Al-Muwasi – a forgotten place

Written in January 2005

Al-Muwasi, meaning ‘low-wetlands’, is a strip of land in the southwest of the Gaza strip inhabited by around 12000 people. It stretches from the Egyptian border in Rafah to Khan Yunis, just to the north, and is pinned between the settlement block of Gush Katif and the sea. Any gaps between the sea, settlement and border have been sealed by a combination of a secure wire fence, a concrete wall and military positions. Its like a mini Gaza strip within the Gaza strip or more commonly known as a prison within a prison.
There are two checkpoints, one at each end of the strip, to facilitate exit and entry. The one in Rafah has been permanently closed to all since shortly after the start of the intifada in 2000. The one in Khan Yunis, known as Ta-Fah, opens unpredictably and restricts and delays movement at the best of times. So much so, that when I visited, there was a backlog of people waiting to be ‘processed’ and allowed to return home. I was told the current impasse had been operating for the past 40 days.

On the day of the Palestinian election, I arrived with the British MP Jeremy Corbyn at Ta-Fah checkpoint at 6.45am. Our aim was to access Al-Muwasi in order to monitor the two election centres. Already, around 40 people, mostly huddled around a couple of fires they had made to keep warm, had gathered. They were some 20m away from the checkpoint itself, behind a metal road-gate that was riddled with bullet holes.
The checkpoint itself was heavily fortified and consisted of 5m high concrete barriers, a concrete watchtower built into an earth mound and three camouflaged shooting positions further along the mound. Along from those were three tanks and armoured vehicles fitted with heavy machine guns. More watchtowers could be seen a little further to the north.

Shortly after we arrived, a chauffeur driven car, with ‘EU Observer’ emblazoned all over it, pulled up next to us. The rear window wound down, and the lady in the back condescendingly advised us that we should not approach the checkpoint without prior authorization as the soldiers have been known to shoot at anyone, including diplomats (I presume they missed that time), before winding up the window and driving off.

As we discussed and dismissed her comments, a Palestinian man asked us not to try and gain entry for fear of the consequences to himself and his compatriots. It has been known for Palestinians to suffer reprisals after internationals acting on their behalf have left the area. In this case it could have meant a reduced chance of entry. Although we felt monitoring the elections would not incur this sort of response, we felt had to respect their wishes.
After arguing between themselves for about 15 minutes the man approached us again and said they had discussed the matter and now wanted us to attempt to get in. Feeling like guinea pigs, we approached the checkpoint with a local Palestinian observer, who also wanted to return home, in tow.

Entry was not straight forward, but after one and a half hours and numerous calls between the UN, the IDF liaison officer and ourselves we were granted permission along with the local observer who they mistook for our interpreter – which we found amusing as he didn’t speak a word of English. Leaving behind the 60 plus people now gathered and two lorries laden with supplies, our bodies and bags were scanned before passing through the checkpoint and into another world.

The land in this area sits upon an aquifer making the land very fertile. It is also very close to the Egyptian border and the activities of the Palestinian resistance. This made it an ideal location to build an agriculturally based settlement and military base.
More than 1500 acres of land were razed to provide the space needed, which led to the displacement of 6000 Bedouin living their. Desperate and out of work, some were then employed to build and guard the settlement. However, the indigenous residents of Al Muwasi are banned from bringing in any construction materials to build, either domestically or commercially.

Since Al-Muwasi’s was sealed off many more families have moved out due to the lack of work, travel restrictions and poor standard of life. A UN report stated, population transfer ‘appears to be the objective of military operations, extinguishing all aspects of normal life for Palestinians living near Israeli settlements’.
The main source of work and trade for the residents of Al-Muwasi is farming. Benefiting from the aquifer, the fruits grown there are of a high quality and enjoy a good reputation throughout Israel and Palestine. But the restrictions and delays on movement severely hamper trade causing up to 50% of the produce to be wasted. Alternatively, surplus goods could be sold to Egypt but Israel has control of the border and so the same restrictions apply.
Being on the Mediterranean Sea, fishing could provide another source of food and employment. Unfortunately Al-Muwasi falls just outside the Israeli authorized fishing zone and so fishing is restricted to using small nets from the shore which is of a low yield. Locals said some of their boats have been half buried in sand to ensure they remain unused.

