August 19, 2011
Gaza is under fresh attack from Israel following an incident near Eilat in which seven Israelis were killed and 40 injured. Although those responsible "crossed the border from Sinai", the Israeli government claims that it was carried out by "terrorists from Gaza". As usual, swift "full force retaliation" took place, leaving six Palestinians dead in the first wave early on Friday morning, 19 August.
This is the disconnected, disaffected news I have seen in Britain. Up until a month ago, I would have responded in the standard manner on hearing it, with somewhat feeble exclamations of protest and a few Facebook and Twitter posts. I would have perhaps even signed a petition or two.
But now I have visited Gaza. I have crossed the Rafah border, walked upon the Holy Land in the Holy Month of Ramadan, dug my toes into the soft sand, trailed my fingers through the warm sea, touched the olive trees, befriended my Palestinian brothers and sisters, and left my heart there.
I knew then, instantly, that my entire outlook on the Palestinian issue has changed: it is no longer simply a 'situation' faced by the Palestinian people, on my laptop screen, safely distant, thousands of miles away. It is now scarily real and deeply personal. I've always proclaimed my support for Palestine; but now, I am genuinely terrified by the horrific prospect of my friends and their families being harmed and killed.
I find it hard to describe the Palestinian girls and young women I met in Gaza. The words 'strong', 'courageous', 'resilient' just aren't enough. My Gazan sisters are inspirational. Their radiant smiles, warm hugs and bright laughter belie the staggeringly awful times they've had to endure, and are still going through. They are beautiful, in every single sense of the word.
My visit to Gaza was peaceful, praise be to God. I spent sunny days with my new friends, enjoying their company, amusing them with my attempts to speak their beautiful language, and exploring their city. We saw some evidence of destruction, but we saw much more development and construction. A gleaming new hospital, new housing blocks, a large school midway through being rebuilt - amazing attestation to the resilient 'we-will-not-go-down' attitude that resonated across the Gazan population.
But now, destruction has returned. For the first time, the atrocities occurring were brought to me first-hand by my Gazan friend Samah on Facebook; I had no idea how deeply affected I would feel. Her words moved me to tears and I sobbed uncontrollably as I read them. I felt helpless, angry, terrified for her safety and that of her family. Real, genuine rage and anxiety - how would I feel if that was me and my family?
My words of comfort and prayer seemed ineffective and weak. I was shaking with frustration and a sudden overwhelming desire to be back in Gaza. How could I be sitting here in security and safety, while my sisters are trapped in their homes, terrified, waiting for that bomb to fall?
How ironic, therefore, that Samah was the one comforting me. With every sentence she typed, my admiration for her strength and faith rose beyond that which I thought possible.
1.30 a.m., Friday 19th August 2011. These are Samah's exact words, live from besieged Gaza:
"It's so bad. There are bombs everywhere, so we can't sleep and can't go out. Can't do anything. Only listening to the radio, waiting for bombs."
It's so bad. There are bombs everywhere, so we can't sleep and can't go out. Can't do anything. Only listening to the radio, waiting for bombs. An hour ago, there was just 5 minutes between me and death! Can you believe it? Me and my family were out driving in the car. We stopped at the gas station in order to fill the car with petrol. Then we left and when we reached home, while we were opening the door, there was a bomb. When we turned on the TV and watched the pictures, it was the gas station in the photos, badly affected by the bomb. The gas station is near our house, so it was a few minutes!! I am very shocked. I pray to God for protecting my family… many thanks to God. Keep praying for us.
At this point, I assured her that Gaza and its people are always in my prayers. I tried to explain that it's become so much more real to me now since I had visited the Blessed Land; that I have names and faces to pray for.
Your words support me, and I feel that you are beside us. It's enough for us to hear your words. Keep praying for us, and I'm sure then God will keep us safe… and even if we die we will go to Paradise.
At her words, I burst into tears. I couldn't say anything to her other than "You are so amazing". Her reply?
You are more amazing. You are sitting in another country, but you are living there as you are here in Gaza, in a way that I can feel you are here and not in London. That is so amazing.
More tears from me. I told her that I think I left my heart in Gaza. I could see her smile as she said:
I hope it won't be hurt by the bombs!
I told her that I want to be there in Gaza with her.
Keep praying. It will be enough… as though you are here with us.
I'm coming again as soon as I can, I promised.
You are welcome.
But then she warned,
... but wait until the situation becomes good and safe.
She then told me about the Rafah border being closed.
Oh the border is another issue. You know Umaymah, I'm very annoyed. Allah will be with us so Israel won't be safe and they will leave our land one day.
And then, this:
But you know since that last war the situation in Gaza seems to be good - there wasn't too much bombing. But today when the continuous bombing is coming again, it makes the war memories come to my mind. That makes me remember it, as it's happening now. I hate remembering it. It won't become another war insha'Allah, but it seems like the last war. Everything around us is similar to the things that happened at that time. You know - the sirens of the ambulances, the continuous breaking news, that same feeling of waiting for a bomb like waiting for death!
I don't know what to say to my wonderful, strong sister. Feebly, I say that here in London we can't imagine how that feels.
No you can't. You can't feel it because you didn't live in it. But you can pray. Praying can do many, many things, because Allah won't let you ask Him for something and then not let you get it. Continuous prayer is so powerful.
"Yes, you're right", I reply. "I can't believe how strong you are! Truly amazing."
Not so amazing. It's related to your beliefs. When you believe that God decides that you will die at that time and at that place, you won't be afraid, because when God decides you will die, if there's a bomb or not.
Would I be so strong if faced with the same situation?
Yeah you would, she assures me. Because you are Muslim, and have the same beliefs. As a Muslim, you believe that God will be beside you and protect you. And even if something bad happens to you, then according to your beliefs you will be sure that you will be compensated in a wonderful way.
I pray that God makes me like you, Samah.
She ask if I can read and understand Arabic. Only a very little, I tell her.
I would like to send you a link for a website that has continuous breaking news about what's happening here in Gaza, but it's in Arabic. Here it is. It can help you because it's a forum and people who live the situation write what's happening. It's not a formal media tool.
The resourcefulness of the Palestinian people never fails to astound me. Sadly, my Arabic is too poor to understand what's being written on the site, but the set-up is impressive.
I am going to go eat suhoor now and then sleep for many hours before another bomb falls! =)
She's smiling! She leaves to go eat the pre-dawn Ramadan meal with her family, a normal routine for all of us during this Blessed Month - but they will be sitting down to fresh olives and the sound of bombs.
Samah, and all my other wonderful brothers and sisters in Gaza - all I can do now is pray for your safety. Palestine will one day be free, I know it. The strength and resilience and determination to live life to the full that I witnessed so clearly in your hearts and actions will lead you to freedom and victory - with God's help, of this I am certain.
Now, Kulluna Filisteeni. We are all Palestinian. I feel that more than ever before.
Umaymah Hewitt visited the Gaza Strip at the start of Ramadan with the Miles for Smiles 4 Humanitarian Aid Convoy.
Samah is in the lilac headscarf, middle front row.