Gaza diary: Our arrival

Irish peace activist Greg Manahan describes his trip to Gaza right before the flare-up of violence.

Israel used Merkava 4, a battle-tank, along the border in order to hit relatively close-range targets [AFP]

Israel and Hamas may have agreed to a ceasefire that brought eight days of fierce fighting between Gaza and Israel to an end, but the tension the deadly attacks created, the damage and destruction it brought, will keep reminding the world about the wrath incurred on the people of Gaza. The attacks killed more than 160 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, while injuring hundreds of others. Greg Manahan, an Irish peace activist, recounts his time spent in Gaza – from arriving shortly before the assassination of Ahmed Jabari to his departure after Israel’s assault was in full swing.

In part 1 of a three-part series, Manahan arrives in Gaza to do a film about an Irish ship attacked by Israel and goes on to explore ordinary life and civil society in the small territory – shortly before Israel launched its Operation “Pillar of Defence”.

I am an Irish peace activist who has arrived in Gaza recently to do a film about an Irish ship to that sought to break the blockade against Gaza in 2011. I’ve travelled with friends – natives of Gaza who now live in Ireland – as opposed to going with a formal delegation or NGO, since I wanted to retain my journalistic independence.

This approach has worked. My friends managed to secure an invitation from the Palestinian Minister of Health here who, unusually, has an Irish passport, had qualified in Dublin as a surgeon, and had worked in Ireland’s main hospitals for over six years. As a result of his Irish connections, we as a group have been granted access to places and institutions that would probably not ordinarily be open to a foreign film crew.

Driving through villages

I arrived in Egypt on November 11, planning to head straight to the Rafah crossing the same day. The poverty though in Egypt is striking and should be taken into account by Westerners when they seek to understand the Arab Spring. In some areas the streets are barely paved, and rubbish is strewn everywhere; many Egyptians are clearly suffering.

To get to Gaza from Egypt, one has to cross the top of the Sinai Peninsula; this of course is a very volatile region, where the rule of law is not stable. Indeed, five minutes after we crossed the Salam Bridge, which connects the rest of Egypt to the Sinai by going over the Suez Canal, we were stopped by an armed paramilitary militia at a makeshift checkpoint. Our driver – very calmly, I should add – handed over about a dollar’s worth of loose change. The bandit pulled back his kefiyeh with smile, and bade us a pleasant trip – suggesting that this was a routine part of the hazards of life in that area.

This took place in spite of the Egyptian army being omnipresent in the few villages and in the city of El Arish, who travelled in light armoured vehicles and with heavy machine guns.

The process of crossing to Rafah took half-an-hour. We arrived in Gaza on a coach at what I can only describe as an executive-class air terminal. The building was brand new and very comfortably appointed, with polished marble floors and furniture. The Hamas security officer who greeted me was a very soft spoken polite young man. He asked me to fill out a form and took me into a room with even more comfortable furniture than the main terminal area in order to go through my details. As this was happening, an older man came out with a traditional Arabic coffee pot and poured me some – a gesture of welcome that I have never experienced at any other border control.

As we drove through the villages of southern Gaza, I could see at once that this area was vastly different to the rubbish-filled desert we had left behind. The houses were ramshackle, but you could see that the inhabitants took pride in maintaining them, and the land was cultivated. Olive groves, orange trees and other small holdings yielded various fruits. Despite the farming, the scars of war are visible everywhere: Bombed-out buildings are plentiful, as are walls pockmarked by heavy-calibre bullets.

As we drew closer to the village of Khuzaa, which is where I would be staying, we drove very close to the border with Israel. Along the borderline we could see the Israeli watchtowers, gun emplacements and military Humvees racing in patrol. My hosts warned me not go any closer: “They shoot you,” they explained simply.

Though the best arable land in Gaza is along its south-eastern border, all of that land has been bulldozed by military activity, which has stripped Gaza of much of its vital food basket.

Rizq Abu Ridah, one of my companions, explained that, depending on who the Israeli commander is on any particular day, the location of the “no-man’s-land” changes. Some days the Gazans in the area can farm what little is available to them – on other days, if they labour in the same area they will be shot at.

