We traveled back to Jerusalem, staying the night with a wonderful Palestinian family in Taibe and enjoying one of the best meals I could remember. We never lacked a place to sleep or something to eat. Other internationals told me how they would travel the countryside freely without concern for shelter, knowing that the Palestinians in the villages, towns, and even (especially) the refugee camps would be gracious and friendly and make sure they were accommodated. It is difficult to overstate the generosity of the Palestinian people, always willing to share what they have no matter how little that may be.
Arriving in Jerusalem again, we all faced the choice of what we wanted to do next. The news had been filled with speculation about an imminent Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip (largely due to belligerent statements to that effect made by Ariel Sharon), and at the moment there were few or no internationals in Gaza to try to help if the attack came, so I felt that Gaza was the most important place to be. If the Israelis attacked, we could station ourselves in the refugee camps there to act as human shields, as other internationals had done throughout the Israeli assault on the West Bank. Jeff felt the same way that I did, but others in the group weren't yet prepared to head out on another trip and some were nearing their departure dates, so it would be just the two of us. Some of our friends were concerned for us; Gaza is essentially a huge concentration camp, incredibly densely populated, and they felt it could be dangerous for us to go. They also felt that unlike the West Bank, in Gaza the Israelis would not show as much concern for Western lives.
These were all genuine possibilities and we certainly didn't know what to expect, but we did know how we would feel if an Israeli invasion happened and we had chosen not to go—especially because it would be impossible to enter Gaza after the start of an invasion, since the Israelis would doubtlessly close off any and all access. I met a few other internationals later who were going as well, and we agreed to meet up with them the next day and take the trip across Israel to Gaza.
Even though we had only been together for a few days our group had formed surprisingly strong bonds, and it was a bittersweet goodbye. We promised to try to stay safe and return soon, and to meet them back here when we did. The next morning, with a now-familiar mixture of exhilaration and apprehension, we set off for the Gaza Strip.
Our first experience of Gaza was the massive Erez checkpoint, the primary gateway to the Gaza Strip. Gaza is completely enclosed by an Israeli-built wall, and entry and exit to the Strip is under the control of the Israelis; even the western coast of Gaza bordering the Mediterranean Sea is patrolled and controlled by Israeli warships. Unlike many of the checkpoints in the West Bank, Erez is in no sense "temporary"; it is more of a military installation than a checkpoint, a huge expanse of blacktop, concrete, and buildings. The Palestinian driver dropped us off on the Israeli side of Erez, and we walked slowly and deliberately toward the processing center there, aware of the many sniper positions around the checkpoint. I could feel the gun sights on me as I walked. Despite its imposing size, however, Erez was completely empty except for us; there was nobody else walking or driving through. There was a reason for this. For months, Erez has been largely closed to the Palestinians of Gaza. Few could leave, and there were few people who wished to enter Gaza—and so here we were, alone in this enormous place. We were processed through Erez and that fateful stamp was placed on our Israeli visas showing that we had entered the Gaza Strip. We could now count on plenty of attention at the airport on the way back (though as it turned out, I would be receiving more than my share of attention on my way out of Israel anyway).
We went immediately to the Gaza City offices of PNGO, and there we met Amjad Shawa, the director of PNGO in Gaza.
He gave us a short introduction to the Gaza Strip, and the figures bear mentioning (many of the ones below are taken from the CIA World Factbook entry for the Gaza Strip). Gaza is very small—about 20 miles long and anywhere from 4-6 miles wide along its length. Packed into a mere 58% of this area is a Palestinian population of approximately 1.2 million people; the remaining 42% of the land is occupied by 25 Israelis settlements, and these settlements (or more accurately, colonies) are populated by approximately 7000 Israelis. Read those numbers again and let them sink into your mind: 1.2 million Palestinians on 58% of the land versus 7 thousand Israeli settlers on 42% of the land. The Israeli government provides lavish subsidies and incentives to encourage Israelis to move to the settlements, or rather to establish a presence there; for many of the settlers, their Gaza home is only a temporary residence, and their main home (as well as their job) is in Israel itself. The average water consumption for the settlers is 80 liters per day, as compared to a mere 5 liters per day for Palestinians—and drinking tap water is a major risk for Palestinians, since they are forbidden from digging wells deep enough to reach the purest water. The Israelis regularly destroy Palestinian wells.
