Layla Maghribi & Ashraf Helmi
The National / June 29, 2021
Human rights lawyers lead campaign in which $200,000 has been raised and thousands of books collected.
Thousands of people have donated time, money and books to help rebuild a bookshop in Gaza that was destroyed by Israeli missiles in May.
After a “visceral” reaction to seeing a photo of the bombed site, writer and human rights lawyer Mahvish Rukhsana contacted the shop’s owner, Samir Mansour, with an offer of help.
“It wasn’t just his bookstore. It was the medical bookstore next door and it was multiple bookstores and this whole street called University Avenue,” she told The National at her home, where the rooms are now stacked with donated books.
“Knowledge is a source of empowerment and a means of escape and I felt that, as a book lover myself, this was an easy way for everybody to tangibly feel how these people must have felt. It was such a huge loss.”
Rukhsana requested help to rebuild Mansour’s shop and thousands of books flooded in to several collection points across the world, including London.
“It’s not about race or religion,” said Farah, a volunteer in the UK capital. She said that because people were “taking away the little that these people have, if we can help in any way or form then it’s fantastic”.
The Samir Mansour Bookshop had been running for 21 years and employed 10 people. Up to 90,000 books were destroyed in the air strike during the 11-day conflict that killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel.
Standing amid the rubble that used to be his shop, Mr Mansour told The National he was in complete shock after the attack.
“This has been my life. I established it and built it and in a split second it’s all gone,” he said.
He was only 200 metres from the two-storey shop when he saw the missile hit and his life’s work disappear.
“I felt my soul leave my body when I saw the building come down,” said Mr Mansour, holding a partially shredded book that he salvaged from the rubble.
An important pillar of society in Gaza, Rukhsana was concerned that the bookshop would not be a priority in any post-conflict relief and rebuilding efforts from international organizations.
A 14-year Israeli blockade on Gaza means the import of any raw materials is subject to approval, meaning goods can be limited and expensive.
After getting fellow human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith on board, the organizers set up a GoFundMe page and raised $100,000 within three days.
Thousands of donations later and that figure has passed $200,000. The money will go towards rebuilding the shop as well as establishing a new project – the Gaza Cultural Centre, a library where books are free to borrow.
“Gaza has so little and the people there who want to make something of their lives have so little opportunity,” Mr Stafford Smith told The National. “Here is Samir doing a tremendous service for all the youth and other people in Gaza. It’s just a tragedy and it’s one we’ve got to redress.”
The two are now trying to identify missile fragments in the rubble and hold the manufacturers responsible for the destruction.
“I think these people don’t just need to be held to account, they need to be shamed that they’re making a big profit out of this madness, so that perhaps we can move people to a rather more civilized world,” Mr Stafford Smith said.
Heartened by the widespread generosity, the organizers are now hoping to use the campaign as a way of creating links between people in Gaza and the rest of the world by asking for short messages and email address to be written inside the books donated, “so that the recipient in Gaza … has a contact with the outside [world]”.
“And hopefully those human contacts will make us view the people of Gaza as human beings as opposed to just targets.”
Mansour says the generosity and kindness he witnessed since the bombing has helped him recover and look to the future.
“It really does lift our spirits and helps me to go on when I see people helping me in this way. It pushes me to rebuild and hopefully it will be better and stronger than before,” he said.