My day started early in the morning with a surprising phone call from Rev. Alex. "Mabrook!" he said, which means "congratulations!". "The Choir got permission to sing in Gaza." What a way to start a day. We had already given up on this permission issue. We applied two weeks ago, and waited and waited. We did not really think that we will get it. Palestinians getting a permission to Gaza is something unheard of. The Israeli authorities kept telling us "no answer yet!" We called yesterday evening and still had no answer. So it was a complete surprise!
It is really unfortunate and a shame that we have to apply for a permission to visit the other side of our country. Israel controls who gets in and out. It is NOT a matter of security. It is occupation and control. It is ironic that we get these permissions to go to Jerusalem, and now Gaza, because of the holiday season. As if we are no longer dangerous or a threat to the security of Israel! And after Christmas we will go back to being a threat and are no longer allowed in.
Anyways, we went to Beit El Military base, got the permissions, and realized that choir members who hold Jerusalem ID or Israeli Passport were not issued a permission. It cannot be perfect really! They have to ruin it for us. One of those members, Wael, is actually from Gaza! His father is from Gaza and his mother is from Nazareth. He grew up in Gaza and came to Bethlehem only 5 years ago with his parents who left Gaza as well. Now they are not allowed to even come and visit their relatives!
After many phone calls and lots of last minutes preparations we left to Erez crossing at about 1:15 pm and got there at 3:15. Crossing to Gaza was surprisingly easy. We were not even searched. They just checked our IDs and permits. After Erez, we had to walk about 2 km until we got to the Palestinian side, where we had to go through a "Hamas" checkpoint. They took our names, searched our bags, greeted us kindly, and we were in!
My first impression driving through Gaza is that this place is crowded and poor. It was getting dark, and the driver told us that every day the electricity is cut off for 8 hours to save energy. Everyone has generators and so they are simply used to it. As we got closer to city center the streets got wider and better. You could see the affects of the war in many buildings and walls. All the walls are painted for slogans celebrating Hamas and the resistance. The city center is full of life. People walking in the streets and it seemed very safe. The driver assured us that it is very safe in Gaza. He said that whether you like Hamas or not, one thing for sure: they made Gaza safer!
Our hotel is called Marna House. It is in the middle of Gaza. It is a very small and cozy guest house. We had fish for dinner in a nice restaurant with members from the Baptist church in Gaza. After that we walked in the streets and even went shopping in a small mall. We are now back in the hotel, but I know that some members will not resist the nice coffee shop next to the hotel and will go there.
I am so happy and grateful for this opportunity. I am already in love with this place. I also appreciate the people I met today from the church. They are overwhelmed with joy that we came to visit them and I am so excited about tomorrow and I pray it will a special time. We hope that God will use us to encourage the Christian community here and bring the peace and joy of Christmas to this place. I know that life is not easy here. But I know that it is in the middle of darkness that light will shine the brightest!
Merry Christmas from Gaza!