‘More than wonderful’ … Gaza bookshop to reopen after unexpectedly successful global campaign

Tens of thousands of donated books have started to arrive at the new location of a Gaza bookshop that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes last year, and owner Samir Mansour now plans to reopen its doors next month.

The two-storey Samir Mansour bookshop, which was reduced to rubble last May, had been founded by the Palestinian Mansour 22 years ago and was a beloved part of the local community. Its destruction during the 11-day conflict, which killed more than 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel, prompted a campaign that raised $250,000 (£187,000) to help rebuild it, plus donations of 150,000 books. The Israeli military has said that the store was not its target, claiming that the building that housed it also contained a Hamas facility for producing weapons and intelligence-gathering.

Mansour is now preparing to reopen as both a bookshop and library, in a new location less than 100 metres from the original site. The new building, which cost $340,000, needed to be gutted and remodelled, and Mansour spent $70,000 of his personal savings building wooden shelves, tiling and installing electrical supplies. All funds generated by the campaign, which was launched by human rights lawyers Mahvish Rukhsana and Clive Stafford Smith, have gone towards the project, with the blockade imposed on Gaza sending costs spiralling.

Rukhsana, an American human rights lawyer working at 3DC in London, said that book donations had flooded in from around the UK, as well as from abroad, with the first cargo container of 50,000 books arriving in the Gaza Strip last week. Shipping of the remainingbooks will follow.

“I was so happy when I saw the first shipment had arrived … I felt like a reborn phoenix,” said Mansour. “I did not expect all this support. But it was something beyond imagination and something more than wonderful.”

“He lost approximately 90,000 books in the bombing and our goal was to collect 100,000,” said Rukhsana. “We were immediately flooded with books and volunteers who wanted to donate time, vans, cargo trucks, money, and lots of books.”

A volunteer from Peterborough, Rabea Zia, helped Rukhsana manage 70 regional book drives across the UK; there were 20 book drop-off locations in London alone.

“It started in volunteers’ homes. This became a challenge because garages, kitchens and living rooms were fast flooded with books. Some people held drives in restaurants and coffee shops, which also were flooded quickly and had to be cleared regularly,” said Rukhsana. “We made an appeal for vans. Volunteers borrowed cargo vans and began clearing homes. Central storage units were rented to accommodate the growing number of books. Our garage in Ascot was fast filled with about 30,000 books. Another 20,000 came in from Scotland. Another 20,000 from Leicester, Manchester, Croydon. And small publishing houses donated new books.”

The lawyer said that any time it started to feel like too much for the volunteers, they would find a solution. “A cargo company approached us via social media and volunteered to put the books on pallets and stack them with forklifts in a warehouse. From there, another wonderful company called Awesome Books volunteered trucks to pick up from storage locations around the country. They sorted by genre and packed into storage containers,” she said. “It was challenging because of the Brexit-related trucking shortage, but everyone worked together patiently. It was amazing to see how a global community came together and wanted to support this project. Over 4,800 donors gave money from around the world to support his fund.” Rukhsana also explained how donors were encouraged to write messages inside the books, leaving their email addresses so that the books’ new owners can get in contact should they wish.

The only request Mansour made was for Harry Potter books, because they are so popular with children in Gaza. Many people bought new Harry Potter box sets for the drive, said Rukhsana, with one volunteer selling cupcakes and baked goods for a month to raise money to buy JK Rowling and Roald Dahl book sets.

One man from Santa Barbara spent over $300 shipping three boxes of books to the drive, and more books were shipped in from Greece, France, Italy, UAE, various US cities and Singapore. “There were multiple requests to hold book drives internationally. We had to decline drives because we exceeded our target fast,” said Rukhsana. “Volunteers worked until 1am driving and collecting books and then thanked us for the opportunity to be involved in a tangible way.”

The name of the store, when it opens on 12 February, will remain the same, Samir Mansour Bookshop. “I think the community will support the idea of the new bookstore, especially as it is close to the same place that was destroyed,” said Mansour. “We are in a very bad economic situation. So we are hoping for the best and we will see what happens in the future.”

Rukhsana said that she and the other volunteers were “really proud to see the books now arriving in Gaza to people who are truly in need of literature and escape.

“When Israeli war planes bombed this bookshop it was a further attack on the community’s access to knowledge. This campaign was a gesture of solidarity, an attempt to restore dignity and the fundamental right to books,” she said. “The large-scale global outpouring of support was unexpected. Also unexpected was the intense desire so many had to be tangibly involved in making this right.”

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