I thought I knew what to expect from life here. For years I have been following the news from Gaza more closely even than the events within my own country. I knew about the air-strikes, the incursions and the assassinations; I had heard about the attack on Gazaâ€™s power-plant and the loss of half of the Stripâ€™s electricity, the destruction of homes, and the massacres of families as they slept or pick-nicked on the beach; Iâ€™d read about the closures, the international boycott, and the resultant rising poverty rates within the Strip. In a connected world, any information not found in the papers can be located on the internet â€“ as long as you know to look.
But itâ€™s one thing to read the news, another thing to actually live in Gaza.
After the momentary international coverage of Israelâ€™s bombing of Gazaâ€™s power-plant, Gaza, of course, remained in darkness. I think it is perhaps impossible for anyone who has never lived without electricity to understand how debilitating this can be: Before I came to Gaza, I simply did not comprehend how much I relied on it. In my first few weeks in the Strip, sitting in my apartment with nothing but a little light and a few candles â€“ unable to do anything but sit in the dark â€“ I realized for the first time the severity of this action and exactly what Human Rights organizations have meant as they refer to it as a War Crime.
In my second week here, I first started hearing the drones, the helicopters, and the Israeli war planes that form a backdrop of life here. I was thoroughly unprepared for the consistency of the Israeli military presence, and how terrifying it could be. One night, while preparing to go to bed, I heard an aircraft low-flying, seemingly close to me. I listened in shock as I heard it eject a missile. I felt like I was in a terrible movie. I listened to it whistle through the air. (Was it coming in my direction? Was it going to hit my house?). Finally, I heard it explode in nearby Shati camp. I heard the aircraft circle back round for a second time. All I could do was wait. My first missile attack â€“ I was almost too scared to move. I spent the night wondering how a whole population could be left, locked in this tiny strip, exposed to this sort of terrorism.
And of course, I had never expected Beit Hanoun. A few days after the incursion, I visited the town. I spoke to survivors of the massacre, and I was offered coffee by families as they sat on the rubble of what were once their homes, as they waited for Red Cross tents. I was left in shock. I was totally unprepared to see the total and utter destruction of such a large town, house by house by house. The news reports just couldnâ€™t capture the sheer scale, or the eerily systematic nature, of the utter devastation of Beit Hanoun. I couldnâ€™t get it out of my head that people â€“ families â€“ were in these homes even as the buildings were being blown apart. As I watched people living among the wreckage, sitting on the only table that they could pull from the rubble, I think I began to realise for the first time what it really means to lose oneâ€™s home. Coming from a world where each house is insured, where one house can be replaced by another, I am not sure that anyone in North America or Europe can understand the full impact of Israelâ€™s actions without being here.
But despite the struggles of living in Gaza, there remains one other thing that I had not been prepared for: the warmth and hospitality of the people here. In my first few days here, nervous and alone, I donâ€™t know how I would have got by without the care of the family that I live with, my colleagues, and any and everyone else that I have come into contact with. Many families have invited me into their homes, helped save me from my terrible cooking, helped me try to learn Arabic, and have always made me feel welcome. Together they have shown me a side of Gaza I never knew existed. Even in Beit Hanoun, I was shown amazing dignity and generosity, even in such awful circumstances, by families with nothing left, who were furious with my own country, who even still invited me to drink tea and coffee with them. With this side of Gaza, Iâ€™ve had a warm introduction, and I look forward to spending the rest of the year here.