I have been waiting for over a month to receive a permit to go into Gaza. It has finally been approved and I am going with the Bishop’s Chaplain to visit Al Ahli Arab Hospital, the only Christian Hospital in Gaza City. We will also hold a service at St. Philip’s Anglican Church there. It is the only Anglican Church in Gaza and the Bishop tries to send someone once a month to celebrate communion with the people.
We leave early in the morning. It is almost a two hour drive to get to the Erez Border or Gaza Checkpoint. As we approach, a large facility and the ever present walls, emerge in the distance like a maximum security prison. Which, of course, it is. Gaza is a prison for the 1.5 million people who live there and cannot leave.
We walk through security, so many turnstiles, stop on red, go on green, never a person to be seen. I feel like I am in some sort of sci-fi movie far in the future, where Big Brother is watching all the time and I feel guilty just for standing and doing nothing. But this is not the future this is now. And I keep reminding myself, that this is easy going for me, a white foreigner from North America.
We make our way through this large, empty, clean, facility – I saw, perhaps, five people in all, young security personnel- women and men, or rather boys and girls. The towers outside are heavily armed and there are cameras at every turn. Once through the last turnstile on this side, we walk through no man’s land on a covered path (about 2 kilometers) to the Gaza side. Hamas security has been given our information from the hospital so they check us through. Canon John is given a little trouble over the service booklets he has brought for the church. And it is not the Christian theme that is the worry so much as the map on the back, of the Diocese of Jerusalem (which depicts the five countries of the diocese which include – Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel). But after much consternation, we are allowed to continue.
I feel like I have gone from Oz to Kansas. Behind me is green pasture, farmers in huge modern machinery cultivating the lush land. Now I have stepped into dust and donkeys, Bedouins crowded into slums with filthy sheep and goats grazing in the garbage. We drive toward the city, where it is a busy day. An interesting mixture of past and present, as cars make way for donkeys pulling wagons, driven by old men and shoeless boys. Women are shopping and, really, since I arrived in the Middle East, I have not seen so many women in black burkas, as I do today. We pass the sites of bombed out homes and recognize them from the news. We drive over a lovely new bridge, bombed by the Israelis and rebuilt by USAID.
We arrive at Al Ahli Arab Hospital. We are welcomed with coffee and sweets. We discuss the life here in Gaza and I see the exhaustion on the face of our doctor and in the eyes of the administration. The mission of the hospital, for over a hundred years, has always been to serve the poor. But money has not come in as readily these days, and the worry is that some of the staff will have to be released. Most of the staff is Muslim, and everyone has worked well together for a long time but there is an undercurrent of fear that there may be violent reprisals should that happen. And what if the Hamas government should sweep in and easily pay for everything. That would be the end of our Christian Hospital, of a small but valiant Christian Presence in Gaza.
At the moment USAID is building a Diagnostic Center beside the Hospital. This will be a great boon to us, as all the diagnostic tools, treatment and follow-up will be at hand on the hospital campus. But the running costs are difficult to come by and treatment is dear. The people of Gaza do not have the money to pay for their health needs and Al Ahli Hospital has always served them at minimal cost. I will tell you, I have never met such faithful people. I am put to shame by their hope. Especially their hope in us, their fellow Christians, brothers and sisters in Christ, that somehow we will bring good news. And our news is not good. Our news is always one of waiting. Just wait, we are working on it. I ask myself - are we bringing them false hope? I will leave tomorrow and this small band of people, caught in a situation, not of their making, will struggle on. When asked if they would leave, the answer is always, ‘No, this is our home. This is our hospital. It is for the hospital, to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, not for me, that I continue to work, to serve the people.’ I am in the room with true disciples of Christ. I am profoundly humbled by their kindness, generousity and deep commitment.
Our talk turns to politics – how can it not? And in the course of conversation, we are asked if we would like to see the tunnels that come in from Egypt. Everything comes from Egypt. The apples and bananas that sit on the table for lunch come from Egypt.
We get into a van and drive to Rafah. It is about an hour away. As we drive south, I see a lot of new buildings and beautiful homes going up. Rich colours and fancy balconies. I am told there are millionaires in the making here, money is coming in from Qatar but the people don’t see it. The pretty buildings are a façade. The majority of the population is very poor.
We arrive at the border of Palestine and Egypt. I have put my scarf over my head, as I can feel eyes on me and I do not want to make anyone uncomfortable. I see the Egyptian security towers from where I am standing. I see rows of white plastic tents, like kiosks at a country fair, and from them are being hauled building supplies, pipes, and gravel, and from others, fruits, vegetables, and fish. Some tunnels are so large that new cars are being driven in to Gaza. They have not had new cars in Gaza for 6 years. Massive trucks laden with construction materials are heading out. We go over to look more closely at the tunnel nearest us. The opening is about 1.5 meters (5ft) across and anywhere from 26 to 45 meters (approx. 85-148 ft.) deep. It is like looking down a black bottomless pit. All I see is the rope going down into nothingness. But there is someone down there. The young men working this tunnel wear flip flops and sandals. No hard hats or safety wires. No thought of face masks to protect from the constant dust. I do not think that health regulations or the thought of health care exist. These men work for next to nothing, but it is work and it is better than nothing at all.
