For those of us who have grown up Arab, Palestine is a constant presence. From childhood to adulthood, we hear about the Palestinian cause, from the news, from friends and family, from parents and grandparents, from school, from songs. Palestine is close to our hearts, while its reality is so far away. The land itself feels distant; despite its proximity, one can only dream of seeing it.
If there is a small glimmer of light emerging from the Egyptian revolution, it is that the reality of Palestine may not be as far as it seems. As Israel executed “Pillar of Cloud,” five hundred Egyptians crossed the Rafah border into Gaza carrying medical supplies and a message of solidarity. A few days later, a group of students from the American University in Cairo, the German University in Cairo, and a few other universities went to Gaza for the same reasons.
Three main things struck me throughout the trip. One was the uncomfortable feeling of being a tourist. The second were my questions about Egyptian perceptions of Palestine and the Palestinian people. Lastly, I was taken with the spirit in Gaza after over a week of constant airstrikes.
We got on the bus headed towards Gaza from Cairo at around 8:00 am on Thursday. We arrived Friday night. The trip took thirty-six hours. It seemed at certain points that the Egyptian authorities were deliberately delaying us. When we arrived at the Ismailia checkpoint, we were stopped for five hours. The authorities claimed that because there were “foreigners” among us, and a general lack of safety in Sinai, security forces needed to accompany us. These were not “orders,” they assured us. The students were angry and blocked the road to Kobry el Salam. Eventually we were allowed to pass. It did not take long before we were stopped again for more “security reasons.” Once we finally began moving, the security officers accompanying us took us to the Swiss Inn in Arish. We spent the night there. We got to the Rafah border the at 11:00 the next morning. Again we had to wait six hours before we could make the final crossing.
This amount of waiting and moving back and forth is miniscule compared to what Palestinians experience when they cross the Egyptian border as they attempt to exit the world’s largest open-air prison. Sadly, the 25 January Revolution has not changed these realities.
Emotions were high as we passed through the “Welcome to Palestine” sign and members of the Hamas government greeted us. They placed kafiyyas around our necks as we walked off the bus. They accompanied us throughout our stay. They acted as tour guides, arranging our schedules and events to the last minute—determining where we went, whom we would meet, and for how long. The generosity and warmth of the welcome and hospitality was unmistakable. But it was also hard to miss how controlled our “tourism” was. We saw what they wanted us to see.
Although Hamas and Israel had reached a truce the day before, an Israeli missile had hit Rafah and killed two brothers the day we arrived. We went to their funeral in Rafah, not far from the Egyptian border. The two young men were Khaled and Ahmed Abed Abu Mor. One of them was our age, in his early twenties. The other was married and had a newborn.
I had grown up on images of Palestinian women wailing and carrying their just orphaned babies. But these mothers, wives, and grandmothers were the ones consoling us. They read us Ahmed’s will, which he had written when he was eighteen. Some among us took photographs, heightening the alienating feeling of tourism. We stayed for a brief ten minutes before we were rushed back on the bus.
The next day we continued our “tour,” moving from Rafah to downtown Gaza. A man stood at the front of the bus and commented on the sites. We saw the aftermath of the Israeli airstrikes, the destroyed buildings, homes, and infrastructure which dotted the road from Rafah to Gaza City. We saw Gaza’s agricultural land and its factories. We saw the murals of Yasser Arafat, Qassam Briagdes fighters, and the messages of resistance painted on what seemed every wall.
We got off the bus for ten-minute intervals to see the remnants of buildings mutilated by Israeli missiles and airstrikes, including governmental buildings and the Cabinet of Ministers in Gaza City. We stopped at the Al Shifaa hospital, Gaza’s central hospital that received most of the patients during the attacks. The doctors spoke to us about their experiences. We heard one heartbreaking story of a doctor, Magdy Naem, whose child Abd El Rahman was killed in the assault. Dr. Magdy had to take his son to the morgue and immediately return to work in the emergency room. Some patients were still in the hospital but most of the injured could not stay for prolonged periods, due to the lack of equipment and facilities.
The one place that left the biggest impression on most of us was the Dalou family’s home. The Dalou grandfather, who had lost thirteen of his family members in one Israeli airstrike, spoke to us. He commented about the absurdity of his small grandchildren being “terrorists.” Walking around the rubble of what used to be a home was surreal; we could still see prayer rugs, kitchen utensils, and notebooks. It felt crippling to see this in real life, and not just on AlJazeera. We stood next to the remains of what used to be a family’s home, helpless.
As Israeli aggression against Gaza was increasing, many Egyptians, mostly remnants or supporters of the old regime, feared that Palestinians would flee into Sinai and that Morsy would facilitate their permanent residence in Sinai. Rumors circulated that Morsy was issuing laws that would allow land in Sinai to be sold to Palestinians at cheaper rates. The Palestinians in Gaza laughed at these rumors and fears. They explained that they would never leave their homes in Gaza and go into Sinai. Staying on their land was a matter of principle, a matter of existence.
Fears that Morsy’s relationship with Hamas would affect Egyptian national security also circulated in Egypt. These worries were shallow; Mosry’s position on the Gaza attacks was not, after all, that radical. Before my trip, many Egyptian acquaintances commented that now was not the time for Gaza; Egypt should be our focus. It was as if by merely showing solidarity with Gaza we were somehow robbing Egypt. That logic is twisted; solidarity can only strengthen our resolve for a better Egypt.
The lessons I will take away from this trip are many. But what struck me the most was the Palestinians’ high morale. They have not lost hope. Children came to the school we slept in and conducted their morning routines. They were smiling; they played, they sang the Palestinian national anthem, they went to their classes, they made jokes. The principle of the school showed us around and casually mentioned that their library had more books before it was bombed during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008. It was strange to hear these words-- bombing, airstrikes, martyrs, and resistance-- in everyday conversation. Life just seemed to go on, against the odds.
As our time in Gaza came to its end, there was a clear consensus among us: this was definitely a trip worth making. What we hear and see on the news is only a small fraction of the reality in Gaza. Hopefully these trips between Gaza and Egypt will become more frequent in the near future. After all, Palestine is not as far away as it seems.