"So, what are your first impressions of Gaza?", Reem asked me excitedly as I settled in to my chair with a room full of her 14 fellow Palestinian students at the MercyCorps Youth Center in Gaza.
Just four hours earlier, we had left beautiful Jerusalem for a 45 minute drive to one of just three entrances to the Gaza strip. A 30 foot wall surrounded this 26 square miles of land pressed up against the sea. 1.4 million Palestinians reside within, a virtual prison camp in which no Palestinians are allowed to leave, but visitors with the proper credentials can sometimes be allowed in by the Israelis.
I assumed I fit that category of the properly credentialed.
Along with 4 other MercyCorps staff, we were allowed in after a 2 hour wait , despite having been approved for entry days before by submitting our passports to the Israeli authorities. After showing our passports twice, walking past multiple machine-gun toting young men in khakis, entering through at least 6 locked gates, and down a deserted 800 yard tunnel, we entered into Gaza. As we walked further still to catch a taxi that awaited us about a quarter mile away, you could look in any direction and see bombed out buildings. We later toured Gaza and saw more devastation on every block, with dozens of makeshift tents set up by the UN to house the now-homeless. We later stopped at the site of recently bombed "American International University", a prestigious university that previously had attracted 230 local Palestinians, attracted to its more liberal university education. As one of the board members, Sharhabeel Al Za'aem, explained to us as he stood in front of the devastated university, it is hard to comprehend why it was targeted. It had been hit twice before by Israel, by accident, so they knew where it was located. He had met just weeks before with Senator Kerry and Congressman Baird from Washington State to talk about the destruction of Gaza, and told them, as he told us, "all we want is a chance. Just treat us as half a citizen with just half the rights others are afforded so we can at least show we can contribute".
As we drove up to the MercyCorps office in Gaza, the sky opened up and we all were afforded a panoramic view of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea just a few hundred yards away. I love the ocean and wanted to go dip my toes in it after a very hot, dusty ride. "Yes, it is beautiful, but it's very cold right now and you wouldn't want to go swimming in it, you could be shot. It's heavily patrolled to blockade any entrance to Gaza by the sea". I looked up and saw the drone flying over all our heads, a Goodyear-like looking silent machine, with the watchful eye flying several thousand feet above Gaza, filming everything as it moved slowly across the sky.
We then walked inside the office, where we sat down in a roomful of excited high school and university students, so happy to see us, welcome us to their community, feed us great falafal and hummus and wanting to know more about Ryan and Catherine and Raisa and everyone else they were talking with on-line and wondering what these US students REALLY thought about them...
"So, Greg, what are your first impressions of Gaza?", she said........