Yes, in Gaza. After a difficult 30 minute interrogation at the Arez crossing point between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
Amal, the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s youth program in Gaza, had gotten me a permit for 6 months, the standard time period, so I assumed I’d simply show papers like I’ve done on mytwo previous visits in 2005 and 2006, maybe answer a few simple questions, pass thru the various stages of security which last year included a huge x-ray camera (maybe only when leaving Gaza), walk the long intimidating corridor, say marhaba (hello) to the lackadaisical Palestinian police on the other end, meet my ride and greet the office staff who I’ve worked with before. About one hour, no hassles other than the hassle of the port of entry itself.
Not so this time: Arez now resembles an airport, or an airplane hanger—sterile, much glass, a few signs in English, Hebrew, Arabic, “enter here,” “no entry here,” empty space, and about 10 bored young men and women waiting behind bullet proof glass. Passport control, “internationals,” not the line for Israelis and Palestinians. The questions: why are you coming to Gaza, for how long, which organization, what will you do, are you a journalist, oh an independent photographer, let’s see your photos (I’d photographed coming in, both the trip in the taxi and nearing arez, but the “one that got away” was relatively close to the front of the complex when a polite young private security man asked me to delete it. He did not ask for proof that I had, I could have faked it, and he didn’t see the others I’d made, almost as if he didn’t care), will you be objective, why 2 and 1/2 weeks when all you need is 2 days, looks all the same, who do you know in Israel, know any Palestinians, you aren’t going to show “suffering Palestinians” now are you, do you have sufficient funds for staying in Israel, where do you stay in Israel, who do you know in the West Bank, what are you doing in Israel, when do you fly out, let’s see a letter from your sponsoring organization in Gaza, etc. I answered with nearly complete honesty, omitting the parts about supporting Palestinians, living in Ramallah, traveling the West Bank, advocating for Palestinians andIsraelis, their human rights. At his request I showed him my business card with the website and blog listed. He might have looked at them. He didn’t. Thus he missed seeing who I really am, what I truly intend to do.
The man, about 45, trim, handsome, with an open face, speaking good English, wearing a uniform I didn’t recognize, reminded me of David Nir from Tel Aviv. He might have followed David’s path of political activism in support of Palestinians, as David might have followed this man’s path, perpetrator of human rights violations, i.e., complicit in possible war crimes. I liked him, did not feel intimated, engaged him in argument—to a point, not wishing to reveal all of my intentions and thereby give him an excuse to deny me entry. I felt he was searching for such an excuse. I suspected at times I was about to be turned back. I was silently making alternative plans—calling the taxi I’d just ridden from Jerusalem to turn around and pick me up, Chamila, my housemate, about returning, etc, after first calling Amal for her suggestions and possibly the Israel lawyer Gabby who’d been so helpful to the Cambridge-Bethlehem delegation in November, and maybe saying to this gentleman, “I intend to fully publicize this violation of my right to enter Gaza.”
As we approached Gaza in the taxi I heard and saw fighter jets, presumably Israel-USA F-16s soaring overhead. I heard later either a plane or Apache helicopter (made in the USA) had attacked a home in central Gaza City, near Amal’s home. I heard and saw nothing of the attack. Leaving Arez I heard another whoosh, this time from the ground, spewing a ragged white smoke trail, easily traced—a Qassam rocket launch. Perhaps the F-16 attack answered the Qassam launch, I don’t know and doubt it.
Israeli surveillance blimp with remote controlled camera
Arez has been sanitized, no more armed soldiers everywhere, Armored Personnel Carrier’s threatening the walkers, but there is a feeling of entrapment and surveillance—turnstiles, heavy doors, and remote controlled cameras. Similar to Kalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, security is tighter, more efficient, and less visible, less and more onerous. I wouldn’t say more pleasant, more like passing thru customs or passport control treated brusquely by hostile attendants. This might be true for internationals like me but for Palestinians the experience could be horrendous.
For a few days before beginning this trip to Gaza, I felt nervous and uncertain, shaky, as I usually do during the pre-action phase of any dangerous trip. I could turn back, why am I subjecting myself to this danger? But once I launched from Ramallah, heading to Jerusalem, I felt grounded, secure, happy. And once thru Arez I was exultant. I sang. And once in the AFSC car with the driver I knew from the last trip, Ahouda, the crazy guy weaving in and out of traffic, singing to the radio songs, I was soaring. And once meeting AFSC staff, I was jubilant. I wonder if this will show in the photos I made, in the taxi to Arez, thru Arez, in the Gazan taxi, and at the office showing some staff examining the new website design. And also of me, by Mosab, my new housemate and guide, and another man, Ehap, who looked eager to try my camera.
