Words and photos by Chris van Ryn
My ambulance inches forward until it is perilously close to the bumper of a battered navy blue Nissan utility. Four armed soldiers slouch in the back. One cradles his submachine gun in his lap.
Ahead a large sign proclaims “Welcome to Rafah”. Like a giant articulated slug, the convoy shunts forward to border control: start-stop-start-stop.
I am part of a Kiwi team on an aid mission to Gaza. Egyptian soldiers have been escorting the convoy since the port of Al Arish. We number 150 vehicles, filled with medicines and medical equipment - 380 people from 30 countries.
While driving the 4,000km from London we contemplated the deaths on the Mavi Marmara and the riots which erupted between aid workers and the Egyptian police on a previous convoy, leaving dozens injured. How would things pan out for us?
The entry gate is now in sight. I navigate through a corridor of black-clad, baton armed riot police: full-face helmets behind large acrylic shields. My ambulance moves hesitatingly into this little strip of land called Gaza: 41 kilometres long, 6 to 12 kilometres wide, 1.5 million people.
A large concrete wall looms on my left, The Wall which surrounds Gaza. Above The Wall run continuous loops of razor wire - this is a prison?
Throngs of cheering children besiege us. They converge dangerously in front of our vehicles while elated adults shout, “Welcome, welcome! Welcome to Gaza! Thank you to come to Gaza!” Their gratitude is palpable. Crowd hysteria is rising while Hamas soldiers wave firearms back and forth trying to retain control.
After an excruciatingly slow drive we deliver our ambulances to a large secured compound. The vehicles will stay in Gaza as part of the aid drop off.
A battered bus transports me to a hotel, a seven-storey dilapidated building. Bullet holes pepper the concrete exterior and the windows from the top three floors are missing. My room reeks with an unpleasant odour and when I flush the toilet, the contents seep out over the floor. The bath tap trickles tepid sea water and the deck is smeared with layers of bird droppings.
Soldiers are stationed outside the hotel. As I make to leave next morning I am apprehended by security who grip my arms and escort me back to the lobby.
I want to shoot photos, I complain. “It’s my job”. After intense negotiation I am allocated a driver and a security person. I am allowed out.
The streets are bustling with traffic. In the city centre I get out to walk, agitated security man in tow. Many of the buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes. A government high-rise has been completely destroyed. I point my camera at awkwardly tilting concrete slabs, rubble and barbs of construction steel jutting angrily into the air. Seven missiles from an F16, I am told.
I’m surprised to find an ATM machine. I slot my card in and hit $US400. The transaction is entered, my card returned. But no money. I go inside the bank for a laborious hour to redeem my cash.
My driver takes me to a nearby refugee settlement. West Bank Palestinians fled here when Israel began its land occupation. It is surprisingly clean and well managed with small shops lining a pedestrian-only area, each powered with its own generator.
Further out there is more damage: a factory bombed beyond repair, a large collapsed silo resting on its bruised side, a destroyed concrete floor tilting dangerously. As we round a corner a man with a sledgehammer rhythmically bashes concrete chunks from nearby bombed buildings - pulverizing them to be recast as concrete blocks, badly needed for construction. Nothing can go to waste in Gaza, a country whose infrastructure has been systematically destroyed by Israel.
Dozens of factories have been laid to waste and farmland has been razed by phosphorous bombs. There is no reliable power source. Unused fishing boats in a state of disrepair litter the sea shore and nets lie discarded. Police stations and hospitals have been bombed. Water treatment and sewage plants have been wrecked, causing hygiene to break down and illness to spread.
Random closure of the Egyptian border has prevented the free flow of goods necessary for any healthy economy.
How does Gaza survive?
Palestinian refugees send money from the countries to which they have fled, joined by donations from all around the world. There are 1,500 tunnels leading into Gaza - under constant threat of destruction from both Israel and Egypt - through which exorbitantly priced goods enter the country. 70% of Gaza’s diesel, food, animals and even vehicles come through tunnels.
Gaza has a functioning economy – but it’s on crutches.
The political situation is cryptic. Individuals express concern about the Hamas government. “The truth is, government people take every aid, car and everything delivered to Gaza. They do not give anything to NGOs,” a Gazan dinner host informs me.
But the label of the Hamas as a terrorist organization is unfounded. The military-like management strategy results from conditions of a country under siege and subjected to periodic warfare.
The Hamas vision is that all Palestinian refugees be allowed to return home.
The United Nations with its 194 member states has for several decades passed resolutions confirming that the siege of Gaza is a violation of international law.
Yet it continues.
America, exercising its right of veto within the UN, constantly in favour of Israel, makes a mockery of democracy and disempowers this vitally important global organisation.
For how long will the world sit back and watch?