Frustrated fisherman in Gaza.
My father is a fisherman. Setting off to the lake, taking care of his nets and hooks and observing the waters is what he loves the most in the world. Although he doesen't earn his living with fishing, it's what defines him, what is in the essence of his being. The sparkle in his eyes when he catches "a really big one", the concentrated expression on his face when he navigates through the waves, the determination which makes him ski to a frozen lake in the winter to check his under-ice nets when it's -20 degrees. Those are the moments when he is at his fullest, truly himself. No deadlines, no writer's blocks, no bills to pay. All the troubles of every day life disappear when he steps into his little boat and turns on the engine. He's a free man.
On my last day in Gaza, during the last hours before I would jump into a taxi and cross Erez to get back to Israel I decided to take one last stroll on the beach. Those turquoise shores struck me when I first arrived to Gaza City. Sea, the ultimate symbol of freedom combined with the strict siege was something I couldn't comprehend easily. How can the sea be controlled? My visit was short and that question had left without a full answer. I knew I would need to come back again. But I wanted to say goodbye to the sea before leaving, to tell I'd come back one day.
Walking down the port of Gaza I passed a group of colourful fishing boats. They were very similar to those I had seen on other Mediterranean coasts in the south of Italy and in the islands of Greece, but also on beaches of Atlantic in a small coastal village of Cabo Polonio in Uruguay. I hadn't see boats like that in Finland, though. Their flamboyant colours would be seen as bragging and boasting, something that just wouldn't do in Finland, where the boats are painted with clean and sporty white, or efficient looking metal colours. Some are plain wooden ones, like my father's boat.
In the end of the beach I met Mohammed, a Gazan fisherman. It was a beautiful day, strong wind kept the clouds away and his boat was glistening in the sun, it's Palestinian flag dancing with the wind. But Muhammed wasn't smiling. He was worried. His son, Amar, had been arrested by Israeli authorities on 1st of December while he was fishing. Amar had been handcuffed and blindfolded and that was the last time Mohammed saw his son. He didn't know where Amar was taken and how he was.
Under the Oslo Accords signed 1993 by Israel and the Palestinians the Gazans were allowed to fish until 20 nautical miles from the coast. Despite this for years Israel has allowed Gazan fishermen to reach only 3 miles. "There are 3700 fishermen in Gaza. 3 nautical miles just aren't enough," said Mohammed. When the fishermen tried to go futher to the sea they were often shot at or/and arrested. Following the November 21 cease fire after the latest Gaza war the fishermen were allowed to take their boats up to 6 nautical miles, but the situation remained unclear. Amar was arrested at 2,5 miles. His father looked tired and much older that his 58 years. "Even the 6 miles aren't enough," he says. "There's sand under the water in 6 miles, and the good fishes don't live there. In 12 miles there are rocks - and big fishes to catch."
Mohammed has a family of 15 to support with his fishing. Amar was his main helper - often it's impossible to manouver a small fishing boat on your own on Mediterranean waves and set the nets at the same time. "Fishing is hard work even without the shooting," Mohammed said. During his working days he has been shot at by the Israeli sea patrol soldiers several times.
By Christmas I was already back in Finland. Despite the holiday athmosphere my father felt restless: The beginning of the winter was funny and the lake hadn't frozen properly for him to go and set his winter nets. "This time of the year the big fishes move slowly in the dark waters under the ice and it's easy to cach them," he explained to me, rubbing his head, frustrated with staying inside. Every day he anticipated going to test if the ice would hold. Eventually we didn't go, and the frown stayed on my father's forehead. I thought of Mohammed, wandered about his fishing, whether he was able to go. Whether Amar had been released. Whether his frown was deeper than my father's. Apparently now the 6 nautical mile limit has become true and the fisherman can access it, but then again, you never know. You're never free.
Frustrated fisherman in Finland.
Triple somersaults in the air, jumps so high they make your head spin, climbing the walls in a blink of an eye. Yesterday I had the priviledge to meet the Gaza Parkour and Free Running Team in the city of Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza strip. This group of young men has found freedom, seldom seen in the reality of besieged Gaza, in a special place: in movement.
Parkour is an urban sport with it's origins in military obstacle court training. It was further developed in France, aiming at as smooth, elegant and continuous movement as possible. Nowadays it's practised all over the world and, as I came to witness, also in Gaza. The philosophy of parkour couldn't suit the everyday struggle of Gaza better: "A means of reclaiming what it means to be a human being. To move using the natural methods that we should have learned from infancy. To touch the world and interact with it, instead of being sheltered by it."
These guys transform the land under siege into their playground. Their biggest dream is to be able to go compete abroad, which is hard not only because it's expensive. Traveling for a Gazan requires a long battle with bureucracy and probably also an invitation. But they have already gotten to Italy once, a trip which was "a dream come true" as Abdullah, one of the team members put it. Their next aim is to get to compete in Miami. When there is a will, there's a way, they say. The world has got to know Gaza Parcour through You Tube, latest and maybe most famous being the video shot during the last 8-day war in November, where the team throws somersaults while Israeli bombs explode on the backround. From what I saw, these guys truly deserve showing their skills to the world also live. If you know any parkour societies near you, mention Gaza Parcour to them.