Before the intifada started in 2000, schools were not necessary in this small region, as access to those in Rafah and Khan Yunis was possible on a daily basis. But, since the constant restrictions, children’s education was severely hampered as they were unable to reach their schools or return home. As there was no sign of an imminent improvement in conditions the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) built primary and secondary schools to solve the problem. University students must find accommodation elsewhere to ensure attendance. This can be the difference in whether a students family can afford to support his or her further education.
Similarly there was no hospital, but because of the small population and large expense, it was not feasible to build one. There are two clinics that deal with primary care and routine procedures. In the event of an emergency, whether it be through illness or injury, severe delays are experienced in getting the patient to hospital as the soldiers will not allow immediate passage through the checkpoint. Inevitably this can lead to serious and permanent effects to the patients health. In this place even a dead person needs permission to leave to be buried.

As we departed Al-Muwasi after our mornings monitoring, about 30 people were waiting hopefully to leave. The young men amongst them, potential attackers in the eyes of the soldiers, were made to sit separately on a kerb with guns pointed at them. I asked one man why so many people wanted to leave knowing the difficulty of returning. He pointed out that the restricted flow of goods meant people had to fetch essentials themselves, as well as any other business they had to attend to in person.

When lorries deliver supplies, the goods are checked by the soldiers at the checkpoint before they are transferred by hand to another lorry on the other side for distribution. When they are not allowed to pass, shortages of basics such as flour for bread, medicine for the sick and diesel for the electricity generators increases the suffering. Israel control many of the services in Gaza including electricity, but decided not to supply the residents of Al-Muwasi, hence their reliance on diesel to run generators.

On the other side of the checkpoint we witnessed scenes of chaos. More than 100 people had now gathered in groups, mostly woman and children (reflective of the difficulties and sometimes outright bans faced by young and middle aged men in passing as they are seen as a threat), most of whom had crossed the yellow road-gate that had earlier separated them and the checkpoint.

Three men in their twenties were talking to the soldier in the concrete, turret like, look-out post with their trousers pulled up around their knees and shirts and jumpers around their necks to show they were not strapped with explosives. Meanwhile, the other groups of people waiting were slowly edging closer to the checkpoint. This appeared to be making the soldier nervous and he began to shout and wave them back. We moved away from the close vicinity as an older Palestinian man desperately tried to push them back to ease the tension.

We were told by some of the local men and woman (through an interpreter for two German journalists who had been refused entry) how they had been waiting for up to six days to return home. They would spend 12 hours a day at the checkpoint and on acknowledging defeat would stay at a relative’s house or pay for a hotel before trying again the following day. They said some people are forced to spend the night under a wall-less shelter next to the checkpoint. This would be likely if they had no money to pay for a hotel and there were no relatives to take them in. I thought of the people on the other side waiting patiently to leave and the consequences of their important errands.

Considering the extraordinary lengths the military goes to controlling the people of Al-Muwasi one may wonder what they have done to justify this. Surprisingly I can find no information on any attack being carried out from inside this area. In fact, some of the militants have accused them of being collaborators for this very reason. This leads me to think of the suggestions of population transfer and the annexation of the fertile land and potentially beautiful beach by the settlement.

Remembering the reason I was here, to monitor that the elections were conducted in a fair and free manner, I noted that these Palestinians, entitled to vote at one of the two stations in Al-Muwasi, would be unable to do so without getting through the checkpoint that was closing in three hours. This contravened their rights and the promises made of unhindered movement by the Israeli government. But maybe they had bigger issuers to think of than that of the right to vote.

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