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UPDATE: THE BOOK IS PUBLISHED. AVAILABLE HERE.

Titled Eyewitness Gaza, like our movie and my latest slide show, I will publish this book via Blurb.com. Here is a foretaste. Publication date is January 5, 2012.

(My special thanks to Maria Termini who helped inspire and edit this book, offering numerous suggestions; thanks also to my daughter Joey who led the way by publishing her own Blurb books.)

Dedicated to the youth of Gaza, infants to young adults.

I’m the Palestinian child,

I carried the grief early,

All the world forgot me,

They closed their eyes to my oppression,

I’m steadfast,

I’m steadfast.

—poem by Lutfi Lassini, recited by Mona Samouni in
Where Should the Birds Fly?
, a movie by Fida Qishta on Blip.TV

Mona Samouni shows the identity photos of her late mother and father, photo courtesy of Adie Mormech

A BRIEF OUTLINE OF THE SITUATION & STRUGGLES

 BY SKIP SCHIEL

At the moment, in short, the situation is dismal, perhaps the worst in decades—but with strong determination on the part of many Gazans to end the siege, end the occupation, end the entrapment, end the injustice, and breathe free. “Worse than a prison,” as my friend Husam stated a few years ago before conditions worsened, “now a graveyard.”

Husam may have anticipated Operation Cast Lead, the vicious Israeli assault on Gaza for 22 days which began on December 27, 2008. According to B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli military killed 1,389 human beings, including 248 police officers (civilians) and 320 children under the age of 16 and injured more than 5,300 more, up to two-thirds civilian. The Israelis destroyed thousands of homes, factories, and agricultural zones, rendering many homeless and jobless. Three Israeli civilians died during this period, all from rocket attacks, and ten military died, four of them by friendly fire. When I was last in Gaza in late 2010 more than 200 families still lived in tents.

For some recent history: in 2007 Hamas militarily ousted its main political rival Fatah and gained full control of the Strip. In 2006 Hamas won an open, free, fair, well-monitored Palestine-wide legislative election, trouncing Fatah. In response, Israel and many other governments, including the United States, began a siege lasting to this day. And in 2010 Israel loosened the siege very slightly after the Mavi Marmara incident when Israel attacked an international humanitarian aid convoy and killed seven Turkish civilians.

Any accountability here? Any complaints from the US or other governmental supporters of Israel? Barely.

However, the rise of the international court system offers good prospects. The UN Human Rights Council commissioned an investigation into Operation Cast Lead, the so-called Goldstone Report, which in fact was co-written by three other people. Despite retraction by the lead author, the eminent South African jurist, Richard Goldstone, of portions of the report which claimed Israel deliberately targeted civilians, the other authors and Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International corroborated the findings.

My experience on the ground—five visits since 2004—inspires me. I have noticed much sumud  (steadfastness), better use of media, the rise of the youth movement which is coincident with the Arab Spring, and expanded international awareness. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction Movement confirms my hope of eventual resolution.

My message is to show as much love as you can to your parents, because I lost my parents and I am not able to care for them anymore.

—Mona Samouni, age 11 years

MY PERSONAL STORY

I began this multi-year photo project after I’d grown successively and painfully aware of the conflicts in Palestine/Israel. My first trip with a delegation in 2003 confirmed my decision to photograph with an open heart the situation and struggles for justice, peace, and security in the Levant. Growing up Catholic seeded my desire to travel to the Holy Land and “walk in the footsteps of Jesus.” My work in South Africa during the final phase of apartheid illustrated the many parallels between apartheid there and injustice in the Levant. My escalating awareness stirred me to take some sort of action to at least quell my outrage. And that first trip brought me face to face with the Mediterranean light which continues to challenge me as an artist and human being. Also, personal connections with so many Palestinians and Israelis working for justice with peace—risking their lives—encourage me to continue.

The situation is both complex in how we tell the story and parade the justifications and yet simple on the level of injustice, impunity, the violation of international law, and the denial of basic human rights. I hope at the very least to open a few windows and doors for others who may seek comprehension and action.

I am able to enter Gaza because I volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee. I teach photography to young adults thru the AFSC’s exemplary Quaker Palestine Youth Program. I photograph their operations—much else as well, often volunteering my photographic skills to other Gazan (and Israeli and West Bank) organizations.

