The person in Gaza who said to me that "We are dead people who are still breathing" was Amjad Shawa, the director of PNGO. I could see the truth of it in his eyes as he read about three young teenage boys who were shot and killed outside the Netzarim settlement. The bodies had been crushed afterward by tanks or bulldozers (possibly as a precaution in case they were wearing bomb vests), and the pictures of the mutilated kids were circulating among the people in Gaza.
So horrors were never far away, at this time or any other. But those weren't the only things the Palestinians in Gaza focused on, and despite the weight of their daily life I've never been among people who were more open, welcoming, joyful, or quick to laughter. Despite the dark picture I've drawn of Amjad, he had a sly sense of humor and a mischievous smile that he flashed easily and often. There was a real vitality in Gaza and the West Bank that seemed to come from putting the highest value on things that actually matter: family, friends (old and new), and time spent together. My experiences were a bit self-selecting, especially given justly famous Arab hospitality; nonetheless I met dozens of people while I was there and had the chance to observe many more, and what I saw was always the same, whether it was directed at me or not.
(The horror and humor would often mix. When I was in Rafah the Israelis shot in the direction of my group and some kids on bikes, and we asked Amjad about it later. His response: "You never know with the Israelis...sometimes they shoot to say hello, sometimes they shoot to say goodbye." And even now, under constant bombardment, they joke: "Look outside, F-16 jet fighters are smiling for you, missiles are dancing for you, zannana [the Palestinian name for pilotless drones] are singing for you. I requested them all to wish you a happy new year," and "While other people around the world celebrate, it seems the Israeli air force is trying to save us the cost of fireworks." Palestinian humor rarely lacks a sting, but it's also rarely lacking.)
The one thing that moved me the most was the generosity of spirit. The people I spoke with (human rights workers, doctors, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, people selling tea in checkpoint lines just to stay alive, and everyone in between) almost universally showed a deep level of understanding and compassion, even toward the Israelis and Americans who were causing them so much pain. They had every right to feel otherwise, but although I saw some anger the overwhelming message was that they just wanted to live in peace—a peace both for them and their neighbors. It brought home for me that ignorance is a critical component of callousness, and that when people genuinely understand what it means to suffer it makes them more understanding rather than less, and they're far less likely to wish it on others.
The contrast couldn't have been greater when I came back here to the TV and mall culture—a country obsessed with trivialities, where so many people have tremendous privilege and endless opportunities and yet feel isolated and empty as they try to buy their way to happiness. We're so divorced from basic human empathy that we get a vicarious frisson of power whenever our government is blowing the shit out of the latest ultimate evil threat to our very existence, with no consideration for the lives of those under the bombs. And so I had to wonder: just who are the dead?