Ali Abunimah on breaking Gaza siege through direct solidarity

Children attend a protest in solidarity with Palestinians with Jordanian citizenship in Israeli jails, Amman, Jordan. 

Belal Omar

This week on The Electronic Intifada podcast:

The Electronic Intifada podcast is now on iTunes! And to subscribe to our RSS feed, click here:

Rush transcript: Ali Abunimah in conversation with Rami Almeghari

Rami Almeghari: You have been in Gaza this week. Is it the first time that you visited the occupied coastal territory, after failed attempts to come over to Gaza? What was your impression the moment you stepped in? Just describe your feelings to our audience, please.

Ali Abunimah: Yes, it was my first time, and it was a long journey, one that actually took not just the hours and days it took to go via Egypt and then to the Rafah crossing, but I would say it was a journey that took years — because the first time I tried to go to Gaza in 2009 was with the Gaza Freedom march, and that wasn’t successful.

So it was the end of a long journey and really it was great to be in Gaza, great to see you there, we’ve been working together for many years, and to actually be standing together was really an amazing experience.

RA: As you toured the Gaza Strip, what did you see and what mainly attracted your attention in such an occupied, besieged region?

AA: Well, you know … I didn’t believe that we would be allowed into Gaza until it happened. Because, as I mentioned, my previous experience; and in fact Gaza is still under siege, and it is difficult to get permission to go through the Rafah crossing through Egypt. I came as a guest of the Palestine Festival of Literature, who had to get an invitation and do coordination with the Egyptians to be allowed in, so my feeling being allowed in was first of all relief that we had been allowed in, and second, to be standing in Gaza was an incredible feeling, and as you remember, the first thing we did was to drive from the Rafah crossing to Gaza City, and you took me on sort of a winding journey where I got to see my first sights in Gaza, going through Rafah, through Khan Younis, through Meghazi refugee camp, through Nuseirat refugee camp, until we went up the coast, saw the sea, and finally reached Gaza City.

To me, it was amazing because all of these places had been names before — names on a map. And to actually be there and to see what Gaza is like is really a very special feeling.

But actually, Rami, in those days, of course you showed me many sights in Gaza, but we saw so much. And it wasn’t just seeing places, it was meeting people that was the incredible experience.

RA: How did you find the people of Gaza, and what are the main concerns of these people?

AA: Well, you know, I hesitate to try to summarize everything people told us, because I met so many people from so many different places and backgrounds and perspectives, and I met young people and I met old people, and what’s striking is how many different viewpoints there are in Gaza — and people express them. People are not shy about telling you what they think about the situation, about politics, whatever it is.

So I found there was a lot of openness from people, that was very important. Of course, it goes without saying but I want to say it — the kindness, the openness, the hospitality that we encountered everywhere was just something amazing.

I would say the main concerns people expressed: number one, by far, was the siege. Absolutely number one. People of every background talked about the effect of the siege, the social impact, the isolation, the economic difficulties it causes, the difficulty with education, the fact that people feel trapped and isolated in Gaza because of the continuing siege. I would say that was the number one concern I heard from everyone I spoke to.

The second thing people talked about was the division between the West Bank and Gaza, people mentioned that a lot as an ongoing problem that they would like to see end. I would say those were the main themes that I heard everywhere I went in Gaza.

RA: Though your visit to Gaza has been short, how would you say the Israeli siege is affecting the occupied Gaza Strip?

AA: Yes, I mean, and as I wrote in one of my pieces on The Electronic Intifada, yes, Gaza is still under siege. One of the things that we did was go visit the tunnels area in Gaza, and go down one of the big tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, and it was striking to me to see how much basic goods have to come through the tunnels — construction supplies in particular, and wheat. And how tight the siege is, the economic siege and the siege on goods.

Of course, you remember we visited the supermarket, the Abu Dalal supermarket, in Nuseirat refugee camp, and what was striking there, and I saw this in other places in Gaza, is the dependence on Israeli goods. So Israel allows Israeli goods to come into Gaza, but it doesn’t allow free imports of other goods to other goods to Gaza, and most importantly, it doesn’t allow exports from Gaza.

So Israel has created a situation where its own companies benefit by selling goods to Gaza, but the population in Gaza is forced to be dependent on Israel and is not allowed to produce and export, it can’t import raw materials freely to make things, which Gaza can then export. So the economy of dependency was very visible to me.

