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7 December 2012

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Irish in Gaza: Caitríona Ruane MLA writes: ‘No one can stop change’

Caitríona at the family candlelight vigil

'The children of Gaza live each moment as only children can. I stood in front of a class of children and the tears came . . .'

CAITRÍONA RUANE MLA has just returned from a five-day fact finding visit to Gaza with other elected representatives from throughout Europe, including fellow Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan and Colum Eastwood MLA of the SDLP.

There was also a solidarity delegation from Ireland led by Derry Friends of Palestine who attended some of the same meetings.

Caitríona wrote this piece specially for An Phoblacht about her brief experience in what has been dubbed “the world’s largest open-air prison”.

 No one can stop change

THE FIRST pictures of Palestinian children I saw were at the Egyptian border crossing to Gaza.

We had been travelling for nearly two days by land and air. We had just crossed the Sinai desert, escorted by an Egyptian Army tank.

We arrived in Rafah and a delegation from the Gaza Government met with us. They showed us the pictures of the children who had been killed in the most recent bombing. I lost count of the number of children – so many children. I did not know how to feel. My mind shut down. There are no words to describe the pictures.

That evening we went to a vigil at the ruins of the home of the Al Dalu family. They had lost 13 members of their family. I arrived not knowing what to expect. The children were carefully holding the candles.

They had little English; I knew one phrase of Arabic – “Thank you.” We communicated as human beings do in that situation with our eyes and our smiles and the few words we knew. They were so beautiful: big brown eyes, lovely smiles. They mimicked my words and we laughed some more. Their parents laughed. I realised then that I had come expecting despair – I had forgotten that children bring hope and love and future. I thought of my children and grandchild and loved them in that rubble in Gaza.

The next day our delegation went from meeting to meeting.

We visited the destroyed buildings: Abu Khadra Civil Services Compound, Al Jazeera Club, the Al Shifa Hospital. Our hosts were very kind. We ate strawberries and drank mango juice amidst the rubble. At the bombed Al Yarmouk Football Stadium, some of our delegation pulled out a Celtic scarf and suddenly we were playing a game of football.

We met with Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in the Palestinian Authority Parliament and got a booklet of all the elected members, including those who are in Israeli jails. It was so like Ireland in 1918-19.

We then had very thoughtful presentations from the NGOs on the scarcity of water, lack of sanitation, and the impact of the ongoing conflict on physical and mental health.

On day three we had a morning with the United Nations and a frank discussion on the current situation in the Occupied Territories and their international obligations. There were questions that they had no answers to – and they did not pretend to have the answers. They are caught in a bigger game where there is a failure of political leadership in Europe, North America and Israel.

The UN are building schools, houses, health clinics and providing emergency food rations in an area where Israel controls what comes in and out of Gaza. They openly admit they are unable to provide the protection remit that they are mandated to – they spoke of fishermen and farmers being shot at by the Israelis and they are aware that the Israeli state is breaking the most recent ceasefire.

We visited the refugee camp food distribution centre. There are eight refugee camps with thousands of refugees.

We sat in one of the new schools that was bombed. It was hard to hear because the glass was broken and outside noise intruded. I thought of the thousands of hours’ work it took the UN to get the materials in, design and build those schools and then in one night of Israeli bombing pure destruction. They knew what they were destroying because the United Nations had to give them the GPS location details of any building before it gets approval by Israel for building.

We visited the children in a neighbouring school. The noise in the playground was great: Hundreds of bubbly, bright, beautiful children shaking our hands. “Welcome to Gaza . . . My name is . . .” It was good to feel the sense of hope again. The adults are worn down by it all. They feel so powerless but the children live each moment as only children can. I stood in front of a class of children and the tears came. I pushed them back. My tears are no good to them.

We left Gaza at 2pm and headed into the Sinai desert again. As we crossed part of that vast desert, word came through that Belfast City Council had voted to remove the Union flag except on designated days. I thought of the Palestinian children and smiled to myself – no one can stop change.

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