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 Two More Leaves from Lama’s Diary
 Lama Hourani, Palestine
 August 16, 2006

August 8, 2006

"I don't want to fly by airplane. Airplanes destroy houses over the heads of children." This was Luai's, my four year old son’s, response to the idea that he could leave for Jordan with his father for the holidays.

Usually Luai does not watch the news, but that day he happened to be left unattended and he had seen the scenes of the massacre at Qana, which were broadcast live on all of the Arab television satellite channels. He had heard the announcer who was covering Qana mention planes. Adi, his father, tried to explain to him the difference between a war plane and a normal one by imitating the sounds and shape of the plane. It took a lot of imitating of different plane sounds to convince him. He's been sleeping with the sounds of Apaches and F16s in his ears for months.

We were planning to spend the summer vacation this year traveling between Nablus, Amman and Damascus to visit both Adi's and my families. We haven't seen them for two years. My family is not allowed in Palestine as they are Palestinian refugees living in Syria. Adi's family are Palestinians living in the West Bank, some of them having identification cards but no permits to come to Gaza, and some not in possession of identifications cards and not allowed to leave Nablus. The members of Adi's family in Jordan are refugees, too, and are not allowed to come to Palestine. Because of the closures on all borders our plans for a family reunion did not take place.

Last week there had been a rumor that the Rafah border would be open for people to leave from the Gaza Strip. (The crossing point has been closed for more than a month; it was open for a few days only for the people who were stuck at the border to enter Gaza.) Rafah was supposed to be open for people with work residencies outside the country and students studying abroad. My husband and I have identification cards stating that our residence is in Nablus (in the northern part of the West Bank) but we are living in Gaza. We thought that if we had a residence outside the country we might be allowed to leave.

We started the procedure of buying air tickets and preparing our son to depart with his father. I cannot leave because I am very busy at work and, as we have no idea when Israel will allow the borders to open, I cannot risk losing my job. Especially so, as my husband has no employment due to the embargo imposed on the Palestinian people after the democratic elections. Adi is a civil engineer who works for the private sector. He has been out of work since last November and was supposed to start a new project in February. However, it was to be funded by USAID and because of the election results, USAID cancelled all of its projects in the Gaza Strip.

Luai slept after packing his bag. He hadn't slept for a couple of nights because of the nightmares he had been having. He insisted on having his own bag because he wanted to pull it himself. We had to fulfill his wish, not being able to convince him that there would be a huge crowd of people at the Rafah crossing point wanting to leave the country and that it would be difficult for his father to pull/carry two bags.

In the middle of the night we learned that the contacts between the Palestinian Authority, the Egyptians, the European Union and the Israelis did not lead to the opening of the border. For this reason we did not awake Luai early in the morning as we had promised. By the time he awakened, I was already at work He went to wake up his father, saying: “Dad, you overslept and we have to leave. We have to go to Rafah.” Adi told him that Rafah was still closed. “What do you mean? Have the Israeli soldiers overslept in their tanks?”

Both Adi and Luai refused to unpack their luggage, hoping that Rafah would be reopened soon.

We decided to explore the other border, Erez (the border to Israel), which has also been closed almost constantly for the last few years. However, sometimes, for humanitarian reasons or for international organizations, it is possible to obtain a permit from the Israel army. We, as “West Bankers”, might be able to leave from Erez. Thus, with the help of an Israeli humanitarian organization, and for training reasons, Adi obtained a four-day permit to go to the West Bank via the Erez crossing point. We learned this on Sunday morning, the day that the permit began. I went home from work, started to rearrange the luggage for both Adi and Luai, which we had not yet unpacked. That day we had had electricity in the morning so we had washed the laundry. After knowing that Luai and Adi had permission to leave we had to put the wet clothes in the bags.

We checked with the Erez crossing point to inquire whether there were special co-ordination requirements for Luai to leave with his father. The shocking refusal came on the phone. “Why does a man going for training take his child with him?” “Where do you think that he could leave the child in Gaza?” “The other parent is in Gaza. He should leave the child with her.” We did not know what to tell Luai. That his father was allowed to leave and he was not? So we had to lie to him, perhaps for the first time, saying that Erez was closed again. We decided not to allow Luai to go through the trauma again by letting his father leave without him. Luai was already dressed and prepared to leave, saying “Why is father late? I want to go to Nablus to see my grandma and aunt.”