During Operation Cast Lead I learned about the brutal assault on the extended Samouni family and neighborhood in the Zeitoun section of Gaza City. The Israeli military rounded up one group and forced them into one building which the military pledged would be safe. Then the army wantonly and without warning attacked that building. In this single incident, early thirty people died. A total of forty-eight people were killed and twenty-seven homes, a mosque and a number of farms were destroyed. To my eyes, this was a clear massacre. I was horrified and never expected to meet the survivors. Thanks to the International Solidarity Movement who had raised money to buy winter clothing for the children, I accompanied the volunteers and was able to meet, interview, and photograph this extraordinary extended family.

Fatah and Hamas are political rivals, splintering the Palestinian freedom movement. Fatah rules in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza, and altho they signed a reconciliation document in early 2011, nothing tangible has changed. During the inter-factional violence of 2007 my dear friend and AFSC staff member, Ibrahem Shatali, was injured while he and others tried to stop the fighting. For the movie, also titled Eyewitness Gaza, I interviewed him at the shooting site.

Sderot is an Israeli town of nearly 30,000 citizens less than one mile from Gaza. Thus it suffers the brunt of rocket and mortar attacks from Gazan militants. Israel uses the rocket attacks to justify the continuing siege and violence against Gaza, a ploy that might mask deeper intentions—forced removal. Yet the trauma is real, in Sderot and most of Israel. On a different scale than in Palestine but pivotal in many Israeli lives. I wanted to visit Sderot to experience and understand the trauma, share its story, and support Sderot residents who challenge Israeli policies when they cause more suffering to all parties and do not resolve the crisis.

Possibly among the most useful services I’ve provided in Gaza are the photo exhibits I help coordinate with my workshop students. They are highly motivated and do excellent work, learn how to depict what they face to a wider world, and experience achievement when they mount their exhibitions in Gaza. One of my hopes is to bring their photos to an international audience.

The photos in this book were mostly made in 2008-2010 and many appear in the movie by Tom Jackson, Eyewitness Gaza.

I conclude with gratitude to:

Amal Sabawi, Ibrahem Shatali, Mosab Abu Dagga, Adham Khalil, Islam Modhoun, Kanaan Samouni, Raghda El Jedali, Quaker Palestine Youth Program in Gaza, Patricia Sellick, Tom Jackson, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Meeting at Cambridge, Ken Barney, Josephine Schiele, Maria Termini, Katy Downey, Salem Quarter Quaker Funds, my support committee, & many others.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict

Action ideas

Information about Palestine and Israel

Photos

Blog

Eyewitness Movie

Teeksa YouTube channel

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Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles

Photos:

Qattan Centre for the Child

Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children

August 7 & 11, 2009, Friday & Tuesday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:

I dreamt I was to meet Alice Rothschild, the physician (and in fact I’m to meet Dr Mona al-Farra today, with Mohammed). Alice had a problem with her car; it needed a new motor or a serious repair of the motor. She told me to wait. I felt very close to her. [Later, meeting Dr. Mona, as she’s lovingly called, she told me as we hailed a taxi,  my car is being repaired, something seriously wrong with the engine. Auspicious?]

My dreams seem strangled, still born, they evaporate rapidly. I’m working with the theory that this is because life is so energized here, and unpredictable, I have so many simultaneous concerns that the leisure needed to let the dreams survive long enough once born to be remembered does not exist. Thus the feeling that I’m not dreaming.

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A fortuitous meeting yesterday when I accompanied the Popular Achievement team including Issam who I’ve not seen until yesterday and Grace to a commemoration of the life of Mahmoud darwish. He died one year ago of heart problems, and died auspiciously in a Texas hospital, the home state of GW Bush, the failed president. He was approximately my age. The meeting was in the Qattan Centre for the Child, an elegant spacious well-lighted building. After about one hour of this—poetry readings, songs and oud, discussion between audience and a poet-critic, all officiated by our own Ibrahem, and of course all in Arabic, no translation—I decided to explore the Centre. And then the 2nd meeting, with the director, the equally elegant and affecting Reem Abu Jaber. I made some photos of her and pray I’ve shown at least a hint of her goodness, generosity, energetic spirit.

