Leaving Gaza

How Sameh Habeeb Left Gaza Strip...Leaving Gaza -A 2009 Story

I was born two years before the first Palestinian intifada, growing up in a middle-class family with a professor for a dad and my siblings all well-educated. My childhood may not have been as luxurious as some other middle-class children. I had no access to public parks, gardens, playgrounds and entertainment places, simply because we don’t have them in Gaza. Instead I was familiar with Israeli soldiers storming houses and arresting stone throwers. I still remember the Israeli soldiers storming into our house when I was only 6 years old. I tried to hide in one of the corners of the house. I saw my mum being hit by one of the soldiers.

My character was shaped by politics from the first moment that I went out into the street to celebrate the return of the Palestinian Authority and the withdrawal of Israel soldiers from Gaza. From that moment I consumed the daily newscast far more ravenously than cartoon movies. I feel knowledgeable about the Middle East, especially Palestine. I have learnt from experience what procrastinators successive Israeli governments have been. Every single Israeli government since the Oslo agreement had some kind of pretext for not giving us a country of our own.

Studying at university was not so interesting. I regularly fled the lecture rooms to volunteer as a campaigner or work with journalists. I had many troubles with my dad, (he demanded I attend my classes regularly) who also happened to be my English literature tutor. Indeed, I have some fondness for Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the Metaphysical poems of John Donne. But that’s it. Mid 2007, I joined various movements against the siege and have never worked harder in my life! My focus was on the media and civil resistance. I spread the word through my blog, Gazatoday, and thousands of people were soon hitting it.  Later I managed to establish an electronic Newspaper called the Palestine Telegraph. It’s widely ready by hundreds of thousands of people these days. My hope is that at last we are starting to present a professional Palestinian journalistic view of the conflict.

After that, I had a chance to accompany a Gazan MP to Italy as an assistant on his month-long tour. I ended up as the main speaker when he only stayed for ten days. Now I found myself pushed to speak daily to curious audiences about Gaza. I visited more than fourteen Italian cities in all. When I returned to Gaza from Italy, war had broken out and I became a ‘citizen journalist’, making daily reports for the BBC, CBC, CBS, Al Jazeera, CNN, Sky News, Democracy Now, Channel 4 and tens of international media outlets. I became a focus point for them in direct proportion to the extent that Israel imposed a media blackout on Gaza before and during that war. In the middle of the siege, I started to plan a trip to the UK. It was to take a gargantuan effort and many twists and turns before this plan could come to fruition.

Leaving Gaza

I’m a Palestinian, so life is always full of difficulties. I was invited to the UK in May 2008, but closed borders meant that I could not go. In December, I reapplied for a British visa.  Days later, the war in Gaza began. Israel launched its full-scale military operation: thousands were killed and wounded. Three days after the war began, the British visa office in Jordan denied me a visa, on the grounds that I could not be trusted to return to a war-torn Gaza. That made me mad: it was so cynical.

Gradually I came around to reapplying – this time with new supporting documents. I gathered references and recommendations from British MPs, NGOs and influential individuals, as well as the support of a good UK solicitor. One Saturday in February 2009, I got a phone call from a friend telling me that the Rafah Crossing would be opened that Sunday morning. I packed hurriedly and instead of clocking in for my first day of work in a new job, off I went.

Saturday night, I travelled via Kahn Younis City, as it’s close to the Rafah Crossing. I spent that night at my friend Ibraim Sobeih’s house. In the early morning, those who were to travel gathered in one of the sports stadiums, whence we were ferried to Rafah joining thousands of people who were trying to go to various foreign destinations.

My bus arrived around 1 pm. Some buses managed to get into the queue, like ours, while others waited for many hours longer. Egyptian authorities were working interminably slowly. It got late, and all those who were in the bus – young and old – became very tired. Some babies started to cry. For hours we hadn’t had any kind of food as we were not allowed to dismount because our bus was to cross. Our bus catered for forty-five people: but there were more than double that number on board. It was pretty grim. Then they told us: the crossing was closed. Terribly disappointed, we began to drag our luggage off the bus when another message came: only one bus would cross after all – our bus.

Disappointment turned to joy. One friend of mine became so overjoyed that he very uncharacteristically hugged me, twice. Our bus crossed the Palestinian side of the borders and reached the gateway to Egypt.

Freedom from Gaza

We waited for more than an hour at that gate for an Egyptian policeman to come out. He investigated our IDs and passports. The bus, which was very busy and noisy, turned silent. People stopped speaking, scared that the Egyptians would not allow them in. Finally, the bus reached the departure hall. There I saw many people: most of them were crying, while others were shouting. Others still were preparing to be sent back to Gaza, as Egyptian authorities rejected their admission, for various unidentified reasons. Suddenly, I became very upset and scared that I would face the same fate. I wanted to travel. I wanted nothing so much as freedom and the new life all Gazans were aspiring to have.  It felt to me as if this was a Day of  Resurrection, and I was waiting to go either to heaven or to hell.

“Sameh Akram Habeeb” one of the policemen said.

“Yes Sir,” I answered.

“Back to Gaza, yalla, bring your things,” the policeman said.

I heard myself start to shout, “Why…why… why…?”

I haven’t told you this but I had even paid good money to get out.

