Palestinian children play on top of the bombed metal fence that used to separate the Gaza Strip and Egypt at Rafah, 24 January 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
Last night I received a text message from my dear friend Fida: “It’s coming down — it’s coming down!” she declared ecstatically. “Laila! The Palestinians destroyed [the] Rafah wall, all of it. All of it not part of it! Your sister, Fida.”
More texts followed, as I received periodical updates on the situation in Rafah, where it was 3am.
“Two hours ago people were praising God everywhere. The metal wall was cut and destroyed. So was the cement one. It is great, Laila, it is great,” she declared.
For the first time in months, I sensed a degree of enthusiasm, hope … relief even, emanating thousands of miles away, via digitized words, from Gaza. Words that have been all but absent from the Palestinian vocabulary. Buried. Methodically and gradually destroyed.
Of course, the border opening will only provide temporary relief. The ecstasy it generates will be fleeting, as it was in 2005 when shortly after Israel’s disengagement, the once impervious and deadly sniper-lined border became completely porous. It was an incredible time. I will never forget the feeling of standing in the middle of the Philadelphi corridor, as it was known.
The feeling of standing there with hundreds of thousands of other Gazans, savoring the moment of uninterrupted freedom, in this case, freedom of movement. Goats were being lobbed over the secondary fence, mattresses, cigarettes, cheeses. Egyptians took back bags of apples from northern Gaza, and comforters. For two weeks, it was the free market at work.
Once a nesting ground for Israeli tanks, armored bulldozers, and the like — all of the war metal, the face of the occupation — which was synonymous with destruction and death for us in Gaza, and particularly for the residents of Rafah, Philadelphi had suddenly become nothing but a a kilometer of wasteland, of sand granules marking the end of one battered and besieged land, and the beginning of the rest of the world.
But traveling this short distance had previously been so unthinkable that the minute it took to walk across it by foot was akin to being in the twilight zone. One couldn’t help but feel that at any moment a helicopter gun ship would hover by overhead and take aim.
It was then that I met a pair of young boys, nine and ten, who curiously peered over the fence beyond the wall, into Egypt. In hushed whispers and innocent giggles they pondered what life was like outside of Gaza and then asked me: “Have you ever seen an Egyptian? What do they look like?” They had never left Rafah in their lives.
And so once again, this monstrosity that is a source of so much agony in our lives, that cripples our movement and severs our ties to each other and to our world, to our families and our homes, our universities and places of work, hospitals and airports, has fallen thanks to the will of the people; and sadly, once again, it will go up. Of course, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has tried to take credit for this, blabbering something about how they let them open it because Gazans were starving, while arresting 500 demonstrators in Cairo for speaking their mind against the siege.
The border opening also will not provide Gazans with an opportunity to travel abroad because their passports will not have been stamped upon leaving Gaza, but it will at the very least give them some temporary respite from the siege. I emphasize temporary because this too, like Israel’s on-again-off-again fuel stoppages, is not going to resolve the situation. Allowing in enough supplies to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, in the words of the Israeli security establishment, somehow makes sense in the logic of the occupation, as does escalation and cutting fuel in response to rocket attacks. And Israelis can all learn to forget Gaza, at least long enough to feel comfortable.
People often ask me why such things, meaning people-powered civil protests that can overcome even the strongest occupation, don’t happen sooner, or more often, or at all for that matter. We underestimate the power of occupation to destroy a people’s will to live, let alone resist and and attempt to change the situation. This is the worst thing about occupation, whether a military occupation like Israel’s, or a political one like Hosni Mubarak’s in his own country. And it is only when one can overcome the psychological occupation, the occupation of the mind, that the military occupation in all its manifestations can be defeated.
Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist, photographer, and blogger who divides her time between Gaza and the United States. She most recently co-directed the short film Tunnel Trade, which aired on CBC and Aljazeera International. Her blog, Raising Yousuf, is named after her three-year-old son.