We headed away from the rising sun of our second day in Gaza, making a trip down to Gaza Seaport, the only closed port in the Mediterranean – a result of the total Israeli sea blockade, which sees the distance from the shore in which the people of Gaza can fish reduced from the legal distance of 30 miles to a paltry 3 miles, with any boats breaking this limit being shot at on sight.
Here we met with members of “Gaza’s Ark”, an initiative to convert an old fishing boat to a civilian-run cargo boat decked out with modern equipment. The ambitious aims of this initiative is to symbolically break the blockade on Gaza and ‘declare the port of Gaza “open for business”’ by exporting Palestinian goods to Europe – in this way Israel should have no legitimate reason to block the boat as they do incoming vessels, as an outgoing ship cannot be “carrying weapons into Gaza”, the usual excuse given by Israel.
At the seaport we had a taste of the tragic personal cost of occupation, meeting a man who had lost his only son to Israeli attacks, leaving him with no security in his old age. A second man had been fishing when he was ordered by Israelis to strip naked and jump off his own boat into the water, and was subsequently chased, surrounded, and shot at by Israeli boats as he desperately attempted to swim to shore – as a result he lost his arm along with his livelihood as a fisherman, being forced to take an even lower paying job as a security guard.
With such death and destruction shrouding Palestine, it is important to remember that it is so much more than the media portrayal of just another warzone, but a land steeped in culture. The museums in Gaza fight to preserve this culture, even in the face of bombing by Israeli forces, and the beautiful ancient mosques and monuments stand tall across the Gaza skyline as a beacon of this rich history. Throughout our visits to these sights everyone we met had the same inspiring quiet pride in their land despite all the forces that would seek to degrade it.
Having experienced both the tragedies and the beauty of life in Palestine, nightfall brought with it a chance to experience the famous Palestinian hospitality to its full. That night was the pre-wedding party of a friend of our contact in Gaza, and despite having never met the groom before, we proceeded to show up at his house for the celebrations.
What happened next was a truly incredible show of warmth and friendliness, as our hosts, who had no idea we would show up, welcomed us with open arms, nearly dragging us to the front to dance with them throughout the night, and showering us with food, drink, and good spirits. When we eventually returned home that night, it was with a new understanding of the immense spirit of the people of Palestine, who despite suffering incredible hardships, still find the strength to celebrate life to its fullest.