In 2007, Israel imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip. Even if the living conditions there are difficult, Palestinians from outside still go there to see the family, notes the former correspondent of Radio-Canada in the Middle East.
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Mohammed Aboudraz and his family
It was a small travel pillow in the colors of the Canadian flag that first caught my eye through the colorful, loud and chaotic crowd that thronged the Gaza-Egypt border that morning.
I am with a Canadian journalist, said my fixer (translator and local guide) Aysar in Arabic approaching the young man who held the cushion. Do you speak English maybe? In his answer I heard English and French. I jumped. French? : Yes, we come from Quebec. The response rang out, joyful. I was projected to Montreal by his accent.
His name is Mohammed Aboudraz, he is 17 years old. He spent his summer vacation in Gaza, he said, and he and his family began the trip back to Quebec on August 24.
His grandfather and his mother was busy with the suitcases and Mohammed gave me some details about his summer, stars in his eyes. He told me that he loved Gaza, that he had the unforgettable experience of seeing how his family lives.
Reema, her 19-year-old sister, agrees. Her discovery of the summer was to see how much she and her cousins are alike and have the same dreams and the same ambitions. But they are still caught in a glass prison, she told me.
- Territory bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt
- Area 360 km2 (470 km2 for the island of Montreal)
- Since 2007, Hamas has ruled the territory
- Israel's blockade led to rising unemployment and poverty and falling exports (strawberries and vegetables)
- Unemployment rate exceeded 55% in May 2022, according to Palestine Trade Union Federation
Until now, I have only been on assignment in Gaza during times of clashes between the Israeli army and the Palestinian factions, and I saw it as a very unusual vacation destination.
Power cuts, drinking water problems, random opening of the territory's two crossing points, of which only one, the one to Egypt, is available to tourists, none of this is attractive.
What has changed is the seaside, more and more tempting, because over the years several investments have improved the cleanliness of the sea and the beach. Mohammed, Reema, their brother Mourad and their little sister Dana lived two months in Gaza and say they had a good time.
The seaside in Gaza attracts tourists.
But towards the end of the holiday, from August 5 to 7, the Israeli army conducted a preventive military operation in the Gaza Strip, Operation Breaking Dawn.
There were reportedly 147 airstrikes against Islamic Jihad, Gaza's second-largest group, responsible for several deadly attacks in the past, which reportedly responded with more than 1,000 rockets. The army says 96% of the rockets were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome air defense system.
Two soldiers and 39 Israeli civilians were injured during the three days, so that around 40 Palestinian civilians died (between 36 and 49 victims, there is no definitive toll).
Reema and her family weren't in a location directly affected by the shelling, but here's what she wrote to me about:
We lived through the entire state of war; no going out at night, no gatherings, no telephone, worry on the ceiling, endless waiting. We used to all gather at my grandmother's house and spend our evenings there, but that was no longer possible. My cousins/cousins were really stressed and sensitive.
Having lived against all previous wars, they were afraid that the latest offensive would escalate to the same level as last years. The way they became extra-anxious and on edge showed me how deeply affected they are by past wars and how it's wounds that are just buried in fact.
Nobody wanted war. Even after the offensive ended, it took several days for life to return to normal and the mood to return to normal.
Reema, after a photo with the famous red and white travel pillow, told me that she is proud of her Canadian nationality, proud to speak French in Quebec. But that she is not proud of the actions of Canada, which she says is among the five largest arms exporters to Israel (number 5 indeed, 0.3% in 2020-2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).
She wanted to use the interview, she said, to send a message to the Canadian people and to Canada that it is time to change course and be on the side of the oppressed and not on the side of the oppressors as we have seen in the past. Why be blind when it comes to Gaza?, she wrote to me later. And Mohammed wants more solidarity with Palestine because, he said, it is also a country and Palestinian human rights exist.
Gaza and its seaside
Mohammed told me that, in his opinion, the complexity of the journey in and out of the Gaza Strip is intentional, to discourage as many people as possible from undertaking it. There are more than 2.3 million Palestinians in the small territory, and in 15 years of Israeli blockade some have managed to get out once, maybe twice, some never.
To return to Canada, the Aboudraz family took nearly 24 hours to arrive in Cairo, a journey that takes 6 hours without incident. The family had signed up well in advance to secure a release date at the end of August. On August 24, they arrived in Rafah at 7 a.m., finally gaining access to the Egyptian side of the border at 1 p.m. and waiting until 7:30 p.m. to receive their duly stamped passports.
Then it was the bus trip to Cairo, but due to many stops and checkpoints, they didn't arrive until 5am on August 25.
The Montreal family's travel difficulties had already made headlines in 2008. Reema was only 5 years old and Mohammed 3 years old. Leaving in April 2007, the Aboudraz parents and their young children had been stuck for more than 10 months in Gaza due to the closure for a very long period of the Rafah crossing point.
But none of that weighs on Reema and Mohammed's determination to return to Gaza on vacation, summer after summer, as Mohammed says.
Manon Globenskys report to Gaza aired on the show Désautels on Sunday