On Friday afternoon I sat reading in my garden in glorious sunshine. No missiles landed, no guns were fired. I wasn’t worried about whether the power would stay on or if I would be able to find basic supplies at my local Co-op. If I’d wanted to, I could have bought a cheap plane ticket online and been in another country by lunchtime the following day. What luxury this would seem to a Palestinian living in the Gaza Strip.
From December 2007 to April 2009 Louisa Waugh worked for a local human rights organisation in Gaza City. She had already lived in Ramallah on the West Bank but wanted to see what life was like for Palestinians under the Israeli blockade. She makes friends, goes to parties – Gazans really know how to party – and has outings to the local lingerie market where sparkly negligees and g-strings are on display. She spends leisurely days at the beach with friends where she sees buckets and spades for sale. Many of the Gazans she meets are warm, friendly and generous hosts – lunch is always a feast. But these are a people frayed by years under siege, perpetually on edge waiting for the next wave of rockets to be fired at them. Internecine spats between Hamas and Fatah ratchet up the tension still further and, as Waugh points out, some Palestinians profit from the blockade. It’s even been rumoured that those who operate the Rafah tunnels into Egypt through which essential goods are smuggled have encouraged renegades to fire rockets towards southern Israel during cease fires.
Of all the stories in Waugh’s book perhaps the most emblematic is that of the Swailams, a farming family who live under constant surveillance in a cluster of white cottages a few metres from the Israeli border. They stay because it’s their land and they have nowhere else to go. The fourth time that their citrus trees are bulldozed by the Israelis they decide not to replant but to grow vegetables instead. When Waugh comes to see how they are in 2009 she finds that the cottages have been razed to the ground and their land is barren.
On a return visit to see friends in 2010 Waugh finds a much more oppressive atmosphere and is constantly trailed by Hamas spooks. She warns in her epilogue that “the continued isolation of Hamas by Western governments … will only strengthen the militants within the movement, not those who are prepared to seek change through dialogue.” Meet Me in Gaza is a vivid, humane and important book. Please read it.