The second thing, and again I said this, was the social impact, the social and economic impact — that people feel isolated from the outside world because of the siege. The difficulty of traveling, the humiliation at the Rafah crossing, which I witnessed myself when we left Gaza and we had to wait several hours to be allowed out, but the several hours we waited was nothing compared with what Palestinians frequently go through — sometimes they’re refused exit, sometimes they’re kept for days. I even met people at Rafah crossing who had, at some time, waited weeks at the crossing to be allowed out. And so that feeling of siege, that feeling of being imprisoned, I think is something that I understood much better after being in Gaza.

Even though I was only there for a few days, it’s something I came away with very strongly.

RA: When you are back to the States, and as a well-known Palestinian commentator on Gaza, will there be any kind of change in your own course of writing about Gaza?

AA: Well, I feel that I’ve always tried my best to listen to what Palestinians in Gaza and everywhere else say, and in my work, in my writing, in my speaking, to faithfully reflect what they say their experiences are. And of course, on The Electronic Intifada, we try always to encourage as many voices as we can from Palestinians in Gaza, and that’s what you do through your own writing and your own reporting from Gaza.

So we always try to do that, but I think there’s always something different when you’ve seen a situation yourself, you can perhaps describe it in a more direct way. So I will try my best to do that, and I’ve already tried to do that through some of the piece I wrote on The Electronic Intifada. But for me, mostly, it was about listening and feeling and trying to understand better the experiences of people in Gaza. And I’m very grateful to everyone I met in Gaza for how generous they were with their time, with their perspective, with their viewpoints, and I will try to reflect that as best as I can.

RA: Today is the anniversary of the 1967 Naksa, or displacement of Palestinians after Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem, and some other parts of the Arab world. As a supporter of a one-[state] solution between Palestinians and Israelis that is being envisioned and is being projected, do you think that such a solution is accepted to a certain extent?

AA: Well, I don’t know that it’s accepted, but look, I think the main issue is that there’s now a bigger understanding that the two-state solution is not a solution and is not realistic. So what will replace it, I don’t know. I think that even more important than talking about one country, because people can misunderstand that, and actually that was very important to me, being in Gaza, to hear young people themselves debating what a single state or a one-state solution means, is it good, is it bad.

I think we have to talk very clearly about Palestinian rights, and about decolonization. It’s not just an issue of one country or two states; you could have one state or you could have two states and still not achieve Palestinian rights.

So I think we have to encourage a clearer vision, and have a clearer vision of implementing Palestinian rights fully, of decolonizing Palestine, which means dismantling in every way the systematic racism, discrimination, displacement, of Palestinians — and that’s true throughout historic Palestine, because in the 1948 areas, Palestinian citizens of Israel live the same experience. In the Naqab, Palestinian Bedouins are still being forced off their land. Palestinians still face a great deal of discrimination and inequality.

So the Palestinian struggle and vision has to address all of those things, and that’s a discussion that all Palestinians have to be involved in — creating a new vision, let’s say.

RA: How do you find campaigning for boycott and divestment in the Gaza Strip? While the Gaza market contains many Israeli products and goods, what is needed to make that campaigning more solid and fruitful?

AA: Well, that was a really interesting discussion for me to listen to — that many people in Gaza, many young people, were talking about this. That how can … that boycott, divestment and sanctions are becoming more prominent around the world, but in the occupied Palestinian territories, and in Gaza, people are forced, in some cases, they have no choice but to buy Israeli goods. There’s no other choice other than things coming through the tunnels.

But in some cases, there are choices. And so it was very interesting to listen to discussions about how to promote alternatives to Israeli goods, to see how Palestinians themselves could play a greater role and a broader role in mobilizing the boycott campaign — that was a really exciting discussion, and I really felt like some of the young people in Gaza who I met are going to really play a big role in this in the coming time ahead.

RA: Do you think Gaza is an Islamized country with no diversity at all?

AA: Well, you know, that was a very interesting thing because of course a lot of the outside propaganda and reporting stresses that Gaza is being “Islamized.” There’s no doubt that the culture in Gaza is socially conservative in many ways, but I saw a lot of diversity, and I didn’t — again, in a few days, I don’t want to characterize the experiences that people have, but I had a lot of conversations with people, and they were sometimes just private conversations or in small groups, one on one, and I heard many views about that.