The EAPPI-part of my blog is over, but I will share with you my visit to Gaza, where I try to get an overview of the life under the siege and the impact of the latest war. And in English as a response to request of those who cannot read Finnish. (The small minority in the world)
Yesterday I arrived in Gaza. First thing I smelled, saw and heard when arriving through Erez crossing were the sheep. I thought I heard them while getting my passport stamped by Israeli officials at the beginning of Erez terminal, but convinced myself I'm just hallucinating, my mind still halfway in the northern plains of the West Bank. After the Israelis were through with me I proceeded to a long open air cage corridor. There I saw them: fluffy brown sheep with their shepards about fifty meters from me, on the other side of the iron fence. The shepards wandered after their flocks in the lush green grass whistling at the animals just like their colleagues did in Yanoun. It was a bizarre sight. The concrete-iron military stucture i was walking in just didn't match the idyllic landscape right next to it.
"Wow, the rumors about Israel easing its restrictions on Gazans seem to be true," I thought. For years the first 500 meters of Gaza's land from Israeli border was completely inaccessible for the Palestinian farmers as a "no-go-zone", still at 1500 meters people received warning shots. Since the cease fire between Israel and Hamas after the latest exchange of drones and rockets there was an oral agreement that Gazan shepards would be allowed to approach their land close to the border. I continued walking happily surprised by the unusual sight. Then I heard gunshots from behind me and saw shepards hurrying away. Later I heard that international volunteers based in Gaza try to help enforcing the new policy by going to the fields with the farmers and standing between them and the soldiers wearing bright attention vests. Now is the time for sowing wheat and if it won't be done in the coming days the future crops will be lost. The warnig shots are told to be significantly less when internationals are present. Any loss of crops is serious in Gaza, where 38% live in poverty and, 54% are food insecure and over 75% of the population receive aid.
The drive from Erez to Gaza City is not a long one. As we made our way under the blue skies and bright sunshine Gaza didn't look to me much different form any other city in the West Bank. Small shops, pastel coloured iron doors, kids running around, men sitting with their teas and coffees. Then I saw the ruins. Entire block buildings smashed like dollhouses. Floors of houses missing, holes in the roofs. "This was a police station," the driver said as we passed by. "And this one is already from Cast Lead". "Dont worry," she consoled me when I failed to snap a decent picture of the ruins, "You will see plenty more of these."
Next thing to shake me up was a bazooka. And then a second and a third one. Approaching the city centre masked men dressed in black head to toe lined the streets. They were the Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas soldiers. Some with a green band tied around their heads, each armed heavier than the other. We certainly were not in West Bank anymore. To my relief it came out the brigades hadn't lined up because of me. An important Hamas leader Khemal Mashaal was also coming to town, after 45 years of exile, and the combatants were paying tribute to their leader. Today Gaza celebrated the 25th anniversary of Hamas, held on the day when the first intifada, Palestinian uprising started in the eighties. Around 250 000 people were expected to show up in the centre of Gaza City to celebrate the anniversary and the end of the latest bombing, which is considered among the people as kind of a victory over Israel. (I'll write more about the anniversary in the next post) The party speeches started early: Today I woke up with the loudspeakers boasting in passionate Arabic outside our building. After the last short war there seems to be some hope and revolutionary energy in the air of Gaza. Talks about building unity between Hamas and other parties are everywhere.
But as I hear the powerful speeches of the politicians, I also see the struggle the Gazan's face in their everyday life. Brushing my teeth with the salty tap water proved it completely undrinkable. The food in the fridge is never cold due to continuous cuts in electricity. Cuts stop also internet connections and laptops, make charging mobile phones and calling your friends complicated, writing and receiving emails and updating your blogposts impossible. Unless of course you have expensive back up energy from a generator, which most houses don't have. The nights of Gaza city are mostly dark, because keeping street lights on is not an option. When it rains, the streets flood. According to UN only a minority of projects aimed at improving the houses and vital services in Gaza have been approved by the Israeli authorities. Limitations on NGO's and import restrictions make them impossible.
Under such conditions people's friendliness is striking. "Where from?" "What's your name?" are staple small talk questions also here, just like in the West Bank. "Welcome to Gaza!" followed by a wide smile for the camera. Maybe living tight makes you nice. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world: 1,6 million pepople live in 365 square kilometers. Kids are many: according to the UN over 50% of the population of Gaza is under 18 years old. By today I have shared my name, age and marital status with dozens of people. If that is enough to put a smile on a person's face, I'll do it a hundred times more.
Click here for a beautiful photoblog about Gaza and the West Bank. The text is in Spanish, but the pictures speak their own language.