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Reem Abu Jaber

The Centre looks and functions much more like a library. It is dedicated to encouraging the love of reading. And I had a sense of its effectiveness while I photographed. Ordinarily kids either hide from my camera or flock to it. In either case, they present a challenge. Here they tended to notice but not concentrate on me so I had much more latitude photographing. For instance, after showing the architecture and lighting I began showing children and parents using the facility. I discovered a boy of about 8 years old peering thru books with his mother. I placed myself opposite them and photographed thru the book stacks. This might be perfect, if it worked. No reaction from the woman who wore a headscarf.

A long tour with Reem—and I could have gone for hours with her, she is so radiant and loveable—with photos along the way. Extensive computer facility, outdoor reading area, small auditorium, sections divided by ages of children, all coordinated spatially by a long hallway connecting the sectors, arches above the corridor, everything open. Reem explained to me that this corridor is intended to mirror the old city of Jerusalem. All is light, airy, colorful.

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Entering the Centre from the cluttered, busy, chaotic, often dirty and noisy streets of the city is like passing thru Alice’s rabbit hole: another world entirely, a magical world where bombs are forbidden, rockets blocked in mid air, white phosphorus shells burst into voluminous, gorgeous cumulus clouds. Books galore, new worlds in a new world.

However I’m not sure I understand Reem’s position about controversy. The Darwish convocation itself expresses controversy, reflecting him, his positions, the fact that he loved an Israeli woman, for instance, a hot topic of discussion. But when I asked her whether they’d host a presentation that is political, using myself as an example, she seemed to say no. She explained this by focusing on how painful the discord between Fatah and Hamas is, that this colors all controversy. She seemed to tell me that the Centre removes itself entirely from anything political or religious. Which might be an error, but who am I to judge?

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After teaching the photo workshop group at the Quaker Palestine Youth Program I called Atfaluna, the center training deaf people, mostly children, in crafts production. Jan H had asked me to bring in cotton since their supply chain is virtually non-existent. They were overjoyed to receive the goods, and meet me personally. I met first Suad, the administrative manager, and then Nabil el Sharif, the executive director.  He gave me permission to tour the facilities and photograph. This might develop further or be only once.

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Nabil is short, lean, wore a white shirt with a hint of black elements in its design. He seems to have boundless energy. His smile is gracious and authentic, compassion radiates from him. He explained to me their current dilemma. During a recent period of many visitors, “war tourism” he imaginatively named it, many people came thru the center and purchased. People like Code Pink delegations. But because of the paucity of raw materials like the cotton I delivered, they are forced to curtail production. They worry that this might worsen and require staff layoffs. Likewise, usually, on the output end, there are few customers. So paradoxically the violence added to one part of their operation.

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The center is clean, well organized, and, being a center for deaf people, very very quiet. I told another staff member, Ibrahem, who toured me that Ramallah is very very noisy, all the time, so this is a sharp contrast. The hour was 3 pm, their closing time, people were preparing to leave for home, so I was not able to show all that might be shown. Whether I return or not depends on the quality of what I’ve made and my other priorities. Children are on vacation thru the end of this month so I will have to miss that aspect.

I wrote Jan later with the good news. And found a letter from her asking me to ask Amal about taxi prices, since when Jan returns in the fall she ‘d like to book Awni for an entire day of touring the strip. What a gal, I love her. And she’s Jewish, a practicing Jew.

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How can life for me ever be boring in Gaza? To the contrary, at times: too exciting, too jammed, and not with enough Skip time, my private down time—to process and use my photos. To fulfill the many promises I’ve made about emailing photos to those I’ve photographed. Like the CD Reem made me promise to send to the Centre, and the photos I’m to email to the young men I photographed on the beach. I need days, weeks, for this.

The electricity was off in my neighborhood during the day for the first time that I’d noticed. So I relied on computer battery power for a few hours of work. And I finally found a minimum quantity of toilet paper (rather than the huge packages of about 20 rolls) so I’m happy once again.

Also for the first time on this visit, the drones [that Israel uses to patrol and sometime attack from—they are a world leader in such lethal technology, soldiers in Tel Aviv targeting people who could be me]. Several of them flew overheard, out of sight, for about one hour yesterday in my neighborhood.

Today is the coolest yet. Nearly chilly, not in my flat which does not have good circulation, but out on the veranda where I presently sit writing this. Yesterday was one of the hottest, nearing 100. The air is now drier.

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LINKS:

Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children

Qattan Centre for the Child

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