Page last updated at 15:49 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 16:49 UK

Israeli woman's return to Gaza

Yael Kahn is an Israeli who moved to London from Tel Aviv in 1991, because she disagreed with Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

Aisha and Yael in Gaza
Yael with Aisha on her first day in Gaza for 17 years

She recently founded the group "Islington friends of Yibna", to help descendants of Palestinians who fled their village of Yibna in 1948 and settled in a refugee camp in Gaza.

When Gaza's border fence with Egypt was pulled down in January this year - she decided to visit Gaza. She explains why - and what she found.

I wanted to go to Gaza because I knew people there through the group I set up and I was concerned about them.

I used to go to Gaza from Tel Aviv quite regularly between 1988 until 1991 - during the first intifada - because I was helping Palestinian women prisoners.

I met some extraordinary, strong women back then. The first woman I helped was someone called Aisha al-Kurd, who was imprisoned while she was pregnant with her fifth child.

Anyway, when I heard the border fence had come down, I thought it was a rare chance to get in to Gaza again.

The wall came down on a Wednesday and by Thursday I was in Cairo. I was travelling on my British passport, I didn't renew my Israeli passport when it expired.

I took a Chiroot [a big shared taxi] to al-Arish in Sinai [about 40km from Gaza].

I was quite inhibited during the trip. I do know a bit of Arabic - but I thought if I speak I might be taken off the bus. There were many road blocks and the Egyptian police removed several people from the bus they didn't want going into Gaza.

When we got off at al-Arish the only other person on the Chiroot who wanted to go on to Rafah in southern Gaza was a young Palestinian guy in his 20s. We spoke for the first time then - which gave him a bit of a shock.

gaza wall
Palestinians cross the border into Egypt, January 2008

He had never met an Israeli before, it was obvious even before he told me.

when he realised why I was going, he was so pleased! He was very protective and adopted me from then on. He didn't even let me pay for our joint taxi to Rafah.

When we arrived, there were thousands of people. It was the first day that cars were allowed out of Gaza and the traffic was choked.

So, we got out of our taxi and walked into Gaza together. We crossed the wall together too. We were going to this place where people had been shut in for so long, and we just walked in. I felt very emotional.

The young Palestinian had family in Gaza City he hadn't seen for five years. He wanted to take me everywhere, but I didn't want to waste his time in Rafah. After much arguing, he eventually agreed to leave me.

Some people seemed to just guess I was Israeli

There I was, on my own in Rafah.

It had changed completely since I was last there in 1991. On the one hand there was a lot of reconstruction, some nice-looking four or five-storey houses. But there was also a lot of destruction.

I got some funny looks as I walked around; I was the only woman with my head uncovered and I was on my own, but people were helpful.

Some people seemed to just guess I was Israeli; they said a few words to me in Hebrew. Mundane things like, "What are you looking for?", nothing loaded.

I don't really know how they could tell, because it's years since I left Israel. It must be something to do with my body language, I don't really know.

I started talking to people. They invited me to their homes with typical Palestinian hospitality, and as I told them about my project it came out that I was Israeli.

It made them more curious.

In the first Palestinian intifada, the Palestinians had some contact with Israelis, but now young people have no contact with Israelis whatsoever. It wasn't as natural as during the first intifada and I could feel there was more apprehension. Nevertheless, they were friendly.

Then I decided to ask about Aisha. I have to say, I had had no contact with her since 1991.

I chose Yibna for my twinning group because I felt my life was built on its ruins

Back then she was in prison to put pressure on her husband who was also in jail - there were never any charges against her.

She actually had her child in hospital and we managed to secure her release straight from there.

So, I mentioned her name, not expecting anyone to know her - and everyone did! She was clearly very famous and very popular.

They took me straight to her mother's house, who recognised me immediately. It was as if I were a lost relative, come back home.

Aisha came over as soon as she heard I was there. It was wonderful to see her again, after 17 years. One of the nicest moments was standing on the wall with her, on the first day.

That's when she told me about her husband - he was assassinated by Israeli forces within a year of being released from prison.

I stayed four days and three nights in Gaza - the first with Aisha, sharing her bed! The rest of the time with people in Yibna refugee camp.

Aisha's family was originally from the Palestinian village of Yibna. I grew up in the same region, in Kfar Mordechai.

I chose Yibna for my twinning group because I felt my life was built on its ruins.

The trip has given the group a big boost, and since I've got back, I'm in touch with Aisha all the time.

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