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Sophies Story

RAED’S STORY

28/5/2009 by Sophie McNeill

Crossing into the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip is like entering another world.

An hour earlier I was on the Israeli side of the border, where there are sealed roads, traffic lights and petrol stations, cafes and shopping malls. Neat, red roofed houses with gardens sit next to carefully planted vineyards and rolling green hills.

But then suddenly the green fields and the sealed roads end, and up ahead a huge concrete wall rises up from the earth. It looms over eight-meters high and continues, snaking up and down the hilltops and fields as far as your eye can see. Behind this huge wall is the other world that is the ‘Gaza Strip.’

A small narrow piece of land next to the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza is bordered by Israel to the north, east and south, while Egypt shares its southwest border. About 41 kilometers long and ranges from 6 to 12 kilometers wide, it only takes an hour to drive from one end of Gaza to the other. One of the most densely populated places on earth, it is impossible for the 1.5 million Palestinians who live inside this small area to leave without the permission of the Israeli or the Egyptian government.

The whole of the strip is fenced in. Where there is not a concrete wall, there are electric fences, sensors and watchtowers. Israeli soldiers patrol the perimeters day and night. For security reasons, the Israeli army has declared the land near the boundary fence as ‘no mans land.’ If you venture too close, you risk being shot. In comparison to the Israeli side, the fields here lay desolate and untended. Off the Gaza coast, Israeli navy warships prowl the horizon, firing upon the local fishermen if they dare drift more than a few kilometers off the beach.

Many of Gaza’s residents are refugees who used to live inside Israel’s borders, but were forced out when the country was created in 1948. Today, Gaza still resembles a giant refugee camp. Over eighty percent of the population lives below the poverty line and the majority of families rely on food aid from the UN to survive.

Since August 2006, the Islamic hard-line party ‘Hamas’ has controlled Gaza. In response, Israel created an economic blockade, restricting the goods allowed through their border and inside Gaza, as a means of punishing the strip’s residents who support Hamas. Due to the blockade, thousands of items are forbidden entry into Gaza by Israel. Canned goods, plastic sheeting, toys, books, electric appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, cars and car parts, fabrics, threads, needles, light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses and animals are all forbidden. Tea, coffee, sausages, milk products in large packages and most baking products are also banned. Only ‘essential’ food products are allowed in. Until three months ago, Israel even banned toilet paper, nappies and sanitary napkins from entering. To say life in Gaza is desperate and bleak is an understatement.

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It’s late March 2009 and I’m entering the strip for my first visit in nearly a year and a half. I trudge the ten-minute walk from the Israeli crossing gate and across the broken, rocky path that divides these two worlds. To my right are a series of destroyed buildings lay pockmarked with bullet holes, collapsed upon themselves like a sad pile of dominoes. 600 meters away, Palestinian taxi drivers are waiting, eager for customers but wary of coming within range of the border guard’s bullets. I stop to take a photo but the man helping me with my bags frantically waves my camera away. The week before a Japanese World Vision aid worker and his Palestinian colleague were shot on this very path after Israeli soldiers at the crossing thought they were acting suspiciously and opened fire.

I’ve come to Gaza to see my dear friend Raed Al Athamneh. I first met Raed in August 2007 when I came to the territory to film a story for SBS’s...

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