GAZA CITY—The turnstile locks behind me and I’m standing in a small metal room. I flashback to the first time I crossed Erez checkpoint last year and remember the claustrophobic feeling of walking into a trap, three small metal doors blending into the steel. This time, I know the drill, and place bets on which one of these gateways to Gaza will randomly open. One finally does, revealing a seemingly endless open-air tunnel that snakes through the expanse of the buffer zone. I have been waiting for this moment, for the long walk alone to the other side. I crank up Gran Vitaly’s “Looming Hurricane” on my iPod and weave through the cage, separated from heavily armed soldiers by razed agricultural land. Time stands still for a while, and then before I know it, I’m back in the Strip.
This trip to Gaza, like the ones that came before, feels like a prison visits on so many levels. The border is less than an hour from where I started my morning in Jerusalem at dawn—but it might as well be on the other side of the world. Hidden by thick trees, the coastal territory is conveniently invisible from the Israeli horizon. Palestinians are hardly allowed to enter or exit. Little has changed since the 2008-09 war.
Because I arrived on a Friday, the streets are silent—giving one of the most densely populated places on the planet the feeling of a ghost town. I meet up with Ahmed Sourani from Grassroots International’s partner PARC (Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees) at the hotel from where we start planning some the details of my time here over a plate of hummus and strong Palestinian coffee infused with cardamom. He talks soberly about the Israeli siege, then cautiously about the recent Cairo-brokered reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and then excitedly about the youth movements in the Arab world. “You should definitely meet with the youth,” he suggests with a grin before getting up to leave.
A few hours later, I find myself back in the restaurant with two representatives of the Soorah Youth Movement. “Soorah” means image in Arabic, and they adopted that name to make their work inclusive. “Everyone has a place here,” says Muayad Meshal, 25, “We are farmers and students with newfound hopes and dreams just like our brothers and sisters in Tunisia and Egypt.” Since the movement was founded on the first anniversary of the attacks on Gaza in December 2009, they have worked to hold governments and NGOs accountable inside Gaza.
Rana Shaqfa, 21, explains that young women are an active part of the movement. She has braces and is wearing skinny jeans with a Minnie Mouse shirt, glossy pink lips perfectly matched to one of her head scarves. A bubbly college senior, Rana joined Soorah to volunteer in her community. “People from the outside don’t understand us,” she said, “But it is our job to violate those stereotypes.” Her hope is to see the movement grow up in Gaza and prove to other Palestinians living here that that together, their voices are strong.
Night has fallen by now, and colleagues invite me to a memorial for Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian activist who was murdered almost exactly a month ago. “Vik”, as he was lovingly known here, fought tirelessly—and ultimately gave his life—for Palestinian rights. In a park near the city center, more than a hundred locals are gathered under huge banners with his photo that read “stay human” in both Arabic and English. Many of Vik’s friends from Italy were granted entry into Gaza via Egypt to not only commemorate his life, but also to continue his solidarity work for the people of Palestine. I leave before midnight, while others are still arriving.
I have only had a day here so far. Prison visit? Maybe. But Gaza is an intoxicating place where minds are free to travel, despite physical barriers. I am grateful for this opportunity to learn more, and finally drift into a deep warm sleep.