Guests of honour

We arrived finally at Rizq’s family home, which was thronged with welcoming family members. Rizq told me that all of the land around the village of Khuzaa, along with a significant proportion of the two adjacent villages, were his family’s, and that most of the inhabitants are also family members. Much of the population of these villages gathered to greet us.

A Palestinian living room is quite sparse, even in a wealthy household such as that of Abu Ayman, the clan leader. There are upholstered chairs and sofas all around the walls, and a low table sits in the centre of the room. The only pictures on the wall are of the al-Aqsa mosque and of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Abu Ayman looks like his role as clan leader: He is a distinguished gentleman in his late 50s, with something benign and friendly in his eyes.

We were asked to sit down on Abu Ayman’s right, as guests of honour. It was time to sip coffee, then tea, then more coffee, and to exchange speeches about gratitude for the occasion and the new friendships. The atmosphere was quite formal, yet again, friendly. Younger men from the clan acted as ushers, filling our cups and bringing our bags to our rooms.

Though we could not, in some ways, be further from Ireland, in others we felt that we were right at home.

Breakfast with the Abu Ridahs after I arrived on November 13 – and before the bombardment escalated – began with what were becoming familiar Arabic greetings: Shaking hands, and “salam alleikum“. Our host, the clan patriarch, Abu Ayman, took care to tell me that all of the food – the cheese, humus, olive oil and breads – were made from locally grown produce on their farms, but that their yields were becoming smaller every year due to the Israeli army encroaching further into their land. This, he said, was a problem facing all farmers in the Gaza Strip.

As we drove through the sandy streets – children playing with the debris in the dust – we passed small workshops that mend the broken stuff of war. I had no choice but to accept a government driver for my journey: The government in Gaza insisted that they drive me everywhere. My initial thoughts were that they were attempting to control the story I might put together, so I put this theory to the test by giving them a list of places and people that I wished to see. The only item they resisted was a proposed interview with Ismail Haniyeh, the charismatic leader of Hamas who is now prime minister of Gaza’s government.

My driver, whom the government had provided, pointed out a water tower to me in the middle of the town of Khuzaa. He said: “Teen martyr, Israeli rocket.” The teenager, he said, and another young man, had been effecting repairs on the tower – which is one of the few ways the people of rural Gaza can collect fresh, clean water – when the Israeli controllers of the camera tower, which is about 700m over the border, ordered a strike, which had killed the teenager. I asked when this had happened. “Two weeks ago,” was the reply. This would have been one of the presumably targeted killings that is never, in my view, reported in the media. “Your life is the most important. I will become a martyr to protect your life,” my driver assured me as we returned to our vehicle.

Tales of separation 

Gaza, tragically, is unique in having a Ministry of Detainees. It is referred to as “the prisoners’ ministry”. According to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights NGO, and the NGO Addameer, an organisation of prisoners’ lawyers, there are currently nearly 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli custody. These include, the groups say, children, 10 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and 189 women. In addition, they say 186 Palestinians are on “administrative detention” – which is a form of internment without charge or trial, in which a military commander can order detention for six months and renew it again after six months – and do this as many times as he likes.

The Ministry of Detainees itself is austere, decorated with murals depicting various scenarios of men, women and children being grabbed by Israeli soldiers and the much-loathed Shin Bet secret police. After a brief interview there, I wanted to get over to the offices of the International Red Cross, where a demonstration was being held by the mothers of these prisoners. The Red Cross is the only organisation that receives access to such prisoners in Israel from time to time. Not only did the deputy minister agree to this, he accompanied us, along with two translators.

The Red Cross had erected an awning in front of the building to keep the sun off of the female protesters, who were holding framed pictures of their loved ones. This was a place of anguish and grief.

A woman shouted at me: “What is the international community doing about this?” The answer was: Nothing. But I could not say anything like this to the already heartbroken mother of a man who was now in his late 20s, and whom she had not seen, or heard from, in five years. Similar stories would come back like a ghostly echoes right up until the morning I left.

