Qassam rocket, fired by militants from Gaza, on display in Gaza passport control office
American Friends Service Committee office in Gaza
Both communities are within 1 km of Gaza and often heavily attacked by rockets and mortars fired by Gazan militants. Nomika Zion lives in Sderot, Roni Keidar and her daughter, Inbal Yahav, live in Netiv Ha-asara even closer to Gaza.
…Not in my name and not for me did you go into this war. The bloodbath in Gaza is not in my name nor for my security. Houses destroyed, schools blown up, thousands of new refugees – they are not in my name or for my security. In Gaza, there is no time for funerals; the dead are put in refrigerators two by two in the mortuary for lack of room. The bodies of policemen and children are laid out and the eager journalists jump between the tactics of pro -Israel advocacy and “the pictures that speak for themselves”. Tell me, what is there to explain? What is there to explain?…
—Nomika Zion, “War Diary from Sderot”
Excerpts from my journal as I explore the situation in Palestine and Israel
Nomika Zion’s house
April 22, 2013, Monday, Sderot, Israel
I enjoy Nomika tremendously. She is of my heart and soul. There is a profound linkage, part of it verging on romance, a physical and attitudinal connection that motivates me to return to Sderot. I must confess I feel something of this for Eric Yellin (now temporarily in California with his family) as well and miss him. He is more sedate, composed, but equally committed. To reach Eric and Nomika I must endure the notorious Erez crossing point between Gaza and Israel. Relatively easy this time, partly because I know the routine better and partly maybe because Israel has smoothed out the procedure. I rode on a golf cart-like vehicle, rather than walked. I did not need to drag my heavy luggage. No more insistent men who would argue with me, demand I allow them to carry my luggage, charge me exorbitantly. I’m not sure who arranged this, Israel, Hamas, the two of them?
From Gaza thru Erez to Israel
However transit required a long time to get thru, more than one hour. As we waited for the luggage inspection we were suddenly cleared from the area for a few minutes. I observed security people scurrying about and then all returned to normal: a bomb scare? Many were with me which may have slowed the process. We watched personnel search thru luggage. I’m not sure how thoroughly they checked my major bags. Not the usual mess after inspection. I seem to have lost nothing of value, in particular my photos and text files, nor do I believe they were opened and looked at. Oddly enough I did lose my olive oil of all items. I think I observed an agent looking thru a small bag and then throwing it into trash. May have been my oil. Why this? I have no idea. I did not question it because Roni Keidar was awaiting me.
During the long wait I noticed various verbal altercations between staff and those of us transiting. One young man in particular constantly argued with staff (he’d help me thru the turnstile with my luggage). All in Hebrew or Arabic so I had no idea of the content. Maybe about what he brought thru. A large man in army uniform than joined the conversation. I noticed how attentive and respectful he was to the young Palestinian. He cocked his head with an attentive expression on his face. He seemed to listen.
Israel side of Erez crossing
The usual questions to me from passport control—doing what with whom in Gaza, plans in Israel, how long, who, why, how did you meet, have a plane ticket? Minor hassle. I am experienced at this now and have many Israeli friends thruout the country. When I mentioned Sderot the agent seems to soften.
April 23, 2013, Tuesday, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine
At Nomika Zion’s another intense conversation, this time during lunch in the group building where I bumped into the guy who’d attended one of my shows in Berkeley California (in a home, sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace) which Eric from Sderot Israel also attended. Turns out he lives in the same urban kibbutz as does Eric, Migvan. Nomika, in her usual, super abundant, extremely spirited manner—which I so love about her but wonder how that energy might feel close up—was stunned about the connection. Later we discussed the Jewish and especially the Israeli Jewish propensity to interrupt, be loud, push, and feel the center of the universe individually and as a people. She might exemplify this, another reason I love her. She is so Jewish (also part Austrian I learned, something she agreed we shared).
Eric Yellin speaking with a friend of Skip Schiel’s in Gaza
Unlike the previous 2 visits, on this one she has been generous with her time. Always serving me, making sure I’m content, and never pulling away from a conversation. Our best ever. I made the panorama of the wall near Netiv Ha’asara that I’d promised her and emailed it. She opened it immediately and exclaimed, where is this? I’ve never seen this! I described its location. She said, we take our delegations to a different part of the barrier, a fence, and seemed to suggest she might change the itinerary. My small contribution to news from Sderot. Nomika tours the West Bank every 4 months or so, last time to Nablus where she bought expensive olive oil. She asked me to remove her photo that I’d made in 2009 from my website, thanked me for removing it from my blog last year and gently chided me for forgetting or neglecting the second removal. I accomplished this in a flash and sent her the link. Too bad—such a handsome person. She explained, never photograph a woman in the morning.
