It feels strange to spend time over the Christmas period in a quiet Yorkshire village with family; this time last year, I was on my way to the Gaza Strip. It was the second time I had travelled to Gaza; the first time was in March 2009, just a few months after Israel had launched Operation Cast Lead, a twenty-two day assault on the Strip, in which 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. Hard to describe as a conflict, a massacre perhaps, but a tragedy undoubtedly.
Just as English students are currently enjoying the school holidays, many Gazans had time off school in the winter of 2008/09. There were no lessons in the UN school in Gaza when it was showered with white phosphorus. The Universities in Gaza were closed when they were shelled by the Israeli military. Terrorist breeding grounds, or institutions of education?
In January, I interviewed Ayman Quader, a Palestinian student hoping to leave Gaza to pursue a course abroad. “I remember when I was still at secondary school,” Ayman told me, “it was before the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza in 2005, and the Israeli army would block the road that ran from where I lived to where my school was. So, from an early age I learned the education of occupation.”
Reporting on the current situation in Gaza is all too familiar a story. First of all, we ignore the context of the Israeli-imposed, Egyptian-enforced siege of the Gaza Strip, plunging 1.5 million people into a desperate and isolated existence. We also ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of these people are refugees, displaced from their homes inside what is now the State of Israel in 1948 and 1967. When Palestinian armed groups fire rockets into Israel, they are “terrorists firing at civilians”, but when the Israeli army fires at and kills Palestinian farmers and fishermen, they are “soldiers shooting at suspicious figures near the border”. The double-standards never cease to amaze.
It is all too easy to forget that whilst Hamas came to power, through a democratic election, in 2006, the Israeli occupation of Palestine began not in 2008, when they invaded Gaza, nor in 2006, when they invaded Lebanon, but in 1948. 2011 will mark the sixty-third year of that occupation. As political commentator Ali Abunimah observed this week, “we must remember that the Palestinian people in Gaza are not objects of an isolated humanitarian cause, but partners in the struggle for justice and freedom throughout Palestine.”
I remember living with the Hanoun family in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in the summer of last year. When the family were evicted from their home to make way for foreign settlers, despite the opposition of the UN, the EU and both British and American consuls in Jerusalem, Sharihan Hanoun, one of the daughters of the family, refused to cancel the psychology exam she was due to sit at her University a few days later. She did her revision on the pavement opposite her home, where we also slept, and got the highest mark in her year.
As the South African freedom fighter Steve Biko once said, “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” The State of Israel can oppress the Palestinians for another sixty-three years, but it will never defeat their spirit, or win their minds.