Palestinian artist Samah Saed, decorates a protective face mask to encourage people to wear them as a precaution against the coronavirus, at a workshop in the Shijaiyah neighborhood of Gaza, Thursday, April 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Note: This was written on before any cases were identified in Gaza. Now there are 17 known cases posing a threat of an uncontrollable outbreak among people who live very close together and lack many basic resources.

by Mosab Abu Toha, Founder of the Edward Said Library in Gaza
Originally published by Arrowsmith Press

It is notoriously difficult to leave Gaza. Its citizens live in a permanent state of semi-quarantine. Occasionally a few do break through to the so-called “free world” but what follows is not always what they had hoped for.

Mohammad Abu Shamla, 25, was born in Nuseirat Refugee Camp in Gaza. He died in April of last year while being chased through Izmir by the Turkish police for overstaying his tourist visa. He fell off a balcony on the fourth floor of a hotel.

Like many young Gazans, Mohammad left home in the hope of finding a better situation. He was planning to migrate to Greece by sea.

Tamer Al-Sultan, a 38-year-old pharmacist and a neighbor of mine, owned a pharmacy in the north of Gaza. “But he was forced to sell it because the economic situation has deteriorated,” his wife Marwa said. “He decided to emigrate and find a job outside Gaza.” In March 2019, Tamer was arrested by the Gazan police for taking part in protests against electricity shortages. He left Gaza a month after his release from prison. Selling his wife’s gold, Tamer paid $1,500 (USD) to get out. He hoped to have his wife and children join him once he was settled in a new country.

He traveled to Greece via Turkey. From there, he embarked on his circuitous journey north, evading border patrols, making his way through Albania and Serbia, mainly on foot. Belgium was his destination. While walking through a Bosnian forest, Tamer injured his arm. Because the wound went untended, he developed an infection. Five days later, Tamer died, leaving behind two boys, one girl, and a wife pregnant with their fourth child.

Before leaving, Tamer planted a grapevine. He requested that his children protect it until he returned. The new baby (also named Tamer) joined the swelling ranks of Palestinian children born while their fathers were either killed or imprisoned.

A few Gazan youths have managed to get out via the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Egypt. To secure a comparatively easier journey, and to expedite the process of leaving, some people have to pay a few hundred dollars as tanseeq “coordination fees”: a Gazan agent is paid a kind of bribe to coordinate with Egyptian intelligence officers. In my case, I paid $1,200 (USD) — the equivalent of three months’ salary for an average Gazan civil worker. Others, including my two brothers, have paid more than $2,500 each.

Most people in Gaza are stuck and have been under siege by Israel since 2007. Only patients requiring medical treatment in the West Bank or Israel are permitted to leave through the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel.

With the outbreak of the Coronavirus crisis, most countries in the world have closed down their airports, and many cities, like New York, have announced a curfew to curb the pandemic. In Gaza, there are no airports. People didn’t have to cancel their trips to other states or countries. No one missed a conference or got stuck far from home. The siege has finally revealed its perk: No tourists come to Gaza, thereby reducing the likelihood of the virus crossing the border.

Last September, I left Gaza with my wife and two children, for the first time. It was our first time boarding a plane, our first time meeting people from different nationalities, and our first time breathing air undisturbed by the sound of Israeli drones or warplanes hovering overhead, threatening to rain bombs on houses and open land.

Arriving in the United States in October felt liberating. One can wander this big country and meet people from diverse backgrounds, speaking in a variety of accents. One can give a talk, read poetry, and meet over tea with new friends.

Thirty years ago, the Israeli Army imposed curfews in occupied Gaza. Israeli soldiers arrested people with impunity — as they still do in the West Bank.

In Gaza, the only way I could meet people from outside was via the internet. I used Facebook, Skype and Whatsapp to video chat. When the coronavirus broke out in the U.S. and travel restrictions for most Europe and later within the US were announced, I found it easy to adapt. Enforced social distancing and isolation are something my family and I have endured most of our lives.

I see how the new reality is affecting my American friends here, how their plans have changed, and how they’re suddenly forced to socialize virtually. Their new reality has been the norm for all Gazans for a long time, except that in Gaza the internet runs at a snail’s pace, with electricity available for only eight and sometimes four hours a day.

It feels ironic when my mother in Gaza began checking on me and my family in the U.S. to make sure we were safe. A few days ago, she called me at 10PM Eastern Time, 5 AM Gaza time. Seeing her name on my cell phone, I feared something bad had happened. My mother never called that early. I felt relieved when she said, “The internet was bad yesterday and I couldn’t call you. How have you, Maram, and the kids been? Please do not go out. Stay at home.”

I look forward to the end of this siege, and the other as well. For everyone’s sake. No one should have to suffer in order to understand what suffering is.