I was taken to the bus, along with many others, to be deported back to Gaza. I found my bus full of young people, mostly my friends. Many of those who were not allowed in had tried to cross several times already. One was being turned back for the tenth time that year! In the days that followed, I tried to cross three times, and each time faced the same fate – until things changed dramatically. Some eight days later, a good Egyptian man managed to coordinate my exit from Gaza. That man was following my stories and all my activities in Gaza. He believed in my message and he happened to think I was doing the right thing, trying to get the word out.

I called him three times, and the third time he told me, “Go back to the crossing, Sameh, and you’ll get through!” I couldn’t believe my eyes when I got as far as Al Arish City in Egypt. I was even happier by the time I reached Cairo, where I spent two days waiting for my flight to London.

In the UK

Once in Britain, I was swept into a roller-coaster programme of tens of workshops, talks and interviews, in the lobby of the UK parliament, and at universities and colleges. In less than two months I toured so many cities that many English people have expressed incredulity when I tell them. An English friend told me that I have visited more places than most Englishmen: London, Manchester, Liverpool, Durham. Birmingham, Huddersfield, Southampton, Bristol, Taunton, Coventry, Leeds, Exeter, Plymouth, and other cities. Many people in the UK support our cause, and many of them recognize that the British played quite a part in the Palestinian dilemma in the first place. But the vast majority of the people making up my audiences were older people. It seems to me that you barely find the younger generation engaged in politics in the UK.  Maybe it reflects a more general apathy in the great British public. Little seems to arouse them.

Now that I’m out of Gaza, given the siege and blockade at home, I want to make use of the golden chance I have. I have managed to get a place to study as a postgraduate in London. The Home Office insists that I have to get my new student visa from my home country.  They reckon I can just get on a plane from Heathrow airport to Gaza and pick up what I need! Unfortunately, I can’t get in.

Those left behind

But I never forget my people of Gaza for a second. I feel their pain whenever I speak to my family and friends; whenever I hear that a child has died due to lack of medicine; or that food is  still restricted; whenever students are trapped and unable to cross the border to study.

When I speak with friends, they express their yearning to migrate to Europe. The majority of Gazans want nothing better than to leave: nothing remains for them there.  Borders are closed, freedom is stolen, people die, and fun as far as I know simply never existed. All of us in Gaza hoped against hope that Israel would keep to a ceasefire, and worried about what would actually happen. It was siege, siege and more siege. One month ago, one of my friends called to ask me to promise him never to come home. He wanted me to remain a refugee in the UK. He said I’d be crazy to return to Gaza.

Another friend, Mahmoud, phoned me, asking my help in getting a visa. He had come to the end of his tether with Gaza. I didn’t know how to answer.  I was embarrassed that he thought I had some leverage just because I’d got out. I was in no position to help and I wasn’t sure I could recommend the process: I, myself, went through a great deal to get my visa.

“Please, Sameh, help me to get a visa. I can pay whatever you ask. I must get out. Nothing is left for me here but the rubble and the contaminated air of Gaza,” he begged.

Abu Ali, aged 40, also wants to leave Gaza. He was working inside Israel, but he lost his job long ago, and he is not able to support his family of seven:  “My son Ahmad works in the tunnels,” he said. “Ali and Seham are at university studying. And the rest are school students. We are barely finding food now. I was making lots of money before and giving my friends loans. Now, I have nothing. I only take aid from UNRWA and local NGOs. I wish we could leave.”

What Future for Gazans?

 Indeed, Israel has succeeded in pushing young people in Gaza to think of nothing better than abandoning their country.  Gaza is not exceptional in this regard. This would happen to any nation where freedom has been stolen away, where the economy is in total collapse and the prospect of prosperity no longer exists. 

However, few Palestinians in Gaza have my opportunities to travel. The borders with Egypt open twice at most over a two-month period. Many have lost study and work opportunities as a result. Many families are scattered with some members of the family, for example, in Egypt while others are stuck in Gaza. Such restriction of freedom of movement on top of the accumulated effects of siege and war inevitably have their impact on people’s life choices. Only a few young Gazans will ever be able to leave. With such alternatives, punished for the actions of others, many a-political young people will turn into fighters against their oppressors. One entire generation of children who are victims of trauma and malnutrition today must be the leaders of tomorrow.

My dad, in one of our conversations, recently expressed his deep fear about the next moves of the Israeli state. As he said, apart from the mechanics of the siege, Israel has launched a calculated psychological war. We can’t be sure that the Israeli army won’t descend on Gaza again, the way they did early in 2009. Gabi Ashkenazi, Israeli Defence Forces Chief of Staff said as much a week ago. We believe him: the possibility of future wars remains high.

I will never be a refugee while my country cries out for help. I’m trying to make use of my freedom now and want to earn my master’s degree in London.  After a year, I hope to return to Gaza. I want to contribute to rebuilding my destroyed country, and releasing its true potential. I would like to participate in non-violent civil resistance protests in which all the people of Gaza peacefully storm the Israeli borders to lift the siege. That’s my choice. But every action triggers a reaction. Those who are being starved by Israel should not be blamed for fighting back!

Sameh Habeeb has helped openDemocracy commission its first series of Gaza Voices and we hope to continue to cooperate in 2010.