After an 18-month delay caused by the pandemic and the subsequent closing of the skies, the Justice and Peace Netherlands human rights defenders training program, Shelter City, has begun at last. In my private thoughts, I confess that my excitement for this trip was spurred especially by my need to recover from the horrors of the last war.
I am writing these words from my room in the city of Deventer, on the banks of the IJssel River, where I am staying during the three-month course. I recall how on my way here I couldn’t tell which was stronger, my shock or my happiness, as the scenery unfolded before me: Vast green expanses, countless water sources and among them, riding colorful bicycles, men and women, the young and the elderly, smiling at me as if they were saying: “Welcome to your new life.”
Every day in the Netherlands brings with it interesting experiences, lectures and encounters with university and school students, public figures and others, as well as questions indicating, more or less, how Dutch people think. “Why did you decide to start a family given the reality in Gaza?” (Every person has a right to family life). “How did you manage to escape and come here?” (Lucky for me, Rafah Crossing was open.) One particularly touching question came from a staff member at a human rights center: “What were your nights like during the war?”
To answer it, I had to face what I had been trying hard to suppress over the past seven months.
The 11 days and nights of hostilities in May 2021 were the hardest of my life. I remember the anxiety attacks I had when I realized that Israel was deliberately bombing buildings with the occupants still inside them, fearing that my family and I were next. Long hours were spent counting the shellings or bombardments and trying pointlessly to figure out which part of the house we should be in when the missile came – inside the rooms or in the doorway? I remember my children asking, “Why are people dying when they did nothing wrong?” and me straining to give them the reassurance they were looking for and struggling to hide the tears in my eyes. I know I lied to them when I promised everything was going to be okay.
When the shelling ended, I went out to the streets to meet our new reality: Pummeled streets, families who had lost loved ones, children killed in their sleep. My heart shattered when I saw the ruins of Al Rimal, the neighborhood that used to be Gaza’s beautiful, beating heart. Dreams that young entrepreneurs had worked to build for years were buried everywhere. Here was a small restaurant started by three women, there a 3D printing business, a life’s work of a friend of mine, now severely damaged. When I called him to pay my condolences, he told me he had decided to go home early that day, that he was happy he and his children were alive.
The course organizers here in the Netherlands invited me to attend a celebration commemorating 400 years since Dutch politician and political prisoner, Hugo Grotius, escaped a famous castle where he was imprisoned. Grotius is considered the founding father of international law, and his writings laid the foundations for the principles of morality in the laws of war. I met dozens of visitors who climbed a long, narrow ladder to take a look at the room where he was held captive for years. I told them about the residents of the Gaza Strip and how they, too, yearn for freedom from their prison. Around the same time, three young men from Gaza drowned at sea as they attempted to leave the Strip in the search of new hope and opportunities. Ongoing blockade and wars, rising unemployment and growing misery have shaken many mentally. In 2018, young people in the Strip set out to protest this dead-end reality and call for freedom at Gaza’s eastern border.
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During the program here, I’ve met many activists from different countries in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and more, all of whom dedicate their lives to the rights of their people. Some of them have experienced harassment and arrests. Some have even been wounded by gunfire, but despite the hardship and danger, they continue to fight for change. Their stories give me strength to continue my own work. In between, I’ve also managed to visit friends and relatives who were defeated by the situation in Gaza and managed to build new lives here abroad. One of their children, a 14-year-old, told me he thinks everyone has a right to live in their homeland in peace and serenity. I think he’s right. There’s no better time than today, International Human Rights Day, to remind everyone that the people of Gaza deserve human rights too.
In a few days, the program will come to an end and I’ll be returning to Gaza and to my children, whom I miss very much. I’ve enjoyed the calm here, and want my children to have it too; to live without the political rifts between Palestinians, without the fear of death, without Israeli restrictions that violate their right to a normal life. I’d like them to enjoy travel without having to worry about permits or the right to freedom of movement, which can be taken for granted here in the Netherlands. I’d like them to be able to look ahead, to the future, to see the horizon open before them and all the beauty it may bring.
The writer is a resident of the Gaza Strip and a field coordinator at Gisha – a human rights NGO promoting freedom of movement for people and goods to and from Gaza.