On Friday, eight members of our group made it– after a very long wait at the Egyptian border– into Gaza. We arrived at our hotel there at around 10 p.m.
Yesterday (Saturday), the UN folks in Gaza had organized a great itinerary for us. We visited an UNRWA school and Shifa Hospital; then the UNRWA folks took us on a tour of northern Gaza, where we saw some of the extent of the destruction the Israelis wrought during last winter’s assault on Gaza.
Remember that the Israelis have allowed no construction materials or equipment, and no demolition equipment, into Gaza since the end of the war. So the destroyed houses, factories, workshops– and the completely destroyed American International School– all still stand there looking more or less as they did when the parallel-unilateral ceasefires went into operation on January 17.
Of course I’d followed the war extremely closely at the time. But still, just seeing all that destruction in real life was a very shocking experience.
At some sites, you could see Palestinians painstakingly working to recover (for re-use or re-purposing) what they could from the rubble. Along the eastern road there, we kept passing donkey carts driven by young men or boys, that were laden with salvaged pieces of breeze-block, or rebar, or other reusables. At one place I saw a group of guys who were using a battered-looking old diesel-driven mill to crush some of the chunks of concrete back into concrete powder.
I imagine all that work is extremely dangerous, due to the risks from unexploded ordnance and/or cave-ins.
But that work seemed to be conducted only on a painstakingly small scale, and for long periods along the road the entire landscape looked like Dresden.
We had a meeting with a local business leader, Wadih al-Masry, who told us that 3,800 factories and workshops, that previously employed 130,000 workers were destroyed during the invasion.
He was completely scathing about the Israelis’ claims that the assault/invasion had done anything to combat terrorism. Quite the opposite, he said.
We then had a short meetng with some Hamas and Hamas-linked personalities at the Beit al-Hikma. Most vocal of them was Ahmed Yousef, a key adviser to the elected PA prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.
Yousef told us he expected news of a breakthrough in the Palestinians’ long-stalled national unity talks, “within days”.
We also had an excellent meeting at UNRWA’s Gaza Field Office headquarters with deputy UNRWA head John Ging, Dr. Eyad Sarraj, the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, and Jabour al-Wisheh of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
Finally, we were whisked back to Rafah by our UN drivers. It took “only” two hours to cross the border back to Egypt. I’m writing this from Cairo before a series of meetings with officials here.