Interview | Sunday, 11 January 2009

Gaza is a cage, and Israel has the key

Sanaa al-Nahhal, born in Gaza but resident in Malta, plans to somehow cross the Egyptian border into her hometown Rafah with a truckload of supplies. An Ambassador for Peace with the Universal Peace Federation, she talks about the plight of her family, and the overwhelming support she has so far received locally

It’s a busy day at the Arabic Centre in San Gwann. Ever since Sanaa al-Nahhal announced she will be heading for Gaza with a collection of supplies, she found herself inundated with telephone calls and visits by well-wishers asking how they could be of assistance.
Sanaa, who was born in Gaza but has lived in Malta for the past 20 years, welcomes me at the same time as a consignment of medicines is delivered. And as we speak, the neighbours occasionally poke their heads in at the door to ask after her family, or if there is anything they can do to help.
“The Maltese have always supported us; they are my second family,” she tells me in between one visit and another. “They ask if they can help, not because they know the exact situation, but because they know me and they are concerned. They are like us; they understand what it is to have a family and to care. This is why I love Malta...”
Apart from neighbourly well-wishers, Sanaa’s appeal has also been met positively by NGOs and politicians.
“Just now, before you came, Dr Michael Gonzi called to ask how he could help. Earlier, St James Hospital called as well... and even now, when I stepped outside to meet you, people stopped to ask after my family, and to see if they could do anything...”
But looking at all the little boxes with their limited supplies, I can’t help wondering out loud what difference such a small contribution could possibly make, in a region so inundated with enormous problems.
“Every small bit counts,” Sanaa replies simply, in what is clearly an unconscious echo of the well-worn expression. “Twenty boxes might not be much compared to the plane-loads from Dubai; but to people in Gaza it is a lot. Even if only a few families benefit, it is still better than nothing...”
Even so, how does she plan to get into Gaza to begin with? After all, access has to date been denied to much larger supply convoys than her own.
“When I started, I didn’t stop to think about how I would get there,” she replies matter-of-factly. “I just wanted to get things moving. I knew that if I waited, I would have lost precious time. And time is important for Gaza...”
She explains that since she made her public appeal, a number of international organisations also got in touch. Palestinians may be engaged in a war with bitter enemies, but it seems they also have many friends.
“I have spoken to contacts in Libya, Morocco, Egypt... people will help me to get to where I want to go. I will go to Egypt, and from there we shall see what happens...”
As we speak, her daughter zaps channels on satellite TV – from Al Arabiya to Al Jazeera and back again – and by an astonishing coincidence we learn that the Egyptian border has briefly opened to permit essential aid into Gaza. Sanaa is enthralled by this news, as her own family is in Rafah – precisely on the border with Egypt – and this is after all the route she planned to take all along.
“This is the first time in two years that the Rafah crossing has been opened,” she tells me; and we pause to watch truckloads of supplies as they make their historic entry into the troubled territory.
Sanaa outlines the basic stages leading to this development. When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, there was an agreement that the Rafah crossing would be manned by an EU peacekeeping force. But as it became increasingly difficult to guarantee their safety, the peacekeepers were eventually withdrawn. Soon after Hamas was elected in 2006, Egypt closed the border crossing altogether, leaving the only channel in and out of Gaza in the hands of Israel.
Ironically, while Israel would occasionally open the border to allow supplies in and out, Egypt had never followed suit... until now.
I ask Sanaa what she makes of this state of affairs, through which Egypt effectively washed its hands of its Palestinian neighbours. She gives me a pained look, but does not answer directly.
“Israel has all the strength,” is all she will comment. “All the power is in their hands.”
In what is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy, the upshot of the closed Rafah crossing is that the only channels in and out of Gaza are now controlled directly by Israel – as recently discovered by American and European journalists, who found their way into the occupied territory barred.
They are not the only ones. Sanaa invites me to consider the implications of living in a closed community, without any means of ever leaving... and more cogently, without being able to rely on imports of even the barest of essentials.
“There are people in Gaza who lost their homes over a year ago, but they can’t rebuild them because the necessary supplies – cement, bricks, building materials – cannot come in. They are sleeping without a roof over the heads. The same goes for fuel, medicines and food. Electrical supply comes and goes: if you are lucky you might have electricity for an hour or two. There is no gas for heating or to cook with...”
In these circumstances, people tend to gather together around communal fires, much like they might have done in the Middle Ages. As Sanaa suggestively puts it: “Gaza is a cage, and Israel has the key.”
There is tremendous irony underpinning all this, as Israel itself is a nation founded on the memories of slavery. From Babylon to Egypt to the death camps of World War II, the Jewish people know only too well what it means to be oppressed. This irony was not lost on the Vatican, whose Cardinal Martino made the connection in no uncertain terms... commenting Gaza has come to resemble “a big concentration camp.”
The words appear to have been chosen to inflict maximum embarrassment, on a nation which was itself the victim of genocide 70 years ago. And Israel promptly responded, accusing the Vatican of repeating Hamas propaganda.
Nor is it the only irony surrounding the present conflict. Sanaa reminds me that while the West so vociferously objects to the Hamas government, it overlooks the fact that thr same Hamas was democratically elected in 2005.
