Fresh olives and the sound of bombs
Gaza is under fresh attack from Israel following an incident near Eilat in which seven Israelis were killed and 40 injured. Although those responsible "crossed the border from Sinai", the Israeli government claims that it was carried out by "terrorists from Gaza". As usual, swift "full force retaliation" took place, leaving six Palestinians dead in the first wave early on Friday morning, 19 August.
This is the disconnected, disaffected news I have seen in Britain. Up until a month ago, I would have responded in the standard manner on hearing it, with somewhat feeble exclamations of protest and a few Facebook and Twitter posts. I would have perhaps even signed a petition or two.
But now I have visited Gaza. I have crossed the Rafah border, walked upon the Holy Land in the Holy Month of Ramadan, dug my toes into the soft sand, trailed my fingers through the warm sea, touched the olive trees, befriended my Palestinian brothers and sisters, and left my heart there.
I knew then, instantly, that my entire outlook on the Palestinian issue has changed: it is no longer simply a 'situation' faced by the Palestinian people, on my laptop screen, safely distant, thousands of miles away. It is now scarily real and deeply personal. I've always proclaimed my support for Palestine; but now, I am genuinely terrified by the horrific prospect of my friends and their families being harmed and killed.
I find it hard to describe the Palestinian girls and young women I met in Gaza. The words 'strong', 'courageous', 'resilient' just aren't enough. My Gazan sisters are inspirational. Their radiant smiles, warm hugs and bright laughter belie the staggeringly awful times they've had to endure, and are still going through. They are beautiful, in every single sense of the word.
My visit to Gaza was peaceful, praise be to God. I spent sunny days with my new friends, enjoying their company, amusing them with my attempts to speak their beautiful language, and exploring their city. We saw some evidence of destruction, but we saw much more development and construction. A gleaming new hospital, new housing blocks, a large school midway through being rebuilt - amazing attestation to the resilient 'we-will-not-go-down' attitude that resonated across the Gazan population.
But now, destruction has returned. For the first time, the atrocities occurring were brought to me first-hand by my Gazan friend Samah on Facebook; I had no idea how deeply affected I would feel. Her words moved me to tears and I sobbed uncontrollably as I read them. I felt helpless, angry, terrified for her safety and that of her family. Real, genuine rage and anxiety - how would I feel if that was me and my family?
My words of comfort and prayer seemed ineffective and weak. I was shaking with frustration and a sudden overwhelming desire to be back in Gaza. How could I be sitting here in security and safety, while my sisters are trapped in their homes, terrified, waiting for that bomb to fall?
How ironic, therefore, that Samah was the one comforting me. With every sentence she typed, my admiration for her strength and faith rose beyond that which I thought possible.
1.30 a.m., Friday 19th August 2011. These are Samah's exact words, live from besieged Gaza:
"It's so bad. There are bombs everywhere, so we can't sleep and can't go out. Can't do anything. Only listening to the radio, waiting for bombs."