Submitted by Irish man Chris Andrews, who spent some time in Gaza earlier this year,
We arrive at the Gaza City seaport at 5.30am, my friend Derek Graham and I, for what we expected is going to be a day on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea that stretches from the city shore. To our surprise, we won’t arrive back into the port until 6am tomorrow morning, after an amazing, bewildering day and night on the water, watching the sea and watching men do what generations have done here — try to draw food from the deep.
Early on this first morning, the skipper, whose name is Arafat, welcomes us aboard. Much of Gaza’s fishing fleet consists of very small boats, but this one is a trawler, more than 30 feet long, a proper fishing vessel that is not permitted to properly fish. This boat used to fish 10 miles or more out to sea. But today, under Israel’s security restrictions, we go out perhaps three miles, then we turn sideways, parallel to the shore. We chug along, north to as close as we can go to the border with Israel’s waters, moving at perhaps 6km/hour, then turn around, back down roughly the same line heading south till we reached the border with Egypt nearly 40km along, then turn around and do it again.
The boat is a hive of activity, its five-man crew hard at work around us. After a couple of hours the big nets are hauled in and the first catch is brought aboard. I get an awful shock: there’s barely enough fish here to fill a black bag. Arafat doesn’t seem surprised, however; nor do Mahmoud, Emir or the others. The water here is shallow, polluted, just a narrow corridor of water that is overfished.
The same sort of small catch is hauled up two hours later, and again, with little variation, the next time and the time after that, right through the day and into the darkness.
And they’re the sort of fish that an Irish fisherman might throw back, mostly miserably small sardines, with a few other species, including squid and ocasional octopus, also finding their way into the nets.
Bigger schools of bigger sardines are to be found this time of year just a little further out to sea, but to go out there is to risk attack from the Israeli navy. Israel announced that it was stretching the fishing limit that it imposes on Gaza to six miles after the war last November. In reality a boat was grabbed just two weeks ago right around here, at the old three-mile limit.
According to Zakaria Bakr of the Gaza fishermen’s union, fishermen’s earnings have dropped to less than a third of what they were before Israel imposed its blockade in 2007. Palestinians in Gaza still love to eat fish, but most of what they eat now comes smuggled through the tunnels that run under the border with Egypt at Rafah.
It’s no wonder that the majority of the people of Gaza are classified by the UN as “food insecure”. I get the feeling that these men now see fishing as much as an act of resistance as a way to earn a living. Raji Sourani, the head of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights where I have been working, says the people here are “stones of the valley”: whatever else gets washed away, they remain. By fishing, these men declare that they remain. They are, in a way, in the frontline — as the bullet wounds on many of them attest.
I look back toward shore and think about Gaza, and recall the way I used to think about it before I came here just after Christmas. Back then, back in Ireland, I didn’t think about sunshine, strawberries, amazingly fresh lemon juice, oranges and stunning almond-tree flowers similar to our cherry blossom. Small orchards of citrus and olives. Hummus and falafel. Sunsets that make you feel you are on a film set. I didn’t think about art and culture, like buds trying to burst through clay and take their place in society, despite the daily struggle people have in getting the essentials of life.
I have been lucky to gain a different perspective on Gaza and its community. The people here are always interested in talking, like the Irish. They are, however, more animated in conversation than the Irish. They love a good debate, and politics is their bread and butter. Of course there is a huge amount of conflict, death and sadness in this community but, for me, that is not the whole story. It ignores the humanity of the people, a people of great character and heart. Without that heart and humanity, they would not be able to survive such a devastating conflict, over such a prolonged period. The community would not have been able to develop the sense of collective steadfastness (in Arabic, sumoud) that is extraordinary.
Parents here in Gaza, like all parents, have hopes and worries for their children. They talk all the time about education. There is a strong interest in legal studies and the rule of law, including international law, though nothing has happened at international level that would suggest it is worth engaging with, if you live in Gaza.
The hopes and desires of parents may be the same as those of Irish parents but their worries are different. Their greatest fear is that their children will become involved in armed resistance groups, and suffer the inevitable consequences. The children are beautiful, like all children. They represent hope for the future and, given that in Gaza 50 per cent of the population is under 18, there is more hope than you might expect.
Even though I spent a brief time here in 2008, I am surprised at the warmth, gentleness and enthusiasm for life among the people. Despite the conflict, and all it entails, Gaza is a vibrant community, with a rhythm that you can almost touch. This contrasts with the built city that is a mixture of sand and bombed out buildings, some being reconstructed. Streets and markets have a buzz, busy and energetic. The driving seems chaotic and yet lacks the aggression frequently seen and felt on Irish roads. The skyline is full of unfinished buildings as if there is a group sense that there is little point in finishing them, as experience has taught residents that there is a good chance they will not be standing for all that long!
Yes, there is a dark side to Gaza, as there is with every society. The culture is obviously different to the culture we have in Ireland and in most of Europe. However, that does not mean the community is devoid of humanity. Like every other community, they are on a journey – a journey of development. It is for the Palestinian people, including the people of Gaza, to determine what sort of culture and society they should have. It is called self-determination – a concept with which the Irish should easily empathise.
Gaza is not some artificial land that has been made up as a result of political decisions. It is a real place, with real culture, depth and a heritage thousands of years old. However the conditions people endure are artificial and have been created by political decisions.
The sea borders Gaza to the west along its whole length. There are no mountains or hills here where people can escape the din of the city. The only place you can go and feel alone and enjoy solitude is to the sea. The sea allows you to breathe and to look into the distance. The noise from the waves is a welcome distraction from the constant racket of generators in the city. The sea and Gaza are like inseparable twins. One is not whole without the other.
Now that I am on the sea I see this all the more clearly. And I see more. I can see Israel’s navy boats in the distance — in fact, at times I feel so seasick I almost (almost!) wish they’d move in on us. From out here you see the Israeli siege of Gaza in ways that are often hard to see from land, not only the navy, but the F16 jets patrolling overhead. And when we come back into port, as dawn is breaking, I can see Israeli drones hanging in the air, twinkling in the first light over Gaza City.
The real sadness for me would be if this community was defined only by conflict. There is so much more than that to Gaza.
Many Thanks Chris…