Year before last, I was sitting in the living room of my childhood home sharing a cup of morning coffee with my mother and musing over the holidays. We laughed over kitschy Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives before deciding to turn on the news for five minutes on the brink of another vacation day. Those five minutes would turn out to be one of those times like 9/11—when you never forget exactly where you were when you found out. "Oh no," gasped my mother, tears welling up immediately in her eyes. "Gaza Explodes..." scrolled across the bottom of the screen, and plumes of smoke hung on the living room wall in high definition.
Violence in the Middle East was hardly a surprise, but operation Cast Lead put previous attacks to shame. For more than three weeks, the Israeli military conducted the most aggressive assault against the occupied territories since the 1967 war. In the two years since the bombs exploded in the coastal territory known by many as the world's largest open-air prison I have been breathing in Gaza mostly from the outside, except for a few precious journeys to see first-hand the destruction—and the resilience of people rebuilding as best they can.
Israel stopped attacking the Gaza Strip two days before the U.S. presidential inauguration. Some speculate that the Israeli withdrawal was a trade-off with the President-elect for his silence during the military operation. I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of thousands of people in front of my country's capitol building on what felt then like the first day of a new millennium, Obama's charismatic voice crackling through the freezing air as he took the oath. Hope had taken the nation by storm, Bush was on a helicopter bound for Texas, and the streets of Gaza were silent. Razed, as I would soon witness just weeks later, but silent.
Getting into Gaza right after the war was nothing short of a miracle. I entered with a delegation through Rafah on the Egyptian side. We passed by Palestinians who had no chance of crossing the gate, and I knew that it was they who should have been granted passage, not me. Bombs fell on the tunnels near the buffer zone, but somehow, being in Gaza made me feel incredibly safe. And the resilience of the people crept to a place deep inside me. It hasn't left since.
The Gaza Strip is full of astonishing stories and the people there go to lengths to tell them. Being a visitor in that context is a privilege that comes with considerable responsibility. From speaking with families who lost loved ones due to tank fire to spending time with children that trembled from the affects of PTSD, there was consistent desire to be heard. "Now you have seen this with your own eyes," they would say, "so you need to let people outside know what is happening to us here."
The second I left, I immediately started planning another trip. And then another. Within a year of the war, I had been there twice on Grassroots International program trips and once on my own. Grassroots International partners with some of the most inspiring Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees works with women from local community organizations bank seeds in their kitchen sinks and plant gardens in the most unlikely urban settings. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights, also a Grassroots International partner documents human rights abuses and brings cases to the attention of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And the longstanding support for the Gaza Community Mental Health Program provides an oasis of care in a desert of pain.
Gaza is the kind of place that melts stereotypes. Let down by the Israelis, the Egyptians, the Americans, and the Palestinian Authority, Gazans continue to organize despite oppressive circumstances. They have burned garbage to fuel cars, built homes from mud, and crushed rubble to pave roads.
Today, the siege on Gaza that began in 2006 continues with no end in sight. The United Nations has reported that at least 500 truckloads of wheat sit idle on the Israeli side of the Karni conveyor belt that has acted as a lifeline to a million and a half people. Even though these provisions are critical to survival, Palestinians living in the seaside enclave desire much more than access to food aid. They also long for freedom of movement, food sovereignty, and self-determination.
Recently, military violence against Gaza has escalated again. One contact wrote that F16s had bombed several times over the past week, drones buzzing overhead as he sent out the message. Some Palestinians fear that another wide-reaching attack looms. It remains unclear exactly what awaits the people of Gaza two years after the war. What is certain is that we must keep their voices alive not only in Gaza, but in calls for justice and peace.