“I think we have arrived in Guantanamo Bay,” my wife said once we reached the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing this past May. Together with our two young girls, my wife and I had driven through an area where massive destruction had taken place: armored vehicles and tanks hovered around, firing left and right, with checkpoints so close together it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
We had arrived at Cairo International Airport around 8 am, and were picked up by our driver by 9. We decided to drive straight to Rafah. It took us nine hours to cross 230 miles. The delay was largely caused by at least 20 checkpoints, where our passports and luggage were searched, as well as the ferry crossing to the Sinai peninsula. Travelers have to wait at the ferry to be escorted by army vehicle to Rafah because some of these roads belong to the military.
Our driver knew the way like the back of his hand; he also knew how to deal with the various army and police officers we encountered. He was a true local and wanted us to be comfortable. He dropped us off at the Rafah crossing around 6 pm, just as the Egyptian officers were getting ready to break their Ramadan fast.
The officers went through our luggage and credentials quickly. After grabbing two packs of cigarettes without asking for permission, they let us into the waiting area. My wife and I were very excited to have made it so far and were sure we would finally get into Gaza. We had reached much further compared to a few months earlier, when we were denied entry due to on-going conflict in the Sinai.
We were the first of a large group of travelers to arrive on the Egyptian side; the caravan of buses and vans transporting Palestinians to the crossing from elsewhere in Egypt had not yet arrived. Because we had a local driver, were just one family, and had comparatively less luggage, we were able to get through the checkpoints quickly. After haggling with the luggage handlers and asking them questions, I learned no one really knew how long it would take us to be processed. “Tasaheel”, they kept saying, which means, “Who the hell knows!”
By around 7 pm, most of the buses and other cars had arrived. We were still at the crossing, in the waiting area. We were a total of approximately 50 people, including children. We spoke to one Palestinian family from Sweden, another from Austin, Texas, and a young engineer who lives in Saudi Arabia. There was an elderly woman who had gone to Egypt to see her grandkids, and a young man on crutches – all waiting in this dark area with the dirtiest bathrooms, under the baking sun. Due to movement reflections, cleaning crews cannot even make it to the Egyptian crossing.
The officers still had not re-appeared after leaving to break their fast. At about 10 pm, an officer finally appeared and started checking our passports. The officers wanted to see our Palestinian IDs in addition to our passports. Without Gaza IDs, we would not have been allowed in. The officers used cameras to take pictures of everyone moving into and out of Gaza. Of course, they only had one working laptop, so to say they were slow is an understatement. We could hear the other Palestinians who were leaving Gaza. They were on the other end of the building and waiting to either be allowed into Egypt or denied entry and sent back to Gaza.
At 3 am, the news came. We were told we could board the buses and head to the Palestinian side, but had to pay 300 Egyptian pounds in fees per passenger. I began to tear up knowing I would finally be able to see my parents and siblings. Upon arriving at the Palestinian side, we immediately noticed and were moved by the professionalism of the officers and how they went out of their way to help travelers. We were whisked through the various official stops, picked up our luggage, and breezed through customs. Twenty minutes later, we met the van my family had hired came to pick us up. The driver turned out to be an old neighbor of ours – the first familiar face of our trip. My eyes were wet with tears and the girls were half asleep. “Let’s go to Palestine,” our four-year-old said before she dozed off.
As we exited into Gaza, we saw members of the local police force outside. They snagged our passports and took pictures of them. But we were in Gaza now, and we weren’t going to let anything ruin it for us. The van took us to the outside gateway where anxious relatives were waiting. I was searching in the dark for my mother’s face, as I knew she would have waited all day for this moment. Finally, I saw her: a bit older but as beautiful as I remembered her.
I quickly turned into mush, all tears and red eyes. As we embraced, I felt a calm I had not experienced in years. She embraced my girls, her grandchildren, whom she had not met before. We were all exhausted but it was sweet and the emotions kept us going. Minutes later, we were on the road again, headed north.
We dropped my wife off in Gaza City to see her family and stay with them for the night. After lots of kisses, hugs, and smiles, we continued the trip north to Bayt Lahia where my family live. Upon arriving around 5:30 am, I realized many things had changed, but that it was the same familiar place. My dad was waiting at the door. He clearly had not slept and greeted me with an embrace. We stayed up for two hours chatting, and then I went to bed happy, surrounded by my family. The mixture of pride and joy in my parents’ eyes made all the trouble we had gone through worth it.
Before I went to sleep, I noticed how my parents hooking wires into batteries like old pros. Because of Israeli restrictions and lack of funds, average homes in Gaza get four to six hours of electricity per day. As a result, people in Gaza must improvise. The wire-threaded batteries were one source of electricity. “Lidaat,” which are tiny LED lights that require little energy but give ample light, are another.
The next day, around 3 pm, my older sister woke me up to greet me. As soon as my mother saw me, she asked, “What would you like to have for Iftar?” – the meal we have to break the Ramadan fast. My answer, as it always is, was seasoned rice and chicken. This would be a special meal: the first one I’d had with family in over five years.
Hope in Gaza
After waking up, I wanted to spend every single minute with my mother. We did nothing except sit and talk. Shortly before sunset, I told her I wanted to visit my father at his store. I walked there and was happy to see him in his element in the middle of the market where he owns a small grocery. We walked back home together. I was struck by how few people were out walking. Because unemployment is so high, drivers are willing to take you from one point to another for only a few cents.
As we walked home, I saw so many young men in wheelchairs or with crutches. Too many fine young men and women, who took a stand against Israel’s suffocating siege and the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem, now have scars for life, a daily reminder of these injustices. Many of those injured had to pay for the ambulances that took them to the hospital, because of a lack of basic social services.
