The power can go out at any moment in Gaza. You could be sitting at your computer, working on an email, or a grant proposal, and then the entire grid shuts down. Every neighborhood is without power for at least 8 hours per day, a conservation technique on the part of the government. The lucky ones have generators, and the smart ones have devices called UBS which maintain a charge for your electronic devices (i.e. computers), allowing the user to turn off the device properly. Nonetheless, this is a frustrating reality for many Gazans.
On Wednesday morning, Nahid picked up Julia and I from the Al-Deira Hotel at 8am. He was bleary eyed, and had not yet found his characteristic energy. I asked him the reasoning behind his demeanor. “The power went out last night. I woke up at 2am to turn on the generator, but it’s hard to go back to sleep.” Before we exited the hotel, he pointed out a vase in the lobby, which turned out to be the shell casing for an Israeli (American made) rocket. It was a very Gaza morning.
I said goodbye to the Al-Deira Hotel, and to A.J., the hotel receptionist. A.J. and I had engaged in a very compelling discussion two nights prior, where he explained to me his personal philosophy on Gaza politics. “We are living in the Islamic Republic of Gaza, didn’t you know?” asked A.J. rhetorically. As an atheist, A.J. studied English at Gaza’s very own Islamic University, but dropped out for the following reason: “I hate fucking Hamas.” A.J. harbored similar feelings about Fatah, and the P.A.
A.J. was a young man of 21, and considered Barack Obama to be one of his idols. He excitedly brought from the back room his copy of Dreams from my Father, which he was reading in its original English version. Obama represented to A.J. a self-made man, who relied very little on support and more on his internal strength. When I asked A.J. if he happened to watch Obama’s Cairo speech, he responded “no, I was besieged here in Gaza.” A.J.’s statement was a direct reference to the Israeli imposed blockade on Gaza, which is often referred to as a “siege.”
This siege is also enhanced by the limitations upon which the Hamas government places on information. Among the 300 satellite channels available at the Al-Deira Hotel, only 2 of them were in English, one of those was Al-Jazeera. It is likely that A.J. was unable to watch the speech because it was not broadcast within Gaza. Nonetheless, Obama represents hope even to the people of Gaza.
Obama came up as a relevant issue in another conversation on Wednesday. July 8th was Mona’s birthday, and there was a gathering in the common room of the ANERA Gaza office to celebrate. One of the women working on the MfP program, the one who made Mona’s cake, is a round-faced young woman with a light complexion. Mona asked me if I thought this woman looked “American.” “Well, what does an American look like? Does Obama look American to you?” Mona laughed and said, “No, Obama looks Gazan.”
At first I didn’t know how to react to this comment, but the following days allowed me to internalize it. Obama resonates not only with Americans for his youth and zeal, but with Africa because of his familial roots, and with Arabs because of his skin color (and possibly his middle name). He is not the familiar face of a white oppressor to these communities. He has a real “in” with the world, and that makes me excited for the future.
Upon leaving the Al-Deira Hotel, Nahid took Julia and I to visit 2 ANERA project sites in Gaza City. Both of the sites were preschools undergoing renovations in impoverished areas. The first preschool we visited had just been completed, and ANERA paid for a new roof as well as new bathrooms and tiling. The second site was still in the process of being renovated. Although I previously stated that ANERA used USAID funding to facilitate these projects, I was recently corrected by our Vice President, Philip Davies. These renovation projects are made possible by private donation.
The second preschool was in the most dilapidated neighborhood I had ever seen. Nahid joked about ANERA renovating the entire neighborhood. The streets were entirely of dirt, and garbage was strewn everywhere. Children ran in every direction, often no older than 3 or 4 years old, and the majority of whom wore no shoes. I asked Nahid if there were more children in Gaza than most other places, and he responded with the statistic that 60% of Gazans are under 16 years old.
The final stop in my tour of Gaza was at the American International School of Gaza in Beit Hanoun. Beit Hanoun suffered from the destruction of Cast Lead more than any town that I visited in Gaza. In every direction, there was a building with a crumbled side, or a broken minaret. We passed multiple tent camps which now serve as housing for many Gazans who lost their homes. The most devastating site, however, was the American International School.
What Nahid described as formerly the “best school in Gaza” now lay in ruins. This was clearly a majestic building at one point in time, but the bombardment of rocket fire changed that. I took away two ironic points about this site. The first was the condition of the sign proclaiming the name of the school; it was entirely in-tact. The sign lingered as a relic of a past life, as a reminder to all visitors that what was once on this site was a place of learning. The second ironic point was that the grass in the yard was still green. Nahid boasted proudly that ANERA installed water tanks at the AIS several years ago to water the grass, and they clearly braved the storm of rocket fire.
I took a lap around the school and observed the extraordinary damage. The entire bus fleet had caught fire and likely exploded as evidenced by the lack of windows. The doors were all rusted out, and traces of flames scarred the metal. I came across a grammar book strewn on the ground near the school. This book somehow avoided being burned or destroyed in the rocket fire, and now posed the following question to any passer-by: “What did you see?”
Nahid took Julia and I back to the Erez checkpoint, where we had to wait for coordination between the P.A. station, and the Israeli authorities. Although Hamas controls Gaza, Israel does not at all communicate with this terrorist organization. Therefore, when people want to cross back over into Israel, the P.A. serves as the conduit for prompting this movement. We were quickly approved, and we approached the Erez terminal, thanking Nahid for his hospitality.
The security measures for entering back into Israel are much more extensive than leaving. A traveler must first enter a room and open his/her bag and hold it open for a surveillance camera. A voice tells you to move through when they’ve seen enough. The traveler must then empty his/her bag of electronics and place them separately from the rest of the luggage on the conveyor belt for scanning. Once your luggage is en-route, the traveler walks into a tube with a rotating scanner which fully encloses you, and looks at your body 360 degrees.
The traveler then follows a disembodied voice projected from on-high which provides prompts for the subsequent steps. The voice, in reality, is simply an Israeli soldier looking down from behind bullet proof glass speaking through a microphone. The soldier guides you through a maze, and your steps are incumbent on how menacing you look. I was directed into a back room where I was asked to remove both my button-up shirt and my undershirt for the purpose of their placement on an x-ray conveyor belt. I was clean, so they let me through.
The final step is passport control. Once you’ve reached passport control, your basically in the clear. My experience consisted on two 20 year old Israeli soldiers laughing and joking throughout the questioning process. They asked me what I planned to do after college, and I responded with “That’s a good question.” They let me through.
I made it! I made it back to Israel from Gaza! Although I had contracted some pretty bad food poisoning, I was happy to get back to Jerusalem. I took a shower, and a nap, and my life was back to normal. This trip will undoubtedly be one of my most memorable. Very few people are able to say they entered Gaza after Cast Lead, and even fewer people have done so at the age of 20. I will travel with my Erez stamp as a mark of prowess for years to come. Upon my return, when people ask me about my trip, I respond “Good.” It was good because although it was by far the most depressing scenario in which I have found myself, I learned more about myself and the reality in Gaza than I could ever do by reading a million books. I spoke with people, I saw the destruction, I ate the food, but I didn’t drink the water.