By Osamah Khalil
AL-ARISH, EGYPT—It is 4:30 a.m. and al-Arish’s souq is alive and packed with people. When asked where they are from, the inevitable reply with a broad grin is, “I am from Palestine!” This sleepy Egyptian resort town nestled in the middle of the northern Sinai coast has been virtually transformed over the past 48 hours by a massive influx of Palestinians from Gaza. Palestinians from across Gaza crowd the souq’s coffee houses and sandwich shops. An even greater number simply hang out, walking the city streets, talking, joking and smoking cigarettes, clearly enjoying the different scenery and “smelling new air.”
Since the towering metal and concrete border wall that Israel began to erect in 2003 was demolished by Hamas early on the morning of Jan. 23, hundreds of thousands of Gazans have crossed the border with Egypt daily. Traveling by foot, car, truck and donkey cart it is an unbelievable — almost indescribable — movement of people. The highway is jammed with packed taxis and pick-up trucks whose beds are filled beyond capacity and racing from Egyptian Rafah to al-Arish. Some journalists have called it a huge “jail break,” and while the prison analogy is apt, it does not accurately describe the horrors and humiliation suffered by Gazans during 40 years of occupation and more than 18 months of sanctions and siege. Perhaps the best description of how Gazans feel is a deep exhale of relief and some joy — both rare commodities here.
Gaza’s economy has been devastated by a combination of sanctions since Hamas was elected in January 2006 and the siege that was imposed by Israel after the Hamas militia defeated Fatah forces in June 2007. In the first 24 hours after the wall fell, Palestinians rushed to buy essential supplies, everything from gas to flour. Items barred from entering Gaza during the siege were also among the first items purchased, including concrete, the lack of which has brought construction in the territory to a halt.
Although the wall has come down, the siege continues. Rafah, which receives some power supplies from Egypt, still has daily blackouts of eight hours a day. Northern and middle Gaza, including Gaza City, which rely on Israel for the vast majority of their power needs, have less than eight hours of electricity a day. Israel’s resumption of fuel supplies ensures that only the most basic needs will be met, in particular that of the health sector, to avoid adverse media attention.
Walking the length of the now partially demolished Rafah wall, one is struck by two contrasting and competing realities. On the one side lies the sliced and twisted remnant of Israel’s siege policy backed and underwritten by Washington, a clear demonstration that a people can only be suppressed and oppressed for so long. On the other side is the human cost, the more than 3,000 houses demolished by Israel in order to build the wall. The remnants of those houses remain, creating a vast moonscape of blasted concrete and sand, roughly a kilometer wide and several kilometers long. Fida Qishta, a teacher and blogger from Rafah, points out where her house once stood, as well as those of other relatives. Beyond the sea of demolished houses are those still inhabited but riddled with bullet and shell holes from the past eight years. Her young cousin Walaa explains, “this is our life,” and it sums up both realties.
Whether the destruction of the Rafah wall will change the reality of life in Gaza remains to be seen. The days since Jan. 23 have also demonstrated that there is more to the destruction of the Rafah wall than the simple Hamas-Fatah dichotomy or the inane commentary about its impact on the “peace process.” Hamas could destroy the wall, but unless Palestinians were willing to cross the border and face the threat of Egyptian security forces it would have been a futile gesture. That Palestinians went over that line again and again illustrates the powerful urge for freedom from oppression and occupation. More importantly, it demonstrates what Palestinians can do when they act as a collective body.
The destruction of the Rafah wall was quite simply a victory of, and for, the Palestinian people. One can only hope that this time will be the first wall of many to fall in Palestine.