It was the hacks who got here first: even before Israel announced its ‘unilateral’ ceasefire in the Gaza Strip on 18 January, they were queuing up at the Egyptian border post in Rafah, waiting to cross over into Gaza and file their war stories. Just hours after the ceasefire came into force, newspaper, radio, magazine and TV journalists and photographers poured into Gaza en masse, swiftly followed by representatives from all the major human rights organizations, plus doctors, human rights lawyers, and activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM).
Meanwhile Erez, which is the northern border crossing into Gaza, remained under lockdown. Until the beginning of this week only a trickle of UN staff was allowed to into Gaza via Erez. My boss called me early Sunday morning, the beginning of the working week in Palestine and Israel.
‘Get your bags,’ she said, ‘and get down to Erez as quickly as you can - you’re going through.’
At Erez border I met a handful of other humanitarian aid workers, including several doctors, unexploded ordnance experts, and journalists wielding flak jackets and hard hats, who had also received permission to enter Gaza. We each had to sign a form stating we knew were entering an area ‘where hostilities are taking place,’ we were entering Gaza at our own risk - and Israel would not be liable for our deaths, or any injuries sustained. I signed the form because you have to… or you don’t get in.
I walked through the featureless grey Erez corridors, and when I finally reached the open-air walkway towards the exit, I could see across the razor wire into Gaza, and the houses near the border, in Izbet Beit Hanoun, which have all been destroyed. This was one of the richest agricultural areas in the Gaza Strip, famous for its orange trees; but during its military onslaught against Gaza, Israel declared the first kilometre of the northern Gaza Strip a closed military zone. Israeli troops ordered local families to leave the area by tannoy, or telephoned them, warning them they had better be out of their houses before the bulldozers moved in. Families fled, clutching their children and a few possessions, as their homes, and their land, were destroyed in their wake.
The Israelis destroyed more than two-and-a-half thousand homes in just over three weeks - and damaged more than 16,000 other homes, as well as shelling schools, hospitals and UN compounds. Driving south into Gaza City, I was struck by how systematic and symbolic the devastation was - the Israeli military not only destroyed houses, they relentlessly targeted mosques, local factories and schools - the places that provide spiritual support, education and a future.
This makes a mockery of the Israeli Government claim to have targeted only Hamas and other militant facilities. Mosques with mutilated minarets, and schools with artillery shell-holes blasted into their walls, are images people in Gaza will not forget. Just near my apartment in Gaza City we passed the blackened fire-scarred walls of the al-Quds hospital, which was also targeted by Israeli troops, and the twisted remnants of two burnt-out Palestinian ambulances.
The Al Deira hotel, in central Gaza City, is a world away from Beit Hanoun. For almost two weeks now, the hotel has been packed with journalists, loudly name dropping conflicts and contacts as they send emails and answer their numerous mobile phones. Many of them have also been to see, and interview, and photograph, the same ‘victims’. I met Bruno at the Al Deira. He was dripping with cameras, so I asked him if he was a war photographer. ‘I don’t just do war zones,’ he reprimanded me. ‘I do all kinds of conflict: you can call them “tension zones”.’
The journalists and the lawyers are leaving now; the Egyptians have announced they are closing the border at Rafah in the next few days, and there is no other way out of Gaza except Erez, which gets harder every time. But the activists are staying, as are some of the aid workers. I’ll be here for a while too. We all hope the rumours of Israel’s unfinished targets, and more bombing, are not true. Most Palestinians look completely shell-shocked and exhausted; they don’t deserve more fear, more death and more destruction of what they have left to cling to.