March 8 marks International Women’s Day (IWD), and yesterday the CodePink 60 person peace delegation from the US, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Pakistan and Germany made it through the borders and checkpoints from Rafah, Egypt to celebrate IWD with the women of Gaza on this day.
Leaving Al-Arish in Egypt on the morning of March 7 the international peace delegation arrived at the Rafah-Gaza border crossing and staged a peaceful songful demonstration at the gates while the authorities assessed our situation and whether they would let us through. After a short while we got the go ahead which was met with loud cheers and celebration as the gates have been closed to foreigners on and off since the last Israeli Siege on The Gaza Strip, and we had planned to camp on the border if we weren’t allowed through. This passing into Gaza from Rafah shows that Egypt has control of this border even though it claims it doesn’t.
After waiting around four hours in the Rafah passport control we were allowed to exist Egypt and enter the Palestinian territories. Greeted by a press conference with the Mayor of Rafah, Essa Ali El Nashar, and the Palestinian Red Crescent while the Palestinian Authorities processed our passports. “All the official authority buildings were destroyed, as were the food stores, the bays for the fishermen, everything…” says El Nasher. “They burned everything in Gaza, they want to drive the people out; they don’t want there to be anything left for us here.” “No matter what you have seen on TV what you will see on the ground will be much worse, so be prepared.” When asked about the remaining tunnels, and what they were being used for El Nasher replied “We are living under a siege that has not been known before in history…” “The question to you and everybody is how can a nation survive when they don’t have anything…” “The only alternative we had was to dig some tunnels as to obtain what we needed to survive…” “…We hope for the day when we will not need these tunnels.”
On the way to Gaza City driving through the streets of Gaza seeing for ourselves the destruction of bombed buildings and homes, fields and hospitals, schools and cement factories; the men women and children waving at us, smiling and looking hopeful, I couldn’t help but wonder what we will really be able to bring to the people of Gaza other than support, solidarity and hope, but maybe just this useful in itself.
While looking at the Mediterranean sea on our left hand side I think about the bustling lively, bright and happy city of Tel Aviv, Israel, just 70kms up the coastline, and how incredibly different the life is for people up there in comparison to life here in Gaza.
Many people from the delegation are staying with Palestinian families, organised by UNWRA, who are coordinating our program for our short time here. I and another woman are staying with the Al Za’anin family in Beit Hanoun just 3km from the Eretz border crossing into Israel. This area is very well known in Gaza for being a firing zone as well as another lockdown amidst the prison of Gaza.
Duaa Al Za’anin takes me on to the roof where she tells me stories from different parts of her life; from living in Iraq, Pakistan, Cyprus and Palestine, she has finished her medicine degree and is now volunteering in the Kamal Idwaan hospital in Jabaliya. “We were up here all the time during the [most recent] war, we did everything up here so we could see where the bombs were falling and how close the Israeli’s were. I feel more frightened in the house than outside where I can see, so we even cooked out here, using wood fires because there was no gas.” “We all slept downstairs together in the one room, because it was the safest place, and anytime we heard an explosion we would all run up to the roof to see where it hit.” She tells me of children from her school who had died, and points to houses just 100 meters away than have been completely destroyed by bombs. “I am studying a diploma in mental health now so I can deal with my own problems from the war.” Tears form in her eyes as she says this, and I feel useless, unable to grasp the realities of this life.
For IWD we visited local women’s organisations to celebrate with them and listen to their stories, hopes, struggles and needs to raise the quality of life for women in the Gaza strip. “We want people to know we are not terrorists, we want them to know that we are peaceful people, and we want to live with basic human rights.” Says Sarra’ Majdy El Nahal of the Bonat Al Mustaqbal Association in Rafah, Gaza. “We want to be able to feed ourselves and our families, we want to have employment and other programs, right now, unemployment is 80 or 90%, no body has any money to get anything.” “We have skills and we want to be able to use them for work, we can do embroidery, or work in the fields, we are very good at this.” “We need gas to cook with because we have none, and are using the fires, but even the wood we often cannot find.”
The women are the lifeblood of Gaza and are placed at the bottom of the pit. These organisations, run and funded by UNWRA, create programs and activities for women to have a space to teach, learn, participate and work in all sorts of different ways; from theatre to arts and crafts, to IT and bread-making.
There were over a hundred women who greeted us for the celebrations and I have never felt so welcomed in my life. They gave us food, tea, hot bread from the fire, kissed our cheeks many times, shook our hands and told us over and over again how grateful and thankful they are for us to come and meet them.
After a play put on by the women, and traditional Palestinian dance by the younger girls, tea and conversations, I am left with an overwhelming weight and sense of responsibility to relay their plight, their struggles and their voices to the world. I feel so overwhelmed to be treated like royalty when they are the real strength of Gaza. “I have not been so happy in such a long time,” Sarra’ tells me, “we thank you so much for coming, it is so important for us and I feel like this could mean a change is coming for us, thank you so much.”
We leave on the bus shortly after and I am looking out of the window trying to imagine daily life here, trying to imagine how after everything these women have been through in their lives they are so giving, kind, welcoming and thankful for us to have come simply to show them we are listening to their voices.
We are taken along the coast road and we watch the fisherman in their boats, unable to go more than 150 meters to fish, otherwise they will be shot at by the Israeli army, “why?” I ask, “because this is the way it is” I am told.