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article imageIn besieged Gaza, first English library to open window to world

By Mai Yaghi (AFP)     Feb 26, 2017 in World

Mossab Abu Toha has never actually left Gaza, instead devouring books as an escape. Now he is struggling to open the first English-language library in the beleaguered Palestinian territory.

"Send us books in English, new or used," says the 24-year-old reading enthusiast on his Facebook page.

Abu Toha, like so many Gazans effectively trapped in the Palestinian enclave by Israeli and Egyptian restrictions, dreams of travelling.

"Freedom begins when one frees one's mind," said the young graduate in English literature from the Islamic University of Gaza, who shares his passion by teaching Shakespeare at a United Nations school.

"I have read dozens of books in English, and with them I can travel to every country in the world and through all periods. I feel like I am in another world."

Israel has maintained a blockade on Gaza for a decade, while the border with Egypt is also largely closed.

Those who manage to take advantage of the rare Egyptian openings never really know when they will be able to return.

In a territory where even the delivery of basic necessities is anything but simple, literature is also a victim of politics.

Since launching their "Library & Bookshop for Gaza" Facebook page in July  Mossab Abo ...
Since launching their "Library & Bookshop for Gaza" Facebook page in July, Mossab Abo Toha (L) and Shafi Salem have collected over 200 books including from US and European donors
MOHAMMED ABED, AFP

"There are few books in English," Abu Toha said, and they "arrive well after their publication because of the blockade".

Even the idea of falling back on electronic versions is problematic.

"The electricity cuts all the time," said Shadi Salem, who is helping Abu Toha set up the project.

Gaza receives only a few hours of power per day due to chronic energy shortages.

- Bombed bookshop -

Since the July launch of their "Library & Bookshop for Gaza" page, which has nearly 2,500 followers, the two friends say they have collected more than 200 books, including from American and European donors, as well as $2,000 (1,890 euros).

But delivery has again been an issue.

For Mossab Abo Toha (L)  like so many Gazans effectively trapped in the Palestinian enclave  reading...
For Mossab Abo Toha (L), like so many Gazans effectively trapped in the Palestinian enclave, reading lets him "travel to every country in the world and through all periods"
MOHAMMED ABED, AFP

For months in 2016, Israel blocked the arrival of parcels into the Gaza Strip because they alleged its Islamist rulers Hamas were using it to send equipment for weapons.

The transfer was restored in December, with Abu Toha announcing joyfully on Facebook: "You can now send your books."

For the time being, the 200 books received and his personal library -- about 400 -- stand on shelves in the family home in Beit Lahia in northern Gaza.

The goal is a thousand more books.

Of all his books he highlighted three from American philosopher Noam Chomsky, who sent them to him personally.

In 2014, the Israeli military launched its third assault on Gaza since Hamas came to power in 2007.

Among the sites hit was the Islamic University, with its English bookshop badly damaged.

"I was shocked: The Israeli army, backed by the West, bombed books in English," recalled the young man who sports a trim black beard.

According to Mohammed al-Sherif of the Hamas-run culture ministry, around 30 libraries were partially or totally destroyed during the three wars.

There are 18 libraries in Gaza, with the vast majority of books Arabic.

"Israel has allowed books to be imported into Gaza for the past year, but political books, for example, are still banned," Sherif said.

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