As we plunge into summer, I expect many of you are thinking about having holidays, either in your own country or abroad. After six months in the Gaza Strip, with its lush Mediterranean climate and conservative Islamic culture, I’m looking forward to going back to England for my holiday. But in Gaza people do not go on holiday, because the overwhelming majority of Gazans can’t leave the Strip, and there is nowhere to take a vacation inside these walls. Khalil Shaheen is a well known local human rights activist and I’ve been talking to him about freedom of movement.
‘I have tried to work out how many of us Gazans have the freedom to travel in and out of Gaza’ he tells me. ‘My best estimate is that 5,000 of us at the most can secure permits from Israel to cross the border, including patients who need urgent treatment, businessmen and women, and some students. That is less than half of one per cent of the population. The rest of us, like me, cannot move.’
Freedom of movement is more than a basic human right: it’s a basic need. There are millions of people around the world who rarely leave their home towns or villages, but few, apart from prisoners and slaves, are physically prevented from traveling. The 1.5 million people of Gaza are caged inside a strip of land 25 miles long and six miles wide, and the so-called Tahdiya or ‘calming’ agreed between Israel and Hamas on 19 June has done nothing to open the borders. Gaza is a prison and the prisoners are desperate to break free. These, in no particular order, are some of the comments I’ve heard in the last few weeks.
‘I just want two weeks outside Gaza, then I will feel fine.’
‘We are just waiting to die.’
‘Where do I want to go? Anywhere at all.’
‘Until you have seen Gaza with your own eyes, no-one can understand our situation.’
‘Tahdiya – Ha! What Tahdiya? The borders are locked.’
On Friday I shared lunch with Haneen, who is 26 and lives in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza. I asked her if she had ever been outside of Gaza.
‘I wish’ she replied. Another friend of mine, Said, has not been outside Gaza since 2002, and has spent the last year trying to secure a permit from Israel to travel to Jerusalem – he hopes to secure a visa for the US and take up his university scholarship in Washington, which is his dream. Until Haneen, Said and hundreds of thousands of other civilians like them can enjoy the basic freedom of choosing whether to leave, or stay, then peace in Gaza has no meaning.