We left Gaza on a bus to the Rafah crossing on the evening of the 16th, watching the sun set in the Mediterranean, a few people on the beach and in the surf, trying to cool off. The shore of the Gaza Strip could be developed into a resort if there were any substance to the economy. Along the shore road south of Gaza City, you can see the ruins of buildings, targets of the Israeli warships: they are, for the most part, the villas of leaders of the PA. Within the borders of Gaza City, there was an industrial zone. All of the factories have been destroyed by the Israeli onslaught. I have done risk management and safety surveys on concrete factories, and one of the factories first bombed into oblivion was a cement factory--the burned hulks of cement mixing trucks and crane pumpers lay in the yard of the factory--crumbled cement walls and twisted rebar all around. I find this significant, because I know for a fact that the Israeli government refuses to allow the delivery of construction materials into the Gaza strip as part of their siege.
When you travel through Gaza City you see wide boulevards and what could be neat paved roads on a set of gentle hills, stone buildings (unlike the concrete and brick tenements you find everywhere in Egypt--some sections of Gaza City look more like towns in the West Bank or in Amman or Damascus--but there is so pavement, only sand, no evidence of the means of creating infrastructure. The pockmarks of bullets and shells are almost everywhere--sometimes in a jagged line leading up to a window and then on the other side, the last evidence of some Israeli soldier spraying his ammo. As we are finding out now in testimony from Israeli, it may or may not have been a response to a sniper or attacker. Soldiers were instructed to shoot at any movement at all, shoot first and don't ask questions later might be the phrase.
I must be an optimist, I decided, because in looking at all of this wreckage and devastation from the Israeli attack, I kept thinking to myself that if the Palestinians were in possession of full economic independence, this might be a town to compete with Haifa or Beirut for middle class vacation hordes, or how neat this one divided boulevard might be if it were paved and the stunted palms given the water to grow. And because despite this devastation and this very high unemployment, the people welcome us, smile at us, wave at us, greet us warmly and continue in their persistence--sumud is the word for this.
We were headed back to the Rafah crossing at the end of the 24 hour limit set by the Egyptian Government (and we assume also with the consent of the Israelis and the US State Department). By ten we reached the Gaza side of the border, retrieved our passports, and then bussed over to the Egyptian side of the "no man's land" for another slow and expensive re-entry into Egypt. When you first arrive, the cost of a visa is US$20. When we left Egypt for Gaza, there was a 92 Egyptian Pounds charge (the exchange is 5.6 pounds to the dollar), and now when we return there is another exit fee of 42 pounds just to leave the terminal. They get you going and coming.
By the time the buses were loaded, head checks done, security services settled in, it was after midnight and we crossed the Sinai, over the magnificent Mubarak Peace Bridge over the Suez Canal, the cargo vessels still moving slowly through, and back to Cairo airport, a trip of over 6 hours, and this despite the police escort vehicles who quickened our passage through the checkpoints that appear on the major roads every 30 kilometers or so. At dawn we were at the airport. Some on earlier flights headed to change to later or next day departures. The rest of us ate, exchanged last minute thoughts, names and addresses, shook hands and hugged. We had done it, and now, framed by long busrides in the night, it all felt like a dream.
In the US, mid afternoon of the 17th, we passed through immigration and customs with nary an inquiry. I understand that one or two people were detained, but apparently that was easily handled. And so back in the US, we have memories, and pictures, and the determination to tell the story of the Israeli siege of Gaza, the slow dying and the collective punishment of 1.5 million people who are kept from developing their own land.
Now, exhaustion is high, but so is determination to tell the story as often as we can to the American public. The mainstream media are not telling it. The idea that brings hope to all of us is that we are on the side of fairness and justice, and that will keep us going, as it has kept the Palestinians going. Our lesser sumud. When next I see Gaza City, I hope it will be for a stroll along the beach, fisherman coming in with catches from further out than two kilometers (where the Israelis now cordon off their boats) and no rubble and destruction in sight when I look inland. Viva Palestina!