Aijaz Zaka Syed: The Great Escape from Gaza

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

MR Gorbachev, tear this wall down.” Visiting West Berlin and the Wall that separated the West and East Germany, and the West from the Eastern bloc, US president Ronald Reagan looked eastwards and threw that famous challenge at Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader.

Of course, it was another two years before Reagan’s vision became a reality. But the Berlin wall did come down on November 11, 1989. And with it came tumbling down the mighty Soviet empire and the entire socialist bloc.

Watching the Palestinians trample the Gaza border wall at Rafah crossing this week, I was reminded of Reagan’s historic words.

No wall is high enough to imprison a free people. As a breathless Jacky Rowland of Al Jazeera, standing over the remains of the corrugated metal wall that the Rafah crossing was, put it, if Gaza was the biggest prison on the planet, this was undoubtedly the biggest prison break in history.

In less than an hour, hundreds of thousands of besieged and starving Palestinians had fled this prison to flood into Egypt. Men and women, young and old streamed into Egypt for freedom. And for more mundane things. As English classical poet Richard Lovelace warned: Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; You cannot imprison a whole nation. Especially a people as free-spirited and irrepressible as the Palestinians. Even if the oppressor happens to be the most ruthless and racist regime on the planet. You cannot arrest a people’s fierce desire to remain free, even if you happen to have the most fearsome weapons the Man has known at your disposal.

The sheer joy and boundless delight of ordinary Palestinians on breaking out of the prison that Gaza has been for years was exhilarating and infectious even to distant spectators like us.

The tidal wave of humanity stampeded towards Egypt from across the Gaza Strip, almost emptying the northern cities of taxis, as news of the breach spread by radio, television and word of mouth.

The United Nations estimates that nearly 350,000 people, a quarter of Gaza’s population, may have crossed the border by afternoon on day one of the border collapse. And all Palestinians did was buy, buy and buy with whatever they had! It was easily the biggest shopping spree in shortest time in history.

The grown ups went about picking up essentials like fuel, flour and groceries, broadly smiling and enjoying themselves as if they were indulging themselves on high street fashion accessories and luxuries. Children were having a great time too, just being themselves.

I wish every one of us could listen to those peels of laughter and shrieks of utter, helpless joy on this rare freedom to chill out with their elders without worrying about regulation Israeli rocket and tanks.

And if you happened to watch that rare spectacle at Rafah crossing this week, you would know what a great crime it is to enslave those free-spirited souls; making them prisoners in their own land.

While those checkpoints at every possible strategic location on Israeli side don’t let them get out of this narrow strip of land, the Rafah crossing along the border with Egypt is the only access to outside world. But Egypt keeps it shut. Why? Because Egypt’s friend and ally Israel says so.

As a result, nearly two million people cooped in a narrow territory are literally fighting for things that we all take for granted; essentials like food, water, electricity, fuel and medicines etc.

Israel switches off Gaza’s power and water supply, just as it has over the past week, whenever it pleases. The same water, electricity and gas it buys and steals from Arab neighbours like Jordan and Egypt. Who gives a damn if critical patients in ICU and babies in incubators are vitally dependent on uninterrupted supply of electricity? This is besides the regulation air strikes and attacks that the Palestinians are subjected to almost on a daily basis. A friend this week e-mailed pictures of such a campaign. Mutilated bodies of children, blown up homes and charred remains of cars interspersed with human body parts. My anguished friend asked: "Is this justifiable?" Apparently yes. Israel, the US tells us, has the right to ‘defend’ itself. The Middle East’s most powerful military with a nuclear arsenal has to defend itself by targeting a defenceless population including helpless women and children.

Who knows how many innocents may have died as a result of Israel’s long siege of Gaza? Who cares? The civilized world — if there’s such a thing as the civilized world — doesn’t.

Even those token, whimpering protests that the so-called international community used to register by way of that wonderfully ineffectual angel called United Nations aren’t heard any more.

Truth is, we have all become used to the endless, perpetual tragedy that the wretched existence of the Palestinians is.

Even hopeless idealists like us — who pretend to care for vague and ephemeral things like human rights, freedom and justice etc. — have grown weary of going on and on about the woes of the Palestinian people.

But just imagine the predicament of those who are condemned to living under the world’s most oppressive occupation forever. In fact, the life in occupied territories is worse than a life behind the bars. For in a typical prison, you are at least assured regular supply of food, water and electricity. Besides, you are set free after you serve your sentence.

But in the gulag called Palestine, the inmates have no way of knowing when and if their sentence will ever end.

What is their crime? Being born in the land that the Zionists have usurped and stolen from their parents and great grand parents? Looking at those young children at Rafah crossing, who are as innocent and sweet as your kids and mine, I wonder what have they done to deserve this? What’s their sin? They are so young, they don’t even know what sin is.

The only crime they can be accused of is being born to Palestinian parents and in the land that is sacred to three great religions and their followers. Is that a sin, being born a Palestinian, Mr Olmert and Mr Bush?

Ironically, instead of being ashamed of what their Israeli friends have been doing to a helpless, besieged people, the US says it is CONCERNED over the Gaza wall break. Concerned over what, Ms Rice? The liberation of a people from the clutches of tyranny? I wonder what America’s founding fathers would have said on this interesting reaction by Condi Rice, someone whose own people had to fight long and hard for their freedom. But anyone watching the Palestinians make their freedom run to Egypt, trampling the dismantled 40ft high barrier as if it were a broken concertina, would know that you cannot enchain a people as independent as this forever. Freedom may take its own sweet time coming. But come it will, come it will. As Richard Lovelace promised: If I have freedom in my love, And in my soul am free, Angels alone that soar above Enjoy such liberty Don’t let your hopes die, comrades. Everyone who loves freedom is with the Palestinians. The world is with you.

-Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor and columnist of Khaleej Times. Write to him at

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