We set out south for Khan Younis early in the morning. To get to Khan Younis we had to pass the Abu Houli checkpoint; like Erez, this was no makeshift checkpoint along the lines of those in the West Bank, but rather a fortified military position. Sniper towers were in evidence all around it. Abu Houli is one of the most notorious checkpoints in Gaza or the West Bank, and with good reason. It marks the intersection of the main Palestinian road in Gaza with an Israeli settler-only road, and priority is given to the Israeli settlers and military traffic. It is only opened twice a day for Palestinian traffic, once in the morning and once in the evening, and then for only an hour or so each time. Cars stack up, sometimes for up to two miles on either side of the checkpoint, filled with people waiting to pass to the other side of Gaza.
The actual times at which it will be opened for Palestinians are unpredictable, and sometimes the Israelis do not open it at all. When that happens, Palestinians trapped there in the press of cars have a choice: try to walk back to their homes (assuming they're on the right side of the checkpoint, are within walking distance, and are in good enough health to do so), or sleep in their cars overnight and hope that the checkpoint will be opened in the morning. And all the while they are waiting, either choking on the constantly blowing sand and dust or sweltering in their closed cars in order to avoid it, they can watch Israeli settlers drive by at high speed along the settler-only highway.
We were lucky to arrive in the morning shortly before Abu Houli opened; we would not be so lucky in the afternoon. The taxi driver dropped us off well short of the checkpoint and we had to continue on foot toward it. However, since everyone who goes through Abu Houli must be in a vehicle, we had to find cars or trucks along the way to take us through and drop us off on the other side. As always, it was no problem to find someone willing to help.
There was a tiny window in the opposite wall, and looking through it we could see a small sliver of the settlement, the source of the bullet. The outside wall itself was covered with bullet holes; I stopped counting when I reach two dozen. This house was close to the edge of camp but not quite on it, and I could not begin to imagine how people could live in the houses that were on the very periphery.
Next we headed toward a truly astonishing site: the Al Tofah checkpoint. Al Tofah sits at the edge of Khan Younis. The checkpoint itself is an imposing collection of sniper posts and watchtowers, situated across a broad no-man's land from the edge of Khan Younis, but what is truly amazing is the wall that starts at the checkpoint. It is several stories high, and it extends as far as the eye can see, an unbroken line of white concrete rising up out of the sand. It beggars the imagination.
Al Tofah and this massive wall that abuts it are ostensibly there to protect the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif. But there is one major problem with this arrangement: namely, the Palestinian town of Al Mawasi, which is trapped between Gush Katif and the Mediterranean Sea. If Gazans have little freedom of movement, those living in Al Mawasi have almost none; they are prisoners within the prison that is Khan Younis, within the prison that is Gaza, within the prison that is Palestine. A journalist friend of ours had mentioned that she tried to approach Al Tofah twice, holding her passport over her head, and both times the Israelis would not allow her anywhere near—they simply started shooting. The day after our visit, a 56-year old man was shot and killed there. Al Tofah translates as "Apple" Gate, but the Palestinians call it by a more descriptive name: Death Gate.
The part of Khan Younis that faces Al Tofah, across the expanse of the no-man's land, is simply destroyed. This is no overstatement. There is a building on either side of the road leading from Khan Younis into Al Tofah, and the settlement-facing sides of these buildings have been ripped to shreds.
One of the buildings has been destroyed largely by small arms fire alone; there is literally a bullet hole every few inches in the concrete throughout the five floors. Rubble is strewn across the sand. A lone building sits inside the no-man's land itself, about halfway between Khan Younis and Al Tofah, and it is now no more than a husk, a shattered three-story remnant which teeters precariously on broken concrete stilts. It is a minor miracle that it has not fallen; perhaps the Israelis choose not to finish the job, to leave it there as an object lesson for the Palestinian refugees. Nowhere is the contrast between the nearly invincible military might and savagery of the Israelis, and the utter and complete vulnerability of the Palestinians, more clear than at this awful place.
