Lights of Hope Come to Gaza's al-Shati Refugee Camp

Mohammed Arafat, We Are Not Numbers

Recently, a friend guided me to a refugee camp in western Gaza by the beach, called the al-Shati Camp. The camp, whose residents include 84,000 Palestinian refugees forced by the Israelis to leave their homes in 1949, is the oldest and largest camp in the Strip.  

The narrow streets were crowded with joyful kids playing traditional games, such as marbles and jump rope. Their laughter filled the air.

We entered a narrow alley, where sewage flowed from homes on both sides. Watching kids play in this unhealthy environment filled me with pangs of anxiety.

Jaber Musa with his solar light

Jaber Musa with his solar light

Then I heard a shout from the man I had come to visit, Jaber Musa, 67. He sat at the entrance of house, side by side with a younger man who looked like him. Standing up to welcome me, Musa and the other man, who I came to know was his younger brother, shook my hands and invited me to enter their house.

Inside, the house looked old and dusty. Some kids played with a cat in the hallway. Jaber’s brother asked them to play somewhere else because they were so noisy. We sat in the living room, where we were served cups of unsweetened Arabic coffee.

“This is not my home! I used to have the biggest and most beautiful home in this area,” Jaber was quick to tell me. “This is my brother’s home. Mine was right behind us.”

He went on to explain: His family was forced to leave Gaza’s Bayt Jirja village following what Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe, or the creation of Israel). Israeli settlers moved in and they were pushed out. The experience transformed Musa into an activist for the Palestinian cause.

As a consequence, Jaber was arrested by Israeli forces and sentenced to eight years in prison.

“During my stay in the jail, they tortured me by hitting me repeatedly with heavy shoes made of rubber,” he recalled with a shudder. “They hit me on the back of the head, which made me lose most of my sight.”

Entrance to Jaber Musa's home, which he rebuilt when he was released from jail after serving an eight year sentence for his work as a Palestinian activist.

Entrance to Jaber Musa's home, which he rebuilt when he was released from jail after serving an eight year sentence for his work as a Palestinian activist.

Due to damage to one of his retinas, he lost 90 percent of his vision. But the worst was yet to come. When Jaber finally was released and returned to his camp, his home had been demolished one day after his arrest. Nevertheless, he rebuilt his home, married and had eight children—four sons and four daughters.

“My life was stable until 2003, when the U.S. army invaded Iraq and killed its president, Saddam Hussain. That moment was a turning point,” he sighed.

Saddam Hussain was head of the Arab Liberation Front (ALF), a minor Palestinian political party in which Musa was active. Under Hussein, Iraq had been the main financial supporter for the ALF, and when he was killed, Musa stopped receiving his salary. He was forced to his spacious home and rent a much smaller, cramped one instead. Today, he barely scrapes by on a small pension from the Palestinian Authority, an ALF partner.

“[Later,] my wife was diagnosed with colon cancer; I tried to send her to Ramallah to get the treatment she needed, but she could not get an exit permit from the Israeli authorities,” he said, adding that his wife, Fuaz, refused to complete the application process because the border personnel tried to interrogate her. Often, Israelis try to scare Palestinians into agreeing to spy on their neighbors during interrogations.

Fuaz Musa remains alive, thankfully, although unstable.

 Abruptly, Jaber announced that he wanted to change the subject to a happier topic: the assistance he received recently, thanks to American NGO Rebuilding Alliance. He lifted up a small solar light.

“The value of this light is priceless to me! It’s like a gift from God, since my vision is worse when the electricity is off and it’s dark,” he explained. “And unlike candles, they aren’t dangerous.”

Due to a severe shortage of fuel and the inability of Gaza’s sole power plant to operate at full capacity, the Strip’s 2 million inhabitants currently live with only three hours or so of electricity per day. In 2016, a house burned down and three children were killed when a lit candle was knocked over.  

Jaber said that in addition to saving lives, the lights carried around like Ramadan lanterns by children, putting smiles on their faces. Ramadan is a major Muslim holiday.

“I know the organization that sent in the lights is American,” he said, when asked if he knew where the “Lights of Hope” came from. “I love American people since so many have always stood with Palestine. What [U.S. President] Trump is doing does not necessarily represent the intensions of the American people. We thank Americans and we thank the organization that donated the lights.”

Asked about his message to the world, Jaber said more people everywhere need to know what's going on in Gaza. "We encourage people to try to understand our suffering and to urge the responsible ones to seek a solution."