After a few telephone calls with the Palestinian Authority and “experienced" people we were advised to go to Erez and try there with the soldiers. Well, it worked very well. After one hour at Erez, Luai called, telling me, "Mommy, it was easy, not like the last time with you.” At that time we had been kept waiting for four hours. “ I am in the car now, heading for Nablus.” I suddenly heard my four year old son talking like an adult. After two hours he was in his grandmother’s house.

I am very happy that both of them have left. Adi has not left Gaza for approximately two years and he needs to see his family in Nablus and Amman. Luai needs to know his cousins, uncles and aunts and to escape from the stressful life we lead in Gaza. Nablus is not much better but at least they do not have constant shelling, Apaches and F16s.

Everyone asks me when they will return. We don't know. It depends on whether the Rafah crossing point will open. It might take weeks or months….no one knows. I know that Luai and Adi will go to stay in Amman for a while and this makes me feel that they will be safe for the moment.

I'm happy that they were fortunate enough to leave, because it's very difficult to leave Gaza, the big prison. But at the same time I'm frightened that I may never see them again. I'm not sure. I badly wanted them to leave for their safety and happiness. I have really mixed feelings. I miss them and I feel lonely. What if Rafah doesn't open?

August 16, 2006

Two things occurred today to make me feel that life has returned to its normal routine.

I awakened in the morning, alone as usual these days, and heard a very familiar sound, one which had been missing for a while. It was the sound of shelling in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip. I smiled to myself. We have not heard this noise for about two weeks. We even thought that the Israelis had moved all of their military equipment to Lebanon (as if they did not have enough to be used in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip).

The other thing which made my day improve was the arrival of the newspapers. We have not had them in Gaza since 25 June. The three Palestinian newspapers are printed in the West Bank and are brought to Gaza via the Erez crossing point. It was very nice to again have the feeling of holding a newspaper in my hands, which became dirty with the ink. Of course, having newspapers in Gaza means that Erez has been opened. It is open for everything but certainly not for the Palestinians.

Yes, at the beginning of the day I felt good that some routine returned to my life, especially when I am alone and missing domestic routine. In the evening I was speaking to my father, who lives in Vienna, and suddenly I heard another familiar noise. It was the F16s and the surveillance planes and the constant shelling.

I started to laugh and my father wondered about the reason. I told him that I feel better when I hear these sounds. I know that life has returned to its normal rhythm.

Before that the situation was relatively calm, to use the language of the media. The new style that the Israeli army is using is that it calls the mobiles of targeted houses and flats and asks the people to leave within a certain time in order to bomb them. Some time ago they allowed people around two hours to vacate but now they give them only 15 minutes to evacuate their homes.

Two houses near my flat are under threat, one to the north and one to the south of our building. They have been threatened for a few days but until now they have not been bombed. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of these buildings do not live there any more. Every time we hear the sounds of the Israeli planes in the air we think that they might be about to bomb these houses.

Another thing the Israelis do is to call the land phones in the Gaza Strip with recorded messages, asking the people not to support the “terrorists” who are fighting against the Israelis and are shelling mortar rockets on the southern Israeli towns. Sometimes the children answer the phones and listen to these messages and understand it as a threat to leave their house. Families start to gather whatever they can, at least their documents and some clothing. Then they discover that it is a false alarm and return to their homes.

People are waiting for salary payments. There are rumours that the Authority will pay a whole month’s salary. Everyone is waiting for the money. Especially so as the schools are due to open soon and preparations have to be made. However, until now, nothing has developed from this rumour. Civil servants have not received their salaries since the appointment of the Hamas Government in March. They received only once a part of their salaries and once half a salary. This affects about 160,000 employees!

Another rumour is the opening of the borders. Those who are employed outside Gaza in different countries, university students who were visiting their relatives before 25 June and who study abroad, new students who finished high school this year and want to begin their university studies, and all Palestinians who want to leave for reasons of work, business, health or even recreation are waiting anxiously for the opening of the border.

Relatively speaking we do not feel the Israeli presence as before but all of our worries and expectations are connected to them and wait for their approval. And the world is still talking about the liberated Gaza Strip and the approaching first anniversary of the Israeli “withdrawal”!

I have to be satisfied with talking to my family once a day and hearing my four year old son telling me that he will come back to me as soon as he gets a permit.

Lama Hourani is coordinator of the Palestinian Working Women’s Society for Development in Gaza City.