I write this from a freezing, dark hostel room in the centre of Gaza. This area is now in a twelve hour blackout, so there will be no hot water to shower with this morning and no internet. After three days here, I feel, dirty, tired and emotionally wrung out. Yet, I know that in 48 hours, when the time comes to leave, I will not want to go. For Gaza’s incredible people have again overwhelmed a visitor with their warmth, their ability to offer friendship on a first meeting and their absolute resilience and faith in a Divine plan.
Yesterday, driving around was a stark reminder of just how serious the fuel shortage is here. At regular intervals the roadside becomes jammed with many hundreds of battered, near death, vehicles, stalled. Men sit at the wheels or smoke leaning against them, faces grim. They are locked into an 8 hour wait for just 100 shekels of fuel. Not enough for a quarter of a tank in the larger cars. When the fuel at the pumps becomes perilously low, each driver may buy just 50 shekels. As a result, cars are becoming if not quite a rarity, then certainly for a city with a population the size of Gaza – a luxury. Roads that were once jammed with the honking life typical of all major Middle Eastern cities are silent. The silence is not a blessing either; don’t think that for a moment! I remember when Diana died and cars were banned from the city centre for her funeral, what a beautiful day that was. Citizens could reclaim the streets and remember what it was to stroll in peaceful, bliss.
This is different. This silence is morbid and desperate. For alongside the near empty roads, are shops boarded up. And the pavements which you’d think would be jammed with people are empty too. There is simply no way to get to work – if you have it. Many shops simply close down due to the blackouts. This silence is the quiet of despair.
My bodyguard Mr Falafel (his nickname) and my friend Yassir, drive me to Beit Hanoun to visit a family living on the edge of one of Israel’s infamous and ever expanding buffer zones. On our way out of the main city, Yassir shouts,
‘Stop, Lauren let us get out and see this.’
It’s not clear what he wants me to see, As I get out there are men and boys milling everywhere, hundreds. There is shouting. Then I see them. A yellow, mountainscape of plastic containers piled four high in some places and stretching from one end of the road to the other. We follow the line of boys and are shocked to see the queue is the same length around the corner.
‘What is your name!?” shout boys of all ages
‘How are you today?’
‘Where you come from?’
The foreign lady in the hijab provides a welcome distraction from their miserable duty and Yassir and I are quickly embroiled in a human maelstrom of faces and laughter. We squeeze away from the youngsters towards a father in his fifties who is near the front of the queue. I ask him what he needs.
‘Fuel for the generator. We have no light. No electricity. We can’t eat. The children are cold.’
He has six children. That is a small family here. Looking at the thousands of containers waiting to be filled, each powering a generator that has become the only (ir) regular source of power for Gaza homes, I realise that each one represents a family of ten or more.
In a week, they say, even the fuel at these stations will run out. Then what?…
It is dusk, Maghrib prayer time, as we reach Beit Hanoun. An area that was, not too long ago, a place of farming. Of vast orchards stretching as far as the eye could see, where adults worked and children sheltered from the heat of the sun, playing the games that only children understand.
This evening the sun sets over what’s left; a sealed off scrubland of weeds and thorns.
We get out of the car. “Israel sent bulldozers and destroyed everything, all the trees; old trees, old orchards.’ I learnt.
Such is the sight to my right. To my left across the pot holed ‘road’ is Gaza’s frontline with Israel. The enemy that it fears so much are families in roughshod apartment blocks. No frills here. No trips to Ikea for little home touches. Here ‘home’ is a cement block low rise, half finished, slum. There are so many children here it’s hard to fathom for the first time visitor. Large families are the norm in Palestine and in Gaza, a pride. Each window of the hundreds I pass can represent easily five children within. Beside each and every window are dozens of Israeli bullet holes or the larger impact damage from shells of all variety. Hard to imagine the international reaction if a family suburb in Tel Aviv were attacked like Beit Hanoun is attacked by the IOF, over not just days, not even months – but years.
I remember once asking a very poor mother in Gaza why she had so many children.
‘We need atleast seven children to each family here’, she said
‘Why? Because atleast two will be killed by Israel. Two more, Israeli will take to prison for a long time or cripple with rockets. Two may (may) have a chance to get educated and they will leave Palestine and never return, which leaves just one child to look after us in our old age...’