I’m sat in the shade of an olive tree in the café gardens at the Lutheran World Federation guesthouse that is my home for the last three nights of my stay. I have some cheesecake and a glass of apple juice cold from the fridge. There are children playing in the garden, chasing the multitude of cats. I can hear Arabic, German and English speakers, the last in a variety of accents including Canadian. I can hear the drums of Ultravox’s Vienna coming from a window in the compound.
Clearly it is a stark contrast from this morning.
I woke early this morning and could hear the cleaners out in the hall. I thought one of them kicked the door but the windows rattled too. I figured if it was anything untoward the host or Neil would come banging on the door. No one did. I checked Twitter and found reports of a Hamas rocket test in west Gaza City, which is where we are staying.
Ten minutes later the reports on Twitter changed and said it wasn’t an explosion but a sonic boom caused by Israeli fighters buzzing the coast. It seems they’ve been doing it the rest of the day.
I wasn’t frightened because I thought the noise and vibrations were a wayward cleaner. Even knowing where I am, having an app that alerts us to any incident across the region, having had lots of training, it just didn’t occur to me to think that what I heard and felt was anything to worry about.
But I thought of the people who have talked of the terror they experienced during the wars and how these things must be terrifying in their own right but the memories they must bring back.
I thought of a girl I spoke to who said “we’re alive, but we’re never safe.”
I thought of the high percentage of people, of all ages, who have PTSD, anxiety and depression and what their days must be like when they were woken by an explosion.
Life goes on but this constant pressure is tangible. It is very, very real.
We talked with a Palestinian Christian this morning. He is married with three children under seven. He spoke about the occupation, the unemployment, the infighting, the low wages and high food prices, the lack of homes. He said “Gaza will soon explode.”
We asked him if he could leave, would he? “Yes, of course,” he said without hesitation. “I would stay, but I must leave for my children. For their future, always, I think about their future. But I can’t leave.”
He has family all over the world, in Germany, Canada, Finland. But he has a Gaza ID card and is around 30 so will not be going anywhere.
We walk through the kilometre long cage-tunnel towards Israel. There are sheep accompanying us on the walk, albeit on the outside of the cage.
There are a couple of groups of young men with wheelbarrows and handcarts scavenging in what is essentially no man’s land up to the wall. They’re picking up bricks and pieces of metal. I fear for them as I’ve heard so many reports of people being killed when venturing too near the wall.
The crossing out of Gaza was as smooth as we could have hoped. There are a series of checks, our luggage is well rummaged and x-rayed. Our bodies are scanned. We are herded through a series of scanners and pens; you must wait for the light to go green before proceeding.
A row IDF personnel peer out of windows high above the processing area, watching us. Neil is asked questions ahead of me by a border control guard: Who are we, who do we work for, what were we doing, who did we visit, when did we enter, where are we going next, when do we leave the country?
I’m asked for my father’s first name. My face is scrutinised; I let my hair down before I entered the booth because I might look more like my passport photo. I know this sounds silly but I don’t think I look like my photo, especially today as I have a rotten cold and my sinuses are swollen, changing the shape of my face. She looks at me for a long time, then stamps my passport.
We pop into West Jerusalem to a café just outside Jaffa Gate for some lunch. It’s a whole grain sandwich with falafel, pickles, harissa, boiled egg and is possibly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.
We have a couple of hours to spare and thought about walking in to the Old City but there have been some more incidents, this time at Herod’s Gate where were just last week. Instead we head to the guesthouse after eating lunch. On the way I nip into a pharmacy to grab some lozenges for my throat.
It’s all so easy.
We arrived in Jerusalem and drove onto the Lutheran World Federation compound and past the entrance of the gates of the Augusta Victoria Hospital. This is the facility we heard about yesterday in Gaza at Al Alhi hospital. We were told that this is where Palestinians from Gaza would come for cancer treatment, if they were able. A handful of permits to travel are given to those needing treatment, but more often than not they aren’t issued at all. Or they aren’t issued until it is too late. I heard about a woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a mastectomy but couldn’t access chemo or radiotherapy and waited a year for a permit. She died while she was still waiting.
It took me less than 3 hours to exit Gaza and drive to the front door of the hospital.
I don’t have cancer. I do have a British passport and a job with an NGO.
We’re in the kitchen of the guest house now as the sun has gone down and it is cold. I’m chatting to Neil and he said it feels like we should be in a different time zone. Leaving Gaza and being back in Jerusalem feels like we have taken a long flight to a far off land rather than driven an hour up to the mountains from the coast.
I wanted to come out of Gaza focusing on the little bits of hope I found there, the inspiration from the young people I met, Father Mario. Buoyed by the dedication of the staff at NECC, Al Ahli and the YMCA. And I am, when I focus on them and think of their stories, I have hope.
But it is hard to keep focussed on that. It feels like that little bit of hope could be so easily extinguished. Can they take another war? Aren’t they always at war? Maybe if I get to return and meet some of the people I’ve met again. The conversation may not be about the war and occupation and the impact on their lives and families. Maybe it won’t – it invades everything from what I can see.
I find myself comparing the situation of the people I met in the West Bank to those in Gaza. Their struggles are different and the same and different and the same….but will the West Bank end up like Gaza when the wall is complete. God, I hope not, please.
Because my overriding feeling is that while right now the West Bank is still waiting for a solution, Gaza is waiting for the end.
I know this is a tidal wave of emotion after my first visit to this region, let alone the West Bank and Gaza. Talk about in at the deep end. On a training course before I left the UK I was told it would be like this and I should arrange to speak to someone, a counsellor maybe to help me process what I feel. I will. But I feel bad about using the word ‘I’ so much. I can’t wait to start telling the stories of the people we met.