without any change of clothes , without a bath , running out of food, water . some had open heart surgery in Cairo, some are cancer patients , Dialisis , some have babies . one woman gave birth at the gate , one died .
some young guys shown on AL jazeera said they sold their watches, their belts, their mobile phones even jackets to people in Egyptian Rafah , to buy food and water , now they have nothing to sell except their bodies ,they said.
a team of voluntary Doctors finally went and talked about diseases and skin problems and breathing problems etc... (on A press conference on AL jazeera 4th channel) it was sad to read all that knowing that the egyptian government is ignoring the plight of the palestinians ever since it became only concerned in Israeli security only.
Egypt blames Israel for having the main decision to open the gates . Gaza truly has become a horrible prison and people are desperate .

Im sure if these people were Jewish , Jewish groups and communities would have screamed and demonstrated until this was solved but we arabs are Doing nothing , yes , nothing . Pathetic. where is the islam , the Arab identity and compassion , or humanity ?? Shocking . where is the conscience of the Arab leaders for watching this and keeping quiet , where is the UN or Dr Sanjay Gupta of CNN , doesnt he care ??? i sent him a email but he still ignores the plight of the palestinians at the rafah border .

11:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


in the last 3 weeks , Israel has kidnapped 127 palestinians from the westbank but the media wont tell you that . Almost everyday they arrest a few . so the few they released will be replaced in no time.

Israel also tends to release mostly those who are finishing their sentences within days , weeks or months . there are those who had done 25 and 30 years who have not been released or youngsters who are under 18 who used stones only etc.. Palestinians have 11000 palestinians in israeli jails .

12:08 PM  
Blogger John Mullis said...

Laila Asalaamalyakum

So glad you're back, Allah ho Akbar. You have become like one of the family and we have worried for your safety and for Yousuf and your parents.

Loved your report on the tunnels, it was exciting to hear your voice. Thanks to you we now know more about Rafah than anyone else in New Zealand, especially the non existent crossing!

12:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a day passed when I didn't think of you, and wonder how you and your family were doing. Thank you. Thank you for raising my conscience....

Awaiting your documentary with bated breath.

Any way your readers could support the rec center?

Take good care, Laila.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Donald Liebich said...

Laila: I am glad that you are back safely. Wiyhout your posts it is really hard to find out what is going on. Our prayers are wiyj you and your family.

4:07 PM  
Blogger neenermom said...

Laila, I am a long time reader of your blog and have been concerned for you and Yousuf since your last post. I am glad that you have survived another crossing. I know that I can not begin to comprehend the situation you regularly face in traveling into and out of your homeland, but I sincerely hope that your courage and your strength will sufficiently recover to allow you to continue doing what you are doing. My condolences on the loss of your grandmother and my best to Yousuf and your family.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

Laila- I am so happy to hear from you ---even though you come with sad news of your Grandmom (I am veryy sorry to hear) and the very dark news of the crossing fiasco. I have missed hearing the truth of the situation that so many have to suffer everyday. Im sure that you and your family are weary. I missed you and as always prayers are with you.

9:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Im sorry for your grand mother , i missed that piece of sad news . Al Baqia fihayatek. your life is not easy , and you are so brave and courageous . You are doing a fantastic job .

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

good that you are safe,sorry about grandma.....stay why is it you are always trying to go to and fro to egypt...and putting your famliy through all this.....??

8:31 PM  
Blogger Laila said...

Well, namely because I have no other choice-the only way for me, as a resident of Gaza holding an Israeli-issued ID card, to enter, is via Rafah Crossing. If you mean why do I go to Gaza, simply because it is my home, my life, and most importantly, my most basic right. It might not be enjoyable but we come out of the experience stronger. It is always sobering and continues to remind me of what GAza is, what Gaza has become, even after the so-called Disengagement.

3:46 PM  
Blogger nada musleh said...

hello laila,
I'm so happy to see a new entry on ur blog..

it's really horrible what our people are going through in the crossing, hope that the crisis will end soon... but the problem is: if these almost 6000 palestinians cross, won't others come later on? we really need a solution to this problem... only people are paying the price...
sorry for your grandma..
take care and kisses to yousef
I really really love ur blog

11:15 PM  
Blogger Jed Carosaari said...