But the thing that people stressed time and again was the main issue was the siege. And the social isolation that the siege causes, and that some of the phenomena of so-called Islamization is related to that, but at the same time, the nature of society in Gaza didn’t feel that different from being in Amman.

So Gaza is part of Palestine, and it’s part of the broader region, and I think we have to see it in that context. It’s hard to talk about that issue in a short period of time, but yes, I was struck by how much diversity of opinion there was, politically, it’s very visible — you drive through Gaza up and down and you see the flags of all the political factions. You see flags of Fatah, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, of Hamas, you see posters and graffiti and slogans in favor of Hamas, against Hamas, in favor of Fatah, against Fatah — all of that was present in Gaza and I saw it.

RA: How do you view the characteristic features of Gaza, Gaza’s people, Gaza’s streets, throughout your short visit to that region?

AA: Well, one of the posts I did was just to stress a lot of the beauty in Gaza. I think that we often don’t talk of how beautiful Gaza is. Yes, Gaza is economically under intense pressure, and has faced a lot of destruction, but it’s a beautiful part of Palestine. And Gaza City is an ancient city, and often people don’t stress that. And I wanted to show that because to me, it’s what — I appreciated it so much when I was there.

In terms of diversity, I mean people in Gaza don’t look different than people anywhere else. They don’t dress differently from people in other parts of the region. They are typical of the region and the country they’re in. So I don’t like to stress that issue, because I don’t want to reduce the people in Gaza to what they wear or how they look, or whatever — that’s what I think many of the media reports outside Gaza try to do.

But in terms of the diversity, the political diversity — like I said, I spoke to and heard from people who are very pro-Hamas, very anti-Hamas, who feel fed up with all of the political parties, people who are independent, people in the Left, et cetera. And nobody was shy about their opinion. So that to me was very notable — that there is a very strong culture of debate and discussion in Gaza, and that that still exists.

RA: Do you believe that the connectivity between Palestinians in Gaza and their brothers and sisters out in the diaspora is something needed, and why?

AA: It definitely is. Of course, one of the things many people said is … they have certain impressions of how Palestinians outside Gaza or outside Palestine think. And just like how we outside have certain impressions of how people in Gaza think. And you cannot break that down easily without having some way to meet and talk to each other. And we can achieve that, to some extent, online — and I feel like a lot of the young people writing from Gaza, on their blogs or on The Electronic Intifada, have really contributed to breaking down those barriers. And it’s so important to continue to break them down.

But there is something special about meeting in person. I wish that more people, especially Palestinians, can go to Gaza, can connect with people in Gaza — it enriched me so much, even in just a few days, and I hope it’s something I can do again, and many more people can do. And that the siege will be lifted so that people in Gaza can travel freely to the rest of the world, return home in peace, and make their enormous contribution to the world that people in Gaza have to make.

RA: Finally, how do you see Gaza after you’ve visited, do you wish to return back in the future?

AA: I would love to return. It wasn’t easy to go to Gaza, as I said, because of the siege. But now I’ve done it, and that sort of psychological barrier to making that journey and facing the possibility of not getting in, et cetera, has been broken …

RA: You broke the ice, my brother.

AA: I feel like we broke the ice, and I’m very grateful to those who helped me to make this journey — as I said, I went with the Palestine Festival of Literature, I had great companions on the journey, Susan Abulhawa, the writer, and Lina Atallah, the Egyptian journalist, Nora Younes, the Egyptian journalist, and Alaa Abd El Fattah, the well-known Egyptian activist who made the journey with us but unfortunately was not allowed by the Egyptian authorities to enter Gaza.

But I learned from them as well, it was a great experience to travel with them, and I would feel very lucky if I can make that journey again. I hope to do it, yes.




I really enjoyed this interview. I am currently researching a book on Gaza myself and am trying to find a way of visiting. In the meantime I'm trying to speak to as many people who live there, or who have visited, as possible. Would you be prepared to answer some questions by email or have a telephone chat? I was interested, Ali, that you had a psychological block about visiting because of the difficulties - that's where I'm at!
Best wishes


I hope that one day I will be able to see Gaza too. I hope that people treat each other as equals, regardless of religion or nationality and respect each other, that we can all look back on these decades and say how stupid some things were, and how far we have come. I hope that we find ways to improve each other's lives and stop shedding blood over old rivalries.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).