Outsiders, including Israelis, try to make a difference individually
The Gaza Strip was once home to 41 libraries. Now there are fewer than 20.
During the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, writer Mosab Abu Toha’s home was partially destroyed, along with most of his beloved books. He went to his university library in search of something to read and found that its collection was badly damaged as well. Immediately after the conflict ended, he started collecting English-language books for what would become the first library of its kind in Gaza.
“I wanted to start a library that all could go to and benefit from,” Abu Toha told The Media Line.
“[People] can’t leave Gaza to study at university. English-language books help them compensate for this gap. It helps us keep up with information,” he said.
Despite having never left the Palestinian enclave, Abu Toha has friends from all over the world through Facebook. He found a community online as an English-language writer and asked its members to send him books. Three years ago, he set up an online platform to collect funds. Today, his library has approximately 3,000 volumes, two-thirds of which are in English.
He receives the books through the Erez border crossing, which separates the Gaza Strip from Israel. Hamas’s Ministry of Information Technology checks the content at the border before a delivery service picks them up.
Abu Toha has a 1986 Encyclopedia Britannica and adds that one of the biggest challenges his library faces is keeping up to date. He tries to achieve this through a non-fiction and fiction request list that includes Pulitzer Prize winners.
Lauri Donahue, a Jerusalem-based lawyer and screenwriter who created the Gaza BookLift Facebook page, wants to help libraries like Abu Toha’s. She is part of a growing effort by Israeli individuals trying to get books to the Gaza Strip.
The American Colony Bookstore in East Jerusalem became one of the places where people can order books for Gaza’s libraries after owner Mahmoud Muna started receiving customer requests to help. People either buy books that the libraries have asked for or purchase books that they personally have enjoyed and think Gazans would also like.
“They want to give people under siege access to novels to help them get through the conditions they live under,” Muna told The Media Line. “We are passionate about books. We saw a need and something useful we could do about it – which is something everyone should do.”
Donahue was inspired to join the effort after reading a tweet by Lexi Alexander, a champion karate fighter and movie and TV director who is of Palestinian descent. Alexander had asked people to donate books to a teacher friend in Gaza. Having been part of Book Lift, an operation established by Lawyers for World Security to bring law books to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, Donahue felt she had the experience to assist.
She boxes books from her personal collection or which she obtains from other sources, and brings them to a Jerusalem bookstore whose owner requested that the name of the business not be mentioned. There, they await pickup by people such as aid workers who are going to the Gaza Strip. These people then bring the books to various locations to ensure delivery.
Donahue’s first boxes were delivered in January after a delay of several months while the bookstore owner waited for someone who was Gaza-bound. They eventually reached three different libraries, including those at two schools.
Transportation apparently is the biggest obstacle.
“I knew that collecting books would be the easy part,” Donahue told The Media Line. “Actually getting them into Gaza would be the difficult part.”
Books cannot be sent by mail from Israel to the Gaza Strip due to the political situation, and the Israeli army occasionally closes the two border-crossing points. Furthermore, Hamas must scrutinize the books and can make things difficult if its officials see that the shipment is from Israelis.
Donahue didn’t realize there would be an issue until after packing her first batch of books in boxes procured in Israel.
“It didn’t initially occur to me that the Hebrew labels would be problematic until I received a call asking me to cover up them up,” she said.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at a standstill, Donahue views her BookLift program as an opportunity to alleviate some of the suffering in the Gaza Strip and encourage a more harmonious relationship between Palestinians and Israelis.
“Obviously,” she observes, “there are things they need more. I can’t solve those problems, but I can ship books.”
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)