by Julie Webb-Pullman
Red! Yellow! Orange! Purple! Blue! Not just colours of the rainbow, but also the vibrant flora and fauna on display in Gaza City for the past week in the spring festival at Al Jundy square.
Birds met rabbits met fish met monkeys – creatures from the four corners of the world displayed in a celebration of life surrounded by an only slightly less-diverse selection of trees, plants, succulents, and flowers.
Day and night Palestinians have thronged the square to gaze upon things they could never otherwise hope to see from their besieged open-air prison.
Australian budgerigars, a vervet monkey from Africa, finches from Asia and Europe, fish from warm currents further than a mile from the shore drawing the children here and there in lively fascination.
The lush greenery and bursts of colour surrounding the wildlife might even deceive the casual observer into believing that yes, life in Gaza is ‘normal’ – plants grow, birds sing, flowers bloom, fish are plentiful.
The stall-holders tell a different story.
“This exhibition is to show that the Gaza environment is fine,” said one, “but these birds are all imported from Israel. Sometimes we can breed them locally, but many die.”
It is a slightly different tale for the flowers – Gaza does have the capacity to grow and export flowers of very high quality, and in fact did so for many years. According to the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) there used to be over 500 dunums of carnations alone planted in the Gaza Strip, but with the imposition of the siege in 2007 when Israel prevented most exports, and with the relentless encroachment of the buffer zone over the intervening years, there are now only around 60 dunums. Thus this economic stalwart for Gaza has been not only thwarted by the siege, but is now being rubbed in their faces by imports of Israeli flowers into Gaza.
Few are fooled – most Gazans are aware that the vast majority of exhibits at the spring festival are from Israel – with a few exceptions. Many trees and shrubs were local, and most were produced by family businesses of many generations’ standing.
One flower-grower said his family is only producing for the local market, and they provide the floral arrangements for most of the local hotels, weddings, and public events. Their persistence is paying off – his flowers were being bought, while the others wilted.
Not everyone could buy, however – most could only look, and enjoy.
“I am not buying anything,” a mother with several children said, “we are just looking. Everything is nice, the birds are the best.”
Whatever the politics, whatever the Israeli intent, the Gaza spring festival brought a splash of life and colour, vibrancy and spirit to an otherwise-deadened winter’s end, outshining the Israeli imports with the indomitable Palestinian impulse from birth, towards beauty and freedom.