“How can the West talk about the value of democracy, when the same West doesn’t accept the result of a democratic election?” she asks with a wry smile.
But for those caught up in the firing line, all these observtaions must appear trivial in the extreme.
“They are afraid,” Sanaa says simply, when I ask how her own family is coping with the ongoing violence. “Fear is what they are feeling right now. Families with children all sleep in the same room. They can hear the bombs, and they pray they will not be the next victims. They know that at any moment, their own house might collapse on top of them...”
Even if death does not take the form of a bomb or a bullet, the general living conditions in Gaza see to it that life expectancy remains low. Sanaa asks me to consider the following point: when, on Maltese TV, there is talk of medical issues, the accompanying issues are always of patients being treated in hospital, surrounded by doctors and modern medical equipment. When similar scenes are broadcast from Gaza, the patients will be treated – if at all – out in the open on the street, with no medical equipment whatsoever.
As I ponder the implications, I can’t help recalling – not without a sense of guilt – the enormous fuss that was made when a mouse’s head found its way into the food at Mater Dei.
Meanwhile, back on Al Jazeera, a father holds up his dead child to the cameras and points to a gaping wound in his chest... proclaiming the greatness of God, while vowing revenge on his allegedly chosen people.
“Look,” Sanaa comments grimly. “They have killed another terrorist.”
Her voice is thick with sarcasm, but she remains remarkably calm. As for the boy, he couldn’t have been much older than 10. We watch as his body is unceremoniously dumped on a heap of other dead children at the back of a truck: one of several, truly shocking images of carnage to never quite make it onto the major international networks.
Underneath, the strap-line informs that 686 have so far died in the offensive (a figure which has since grown to over 750): more than half of them women and children.
“The Israelis claim they are defending themselves from terrorists,” Sanaa says at length. “Do those children look like terrorists to you? But they are the ones who are dying, not Hamas...”
With such glaring evidence of civilian casualties staring back at us from the screen, it is difficult to put personal revulsion aside and seek an objective line through all this madness. But it remains a fact that the perception in the West is divided on the issue of who is to blame for the conflict. Newspaper headlines are often tailor-made to give the impression that Israel is in fact the victim, and not the aggressor at all: a viewpoint which needless to add enjoys the full backing of outgoing US President, George W. Bush.
With difficulty I try to elaborate on this point: Hamas has after all fired rockets into Israeli territory before this offensive even began; Israeli civilians have also been killed by Palestinian militants... isn’t there some truth, therefore, to the view that Israel is acting in self defence?
To my surprise, Sanaa smiles. “Israel claims that it is a victim, yes, but anyone can see this is not true,” she replies. “If someone from Mosta came here to San Gwann and killed me, how can he afterwards say that I went to Mosta to attack him? That it was self-defence? If my dead body is found in San Gwann, it is clear that my murderer would have come here to kill me, and not the other way round.”
The logic is at a glance unassailable, but Israel also argues that the violence is not as one-sided as the international press so often makes out. Only hours after the United Nations passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported some 20 rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel: mostly targeting the town of Negev, where one person was slightly injured.
“It is important to understand that this is not a conflict that started just a few days ago,” Sanaa points out. “There is a perception that Hamas was responsible for this war. This is not true. It was Israel which broke the ceasefire (last November), when it crossed the border into Gaza, making illegal arrests and killing people...”
Echoing popular Palestinian sentiment, Sanaa argues that this incursion was aimed at dividing Fatah and Hamas, with the express intention to isolate Gaza. She also points out that it was typical of the traditional style of Israeli aggression – which unlike the present, full-blown conflict, usually takes the form of low-key operations... almost always on the outskirts of the territory, close to the Israeli border.
Acknowledging that Palestinian militants did indeed fire rockets into Israel in retaliation, Sanaa argues that this is only the inevitable consequence of Israel’s isolationist strategy.
“Israel wants to take, take and take, and for the Palestinians to remain quiet while they are robbed and murdered. But how long can a people remain passive, without retaliating? They take away your home. They keep you in poverty, without bread, without medicines. They come and arrest your father, your children. They kill your relatives. They have all the strength, all the weapons, and you have nothing. Sooner or later, you will retaliate... you will pick up that stone, and throw it. You will use whatever you have to try and hit back...”
As a result, Saana fears that even among those from both sides who genuinely desire an end to hostilities, lasting peace is becoming an increasingly impossible scenario.
“Imagine a man, living in Gaza, who just wants to get on with his life. He doesn’t hate Israel; he doesn’t have a political opinion about Fatah and Hamas; he just wants to carry on with his ordinary life. Then his home is destroyed, and his children killed, by an Israeli missile. Will he not hate Israel as a result? Will he not pick up that stone, or fire that rocket...?”
On a final note, I ask Sanaa if she is still optimistic in spite of everything.
“Yes,” she replies without any hesitation. “Yes, I am optimistic for the future. After all that has taken place, something has to happen now. Things cannot remain the way they are, after all the world has witnessed...”

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