The reunion at the office was touching: Ibrahim and I greeted each other with bear hugs and big smiles. A polite shake of Amal’s hand altho I’d have preferred the traditional cheek kissing (I don’t know how orthodox Muslim she is, whether she might not be comfortable with even shaking a man’s hand). Meeting Hanna who I remember from the last trip, and others who are new at the organization. All are indigenous Palestinians.
Amal Sabawi, director of American Friends Service Committee’s youth program in Gaza
Mosab is my “handler,” or “minder,” not a bodyguard exactly: he attends to me. He is sharing the apartment they rented for me, sleeping on a floor mat outside my spacious bedroom. He is a program coordinator responsible for AFSC activities in the southern sector of the strip, lives in Khan Yunis with his family, 29 yrs old, wishes to improve his English and his photography, and is usually gracious to my desires: long walks thru Gaza in particular.
We shopped at the local well stocked (surprisingly) market, he helped me try to find a wired internet connection in the apartment, failing after meeting with the young man who’d set up the network. He told me about the neighborhood, quiet, tree lined, elegant buildings, where many high ranking folks live. As we walked to the market we passed 2 police—guarding police chief who is Hamas, he informed me. This morning’s gunshots, he explained, are probably from the mourners at the funeral of those killed in yesterday’s attack by the Israelis, a form of commemoration.
I intend to write about Ibrahim and use some of his photos showing the bullet wound thru his back and chest, penetrating his lung. He believes he was shot and his two friends killed by Hamas during a nonviolent demonstration attempting to stop the internecine violence. When I read last summer about his close call I wept. Now I work with him.
The 1 and 1/2 hr ride from Jerusalem, pleasant, down the mountain slope Jerusalem sits on, into a warmer clime, sandy not so rocky, past innumerable Jewish towns and cities, photographing out the window especially noting the lush green carpet reminiscent of Ireland, and finally the crossing at Arez. Two worlds, or three, separated by less than 50 miles, requiring a travel time with the post office stop in Jerusalem of about 5 hrs. Cost 250 shekels ($65).
Weather here is balmy, periodically rainy, probably the usual Mediterranean climate shockingly contrasting with frigid dry high Ramallah.
So far, my accommodations are more than I could hope for or afford alone. A second floor apartment in a five story building, one large bedroom with huge bed, plenty of blankets, spacious wardrobe, bed lamp that turns on and off with the touch of a finger, central room with sofa, chairs, dining table, more chairs, TV with international reception (which delights Mosab, he sleeps on a floor pad), narrow kitchen sufficiently stocked with implements. I cooked pasta with sausage and feta cheese, serving bread and hummus on the side, for Mosab and me as we viewed CNN, the latest about Kenya, nothing about Gaza or the West Bank. The owner lives in the same building and so far helpful. We are just around the corner from the AFSC office (I might be able to walk alone back and forth once I have a set of keys and only during daylight), with the cost apparently shared between AFSC and the Gaza Community Mental Health Program. The building has its own generator, useful in this land of limited electricity.
I plan to work with these two organizations, plus the Palestinian Hydrology Group and Friends of the Earth Middle East, the latter two about my hydropolitics theme. With the AFSC I’ll offer photography and writing workshops, spotted thru my 3-week stay, ending in January 21.
Conditions are troubled and desperate, obviously. Siegeis the correct word; add to that denial and ignorance by much of the international community. My initial impressions include the dilapidated state of many vehicles, the preponderance of bicycles and donkey or horse drawn carts, people sitting around in front of vacant buildings, potholed streets, destroyed buildings near Arez and many buildings in Gaza City with reinforcing bars jutting toward the sky, suggesting plans for expanding upwards once money is available. Mosab tells me no one is starving, but medical conditions are miserable. Israel has closed the Rafah crossing into Egypt nearly continually since June 2006 and that summer’s fighting. Some AFSC staff was able to enter the West Bank for meetings sometime during this period, thru Arez with permits. Fatah’s presence is minimal. Mosab explained that women and impoverished people tend to support Hamas, whereas Fatah gains the support of most men. Reason: men had been on Fatah’s payroll, now sit at home drawing salaries from Fatah in Ramallah. Money for Fatah enters via bank transfers, with the permission and perhaps incitement of the USA and Israel. He said most non governmental organizations have remained, consulates have closed, the World Bank continues its funding but at a lower level.
I’m reading Annie Dillard’s metaphor-stuffed book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a welcome relief from my daily experience.
Background information about recent events in Gaza:
January 4, 2008