I arrived in Cairo at 4.30am. I eventually got to the hotel, to be received by the rest of the delegation. Next morning, we set off in a minibus toward Alexandria and Port Said. Soon we crossed the Suez Canal on the still-named Mubarak peace bridge and headed along the badly maintained dual carriageway towards Rafah and Gaza. Throughout the journey there were numerous checkpoints with a tank on each side of the road.
We reached the Rafah crossing, and were eventually allowed into a massive waiting hall to have our passports stamped to leave Egypt and enter Palestine. We reached Gaza City at about 7pm, after twelve hours on the road.
I woke to the quiet of Gaza, looked out of the window and saw donkey carts carrying rubble. A short distance out to sea Israeli patrol boats keep Palestinian fisherman from going more than 3 km out.
Two minibuses took the group to the Interpal Office for a briefing on their projects by the dedicated staff who are justifiably proud of their achievements. We moved on to the Islamic University whose high standards are impressive, despite bombardments and destruction during Operation Cast Lead. At the Palestine Trauma Centre, we met traumatised children in therapy. More than half of the population of Gaza are suffering from mental trauma from imprisonment and bombardment.
We had an early start to visit some excitable and brilliant students at Gaza Beach Camp School, one of many UNRWA-run schools, beautifully maintained with dedicated and high achieving young students, with ambitions to be scientists, engineers and lawyers. Then we met Scott Anderson, the very determined director of the UN Relief and Works Agency. He informed us that 20% of Gaza’s economy is UN aid. The population is rising 4% a year, with 70% unemployment and a water crisis reaching desperation point in three years. The only bright spot is construction money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to rebuild some of the destruction of Operation Cast Lead.
The final visit of the day was to Al Wafa Hospital, a combination of burns unit and trauma centre and home for isolated elderly who have no other means of family support and have to live in dormitories. It’s a sad thing, looking out of the window, to 400 metres away, at the fence with Israel, with automatic firing machine guns placed on top of it to shoot any farmer who dares venture within 100 metres of the fence.
The Prisons Minister requested to meet me and described the situation of families left behind, when their father is held under Administrative Detention. It gave me a powerful message about the ongoing hunger strike which I brought back to William Hague.
The problems of pollution were brought home to us on visiting a desalination plant funded by Interpal. The Gaza Aquifer is falling by two metres a year. Sea water seeps in, together with raw sewage, making the water dangerous to drink. The still unrepaired sewage works means all of the sewage goes straight into the sea or is pumped into the dry bed of the seasonal rivers waiting for the rains to wash it into the sea — really dangerous to public health.
En route back to our hotel, we stopped to observe a building that had been destroyed by a rocket from an F16 which had apparently gone right through the house, exploding underneath it and killing all ten occupants, children included. We met the traumatised neighbours who described the horror they and many others in Gaza have so often experienced.
The final day involved meeting with the British Consul in Gaza City, who is not allowed to talk to the government of Gaza and informed me that I was wrong: the so-called Middle East Peace Envoy has been to Gaza twice — once for 49 minutes at the Erez crossing and another time to meet businessmen. No one seemed interested in him, or was taking his role seriously.
We ended our visit to Gaza with the most hopeful event of the week, when we saw a former Israeli settlement where all of the buildings had been destroyed by departing settlers, now turned into a cooperative farm producing tomatoes, strawberries and all kinds of salad and seasonable vegetables. Gaza is now self-sufficient in fruit and veg, an amazing achievement in such a short time.