So, this week I was in Gaza. I didn’t really advertise it beforehand because when I told a few people, their reactions ranged from mild alarm to full-scale OMG-I-hope-you-have-an-armed-guard-with-really-big-guns kind of panic. Also, I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to get in until I was actually through all the checkpoints.
Yes. All the checkpoints. Because first there’s Israeli passport control and a Gaza stamp in our passports. Then a fifteen minute walk through a sheltered, chicken-wire-contained corridor through open fields to the first Gaza checkpoint, where we were met by our escort who took us to the second checkpoint where we received our stamped Palestinian Authority visas.
I don’t know what I expected when I arrived because my images of Gaza are probably much the same as yours: bombed out buildings, frightened children, mourning mothers, wounded teenagers, war, trauma, tragedy.
There was, of course, evidence of past wars, despite the efforts to clean up and rebuild.
But I didn’t expect striking beauty. I didn’t expect to enjoy a delicious iftar meal looking out over a beach which could have just as easily been in Tel Aviv.
And yet, there were moments when Tel Aviv felt another world away, not just an hour’s drive.
I didn’t expect the remarkable creativity, the murals which lined the streets.
Or the high quality of the crafts we saw. (So. Much. Pretty.)
I thought I would encounter more anger, more bitterness, more resentment amongst the people we met. Maybe at a different time we would have. But not this visit. I had no idea that time after time after time, we would find ourselves celebrating with our partners — celebrating real grass on a newly established 5-a-side football pitch at the YMCA, where games are timed around Ramadan fasts and call to prayer at the next-door mosque.
Or sharing delight at the new building of the St John’s Eye Clinic, which should have opened two years ago, but couldn’t because of the war and because equipment (including the lifts) was stuck at the border for literally years. But I found tears of joy welling up in my eyes as the staff proudly showed us every nook and cranny of the place and proudly showed off their state-of-the-art surgical wards.
I didn’t expect such developed vocational training programmes which were flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of the people living in the Gaza Strip and the resources available, and which incorporated vocational training ideas and curricula from all over the world.
I didn’t expect so many programmes empowering women, advocating for their rights, working towards their full inclusion as equal members of society.
Oh, there was discomfort. I don’t mean to present an overly rosy picture of our time in Gaza. There was heat and humidity and the challenge of staying hydrated and finding midday meals in the midst of Ramadan. There were dark streets on the drive home when the electricity was off. There were the moments when I swore and shivered under the cold shower, longed to wash my hair with desalinated water, cursed the lack of mobile signal, sweated through meetings in buildings which had no generator, regretted eating salads and fruit washed in less-than-pure-water my sensitive stomach couldn’t handle, and wished death upon the rooster that crowed non-stop from the 4am call to prayer. It made me realise how many of my complaints in Tiberias are #FirstWorldProblems indeed.
And there was frustration. I expected that. And perhaps amongst some a sense of defeat. There were concerns about the fragmentation of Palestinian politics, the closure of Gaza’s borders, the impossibility of getting permits. There were more than fifty shades of grey in the political views we heard and the opinions about how the international community should respond and whether foreign aid is treating merely the symptoms and ignoring the root causes. I expected that too.
But I didn’t expect to find myself overwhelmed by the determination, the humility, the passion, the gentleness, the enthusiasm we encountered.
I should know better after these few years of being a priest that it is most often the moments when I think I’m the one offering the blessing, the reassurance, the comfort, the hope, that I end up walking away, unsure of what ‘good’ I actually did because of the blessing, the reassurance, the comfort, the hope offered to me. That was my experience of Gaza. And it wasn’t one I expected.
But the last thing I expected to see, after years of watching the turmoil of Gaza on the news from the comfort of Scotland, was to sit in the comfort of an air-conditioned office in Gaza, watching the turmoil of Britain in the aftermath of the Brexit vote.
Here are some of the partners we visited: