|Young Gaza footballers in Galway in 2016.|
They feel as though the wider world has forgotten about them.
They live in what has been described as the world’s biggest open-air prison camp, 1.8 million of them crammed into a tiny strip of just 140 square miles, and they want the world to remember that they exist – and that they are finding it almost impossible to breathe.
For 11 years now, they have been blocked into an area which is smaller than County Louth by fences, bullets, and occasional bombs.
Travel is an impossible dream for most of them, a life-saving hospital visit can become a logistical nightmare, and even the fishermen risk being murdered if they dare to venture just a few miles offshore.
Gaza is a humanitarian catastrophe in the making and yet when the local people protest, as they have done in their thousands over the past three weeks, they are demonised, dehumanised, and gunned down.
Shot at by snipers located behind a fortified fence, murdered, or hospitalised, for daring just to protest, even if they are unarmed.
If it happened closer to home, there would be an international outrage. The perpetrators would be hauled before the International Criminal Court for shooting unarmed protesters but, in Gaza, life just goes on.
Irish people can relate to the slaughter surrounding the Great Return March because the shooting of protesters at the border fence has been described as Gaza’s ‘Bloody Sunday’, the terrible day in Derry when the murder of 14 people by occupying soldiers traumatised a city and prolonged a terrible conflict for decades.
The Great Return March is a desperate plea by a desperate people to be heard, it’s also a courageous declaration that refugees who were run out of their homes and villages have a right to freedom, a right to return, and to forge out some sort of a life for themselves.
The vast majority of those crammed in behind the fence in Gaza are refugees from what is now the south of Israel. Some of them even have the keys of the houses their family members fled in terror seven decades ago.
|An old Palestinian man holds the keys to|
his former family home in what is now Israel
The Gaza Strip was designated as a place to imprison them after they were forced to flee their homes. Israeli soldiers and ‘settlers’ may have withdrawn from the tiny enclave 11 years ago, but every movement in and out of the strip by land, air, or sea is controlled by Egypt and Israel.
If you need life-changing treatment in Israel, you face harassment and humiliation at the Erez crossing, if you are even allowed through at all. You might have family members just a few miles away in Jerusalem or the West Bank, but visiting them has become an impossible dream.
And yet the tendency among many members of the Western media is to demonise and dehumanise these people who are crying out for some sort of a shot at having normal lives.
When unarmed protesters are shot by armed snipers, and hundreds end up in hospitals, the shootings are described as “clashes” as though they were some sort of exchange between equals.
In the first three weeks of the Great Return March, 34 people were killed and at least 1,500 were injured, rushed to hospitals which are already struggling to cope in the face of the 11 year siege.
In Gaza, life is anything but normal.
When the talented young footballers from a soccer academy in Gaza came to Ireland in 2016, the complications surrounding the trip brought home to Irish people just how horrible life is for ordinary Palestinians on the strip.
The trip was delayed by three weeks, forcing a raft of cancellations of flights, accommodations, and games. The Israeli authorities decided at the last minute that the boys and their mentors from the Al-Helal academy were not allowed out of Gaza.
Irish activists, who had been planning the trip for three years, were crushed. A lot of organisation had gone into sourcing host families, clubs to play ‘friendly’ matches, and a schedule which would allow them to make the most of their ten days in Ireland.
Then, suddenly, almost three weeks after the trip was called off, the Israeli authorities allowed 14 of the 15 boys on the squad to travel, along with two of the seven adults who were supposed to accompany them to Ireland.
The only talented young footballer who was refused permission to travel, Karam Zaidan, was badly injured when Israel bombed Gaza in 2009.
The only reason anyone could come up with for his omission from the squad was concern among the Israeli authorities that his visible facial injuries would upset Irish people or cause them to ask too many questions.
Only two of the seven adults who were supposed to travel were allowed through the militarized Erez checkpoint which blocks Palestinians in Gaza off from the international airport at Tel Aviv and any connection with the outside world.
The two adults who did travel with the boys were visibly stressed by the trials and tribulations of having to look after the youngsters whose lives have been scarred by bombing attacks and the deprivation caused by the relentless 11 year siege.
No explanation was given when exit permits were denied to five of the coaches and child psychologists from the academy, which attracts the best young footballers from throughout Gaza.
And yet the boys represented Gaza, and Palestine, with so much pride. They won all six games on their Irish tour, outplaying Irish boys of the same age who were in some cases twice their size.
|The Al-Helal boys represented Palestine with such pride|
Photo courtesy of John Kelly, Co Clare
Footballers in Gaza are subjected to controls and restrictions which would be unthinkable to their counterparts in any country in Europe.
They are regularly harassed at checkpoints, prevented from travelling, and forced to cancel games. The Al-Helal ground in northern Gaza, where the boys play their home games, was bombed by Israel in 2012 and again in 2014.
And yet the children from Gaza have delighted Irish people when they were allowed to visit Ireland over the past two summers.
Those of us who met the boys were struck by how serious and proud they were about representing Palestine, how courteous they were to their hosts, and how keen they were to present a positive image to the world.
The children appreciated the trips all the more because they were acutely aware of how rare it is for a team from Gaza to represent the enclave in any part of the world.
Children in Gaza are among the most traumatised in the world. Many of the Al-Helal boys were emotionally scarred by the 2014 Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip, in which more than 2,250 Palestinians, including 551 children, were killed.
Although the world has quickly moved on from that atrocity, most of us can remember the image of the four little boys playing on a beach – aged nine to 11 – who were killed by an Israeli missile that year.
Innocence and all hope for the future are lost when the simple act of playing hide ‘n’ seek on a beach is punishable by death.
And yet, repeatedly, we hear that the people of Gaza deserve their terrible fate, that they must be punished for voting for the appalling ‘terrorists’ of Hamas.
Two days after 30 unarmed people, including a journalist, were shot dead by his troops the Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there were “no innocent people” in the entire Gaza strip.
“There are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip,” Lieberman told Israel’s public radio. “Everyone’s connected to Hamas, everyone gets a salary from Hamas, and all the activists trying to challenge us and breach the border are Hamas military wing activists.”
Presumably, his comments include even the little 10 to 14 year old boys – much smaller and yet more skilful than their Irish counterparts – who captured the hearts and minds of Irish people with their skills, dignity, and innocence over the past two summers.
So when Dublin City Council votes to support the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, to pressurise Israel to end the occupation and obey international law, the councillors are not being racist or prejudiced.
They are supporting a people who are living under a horrible occupation.
When Galway City Council votes to call on the Irish Government to recognise the state of Palestine, they are not neglecting their duties to the people of their own city. Rather, they are trying to give a tiny glimmer of hope to desperate people living under occupation who are inspired by Ireland’s own struggle for self-determination.
The people of Gaza only want to remind us that they exist and, like everyone else, they are entitled to some sort of a decent life.
· The gifted young footballers from the Al-Helal Football Academy are due to return to Ireland from July 28 to August. To find out more, to raise funds or awareness for the trip, or to help out in any way you can find details at http://gazaactionireland.weebly.com/gaza-kids-to-ireland-2017.html
Thanks to Sean Ryan, John Kelly (Clare), and Andrew Downes (Xposure.ie) for the photos.
Thanks to Sean Ryan, John Kelly (Clare), and Andrew Downes (Xposure.ie) for the photos.
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook at http;//facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia/
|Marching in solidarity with the people of Gaza|
on the streets of Galway. Photo by Ciaran Tierney.