Gaza, the Big Open-air Prison
It is my pleasure and honor to be standing before you all today. This is my first time to visit Malaysia, yet I feel a deep bond between the Malay and the Palestinian people. The Malaysian government and nation have always stood with us in our just cause and our struggle for freedom from the Israeli settler colonial project. Our cultures may be different, but our Islamic and human ties are visceral and powerful.
I’d like to thank the Malaysian Women Coalition for Al-Quds and Palestine for organizing the conference on the Solidarity with the Palestinians Prisoners inside Israeli Occupation Prisons, and for inviting me to speak on behalf of my people in the Gaza Strip.
I come from Gaza, a place which has been under an airtight siege for sixteen years. Today, I’ll try to give you an insider’s experience on what life has been like under occupation, siege and military attacks. The day-to-day challenges and the effects of the siege on my people’s livelihoods, and their physical mental and well-being.
I was sixteen years old when I fell in love with star gazing. I was living in the family house in Khan Younis, south of the Gaza Strip. I’d spend nights admiring the stars shining above. There were shooting stars, and sometimes an owl flew over my head, but I was never scared. It was all part of nature, and nature was my friend. The sky was a source of peace and tranquility.
Fast forward to the new millennium, September of year 2000. Israeli occupation Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a new method of terror—aerial shelling over the Gaza strip. War planes and drones invaded our sky and became the new inhabitants above. They’d appear suddenly and launch missiles unpredictably. Houses, windows, and everything in between shook and rattled. Glass shattered from the impact and from then, we learned that we needed to keep our windows slightly open in case of a strike.
People were assassinated inside their cars, their homes, on motorbikes, on the beach, in the market. No place was safe. The fiendish warplanes tracked people down like chess pieces.
I pushed the days and finally something good happened in my life. On July 31st, 2005 I gave birth to my triplets. My whole life was turned upside down. When my babies were less than a year old, a new campaign of terror was launched over Gaza—sonic booms. A sonic boom is when a warplane flies at supersonic speed resulting in a clap like thunder— but inside your house. As days passed, I noticed the rounds became scheduled. One in the middle of the day, one in the evening and one at 3:00am. I tried my best to be prepared and protect my babies from the bangs by stuffing their ears with cotton.
In summer of 2007, the Israeli occupation imposed a tight land, air and sea blockade over the Gaza Strip. This meant being locked up in a concentration camp with no access to the outside world except through the internet.
In December of 2008, my kids were to witness their first large-scale war. In 2012, they lived through the second war, in 2014 it was the third, in 2021 their fourth, in August 2022 their fifth, as well as other two to three-day escalations that were just as deadly as the longer attacks. Although it lasted three days, the August attack claimed the lives of 44 people including 15 children.
Mama, do we live in Gaza or Palestine?
A question that my nine-year-old challenged me with one day. This is the dilemma of every parent in Gaza. We raise our kids under the siege, where they’re not allowed to visit cities in their own country. They learn about al-Quds, Ramallah, al-Khalil and other cities in their school textbooks. It’s up to their imagination to picture what cities look like. One day as I was helping my daughter with her national studies, she shouted and showed her discontent at having to look at dull pictures of Palestinian cities and demanded, ‘I wanna go see them for real!’
January of 2008 was a brutal winter. The government announced that the power plant was running out of fuel and that soon all of Gaza would be engulfed in darkness. Life would come to a halt. Hospitals and all their equipment, baby incubators, and other life-saving machines. Factories, schools, institutions, universities, and homes would suffer from the black out.
As the news reporter announced this live on al-Aqsa satellite channel, I could see tears streaming down his face. He was reporting from the darkness of the siege.
The toll of siege deaths increased.
People with urgent or chronic medical conditions were denied access to treatment outside of Gaza. The hospitals in Gaza are always short of needed equipment, medicine and doctors. The Israeli war planes attacked and destroyed parts of the power plant. This caused grave damage whereby electricity cuts lasted for days. We received as little as four hours of electricity a day, sometimes less.
Al-Aqsa satellite channel had a running banner that counted the number of siege deaths. I saw how my people turned into numbers. So if I’m Rana today, tomorrow I could be casualty number 50 something and nobody would care.
The dehumanization means that we are only numbers to the outside world. We’re killed in dozens, reported on the news in passive forms and no name or face is associated with our victims. I want to say that behind every number is a name and a face. Behind every number is a family of a loved one whom they’ve lost. Or whom they wait his or her return from Israeli occupation prisons.
Travelling outside Gaza
The Rafah Crossing is the main exit out of Gaza. It’s controlled by Egypt. It would open for a few days every couple of months. People were trapped. Students in need of travel, patients in need of treatment, and any other human movement was restricted.
The other crossing to the north of Gaza, Beit Hanun Crossing is controlled by the Israeli occupation and leads into occupied Palestine. It’s a miracle if a person got a permit to travel through it. Those in need of treatment and people who would accompany them needed a so-called ‘security clearance’ to pass through. Sometimes a person was granted, sometimes denied, and sometimes the patient was granted a permit but not the family member who was to accompany them. A child who needed treatment would travel without his or her father or mother.