I feel for you, Leyla. Allayounikum. My prayers are with you, your family, and all the people of Gaza.

3:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there any way to support the work of Fida Qishta's center in Rafah?

11:07 AM  
Blogger Laila said...

A lot of people have been asking about how they can support the recreation center that Fida's organization (Lifemakers) is working on. They are absolyutely in need of all the financial help possible-that has been the major stumbling block so far. I am trying to set up a paypal account for them-I'll also contact her to see what the best way is to go about this. I was just there recently, saw the map, helped her translate the budget, and saw the area of land where it is scheduled to be built. EVerything looks amazing-all that remains is the actual funding. So I will get back in touch, feel free to email me as well:

10:59 PM  
Blogger Bilbo said...

When, I wonder, will the Palestinians stop fighting with each other and with Israel and start working toward building something rather than destroying it? I'm no particular friend of Israel, but I think the Palestinians are in many cases their own worst enemies. Sorry, but that's how I see it.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps when they stop being occupied Bilbo. Go back to bag end.

My thoughts and prayers are with you and Yousuf and the Palestinian people sister Laila. I hope to contribute what I can for the Fida centre when you get the paypal account sorted.

11:18 PM  
Blogger iNFaMoUsJeSt said...

Laila-how does the Fida Center need?

Fatima- are you the one who comments frequently on Angry Arab's blog? just wondering.
May I ask you with all due respect how or where did you find out Israel releasing those whose sentences are almost over and Israel re-filling the jails?

Thank you =)

8:25 AM  
Blogger iNFaMoUsJeSt said...

how much** does the Fida Center need?

9:10 PM  
Blogger Teacher Activist said...

I just returned from the West Bank and can not imagine what you wrote after having seen some of the horrible things I've already seen. My prayers are with all the Palestinians.

As for your comment about the internal situation being calm, I find that to be a strong Palestinian trait. Palestinians are amazing people. They endure so much hardship yet remain calm, loving and hospitable. I can't wait to return and hopefully one day to visit Gaza as well.


9:32 PM  
Blogger Fatima said...

Wow, i don't know what to say. You're post was so moving, I can almost feel your anguish and despair. May Allah lift this oppression from our people. And may He forgive and have mercy on your grandmother, who you couldn't have the simple dignity of grieving over. I have a friend who was planning a visit to gaza after 15 years of being away, but plans changed because of the crossing being closed. so sad.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Laila,

I found your blog for the first time this morning. I lived for two years in Gaza, working with Raji Sourani and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. These days I'm in Afghanistan but my heart and my thoughts are never far from Gaza.

Thank you for your blog - for your work - for the truth you find the energy and time to share here. Having spent many hours and days observing and reporting on the Israeli policy of closure when I was in Gaza (1999-2001) I, like you, just cannot fathom how this can be allowed to carry on. There can be no question that it is a violation of international human rights law and of the Fourth Geneva Convention (collective punishment) so what is the hold up? When will the world move?

In your words "When will the global conscience finally awake?". I don't know - but I know that journalism like your will be part of what will awaken it.

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Laila,

I am sorry for the loss of your grandmother (Allah yirhamha). I was also very worried for you and continue to be anguished at the thousands of other stuck at the crossings. Please continue writing. I know it's hard sometimes. I too am struggling these days with the surreality and darkness of the situation we are facing. But it's voices like yours that provide a glimpse of humanity and hope that spark consciences. Much love my dear. Be safe and strong.


3:52 PM  
Blogger bb_aisha said...

The global conscience is awake, but it's not mobilised. It's simply unbelievable to think it's almost 60 years. Yes,the arab governments are the most to blame, but we,ordinary citizens of the world,who do no more than march in solidarity, donate funds, volunteer, speak out and pray, are also responsible for the ongoing travesty. We have to make it end! but what can we do is what many ask. And shame on them, shame on us all-we do nothing more...

2:31 AM  

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