At the doors of Gaza

Palestinians wait to pass Rafah crossing in Gaza from the Palestinian side to the Egyptian side, 6 March 2007. (Hatem Omar/MaanImages)


I arrived in Cairo on Friday 15 June after a two-week visit to the US where I participated in a speaking tour with the US non-profit Rebuilding Alliance, where I had numerous meetings, interviews and lectures with a variety of audiences, politicians, and media. I was accompanied by another speaker, the remarkable American-born Israeli Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom. The American public we met was happy to see Palestinian and Israeli peace activists speaking together about peace and the importance of working together to achieve justice and end violence. The visit to the US, which was the second for me, was a unique opportunity to educate and advocate for making peace in the Middle East. We were able to provide our opinion on what peace means and what it could look like, as well as to try to raise funds for the Rebuilding Alliance, a partner organization of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme where I work. With these funds we intend to help rebuild some of the demolished homes of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. For both of us peace means justice and implementing principles of international law and respect for the human rights of all people in the Middle East.

Shortly before leaving the US, I was following the news on the internal fighting between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza. The fighting made me, as all Palestinians, very sad, even embarrassed when I was asked why all this is happening. I believe there are many reasons behind this such as the fact that the Palestinian experience with democracy — although perversely restricted — is still new. This is in addition to the long history of occupation and oppression that the Palestinian people have endured. One damaging consequence is that Palestinians have learned that if they are to effect change that violence is a primary means to solve problems and achieve goals. The most important reason for me is the fact that most of the Palestinians have become frustrated and lost hope in the international community to take a fair position, to stop the sanctions, and to end the occupation and impoverishment of the Palestinian people.

When I arrived at my hotel in Cairo I was shocked to learn that Gaza was under the complete control of Hamas and the security situation there had become dire with the border closed until further notice. I had to stay in Cairo for about five days with the hope that the border would open again. Unfortunately, the situation became more complicated and it was clear that the border would be closed for a long period. I started to be worried about my family and work. I was advised to move to the town of al-Areesh, 50 kilometers from Rafah, to be closer to the borders and be able to cross immediately when the crossing opened. Another reason was that it was less expensive in terms of accommodations and food. I realized then that the Egyptian authorities were preventing Palestinians stuck in Egypt from reaching the border. I stayed in al-Areesh for more than 10 days and remain stuck in Egypt as of 4 July. We were optimistic that the crossing may be opened after the meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh, but it turned out that this is not likely to happen soon. I am really worried that my stay here may be long. I have started to feel frustrated and completely powerless to do anything to change my situation. This is in addition to the fact that the situation in Gaza remains very tense and the closure is causing a lot of humanitarian problems, which unfortunately is going to increase with time if the situation continues. I keep in touch with my family, and I call them every day. My little son Mohamed, seven years old, said, “Dad, I miss you. When will you come back?” For me that was a very difficult question to answer. I replied soon, inshallah.

I considered myself lucky to be able to rent a small “chalet” in al-Areesh and to have the money to manage my expenses. This, however, is not the case for about 5,000 Palestinians who are stuck in Egypt and were not allowed to go back home. The humanitarian situation for the Palestinians in al-Areesh here is very harsh. You can find hundreds walking or sitting in the streets, some sleep in the mosques or the public garden after running out of money. The grocer from whom I buy things told me that every day dozens of men come proposing to sell their cell phone or hand watches to him. I also heard of stories of old people, women and children, many of them that are medical patients suffering the same agony, especially in the heat wave passing through the region. At night, I walked in the streets (prior to a recent return trip to Cairo) and sat in a caf&ampeacute; where I met some of the people I know. The majority is very angry and frustrated at this situation. These people feel neglected and that there is not enough effort made to bring them back home.

I started to feel very upset as my daughter had to go through minor eye surgery the other day and I was unable to be with her. She called me and said, “Dad, do not be worried. I will be okay.” I tried to show strength and calm and to tell her that everything would be all right. Her mother, grandfather, and many in the family were going to be with her, but when I finished the call with her, I cried. It is demoralizing to feel that you are not a good father — not because you do not want to be, but because you cannot be.

Husam El Nounou is the director of public relations for the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.

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