One of the primary purposes of the settlements is to act as military outposts for the IDF throughout Gaza; for example, one settlement has just 15 Israeli families, but there is a military presence of 60-70 Israeli tanks there. Tanks, jeeps, and APCs regularly issue forth from settlements to attack nearby Palestinian areas. The heavily armed settlers threaten and attack Palestinians around the settlements, and any house within view of a settlement is almost certain to have bullet holes in the outer walls. The settlements divide up the land mass of Gaza just as they do in the West Bank, and in Gaza especially the settler-only roads make it nearly impossible for the Palestinians to get from place to place. Since the beginning of the second Intifada, the Israelis had partitioned Gaza into three sections, and movement by Palestinians between these sections was severely restricted (in the months after I left it was closed off almost entirely). Palestinians who live in the south of Gaza but who work or attend school in Gaza City in the north are frequently unable to make it through the checkpoints to get to their jobs or attend their classes, and commerce within Gaza had been severely disrupted by the restrictions on travel. Unemployment was running at an astonishingly high level: over 65%.
In the preceding months, the Israelis had demolished 500 houses and rendered another 1500 unusable (compare this to Jenin, where the Israelis destroyed "only" 100 homes). Factories were also a target; several had been destroyed by the Israelis, putting even more people out of work. The Caterpillar D-9 was a familiar site to Gazans. Non-governmental organizations (PNGO's stock in trade) were unable to build schools, health clinics, or other facilities crucial to the civil society, because of building restrictions imposed by the Israelis. Child malnutrition was soaring. The Israelis would frequently destroy groves of olive trees, leaving families with no livelihood and no means of feeding themselves; this particular Israeli depredation is among the most destructive, because olive trees play a crucial role in Palestinian life and take decades to grow to maturity.
It is easy to be numbed by a procession of facts like this, to lose sight of the human cost of each of them. For Gazans, though, these are not just sterile numbers; they are the elements of everyday life. And the most inescapable fact of all is the killings of Palestinians in Gaza, which are a part of the daily litany there. Palestinians are killed in Gaza regularly by the Israeli military and settlers, but because Gaza receives scant media attention there is little if any reaction or outcry from the rest of the world. The Israelis can kill almost with impunity in Gaza. Amjad and other Palestinian fathers told us that every time their children go outside they wonder if they will see them alive again. As he said to us, commenting on this and on all of the aspects of Gazan life: "They died once in Jenin; we are dying every day. We are dead people who are still breathing." And during our time in Gaza we saw the obvious truth of this statement—the weariness in people's eyes, the sense of wanting just one moment's respite from Israeli control of every single aspect of their lives.
Next we met the man who was to be our host for the next few days: Khalil Abu Shammala, the executive director of Addameer, a Palestinian human rights group.
Khalil told us more about Gaza and about his own life as well. He said he had been imprisoned by the Israelis five times, the longest time for two years. When I asked what the charge was on that occasion or why he was imprisoned, he said that there was no charge at all: the Israelis had simply put him under administrative detention. This type of story was very familiar to us even after our limited time in the West Bank and Gaza; it is rare indeed to meet a Palestinian man who has not spent weeks, months, or even years in Israeli prisons, often without any formal charges. As Jeff observed, life for Palestinians under the Israeli occupation is Kafkaesque in the purest sense.
The Palestinians were all talking about the seemingly imminent Israeli invasion. It appeared to be a very real possibility, given that the invasion of the West Bank was now largely completed. After years of watching the Israelis operate at will in Gaza, they were resigned to it. Khalil shared a simple but profound truth with us: Palestinians have no choice but to be political, because every aspect of their lives—no matter how small—is affected by the Israeli occupation.
Despite the tension, there was not much a small group of internationals could do in advance of an actual incursion by the Israelis, and so we spent several days seeing Gaza and meeting with human rights groups, NGOs, representatives of the political parties, and (of course) many regular Palestinians. Over and over I heard the same things: the Palestinians do not begrudge Israel its existence, they simply want to be left alone in peace in their own state as well. As the director of one NGO told us, "We're not against Israel, we're against Israeli tyranny"; one of the political party representatives said, "We don't fight the Jewish religion—we reject the occupation of Palestine." I cannot count how many times I heard this same sentiment from other people as well. Despite relentless Israeli propaganda to the contrary and much hysteria about Palestinians wanting to "push the Jews into the sea," the people I met said that all they wanted was for Israel to withdraw completely to the 1967 borders and to have a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. One man summarized it simply: "Free state; free sky; free borders; free sea; free land."