We left Al Tofah and went to visit the vice president of Khan Younis. His house was facing a settlement, like so many in Gaza; we could see the settlement on the high ground across an expanse of sand. He had placed a large sign on the outside of his house which read, "ATTENTION!! FAMILIES LIVE HERE." It was written in both Hebrew and English (the latter necessary because so many "Israeli" settlers are in fact émigrés from the US, who move to Israel and set up house in the settlements with the direct encouragement of the Israeli government). We talked on the roof of his house in view of the settlements. He told us, "If I ever want to die, I will stand here at night." He mentioned one time when his wife was very ill but he could not take her to the hospital, because he would likely have been shot for trying to "attack" the settlement; a neighbor of his had been wounded in just this way only the night before. He told us that 2 or 3 children were shot or otherwise injured by the Israelis every day in and around Khan Younis. I began to truly understand what I had been told up until now about Gaza.
His bedroom had one wall directly facing the settlement, and in it he had stacked sandbags from floor to ceiling, three levels deep, so that he and his wife would not be killed by settler gunfire as they slept. He laughed as he told us, "The mice come in, but what can we do?" This is typical of Gaza humor, which rarely lacks a sting. As he looked out from the rooftop toward the Mediterranean, he said wistfully, "It is easier for me to go to New York than to go the one kilometer to the sea."
Our last stop in the south of Gaza was the town of Rafah, on the southern border with Egypt. Like Khan Younis, Rafah ends at an expanse of land and then an Israeli military installation, in this case one called Termit Outpost. The last three blocks of Rafah are quite literally a no-man's land; they look like some sort of apocalyptic imagining. Every building there has been shot up, burned, bulldozed, or otherwise damaged in some way. Rubble and piles of semi-identifiable objects line the street; there are sandbag barriers at each side street. We walked out to the very edge of town towards Termit, surveying the incredible destruction, which rivaled the destruction we'd seen at Al Tofah.
I looked out toward the sniper tower and imagined them looking back toward me (through the gun sights, of course). As we walked back toward the town a few kids on bicycles rode past us and up the street into the no-man's land. They rode only a short distance on the street before turning off down a side street, but in that time there was a sound like an explosion behind us. We turned and saw smoke rising from a pile of rubble near the end of the street, just feet from where we had been standing moments before. Had the Israelis been shooting at us, or at the kids—and in either case, for what possible reason? Clearly neither of us posed them any threat. We asked Amjad later and he responded with typical Gaza humor: "You never know with the Israelis...sometimes they shoot to say hello, sometimes they shoot to say goodbye."
So we said goodbye to Rafah, Khan Younis, and the south of Gaza, now understanding fully the meaning of the stories we had heard, the reality behind the dry facts and figures. But one ordeal still awaited us: Abu Houli checkpoint. We arrived at 3pm, among the first to get there, and we began waiting for the Israelis to let us through. Cars stacked up all around us and behind us—you could barely walk between them. Jeff and I stood at the front of the line of cars, just 10 or 15 yards from the Israeli gun tower, watching the gun barrel inside play across the crowd.
A sniper lay in the grass to our left behind sandbags, his rifle trained on us since we were at the front. Soldiers were putting up a barbed wire fence. Some Palestinians motioned for me to come sit in the back of their truck and talk. It was now nearing 5:30pm, but when I mentioned this they just said "Patience, patience!" They told me that they made this trip every day, and that this was no wait at all—if it got to be 7:30pm or so they would start taking naps in the back of the truck.
(Khalil's upstairs neighbors were a group of young women—he affectionately referred to them as "the guys"—from Rafah and Khan Younis who took classes at a university in Gaza City in the north.
They were his neighbors because there was no possible way for them to commute each day through Abu Houli checkpoint and still count on getting to their classes. And so they lived in Gaza City during the week, and returned to the south to be with their family and friends whenever they could make it through the checkpoints. The same story, endlessly repeated.)