Nomika introduced me to Roni Keidar and said of her, she is one of the “best and most active members of Other Voice.” Eric Yellin and Nomika cofounded Other Voice, residents of Israeli communities bordering Gaza who oppose many Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Nomika published an article about life during Operation Cast Lead, the brutal air and ground assault on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 which killed some 1,500 Gazans, some two-thirds of them children, and then another assault from the air in November 2012. It’s titled “War Diary from Sderot” (linked below).
I regret not writing more about Kirin, the young Israeli film student from the Galilee, now studying in Sderot. We met in Netiv Ha’asara when I rode with her and her filmmaker colleague, Ose Oyamendanm, in Roni’s car. They are making a movie about Netiv Ha’asara, Sderot, and Gaza. Kirin is not representative of young Israelis. Much more aware of injustice to Palestinians, she lives near Palestinians so this might explain part of her story. Thanks to this filmmaking team I photographed Roni’s daughter, Inbal Yahav, as she told about the death of her good friend, Dana Galkowicz, in 2005, hit directly by a mortar fired from Gaza and killed instantly. Dana was 22 years old, soon to marry.
(Courtesy of Ose Oyamendanm)
I phoned for a taxi to meet me at 2 pm which gave me time to explore Nomika’s neighborhood. On an hour-long walk I met Sharon Ben Abu who with her husband makes sculptures (Haviv Art). I’d been photographing a metal drummer in a traffic circle, the drummer’s head swarming with what might have been snakes. She called to me, hey, what are you doing, why are you photographing this? I ambled over to her, put on my gentle smile, and said, because I admire this sculpture, find it lovely, wish to show it to others. She suddenly warmed. Oh, she said, go right ahead, my husband and I made it.
This led to a long halting conversation (because her English was rough). I learned all the metal came from rockets and mortars that had fallen on Sderot. Thus the screaming swarming hair. When I revealed I knew Nomika and was staying with her, Sharon launched into a long criticism of something related to Nomika and the urban kibbutz Nomika lives in. Something about the people being privileged, living better than most Sderotians, and about the program that hires mentally disabled adults. She claimed they were cheated of their proper pay. She would not grant me permission to photograph her. Later when I told Nomika about the meeting I omitted the criticism.
Sharon asked if I am Jewish. I told her the Schiel-Sage-Zagy-mother story [that my sister wonders if we are Jewish because of how Jewish our mother acted and looked], which seemed to partially authenticate me. I said nothing about my mission. She didn’t inquire. On that same walk I photographed young kids playing outside their school, bomb shelters very conspicuous. I worked fast and only later, at another site, did a security woman stop me. No pictures! Nomika explained that a law prohibits photographing children’s faces without the permission of parents. When I asked Nomika why, she could not fully answer, something about pornography maybe. I felt I performed a possibly useful service by showing the ubiquitous bomb and rocket shelters in Sderot (also the walls in Netiv Ha’asara that protect residents from mortars and personal incursions).
I could easily reside in Sderot longer—if Nomika would host me and if I could find a project. I do love it there, purely Mediterranean and very western. Too bad most Sderotians support their government fully, as far as I’m aware, and Nomika, Roni, and Eric are such exceptions. I mostly fit, nearly as well as I fit into Gaza. With one key exception: the level of suffering and fear is much greater in Gaza. When asked, why do you go to Gaza? I answer, I am impelled to go where there is suffering, try to show it, end it. And my peers would be aghast at my choice of residence and allegiance. I doubt many would contribute financially to my project in Sderot.
April 26, 2013, Friday, Bethlehem, Occupied Palestine
I posted the Sderot-Netiv Ha’asara photos set after checking with Roni and her daughter about her daughter’s photos and my possible later writing. All 3 gave approval. I’ve yet to make a decent portrait of Nomika, or at least one she approves. This is an ongoing quest, one of many of mine.
Haviv Art Multidisciplinary Artist Studio lives in Sderot, near the border of Gaza City. His works combine musical elements, East and West, a musical bridge of peace between peoples and different cultures. He likes the dialogue through art, because art has the power to grow a new generation of peace and brotherhood. He says it is recommended for all people, despite the conflict in his area, because his art expresses the need, even in difficult times, of peace, sanity, color and imagination.
—Isabel del Rio, Yareah Magazine
Ose Oyamendanm’s “Bridges over Blood,” a movie in production about Israelis and Palestinians working for peace and justice