We found that our worries about walking around Gaza were not just misguided, but completely unfounded. The Palestinians in Gaza were just as hospitable, generous, and friendly as those we'd met in the West Bank. No matter how little English they might know, every Palestinian seemed to know at least three phrases: "Hello!", "How are you?", and "What's your name?" They used them frequently, and sometimes we surprised them by responding back in our broken phrasebook Arabic. Our biggest fear as we walked down the street was that we would never reach our destination, because when they saw us so many of the shopkeepers would call us to come over and sit down with them (typically by patting an empty chair next to themselves) and offer us tea or coffee. We were always met with smiles and handshakes. This was extraordinary to me, because to a person the Palestinians know exactly who is financing and supporting their oppression: the United States of America. They have every reason to feel anger towards Americans as a group, and to direct that anger towards American individuals, but this is simply not in their nature. Even in talking about the Israelis, the Palestinians I met always made a point of distinguishing between the people of Israel and the policies and actions of the Israeli government. Khalil shared with us his earnest belief that "People everywhere want the same things: peace, happiness, friendship, family." And this kind of sentiment was the rule, not the exception.
One thing was crystal clear to me: if the Israeli government truly wanted peace, it could have it immediately, today. There are extremists (in both societies) who would not accept it, but the great majority of Palestinians would embrace it and would be happy to live side by side in peace with Israel. And one other thing was crystal clear to me as well: the Israeli government does not want peace. Rather, it wants to colonize and annex as much of the West Bank and Gaza as possible before a final settlement is reached, and it is doing everything to make sure that day remains as far in the future as possible so that it can continue taking more of the land. One of the representatives of the Palestinian right-wing political parties captured this sad truth succinctly when he said that "The only language Israel understands is the Intifada language." If only it were not so.
Khalil took us to the coastal highway that runs along the Mediterranean to show us one of the Israeli methods of control. This highway is a major traffic artery in Gaza, connecting the south and north. At a key junction in the road, just across from the Israeli settlement of Netzarim, the Israelis had driven huge sand drifts onto and around the road. Cars struggled to make it over and around the sand dunes, which were arranged in a seemingly random pattern. The Israelis would occasionally bring out heavy equipment and rearrange the sand to keep the road nearly impassable. Every day, long lines of cars would back up at this sand barricade. The day we were there, we saw a car trying and failing again and again to make it to the top of one rise, as more and more cars and trucks backed up behind it. I imagined what it would be like to have these kinds of blockades on our own highways.
We also went to the Jabaliya refugee camp, which has the distinction of being one of the most densely populated regions on the planet, with about 10,000 people per square mile. We saw sand piles here similar to those at Netzarim, among the crowded streets; our taxi driver maneuvered around them. There were hundreds of children playing in the street. The sand piles were apparently put there to provide some minimal level of protection from Israeli tanks, in the event of an invasion. Someone later told me not to walk up onto those piles because many of them were mined—and I thought about the children of Jabaliya, who must be aware of this so that they know not to play on them, and who live their lives with the daily threat of incursions by Israeli tanks. The day that we were there, there was a funeral for a 14-year old boy from Jabaliya who had been killed by the Israelis near Netzarim; they claimed he had been attempting to enter the settlement with two other children (who were also killed) to attack the settlers.
Childhood innocence is a luxury that is in short supply in the West Bank and Gaza. The director of one human rights group told us how he had been horrified when his 7-year old twins had asked him for guns, to defend themselves. They had seen what happened to Mohammed Al-Dura—the boy whose killing by Israeli soldiers as his father tried desperately to shield him had shocked the entire world—and they were afraid the same would happen to them. They said to their father, "You can't protect us from the Israelis," and though it pained him terribly to hear it he knew also that it was true.
The director of the Gaza UPMRC told us that they were deeply concerned about the emotional and mental health of the children, who would always talk about tanks, F-16s, Apaches, and deaths. We heard many accounts of bedwetting and psychological trauma among children who had witnessed Israeli attacks and been forced to live under curfew as the terrifying sounds of tank fire and missile strikes resounded through the day and the night.
On Monday we would go to the south of Gaza, and see the occupation at its worst.