There were five internationals in our group, and we decided it would be worth trying an action to see if we couldn't help to resolve this ridiculous situation. We held our hands over our heads with our passports in our hands and slowly approached the gun tower at the checkpoint. We called out and asked them to open the gate and let these people through. The only response from inside the gun tower was a shout of "Stop! I will shoot!" from an Israeli soldier. The Palestinians behind us believed him—they were worried for our safety, and called out for us to come back. We realized that if the soldier did shoot over our heads it was likely that he would hit someone in the crowd behind us, and since there was no media present to document the event there would be little incentive for him not to do it. So we turned around and headed back toward the cars, feeling soundly defeated. It had been nothing at all and over almost before it began, but nonetheless the Palestinians shook our hands and beamed at us in appreciation when we returned. They were just happy that someone had been willing to try to help them, no matter what the result. And again I thought about the underlying racism that allowed us even this much freedom; had five Palestinians tried to do what we had just done, they would almost certainly be either injured or dead.
Finally at about 7pm the Israelis chose to open Abu Houli and let us through, and we left the horrors of the south of Gaza behind us.
The Israeli invasion had still not come, and in fact the Israeli military had begun making new incursions in the West Bank, so Jeff and I felt that it would be best if we headed back there. It was difficult to leave behind the new friends we had made in Gaza: Khalil, his family—especially his two young children, ages 2 and 3, who had taken to calling each of us "amo" (uncle)—Amjad, the guys, the street falafel vendors who knew us by sight now and greeted us whenever we came, and so many others. We headed back to Jerusalem with all of them on our minds and in our hearts, hoping only that they would be safe when (not if) the Israeli invasion finally did come.
In Jerusalem we met up again with our old group from Ramallah and Jenin, just as we'd promised. We spent a rare quiet evening walking around Jerusalem, enjoying the cool night air, and listening to stories from the proprietor of our hostel. As always, the discussion turned to evictions, house demolitions, permit denials, and other omnipresent topics of the occupation. But on that night as on the nights with Khalil and his family and the guys, the smiles and laughter outweighed everything else.
The next morning Jeff and I headed to Hebron. The Israelis had invaded just days before, and they were still in town; many internationals were going there to see how they could help. When we reached Hebron, the big news was the impending funeral for nine people killed by the Israelis (it had been eight, but a child had been shot and killed just a few hours earlier, and he would be buried with the others).
I went to the Al Ahlia hospital, where most of the internationals were based. They had been staying there to try to prevent the Israelis from taking patients away; just the prior evening the Israeli tanks had surrounded the hospital and Israeli troops had come inside.
We went to the funeral procession that afternoon with a UPMRC volunteer named Nassem. He was a wonderfully gentle and soft-spoken man, constantly smiling. I stood with him and talked as the crowd at the mosque swelled around us, waiting for the bodies to be carried inside. In a level voice he told me that three of the dead were his cousins. I looked at him in shock. How had they died? He told me that they had seen a man outside their home shot by a helicopter, bleeding from his wounds just yards from their front door, and when they had gone outside out to help him, they were shot and killed. I couldn't imagine what he must be feeling. An older man began to faint, and two people supported him and brought him over toward the ambulance where we were standing. Someone told me that two of his sons were being buried today. Once again it was made clear in the starkest terms that the occupation left no one's life untouched.
Back at the hospital we were taken to the room of a doctor who had been shot in the side while he was trying to help two men who had been injured by the Israelis. He was heavily medicated and barely able to talk, and so we left him in peace to recover from his wounds. The internationals there introduced me to another doctor who had been taken into custody just last night by the IDF, and moved from tank to tank around Hebron. At one point the Israelis threatened to drop him off near Qiryat Arba, a settlement notorious for its militant inhabitants (many of them émigrés from Brooklyn, New York), and he said to them, "If you want to kill me, you should just shoot me." He was in good spirits now. I mentioned to him that I had begun to get sick after many late nights and early mornings in Gaza, and in no time he had whisked me away to the infirmary to give me cold and fever medicine. I did not want to take anything from people who needed it much more than me, but he would have none of it, and he made it clear that this type of medicine was not in short supply. As always, the generosity of the Palestinians I had met was overwhelming.
That night we slept in the hospital wards, but nothing happened—it appeared that the Israelis had finished their assault on Hebron and were pulling out. The next morning we spoke to the head doctor at the hospital, and he told us that he felt there was no longer a need for protection by internationals. I was nearing my departure date anyway, and so I decided to go back to Jerusalem to take a day of rest, to try to keep from getting sick. Little did I know that I would get almost no sleep at all for the next 60 hours, and that I would be leaving sooner than I had thought.