Strawberry fields forever?

A Palestinian man selling fruit in the central market of Gaza City, 12 October 2005. (MAANnews/Wesam Saleh)

Let me take you down, ‘cos we’re going to … Beit Lahiya in the north of the Gaza Strip, to go strawberry picking.

As part of Trocaire’s work here we want to make our response to the humanitarian emergency as sustainable as possible. This way we can ensure that people who have had thousands of donums of land demolished can recover in the long term. In the northern area of Gaza strawberries are the main produce.

Strawberries like you’ve never eaten before, sweet and juicy. The big ones look like something from a strawberry ad campaign but the small ones are the sweetest. I’m almost salivating as I write. We loaded our taxi with punnets that would make a Wexford farmer jealous. (Gaza, incidentally, is around half the size of county Wexford. Strawberries are about as much as they have in common, though.)

All going well, we hope to help some of Gaza’s farmers to rehabilitate their water systems while at the same time work to ensure they have access to markets in the outside world.

Rehabilitating water systems is easy — ensuring that the land isn’t destroyed in a further incursion and that the Israeli army allow goods through checkpoints is a far more difficult task.

Access in and out of Gaza is virtually impossible — by train, plane or automobile. In the morning we travelled to Khan Younis and Rafah, scenes of military incursions over the summer. We visit Rafah airport, one of Gaza’s oddest conundrums.

Opened by no less a luminary then Bill Clinton in 1998, the airport operated for a little over two years. Its elegant Arabic architecture and interior designs — the blue, red and black patterns of the tiled floor and walls — are a shock in the surrounding areas which are grey, dense, destroyed and gloomy.

Not long after the second Palestinian intifada began the Israeli airforce bombed the radar tower and destroyed the runway. Yet, defiantly, the airport still operated — well, operated, in a sense.

The staff turned up for work every day. The baggage handlers even turned up for night shift. If they were late they got written warnings, even though the carrousels weren’t carrying bags and no passangers were checking in to go on the Hajj.

Now, after the events of the summer, the airport has been shredded. Files lie scattered over the floor, glass and metal twist through the air, the stairs are ripped from the walls. We shuffle through the rubble with our heads bowed wondering at the destruction of the last symbol of hope in Gaza. Destroyed.

It is a day of destruction. We spent it walking through the destroyed former settlement areas and the demolished areas of Rafah. We are, once again, deeply depressed. Even the wonder and depth of the blue, blue sea offers little comfort. I am reminded of the words of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet:

Steal what you will from the blueness of the sea and the sand of memory
Take what pictures you will, so that you understand
That which you never will:
How a stone from our land builds the ceiling of our sky.”
We leave Rafah and leave our hopes lying in the rubble behind us.

So, then, no better way to approach the Erez checkpoint that evening than with a car full of strawberries. We finally pass through the cages and intensive checking procedures (for more on these procedures see this press release from Trocaire’s partner PCHR in 2005).

We delight in offering the strawberries to Palestinians waiting and to Israeli soldiers searching our bags. Even the forces maintaining this 40-year-old occupation should not be deprived of such sweet things.

Eoin Murray is a Programme Officer for Trocaire.