Everyone has been very kind to us, more than willing to show us around the tunnel site. I see large plastic containers (tubs on ropes) of stones come up from the tunnel and I think that we must be at a new tunnel that they are still digging out. But, no, this gravel is building material, and two young men grab the ropes and dump the tubs into a pit, where it is scooped up by a large shovel-truck, and dumped into the back of another huge truck that will haul it away to a building site. The air is thick with flying dust and I am coated in it. I have only been here ten minutes. We thank the workers for kindly letting us come to take a look at this place, and drive off in stunned silence.
On the way home, Muhammad, who works at the hospital, asks us back to his home for coffee. We pass a neighbourhood of new homes. Cement boxes with windows. These are being built and funded by the UN and the USA. Building houses for the poor and for those who have lost their homes in the war. We arrive at the apartment building of our new friend, and climb three or four flights of stairs to enter into a lovely space. Canon John is seated in the living room and I am taken to meet Mohamed’s wife and daughter in the kitchen. They have taken themselves to their bedroom until they are told that John is in the other room. When they come out, they are dressed like me, pants and blouses. I can only assume that to meet John they would need to be covered. As I stand with them in the kitchen, the smallest daughter comes to me with hands up, in the universal child speak of ‘Please pick me up.’ I am happy to oblige. She is beautiful, with rich brown eyes and curly black hair. She sits in my arms in total trust. I use my very few Arabic words and the young girls clap and laugh in delight. Our conversation goes very well, discussing children, school, and shoes.
When our time comes to leave, my new friend, (I am sorry I can’t pronounce her name, let alone spell it) goes to her room and returns to give me a parting gift. Two blue candles and a lovely necklace that must have come from her own jewelry box. I am so touched. Kindness and thoughtfulness have no religious or political boundary. They just are.
Back in Gaza, we check into our hotel. What was once a busy holiday spot is now desolate. There are only five people staying at our hotel, including us. I have a lovely room, with a sitting area and writing desk. I also have roosters and chickens outside my window and the roosters are fighting. I am hoping they settle down when night falls. We rest and then get picked up for dinner. We eat at a restaurant called the Lighthouse. Which has an old one (hence the name) and we climb the 99 steps to the top to see the view. It is absolutely beautiful. I can see the fishing boats heading out. Technically they can fish at the five mile mark but in reality they can only go out three, the sea along the Gaza Strip is heavily militarized and severely guarded. As darkness falls I can see a necklace of lights across the horizon as the fishermen await their catch. It is sardine season but we are told the catch is poor and most boats may only come in with a box full of fish each. All the fresh fish comes from Egypt.
There is a jewelry sale at the restaurant and I head in to take a look. I choose a lovely pair of earrings (approved with a thumbs up, by a young girl standing beside me). I make my purchase and head back to our table. I realize, as I am putting away my bag, that I have an extra necklace in it. Our host goes to return it and comes back saying, ‘No, this was a gift for you.’ I am not sure how to respond to this overwhelming kindness that I meet at every turn. I have to wonder - am I as kind to strangers as these people? I honestly don’t think so.
The next morning, I am awakened at 5am by my roosters’ morning crow. We leave our hotel after breakfast and visit the Palestinian Arts and Crafts Shop (funded by UNRWA) that supports women in the villages who make lovely stitchery items. We are given a tour of an amazing Byzantine Church that has sat in Gaza since 345CE. It is still in use today. The stone is worn and warm. The rich spiritual essence of the prayers of centuries lingers. I take a moment to add my own. A tomb in the graveyard dates to 986CE. Another beautiful Byzantine Church once sat on the seaside. When the Israelis left, they took the ancient mosaic floor with them. I feel a great sadness here. There are only a handful of Christians left in Gaza. The Christian history is disappearing. The people that can leave are leaving. Those who cannot leave work diligently to get their children educated and out. I have spent one night here with my ears on alert and I am tired. I cannot imagine living here every day. We have driven past the remains of many buildings. We have heard the stories of near misses. And the stories of those who have been hit. The tension is palatable.
We say our goodbyes to the Al Ahli Hospital team. We have been made most welcome and the offers to return and ‘please have coffee with me’ and ‘next time, please come to dinner at my home’, still ring in my ears. We are now family.
The return through the checkpoint is the same. Very few people, lots of cameras. We go through the scanner this time (much to my chagrin as I always avoid the scanner). Our luggage is scanned too and once picked up we make our way to a large, clean, waiting hall. Of the four or five security booths, only one is in operation. The sign repeats: Israelis and Foreigners. We sit among a number of Palestinians. One man is in a wheel chair and does not look well. No one is moving so I go to ask the woman in the booth where we should go. ‘Oh, come through here.’ she says, ‘It is a good thing you asked, you could have been sitting for a while.’ We are the foreigners. I do not know how long the other people have been waiting but as I pass I whisper ‘I am sorry’. This just doesn’t feel right, that I have some sort of privilege to breeze to the front of the line. The checkpoint closes at 3pm. It is now 1:30pm.
We make our way out into the sunshine. We see hawks flying over the tilled fields across from the checkpoint. I am back in green. We wait for the car that is coming to pick us up but it is caught in traffic. Eventually, we see the man in the wheel chair, being pushed by his father, come out to the parking lot. It has just gone 2:30pm.
I have been asked - how did you feel about going to Gaza? If I say I am sad, anxious, or so angry at how people can be imprisoned in their own cities and towns, then I have to ask how much more the people who live in those towns must feel. I was only there for two days. I really don’t have the words. I take a deep breath and my eyes well with tears.
It’s probably just better not to ask.