The day the wall came down

February 1, 2008

Mohammed Omer is a Palestinian independent journalist from Rafah. His writing on life in Gaza regularly appears in several publications, including Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. He also writes a blog, "Rafah Today," where his writing and photographs can be found, at

Omer spoke with Socialist Worker's Elizabeth Schulte as Palestinians breached the border wall in late January and streamed into Egypt.

A voice from Gaza:

WHAT WAS the scene like at the border between Gaza and Egypt after the wall was breached by explosives, and people went through into Egypt?

IT WAS two in the morning when the bombing started. This wall is 16 kilometers long along the border with Egypt and 8 meters high. Part of it is metal, and part is cement.

People immediately left from all over the Gaza Strip--the north, the south, the east, the west. The first day, there was more than 200,000 people crossing; today, there are more than 350,000 people who managed to cross the border.

I was speaking with people, and I can say that they're getting motorcycles, cows, sheep, meat, fish, milk, cheese--even something as simple as candles. Chocolate for children. Gasoline for cars. We asked my mother what she wanted, and she said washing powder.

On Tuesday, there was a demonstration by 2,000 Palestinian women who wanted to get across the border and get medication and supplies. Among them were sick people who needed medication--that's why they were striking and asking the Egyptians to open the border.

What else to read

For two eyewitness accounts of life in Gaza under Israel's siege, read "Rafah Today," an Internet blog by Palestinian independent journalist Mohammed Omer, and "From Gaza With Love," a blog written by Dr. Mona El-Farra.

The Electronic Intifada Web site provides updates on the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank.

Between the Lines: Readings on Israel, the Palestinians and the U.S. "War on Terror," by Tikva Honig-Parnass and Toufic Haddad, documents the apartheid-like conditions that Palestinians live under today.

For background on Israel's war and the Palestinian struggle for freedom, read The Struggle for Palestine, a collection of essays edited by Lance Selfa on the history of the occupation and Palestinian resistance.

Some hours ago, Egyptian doctors managed to get into Gaza, and they are now doing operations for patients who were not able to get out of Gaza.

WHAT WOULD you say is the reason behind the change in Egypt's policy--that people from Gaza were allowed to go through the breach in the border wall?

THE EGYPTIANS say that it is humanitarian, and they should feel for their brothers. Then I asked them why they didn't protest the 25 women who were injured trying to cross the border on the first day. Why didn't they let them the first time? They said that they had sympathy, that these people need food and medicine and fuel, but in a few days, they are going to have to leave.

I would say that you have to keep in mind that public opinion in Egypt is really strong. The Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt says that there should only be 750 soldiers with light arms. I believe that number is not enough to control the large numbers of people who crossed.

HOW ORGANIZED was the crossing?

THIS IS the second time that this has happened. The last time was in the summer of 2005, right after the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. That was the first day when people opened the border.

I talked to a guy who said he went to Egypt, and he ate some fish and drank a Coca Cola. It is the simple things that make people really happy and excited, and feeling like they are breathing and can get what they want.

But again, the stocks are empty now, because Egyptian police are not allowing people to go very far, only to El Arish. You can't go to Alexandria or Cairo. You aren't allowed outside Egyptian Rafah.

Still, people are getting in and out, and they're getting the things they need. I saw hundreds of motorcycles. A motorcycle isn't usually available in Gaza, and if it is, it costs nearly $3,000. Today, you can get them in Egypt for $1,000.

It's not organized, it's all random. When people heard about the explosion, they all came flooding to the border. It was impossible to make phone calls, the lines were so busy with people telling each other that the border was open.

I met an old man, and I asked where he was going. He said, "I'm going to Egypt. I'm going to see my relatives. I haven't seen them for a long time." He said we was going to see his grandchildren--that they were born, and he had never seen them. He was really happy.

I asked whether that meant he wasn't going to be back here. He said, "No, I'm coming back in a couple hours. Gaza is my hometown, and I won't leave it. I'll just go to visit, and I will come back."

For some people, they were able to meet for the first time. They know each other by telephone, not face to face, because of the Israeli blockade. I have relatives in this area, but I have never known them. There are people who have relatives, and the war separated them, and finally, they're meeting.

People in general were happy, but when asked whether the blockade is over, they say it isn't over. The blockade is still on, and the blockade is in the heart of the people. They know that Israel isn't pleased about opening the border, and Israel can attack at any minute.

YOU'VE TAKEN photos of the horrifying consequences of Israeli bombings on the people of Gaza. Tell us about Israel's continuing bombing campaign, a campaign they claim is in retaliation to Palestinian "terrorism."

ISRAEL HAS been attacking the Gaza Strip, and since January 1 this year, 77 Palestinians were killed as a result of the ongoing attacks--just since the beginning of the year. I have names, I have ages, I have everything, and I get this information from the Minister of Health. Two-hundred-and-ninety-three were injured, including many women and children. You see people's arms, legs, fingers--scattered in the streets everywhere.

Israel gives as the pretext for this the launching of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian resistance has managed to launch at least 150 homemade rockets. I mentioned how many Palestinians were killed--76--and nearly 293 injured. On the other hand, in the bombings, six to eight Israelis were injured.

Israel says it's Qassam rockets. From the Palestinians' point of view, the siege is a collective punishment for Israeli security.

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