“Had the Israelis not attacked the Saoirse and her Canadian sister ship Tahrir, the ships would have been received here in the harbour by the people of Gaza.”

I saw a young woman writing down details given by an elderly lady who leaned on a stick. I asked one of my translators to find out what was happening. She told me that the woman was blind and was dictating a letter to her imprisoned son. I brought my camera forward and sat down with her. Her voice showed little emotion; she seemed resigned. “Mustafa, my son, has been in prison for 22 years,” she told me. I asked her what he had done. “He was a member of the resistance.”

I asked her how often she visited her son. “I’m not allowed to,” she replied. I followed up by asking her when was the last time she had heard from him. “Twelve years ago.” I was speechless.

Many more female protesters told similar tales of separation and of not knowing how their children were.

As we were leaving, a very distressed man approached me shouting: “Please help me, please help me find Ayman my son.” At 35 years old, he said, Ayman Taleb Abustia had been sent from an Israeli prison to, ostensibly, receive open-heart surgery in Israel. That was the last anyone has heard of him. No one knows where he is, if the operation was successful, or if he even survived.

Grim vista of medieval horrors

Back at the ministry, I was shown a prisoners’ museum. This is a grim vista of medieval horrors that apparently displays the various methods of stress positions and torture that released prisoners have described on their return from Israeli prisons. Around the walls there were pictures of the prisoners who, the ministry says, succumbed to the torture and are now considered “martyrs”.

Before we lost light, I wanted to film Gaza’s ramshackle harbour at sunset. This, to me was the centre of the universe for my film, which is about two Flotilla ships, one Irish and one Canadian, that had been attacked by Israel. Had the Israelis not attacked the Saoirse and her Canadian sister ship Tahrir, the ships would have been received here in the harbour by the people of Gaza.

When we returned back to our lodgings in the southern end of Gaza, another warning boomed through the night sky. Crump. I looked at my host’s son, Rizq, for some clarification.

Merkava,” he said.

The Merkava 4 is a battle-tank that Israel uses along the border, in order to hit relatively close-range targets.

The family brought in coffee, once again, as the sounds of war escalated outside our doors.

After a night listening to the very large Merkava battle tanks manoeuvring just over the border and sporadic rounds being fire at some distance, we headed out again in Tuesday morning, with temperatures in the early seventies and a light breeze. Rizq asked that we stopped off at his in-laws’ village, north of Khuzaa in an area surrounded on two sides by the Israeli border.

It was clear on our arrival that this was a very impoverished area with families living in houses that dated back more than 100 years. While I was there, I requested from my new government minders that I see some recent effects of the siege. After the men discussed the issue, they said, “All right but you must be fast, Israel soldiers at 300m.”

There was a cross intersection of the typical sand roads in Gaza. One of the spokes off this intersection was a dusty path that led to a small mosque in a field. It was clear that the single minaret tower of the mosque was damaged, the metal work had no rust, it was fresh. My nervous looking companions explained: “Merkava, two weeks ago.” I asked, why attack a mosque? They replied, “They hate Muslims.”

So we were introduced to daily life in Gaza – just before a crisis descended.

On the evening of November 14, as I was reading emails in a house in Khan Yunes, eating pizza, the street behind us was hit by two missiles. I could feel the compression wave coming in the door. It was followed by the sweet rank smell of cordite. As I posted on Facebook:

“Four explosions in the centre of Gaza City. One killing two, including Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, the highest ranking member of Hamas to be killed since Cast Lead and who oversaw the detention and release of Ghilad Shalit. There are other fatalities don’t have details yet. It’s on TV here. We’re watching the explosions live.”

Western news reports soon followed.

Continue to part 2.

Greg Manahan is a Dublin-based filmmaker and human rights activist. He covers many stories in the Middle East and Europe. He was in the Gaza Strip to complete a documentary about the Irish ship to Gaza that was intercepted by Israeli Naval Special Forces in 2011. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GregFManahan