by Lydia de Leeuw
1 May 2012. Gaza City, Gaza Strip. It is Sunday morning, 18 March, the beginning of a new week. Colleagues trickle into the office, share coffee and stories from the weekend. One of our colleagues arrives looking sad and pale. He has very bad news; his 25-year old nephew Mahmoud1 was admitted to the hospital over the weekend, suffering from complications of a kidney disease. Mahmoud’s condition was critical and he needed to be transferred2 to a hospital outside the Gaza Strip. The Israeli occupation authorities had delayed his transfer to an Israeli hospital from Friday to Sunday, arguing that it did not involve a life threatening situation. As is the rule for all Palestinian patients, only one relative was allowed to accompany Mahmoud on his unpredictable journey to the Israeli hospital, so only his mother, my colleague’s sister, joined her oldest son. All Mahmoud’s father, brothers, and sister could do: pray and wait for news, hoping Mahmoud’s would recover and return to Gaza soon.
That evening my phone rings. It’s my mother; “grandma is very ill. It’s serious this time”. Severe pneumonia has been diagnosed and she is no longer eating or drinking. There isn’t much time to think and I decide reschedule my April holiday, traveling to the Netherlands as soon as possible. The following morning my colleagues do everything to help me travel from the Gaza Strip through Egypt straight away.
While I am packing my stuff and have a quick chat with some colleagues, we get devastating news; Mahmoud didn’t make it through the night. While in a coma he passed away in the hospital in Ashkelon at 8 PM the previous night. The police had forced his mother to leave the hospital at 7 PM because the visiting hours had ended. She didn’t know her son had passed away until the following morning. Mahmoud’s body had already been put inside a body bag in an ambulance when she arrived and she had to wait until arriving in Gaza before being able to see her son’s body.
The injustice and absurd contrast slap me in my face. I am about to fly across two continents to spend valuable time with my 91-year old grandmother, while a father, brothers, sister, other relatives, and friends were not allowed to say their goodbyes to their beloved Mahmoud, who was in a hospital less than one hour drive from his family home. The sole reason for denying them a goodbye; they are Palestinians living in the locked Gaza Strip.
With Mahmoud and my grandmother on my mind I leave Gaza. On the speedy way to Rafah border crossing (with Egypt), Gaza’s life and struggles pass by my car window. First, I see the weekly demonstration in front of the Red Cross office in Gaza City, where protesters hold photos of their relatives who are held in Israeli jails as well as posters of Hana Shalabi, a young prisoner of conscience who has been on hunger strike in protest of her detention in Israel without charges since her violent arrest on 16 February. Then the road takes us past several petrol stations, some empty and abandoned, others crowded with a 500 meter queue leading up to it. The fuel and consequent electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip is still ongoing, leaving most people with only several hours of electricity per day. Just before entering into the Rafah crossing, I pass by a small group of protesters who demand an end to the fuel crisis, chanting and holding banners.3
The following morning I land in Amsterdam and a few hours later I am able to give my grandmother a big hug, 8 months since I last saw her. I am overcome with a feeling of gratitude, being able to embrace my history book, my roots, the mother of my mother, our resilient family tree. While sitting beside grandma my thoughts wander off to Mahmoud’s family.
I imagine Mahmoud’s mother sitting next to her critically ill son, all alone in a strange place, where no face, voice, or word is familiar to her. I imagine Mahmoud’s father, who gave one of his kidneys to his son last year, having to see his son leave in an ambulance, not knowing if he will ever see him again. Occupation authorities tell him he is not allowed to accompany his ill son and his wife to a hospital. No reason, it is simply a rule set by the army that holds a firm lock on the Gaza Strip.
What threat could Mahmoud’s family pose to anyone? Their son was dying in a hospital. Where else would his family members be, other than beside his bed holding his hand, praying, stroking his hear?
Even Kafka would have a mental breakdown if he saw such absurd suffering inflicted by an illegal occupying power. Mahmoud’s family is not the first or last Palestinian family who were denied their right to a goodbye. Every month several dozens of patients from Gaza are transferred to hospitals inside Israel or the West Bank. Not all of them are certain of their return.
In addition to Gaza’s patients, hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been denied family visits for the past 6 years, contrary to international law. Many of their relatives have died since the visits were stopped; no hugs, no last words, no right to a goodbye.
The only possible consolation might be the belief in an afterlife. That and a belief in karma.
Lydia de Leeuw is a freelance journalist based in Gaza City, Gaza Strip.
- His name is different; the family prefers to remain anonymous.
- The severe lack of medical resources in the Gaza Strip, due to the closure and occupation related de-development, more and more patients are forced to seek medical treatment elsewhere.
- The illegal Israeli closure of the Gaza Strip, the international boycott of the Hamas authorities, and the internal Palestinian division (between authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) have led to Hamas’ decision of bringing fuel in from Egypt. In February 2012, the Egyptian authorities put an end to the smuggling of fuel from Egypt into Gaza, which turned the fuel/electricity crisis into a catastrophe for households, hospitals, sanitation facilities and all other aspects of daily life.