With gratitude to Ibrahem and Mosab, my Gazan friends and guides
Dedicated to Rachel Corrie
Hi friends and family, and others,
I have been in Palestine for two weeks and one hour now, and I still have very few words to describe what I see. It is most difficult for me to think about what’s going on here when I sit down to write back to the United States. Something about the virtual portal into luxury. I don’t know if many of the children here have ever existed without tank-shell holes in their walls and the towers of an occupying army surveying them constantly from the near horizons. I think, although I’m not entirely sure, that even the smallest of these children understand that life is not like this everywhere.
—Rachel Corrie, February 7, 2003
FIRST SOME DREAMS
These dreams on a night of clear dreaming: I met Jim H, clearly Jim H, as I was riding two of his bikes that I’d scavenged from his trash. I’d repaired them, added handlebars to one that resembled somehow a Viking helmet. I was proud of this. I longed to tell him I’d just been in Gaza on a photo project.
In another dream I was with family or friends at a concert. Piano and cello, playing Shostakovich. To end the piece the cellist who was well known improvised using very strange bowing techniques, more like thumping and strumming, much like how John Cage would compose for and play prepared piano. The audience was thrilled but when the piece ended the thrill was so captivating no one applauded.
And finally in my last dream, I was directing a group of about 20 young people in a chant, while lighting candles, then processing thru a door into a large atrium. They had trouble combining chanting and carrying the candles, I helped them.
On January 20, Sunday, one day before I was scheduled to leave Gaza and two days before the Great Breakout from Gaza, some 1/3 million people breaking thru the wall into Egypt to find sustenance, thanks to Mosab and Ibrahem we toured Rafah. I’d asked to visit the site where in 2003 the 23 year old woman from Olympia Washington, Rachel Corrie, serving with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah, was bulldozed to death by an Israeli soldier driving a Caterpillar D9 armored bulldozer. She and others were attempting to prevent the demolition of a pharmacist’s home.
This was in the Philadelphia Corridor, a 3/4 km wide swath of land cleared by Israel because of the presence of tunnels to Egypt. These were being used to smuggle in weapons, drugs, and people from Egypt.
However, before reaching this virtual no man’s land we stopped at the Rachel Corrie Center for kids in central Rafah, a childcare facility, library, and meeting rooms. (This may not be the same The Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice Center that I listed in links below.) The young woman showing us the facility of about 5 spacious rooms explained that they tell Corrie’s story to all the kids passing thru the Center. Rachel’s parents have visited many times. The Center is supported by an international foundation. All staff are volunteers, which seems to be common here, perhaps a result of the high unemployment rate. When I asked whether they displayed a photo of Rachel they showed me one I’d never seen, of her speaking into a mike. They promised that they were preparing a larger image of her for the wall.
TO THE CORRIDOR
Awni drove us to the Egyptian border just one km or so from the Center and over a rough sand and clay road, the Philadelphia Corridor. Two women were picking thru trash. Kids strolled by. Many fences enclosed plots owned by families whose homes had been destroyed. Owners were awaiting a better day when they could rebuild.
We noticed men with guns, not a good sign. Ibrahem told me they might be at a tunnel entrance. “Be careful Skip, put away your camera,” he insisted.
From “Environmental Impact Assessment of the planned expansion of the Philadelphia Corridor at the Southern border of the Gaza Strip by the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem” (http://www.arij.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=16&Itemid=26〈=en):
The city of Rafah which is situated at the boarder has long been the grain in the eye of the Israelis. The city is considered to be the transit point of weapon smuggling between Egypt and Palestine. According to the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF), the Palestinians constructed a complex network of tunnels underneath the Egypt-Israel border in the Rafah area in the period after the 1993 Oslo Accords. The tunnels are conceited to be used to smuggle weapons, cigarettes, drugs, and people from Egypt into Gaza. Consequently, the city of Rafah has become a focal point of attention for the IOF as it is considered the source for smuggling contraband throughout the Palestinian Territories. Furthermore, Israel claims that the weapon smuggling is run and managed by Palestinian terrorist organizations with the approval and active participation of the Palestinian Authority. With this as an excuse Israel keeps its power hold of the Egyptian border.
A SURPRISING TURN OF EVENTS
As we were trying leave—flee is more accurate—we found ourselves stuck behind a car with its trunk and doors open, possibly loading materials brought thru the tunnels. As we were backing up—into a small ditch unfortunately—a cluster of men with rifles and pistols waved at us to stop. “Get out!” they commanded. Several of us did. They noticed me, obviously a foreigner.
My first impulse, paired with my palpitating heart and sweaty hands, was this could be trouble, perhaps they will hold us all, shoot us, kidnap me. As I was about to leave the back seat, suddenly they smiled and waved us on.
We finally were able to turn around. Awni chose the road to the right that we’d entered on: another cluster of men with guns, all running wildly about, yelling. Marching ahead of them were about 5 men with hands over their heads. Another command: “Stop, get out!” the second time. Why, I thought to myself, did Awni choose this route, directly at them?
And again, as we were stumbling out of the car, they looked in, smiled, and told us to leave.
What happened to their captives? I wondered. Did they march them to the wall to execute them?
Later we learned the context: they were Hamas militia or police (I’m not sure there is much difference) searching for someone who’d killed a police man and was trying to flee over the wall into Egypt. At the first stop, when we were getting out, one of the men recognized a friend of his among us. How ironic, I thought in a calmer moment, to lose my life or my freedom not far from where Rachel had died.
Of course we were all ecstatic as we finally drove away, laughing and joking. Mosab said, “Let’s not tell A about this, at least for one month, our little secret.” We also considered what effect our voluble friend from Scotland, Louisa, might have had on the outcome, whether they’d be tickled with her piquancy or find her annoying.
One regret is that I couldn’t photograph any of it. I managed to photograph the fenced sites, the wall, the kids and women, the ruined homes near the area, the debris. Not particularly interesting I’m afraid. The story I write might be more engaging.
Also I did not photograph the line of shops Mustafa told me about later, each fronting a tunnel, selling about all anyone would wish.
CRASH THE WALL
Later, now home in Cambridge, writing this in the relative safety and comfort of my warm and fully electrified house, I learned of the stout hearted, ever steadfast Gazans crashing thru the wall into Egypt—“to shop,” as one local newspaper put it in headline. Shop for necessities like food, water, medicine, cement, window glass, gas, all the requirements for a civil life. I imagine the violent differences between Fatah and Hamas had been for the moment ignored. Gazan chutzpah gladdens my heart.
May this power continue and with international support end the siege, end the entire occupation of Palestine, bring the just return or compensation to the 4 million or so Palestinians locked out of their country, foster justice for the Palestinians, and secure the security and peace of Israel.
“Environmental Impact Assessment of the planned expansion of the Philadelphia Corridor at the Southern border of the Gaza Strip,” 08 April 2006
“Gaza sinks into darkness amid rockets attacks on Israel”
January 21, 2008
Kidnapped and Other Dispatches (excerpts from his book), Alan Johnston, “Given time, I may feel stronger for what I went through”
Latest news from Ma’an News agency about Gaza-Egypt border opening