But not everything was doom and gloom. I witnessed, first hand, the amazing ways Palestinians are adapting to cruel and harsh conditions created by the Israeli siege. They have adjusted their lives in ways that minimize the impact of Israel’s cruel, destructive, and illegal policies, like the electricity interruptions that last most of the day.
Alternative energy, which is taking off in Gaza, is one example of Palestinian ingenuity. Thanks to the region’s 319 days of sun, more and more homes are using solar power as a source of energy. Many institutions and schools in Gaza are also powered by the sun. The cost of outfitting an average home in Gaza with solar panels is between 2,000 to 5,000 USD, depending on consumption and the size of the property. For those who cannot afford solar panels, there is a cheaper solution for about 600 dollars, an Uninterrupted Power Supply known as UPS. This is essentially a large truck battery that can power most small home appliances (excluding refrigerators or heaters). It recharges whenever the electricity comes back on.
Another option for power is what is known as an alternative power line. This is typically used in more upscale neighborhoods; the cost is quite high, with a kilowatt of electricity going for 1 dollar, at least seven times the price for using the regular electricity line. There are also cars running on cooking gas.
There were other encouraging signs. For example, local doctors, agronomists, and engineers have teamed up to address local problems created by the siege. Organic farming, greenhouses, and vertical farming are all trending and making positive contributions to local markets. Because patients cannot be transported to other facilities in Israel and the West Bank, doctors in Gaza are undertaking more complicated procedures. As of last year, patients in Gaza have received locally-performed open heart surgeries, as well as other vital operations.
On a daily basis, engineers in Gaza are working around arbitrary Israeli restrictions on building materials. I visited a water park where a local engineer had devised a way to make fake waves to simulate the experience of swimming at the beach. Because of fear of polluted seawater, many Palestinians are afraid of swimming in the ocean itself. The best and cleanest part of the the beach is near the border with Israel and the road there is largely unpaved, unlike the rest of the roads to the coastline. When I asked a driver about this, he told me Israel had prohibited paving out of fear it would bring more Palestinians to the area.
There are countless other projects have been launched to alleviate the suffering of the people in Gaza. These projects include theme parks, trampoline parks, swimming pools, soccer pitches, and chalets. The small-scale investors that own these spaces not only want to make a profit, but also give hope to the people.
There was also an appreciable improvement in Internet connectivity in Gaza, where Israel has limited data to 2G. Wi-Fi services exist throughout the Strip, and tech savvy entrepreneurs have set up local networks and hotspots in designated areas, and sell prepaid Internet cards at grocery stores. They have even found a way to deal with the power cuts, running routers, servers, and extenders on batteries so that people can surf in the dark. Thanks to these innovations, residents of Gaza consume much more Internet and cellular minutes than their peers in the West Bank, according to a Palestinian executive I spoke with from a communication conglomerate. He likened the situation to that of a prisoner who has been given a calling card, and uses it to call any and every one he knows.
Of course, poverty in Gaza remains oppressive. People seem poorer than in my previous visits. Salaries are cut more and more every year. Even those on welfare are getting smaller and smaller stipends. As a result, the local economy has crashed; many respected businessmen are sitting in jail or facing court orders because they can no longer meet their financial obligations. Despite the financial situation, prices in Gaza are relatively high and comparable to other parts of the region. This situation, together with the lack of funds, has created a toxic brew.
Still, the people of Gaza are not giving up. To make ends meet, many college graduates open stands, selling coffee, hot drinks, corn, and sweet potatoes on the beach to families. This might not be why these individuals went to school, but it puts food on their tables. Other college graduates become freelancers, while still others are involved in digital currency trading.
Israel’s Looming Presence
Despite how hard they try and live their lives, Israel continuously reminds the people of Gaza they are not free. The loud, buzzing noise of Israeli drones is one way Israel does this. Then, there is the shelling. The sound of shelling was so close sometimes that we would hurriedly turn on the news to find out where it was coming from. At least twice during our short stay, we were woken by bombardment, once at my family’s home in Bayt Lahia, and another at our home in Gaza City. A third time, we were visiting an aunt and had to cut the visit short because the building shook and our girls were scared by the noise. We lied and told them it was fireworks.
Fear is hard to escape in Gaza. Lately, much of that fear has surrounded Donald Trump’s yet to be publicized “deal of the century” for Palestine. According to reports, part of the deal may involve allowing Palestinians to live in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. I do not know one person in Gaza who likes this idea, despite the fact that land in Gaza is scarce and real estate prices are higher than neighboring Egypt. Many Palestinians are afraid they will be forced from their homes and into the Sinai desert. As people watch the Egyptian army clearing that area and razing houses, the prospect seems all too real. Given the difficult conditions in Gaza, I fear that some people may end up agreeing to live in the Sinai, if it improves their lives.
This does not mean, however, that people in Gaza have resigned themselves to Israel’s occupation. While Gazans are divided over whether to support the Great March of Return, I saw young people flocking to the border fence every Friday to protest not only Israel’s actions, but also Israel’s continuing occupation.
If you can, visit Gaza not only to show your solidarity with a people resilient in the face of Israeli occupation and repression – but also to give joy to those who have been cruelly prevented, through no fault of their own, from meeting and interacting with people from around the world. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans are banned from leaving the Strip, by either the Israelis or the Egyptians, leaving them in a shrunken world roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C. It is not surprising that many are hungry for visitors. With such limited opportunity to interact with the outside world, they long to hear about events and experiences in other places. Though the road to Gaza is hard and entry far from guaranteed, visitors bring much joy to the Strip, as we saw, ourselves, after five long years away.