One of the first things that strikes us as we make our way from Erez crossing on the Gaza side towards Gaza city is the variety of modes of transport that are in use. Carts driven by horses or donkeys are not uncommon, also small motorised vehicles that are often brightly decorated, motorbikes, scooters, old cars, new cars, battered cars…. in the city cars and animals mingle freely, sometimes frighteningly close to one another. At a roundabout, some planks of wood fall off a cart: the owner calmly descends in the middle of the traffic and a cacophony of horns follow him – the traffic continues. The roads too vary in quality. The main road is asphalted, however side roads are often little more than sandy dirt tracks puckered by potholes.
It is also quickly apparent that there is great poverty here. We pass dwellings that are ramshackle and crumbling. From the hotel dining room we watch local fishermen venture out in precariously small boats to catch what they can in the designated 10-mile zone set by the Israelis. Others wade into the sea with hand-held nets. The scars of war are also plain to see. What was a smart shopping centre now stands in ruins like a jagged tooth. The worst scars are, however, in people’s hearts and minds. People refer to being under siege, to not being able to travel, access education or visit relatives. Many have stories of suffering and loss. Responding to an exercise we facilitated where participants talk of their safe place, Hekmet says that he now doesn’t feel comfortable anywhere, because he lost his home in the last war.
We visit Wala, an 8-year old little girl who has brain damage. She lies limp and unresponsive in her mother’s arms, wriggling from time to time and making baby noises. Wala was born during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 – 9, and her parents believe that she was affected by the phosphorous bombs used by the Israelis. They show Joe the medication she takes to try to calm her down, but it is obvious that she needs a brain scan to assess the damage and make a proper diagnosis. Joe promises to do what he can.
Despite or perhaps because of their difficult circumstances, Gazans know how to have a good time. On Thursday afternoon a large proportion of the population of the Strip seems to have spilled out onto the beach, including busloads of children. People enjoy picnics, buy balloons, sit in family groups. Music is never far away. Wedding parties are announced by drums, music and the loud honking of car horns.
Above all we are welcomed with warmth and humour. The workshop participants are genuinely overjoyed to see us and respond to us with smiles and cameras at the ready. By the end of the four days we feel a bit like celebrities, having been included in scores of photos and selfies. On the final afternoon we are presented with some gifts from the group – a keffiyeh, a metal map of Palestine, an olive wood pencil – symbolic gifts which express at once gratitude and pride. On the final evening we are treated to a meal at Murad’s house – mountains of stuffed vine leaves, a beef dish with pumpkin and couscous, platefuls of fruit, then sticky honeyed pastries with coffee – typical Palestinian hospitality.
The Gazans take us to their hearts. The place embraces us in all its noisy, dusty complexity, heart-rending sadness, and raw joy. It isn’t easy to get into Gaza. Nor is it easy to leave.