It was only under the pressure of the Great Return March of 2018 that the Egyptians were pressured to ease the measures and open the Rafah Crossing.
The Great March of Return was ended after one year and eight months of ongoing protest. By the end of the marches, 312 protestors were killed by Israeli snipers (including 61 children and 12 women) and 158 people underwent amputations and 34, 282 injuries. The snipers fired butterfly bullet”, which “explode” upon impact, pulverizing tissue, arteries and bone, while causing severe internal injuries. (Ministry of Health report on 15/09/2019).
The Rafah Crossing opened, but traveling across the Sinai is another story in and of itself. A normal trip would take seven hours, but only if you didn’t have to stop at endless military checkpoints and get your luggage checked and rechecked. A traveler may also be turned back and denied travel for no given reason. His problem may or may not be solved by paying an exorbitant amount of money to an Egyptian company that facilitates travel. It is no wonder that many young people who do get out try to settle in other countries so they wouldn’t return to the cage of Gaza.
Every day in Palestine, we wake up to the news of men, women and children being either arrested or killed in cold blood.
In 2015, Ahmad Almansra was only twelve when he was shot critically and imprisoned. He was brutally and illegally interrogated. The video of his interrogation went viral. He was sentenced to nine years in Israeli prisons. Today his psychological health is declining from the oppression, violence and solitary confinement. This January Ahmad turned 21 in prison.
Incremental genocide continues in Palestine.
Just 38 days into the new year, 43 Palestinians were shot and killed by Israeli soldiers in Jenin, Qabatiya and al-Quds and Areeha. It may all seem far from Gaza, but it still impacts us by reminding us that the cycle of killing shifts from Gaza to the West Bank to al-Quds.
The Israeli occupation meant to isolate us geographically thinking this would fragment us. It would detach us from being unified in our national cause. But the events that preceded the May 2021 attack on Gaza were a live testimony that the people of Palestine, all of Palestine stood united in the face of the incursions and desecrations committed by Israeli settlers, soldiers and fascist ministers during the holy month of Ramadan.
What is life like under siege?
Life in the big open prison of Gaza slowly drains people’s energy. The youth are despondent. Although Palestine has a high literacy rate where only 2.6% of the population are illiterate, yet 74% of university graduates are unemployed. 80% of families rely on humanitarian assistance. (The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.)
Our children have grown up in this besieged, poverty-stricken, and war-ravaged environment, and it’s all they know. When a child finishes school and university, and finds himself winding up at a dead-end, he falls into despair. He’s faced with the conundrum of whether to seek the uncertain path of trying to find some sort of livelihood outside, or to stay in Gaza and survive by whatever means he finds.
The man-made blockade imposed on Gaza for the past fifteen years now has driven people to take illegal routes where they tried to get smuggled out, in many cases leading to disaster at sea. Many drowned, while others made it. Many of those who survived found themselves becoming refugees in the countries where they sought asylum. They found themselves having to go through lengthy and tedious procedures before being granted a decent life.
The siege has taken hold of our lives in dystopian ways. My struggle of living under siege is like my people, but there’s an aspect that I can feel too poignantly-that is claustrophobia.
The Gaza Strip population has already hit 2.1million. The whole of Gaza city is characterized by high-rises forming complex compounds of suffocating structures. While an apartment can provide a decent life for a family, it fails to give a psychological stability due to the feeling of entrapment and the blocking of light and natural views. Every day, more houses are knocked down to make way for new buildings. An anarchy of cement structures reigns over the city. I think of how if UN resolution 194 on the right of return were implemented, how my fellow Palestinian refugees would readily return to their homes and lands. Gaza is made up of 70% (1.4 million) refugees living in eight camps across Gaza strip.
Green spaces are lacking, especially inside the cities. Wide expanses of land don’t exist. After every military attack, we’re expected to absorb the traumas and move on. My people are powerful, but they’re human after all. Due to the recurring attacks, 80% of our children suffer from deep-seated traumas. They’re afraid of noises like thunder, doors slamming or the swooshing of a truck are all mistaken for missiles.
The Mediterranean Sea gives us a momentary relief and escape. It’s something that the occupier can’t steal from us. True they conquer the sea. True they shoot at fishers and restrict their movement. True their warplanes launch missiles at kids playing on the beach like they did in 2014 when they killed the Bakir boys… but at least we have a horizon to contemplate.
The Nakba has never really stopped for the people of Gaza. in the May 2021 aggression, people fled their homes in search of safety. In Gaza, safety has become elusive. During the attack, people would receive an ominous and distressing warning call from someone in the Israeli military telling them they have five minutes to evacuate.
Scenes of bewildered men, women and children running down the streets in horror, not knowing where safety lies is reminiscent of the 1948 Nakba when people were displaced from their homes and the Israeli state was created upon the remnants of the slaughtered villages.
This year, the siege turns sixteen years old. By international laws and conventions, imposing this form of torture and collective punishment is illegal. But so is everything else that Israeli occupation does.
The dreams of my people are simple. We want to live in freedom. We want to enjoy our basic human rights. We want the occupation to end. The killings to stop. The demolition of houses to stop. The stealing of land, the desecration of holy places to stop. We want our children to wake up to the sounds of birds, not bombs