When I was a little boy, two of my favourite stories from the New Testament were the Visitation of the Magi (three wise men) and the Flight into Egypt, perhaps because they both involved animals (which I always liked), travel and exotic people and places (which always interested me very much). I suppose my upbringing as the child of a much traveled father, who worked for the Foreign Office, has opened my eyes towards the wider world at a very young age.
In those days our life was much less hectic than it is now, and within the family there were many traditions we kept and observed. For example, there was never ever meat eaten on a Friday, and on Saturdays we always had a vegetable stew. On Saturday morning my mother would bake a cake (which would never be touched before Sunday afternoon), and on Saturday evening the whole family would sit together and play a nice and interesting board game. We did not have a television set then (the first one only arrived in 1966, to follow the Football World Cup) and everything was a lot more gentle and sensible.
Part of the daily life and the traditions was also that the two coldest months of the year - December and January - were very special. They were packed with events and celebrations, culminating of course at Christmas. But there were so many smaller events around Christmas, and all tied in with the great story of Mary, Joseph and their baby Jesus. It started with Mary's journey to her cousin Elizabeth (in early December) and ended with the baby Jesus being "presented in the Temple" (Christians did not use the word circumcised then) on February 2nd.
This was also the day we packed up the family crib and stored it away in the attic, until it would be brought down again on the first day of Advent.
January 6th, Epiphany, was the day when we placed the three wise men inside the stable, after we had put them already on the periphery of the crib landscape, and shortly afterwards we did celebrate the Flight into Egypt (as shown on the Russian icon above), for which my mother would bake special biscuits with almonds and honey. Even though I do no longer observe all these traditions and have not had any of the special foods for many years, at the back of my mind they are still present as distant memories, connected with the winter time.
So when I heard a few days ago that the Palestinian people of Gaza, under blockade by Israel and ignored by the West (for all too obvious political reasons), have demolished elements of the "security barrier" that partitions the Gaza Strip from the Sinai peninsula and started to flock onto Egyptian territory, I was instantly reminded of the biblical Flight into Egypt two thousand years ago.
On foot and bicycle, by donkey cart and pickup truck, tens of thousands of Palestinians stream into northern Egypt, mainly to buy goods no longer available in Gaza, especially in recent days during a complete blockade by Israel, which also shut down the electricity supply for the city.
After some hours most of the Gazans return home again, laden with medicine, food and drinks, soap, cigarettes, petrol, cement and countless other supplies. Even sheep, goats and cattle are brought back to Gaza, as well as household goods, television sets and satellite dishes.
For most of the Palestinians it is only a short trip, as they cross from Rafah in Gaza to Rafah in Egypt. The city has been divided by the border in 1982, when Egypt accepted the return of Sinai from Israel, but declined to take back the Gaza Strip as well. And all the goods and things no longer obtainable in Gaza are freely available in shops on the Egyptian side of the barrier.
The scenes of desperate people, breaking down the border wall in search of freedom and the basic food and goods they need for their survival, also reminded me of a very similar event I witnessed myself in November 1989, when the people of East-Berlin began to demolish the wall that had divided the German capital for more than 28 years.
It is amazing that politicians all around the world never learn the lessons of History. No power, regardless how strong, can divide people if they want to be together, and no wall will ever keep people from following their destiny. At first such barriers have always a negative effect, as they frustrate the people and dampen their political ambitions. But once the dividing line becomes a fact of daily life, something children grow up with and adults learn to hate, it also loses its power as a deterrent. And sooner or later the people will then find the courage to stand up against it and break it down.
For Egypt's political leadership - allied to and strongly influenced by the USA - the recent development in and around Gaza creates a dilemma. “If we prevent Palestinian civilians from crossing and confront them with force, we open ourself to unlimited public scrutiny at home. And if we let the Palestinians through, we face the risk of not knowing who or what is coming in, and also strong criticism from Israel and the United States,” told me a fellow analyst from Cairo.
Egyptian police units, at first attempting to stop the Palestinians and close the barrier again, have meanwhile given up on that idea and decided to do nothing for the time being.
However, the breaching of the barrier at Rafah could well lead to a re-start of the Palestinian peace process. Being no longer isolated and blockaded like a medieval city under siege, Gaza and its people have seen a glimpse of hope and found a way out of their dilemma. It will now depend on the political leaders of Egypt, Israel, the USA and the EU countries (on whose financial donations the Palestinian administration depends heavily for survival) as well as the leadership of the two Palestinian parties - Fatah and Hamaz - to find a practical solution for the Gaza Strip. The people on the ground have shown unmistakably that they are no longer willing to be used as the political football for rival factions and nebulous strategic plans. Short of destroying Gaza and wiping out its population - a deed so dastardly that not even George W. Bush would contemplate it - there is no way back to the situation before last Wednesday and the Gaza Strip will once again be connected to the outside world, one way or another.
Unconnected to the political development, there is another thought that crossed my mind when I began writing this entry. In the New Testament there is only one single reference to The Flight into Egypt, a very short passage in Matthew's Gospel. No other gospel or biblical text mentions it and some scholars even suggest that Matthew made it up, as a reverse reference to Moses, who fled from Egypt into Palestine.
But there is another aspect to it. On ancient maps the name of Gaza is spelled in various ways, including as Naza and Nazarat. As there is absolutely no historical or archaeological evidence for the existence of a town called "Nazareth" in Galilee in ancient times (including the first century CE), it is quite possible that the biblical Flight into Egypt was actually a flight to Gaza, which is in easy reach from Bethlehem. This would give a whole new dimension to the severe suffering the people of the Gaza Strip have to endure in modern times.
The Emerald Islander