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Sitting on the Shore of Gaza, Dreaming of Amsterdam's Canals

Mohammed Azaiza
Mohammed Azaiza
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Making a snowman in the center of Amsterdam, this week.
Making a snowman on the Nieuwmarkt square in the center of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, this week.Credit: Peter Dejong, AP
Mohammed Azaiza
Mohammed Azaiza

In retrospect, 2020 began fantastically. After over three years, I received a permit from Israel enabling me to leave Gaza and enter Israel and the West Bank. I was able to visit the office in Tel Aviv and to meet with old friends, and with colleagues whom I had only “met” from a distance. I also managed, for the second time in 20 years, to celebrate New Year’s Day in Ramallah. I also found out back then that I had been accepted to a three-month course in Amsterdam, connecting defenders of human rights from all over the world, which was designed to help them to improve their work tools.

The course was supposed to begin in April, and would also have created an opportunity to tour Holland in the spring. I renewed my passport and obtained a visa for Europe.

Nobody imagined that a pandemic was approaching; or that the sense of freedom, the ability to reach a planned destination, would soon become no more than a memory.

The Sarphatipark in Amsterdam covered with snow, on Wednesday.Credit: Shai Simpson-Baikie

When the coronavirus’ arrival in the region was recognized in March, Israel closed the West Bank and tightened the blockade of Gaza even more. (Egypt leaves the Rafah border crossing closed most of the time.) The course in Amsterdam was postponed, to September.

The days of the internal restrictions and the external closures, of the Erez and Rafah crossings, passed both quickly and slowly. The pandemic created a new existential fear but people, for all the shock, pain and suffering, worked at accustoming themselves to the new situation. I still hoped to get to Amsterdam, the city I loved from afar, in the fall.

A dog enjoys the snow in an Amsterdam park, this week.Credit: Shai Simpson-Baikie

In August I began getting organized for the trip. Coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel had ceased, and in any case there was no chance of getting an exit permit, in light of the sweeping coronavirus lockdown, which Israel continued to enforce. The Rafah crossing remained closed most of the time. Following consultations between the course directors and the Netherlands Representative Office in Ramallah, I discovered that I had lost my place in the course anyway because I was unable to leave the country.

At the time, in the context of my work, I came across stories of people who were stuck for months outside the Gaza Strip because the crossing points were shut down. The news that the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement had managed to get Israel to allow dozens of people to return home helped me overcome my personal sense of disappointment, to a degree.

Entirely by chance, the same day I realized I couldn’t fly to Holland, my partner and one of her colleagues, both engineers with the Water Authority, received scholarships for a master’s degree in water management from a prestigious institute in Paris. Their training should help them improve Gaza’s water systems. At present the water in Gaza is not potable, and many countries are donating millions of dollars to build desalination and sewage treatment systems.

Palestinians wait to leave Rafah border crossing after it was opened by Egyptian authorities, in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday.Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Meanwhile Israel’s lockdown remains in place with the excuse of protecting public health, and students still cannot make the short trip from the Erez crossing to the Allenby crossing in Jordan, so that they can travel to their studies abroad. Egypt opened the Rafah crossing point for some days in early February, but only some of those needing will be able to cross there.

In Zoom meetings with the team in Tel Aviv, I was happy to hear that many people had already received the first coronavirus vaccination, and wondered when it would be my turn to feel that my relatives, my family and I are protected. The right to health is a self-evident supreme value in Israel’s internal discourse, but when it comes to Gazans, if anyone thinks of us at all, this right is presented as a bargaining chip, as though Israel’s control of every aspect of our lives in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip doesn’t make it responsible for our welfare.

In the past year practically the whole world experienced lockdowns and the harm they cause, to our psychological welfare, our livelihoods and the economy as a whole, to our health, family life and the sense of control over one’s own life. In Gaza we’ve been living this way for decades. Anyone who hasn’t lost hope yearns for change, falling like a star from the heavens.

A decision whether to contemplate your contribution to our suffering is in your hands, as Israelis. Meanwhile, we lift our eyes to the heavens, and wait

The writer lives in the Gaza Strip and is a field coordinator for the Gisha Legal Center for Freedom of Movement for Palestinians and for goods to and from the Gaza Strip

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