Return to Gaza

Return to Gaza

“It was like this during the war two years ago: hot days, brisk nights and the Mediterranean with no waves, windless, so strange,” Ahmed Bakry told me in his office on Omar al-Mokhtar Street in Gaza City. The war was Israel’s Cast Lead operation, the 2008-2009 winter attack on the Gaza Strip that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead, the majority of them innocent civilians. The massacre was on his mind, both because this month is its biennial and because massacre is on everyone’s mind. Worries over imminent war have suffused the mental atmosphere of the Strip as war threats have been emerging daily from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israeli Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, commenting on a recent uptick in the rate of rocket firing from the Gaza Strip in response to Israeli provocations – a well-documented pattern – said, “We hope that the security situation in the south does not deteriorate; however the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] is preparing for any scenario.” The popular impression in Gaza is that the question is not one of possibility – it’s one of timing.

In Gaza, Palestinians chafe under the Israeli-imposed siege. In spite of the much-touted easing, economist Omar Shaban of Pal-Think tells me, “The siege is still there, and anger is growing.” In the fertile soil of justified anger, resistance germinates – some of it inevitably violent. Resistance fighters recently tested a Kornet anti-tank missile against a Merkava tank patrolling the perimeter of Gaza, piercing its outer hull. Ashkenazi noted, “It is a heavy missile and one of the most dangerous in the region, which was also fired toward the IDF during the Lebanon War. We hold the Hamas as the party responsible in the Gaza Strip,” despite recent and well-publicized attempts by the Hamas government to control rocket firing out of Gaza.

In the turbulent wake of Ashkenazi’s words, speculation proliferates. Shaban told me that although people are “worried about the war,” the verbal bellicosity was mostly “talk, meant to reduce rocket firing to a lower level. The Israelis will tolerate a certain low level. And us in Gaza? None of us expect total peace here in the next ten years.” Israeli defense analyst Yaakov Katz agrees, noting that “the more likely possibility is that the current escalation will eventually simmer down, but not completely extinguish,” in the absence of a “catalyst” such as a Kassam rocket falling on a child in Sderot or Ashkelon.

Such “catalysts” continue to be near-daily events in the Gaza Strip, still under a psychically strangulating siege and pummeled regularly, as was apparent from nearly the moment I arrived in Gaza four weeks ago, on December 23. An hour after being cleared through the Rafah crossing, I sat down at a cafe overlooking the Mediterranean. Within a half-hour, the serenity of the unruffled sea was shattered by the reports from Israeli naval gunships ricocheting off the water as they fired warning shots at fishermen nearing the three-mile – and illegal – maritime blockade that the Israeli Navy enforces in Gaza’s territorial waters. Later, I learned that those shots from the Navy warships were twinned to shots coming from snipers stationed on Gaza’s northern frontier with Israel. Israeli army gunmen had shot and killed a 20-year-old shepherd, Salama Abu Hashish, who was apparently shot through the kidney from the back as he was herding his animals a few hundred meters from the border.

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According to the Israeli army, he had trespassed into the Israeli-imposed buffer zone, a swathe of land between one-half and two kilometers wide that lengthens and narrows in a sinuous belt along the Gazan side of the boundary with Israel. That no-go area, emplaced by Israeli fiat, robs Palestinian farmers living in Gaza of between 29 and 36 percent of the picayune region’s arable land, sharply curtailing agricultural capacity.

Later, I went to the martyr’s tent in Beit Lahiya. The shepherd who died had been newly married. His child had been born two days before. His father said, “I am open,” indicating a line running along his sternum. The young man who had died had been his oldest son, leaving three brothers and two sisters. These murders have been occurring at the rate of one per week, if not more frequently, since I left last July. No one notices. They are generally underreported, or not reported at all, in the Western press, a racist double-standard that elicits an eruption at the death of a Jewish Israeli – that suggests that the death of an Israeli civilian is a potential “catalyst” for war – and does not even bother to shrug at the death of a Bedouin living with his sheep, shot from behind while searching for a bit of grass on which to pasture them.

What remains for his father is bleak tragedy. During my visit, his father asked me, rhetorically rather than desperately, “Where is our freedom?” I pretended to not understand the Arabic and looked pathetically at the ground. This man and his fellow Gazans know exactly where their freedom is, because they know who has taken it away, and they wait for it – as they have for over 60 years now – resisting all the while. They wait with astounding and wrenching patience and resist with amazing steadfastness. As Harvard academic Sara Roy, the leading American expert on Gaza, writes, “Perhaps what they resist most is surrender: not to Israel, not to Hamas, but to hate. So many people still speak of peace, of wanting to resolve the conflict and live a normal life.” They are furious at Israel and what has been done to their lives, but the sheer simplicity, the mundane regularity of what remains of their hopes is perhaps what remains most affecting about them.

What they want, says organizer Saber Zaaneen, who works with the nongovernmental organization Local Initative coordinating nonviolent resistance in northern Gaza, is for the world to “take the findings of the Goldstone Report seriously.” They want the rule of law not only internally, but also internationally.

Further south, Bedouin farmers in the southeastern Gaza hamlet of Karara want something still simpler: to be able to farm their land in safety in the border areas. They want funding and equipment to rebuild their well, which was damaged by the Israeli army, so they can properly irrigate their crops. They don’t want revolutionary political arrangements, but rather the simple ones that Israeli policy makes impossible: to control their own borders, to be able to export, to develop. Mona al-Farra, a physician and leading human rights activist, writes of “the Palestinian people’s ability to continue living, tolerating the most tragic events,” and adds that they “are a nation that is looking forward towards a normal, peaceful life. We deserve it, and we deserve our independent state and identity so we can take part in the area’s development.” Meanwhile, Israel and the United States, in deadly concert, insist on refusing to talk to Hamas and on communicating with the population of this overcrowded coastal strip through a bombsight, under the assumption, as Sara Roy presciently wrote 17 years ago, that “desperation of the kind found in Gaza will in some not-too-distant future bring appeasement, that Palestinians will reach a breaking point and finally relent. They will not.”

And when they don’t, the Israeli-American air force will unleash a fresh round of hell on this child-filled ghetto – and to what end? Hamas will never agree to reconciliation terms with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and perhaps this is what the civilian-military managers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv wish: a split, divided Palestinian populace, unable to unite, unable to resist. At the flicker of resistance, they will respond with a deluge of bombs, thinking they can bomb the people here into surrender. Such a policy is not merely homicidal; it’s also suicidal. Shaban asked me, “Why do the Israelis live in this region as though they are tourists? Don’t they care for their grandchildren?” If one were to try to answer this question by looking at those Israeli’s actions, it is not so clear. As Matzpen founder and Israeli dissident Michael Warschawski writes, it is not just those in the Gaza Strip who should be waiting in anxious expectation for the next high explosive enfilade. For Israel, too, as it remains insistent on interacting with the Arabs of the Middle East solely with the club, its victims are learning from the master, and the next defeat “is only a matter of time, and this time it will undoubtedly come from the North.”