Friday, January 18, 2008

Night Sky in Gaza

I'm not a positive or optimistic person but my friends and co-workers in Palestine have taught me how to find the best things in the worst situation and how to enjoy the moment while I can.

When people ask me why I go to Gaza I usually joke that it's my vacation. Gaza is on the Mediterranean and someday I hope it will be beautiful, especially for the people who live there and have survived decades of hell on earth. But sometimes I feel like I really am on vacation.

Even in the worst circumstances there are moments when everything is quiet and you can close your eyes and hear the sea. I took a walk last Saturday with a friend. It was the first walk for me in Gaza. Ever. We went to the beach and collected sea shells. We even put our feet in the warm water.

On my last night in Gaza, we were driving home from dinner with friends. There was no electricity in most of the towns and neighborhoods we drove through so we had a beautiful view of the night sky. Looking up you could almost forget that you were in one of the most densely populated places in the world.

I know these brief moments are not available to everyone in Gaza and that they come easier to me since I'm only in Palestine for a visit. I know most people in Gaza (and in the West Bank) are too consumed with the safety of their children and families, figuring out where the next meal is coming from, and wondering what is next. But even in the midst of this, there are festivals, sports matches, and dark nights that let people take a deep breath. I think this is some of the most important work our partners are doing in Palestine - creating spaces for children and the local community to leave behind the burdens of daily life for a few minutes or a few hours.

Of course, the Israeli occupation is still there and drags people back to reality. When the Al-Assria organized a festival in Gaza City a few months ago, 600 people came to watch the debka dancing and celebrate Palestinian culture. But at the end, they all went back to homes without reliable electricity or clean water. When the Ibdaa basketball team won the West Bank championship last summer there were bus loads of fans from three generations. But then we traveled back from Ramallah through Israeli checkpoints, getting stopped for hours. And in the midst of a dark, tranquil night last week there was a loud boom from Israeli warplanes bombing a car.

Since I left Gaza on Tuesday morning, 30 people have been killed in Gaza. This is a huge number and it becomes even larger when you think about how small Gaza is. It's equivalent to 60 people being killed in Los Angeles or 165 in New York City. But more frightening than the numbers is how "normal" these almost daily killings have become for the international community and also for people in Palestine.

Monday, January 14, 2008

People, Presidents and Peace

I remember now why I stopped watching television and reading newspapers. I can't bear to read stories and listen to commentaries on political issues that are unrelated to people’s reality.

For months the main discourse on Palestine/Israel in the US has been about peace talks and negotiations. I managed to avoid most of the fanfare by getting my news from a few select websites but I was forced to pay attention this week when George W. Bush came to visit.

I was quietly sipping my morning tea at Ibdaa Cultural Center, just outside of Bethlehem, when we heard planes overhead and rushed to the windows. You see there are no airports in the West Bank so it's unusual and worrisome to find low flying planes. It turned out they were US planes checking the area in preparation for Bush's visit to Ramallah and Bethlehem. Some friends told me that they landed at the helicopter landing strip just beside Dheisheh Refugee Camp and loads of men in uniforms came out and then piled into black SUVs. When Bush himself came to the Bethlehem area a few days later, his security detail closed many streets to cars and imposed curfew on several neighborhoods.

Bush’s visit was supposed to show that he is serious about peace but during a press conference he joked about Israeli checkpoints - something that is anything but funny to the 2.3 million Palestinians in the West Bank who cannot travel freely from one Palestinian city to another because of the checkpoints. It takes more than words to show you are serious. There is no doubt that he and the rest of my government are good with words – peace, human rights, democracy – I’m sure you’re familiar with their favorites. But we are draining the last shreds of meaning from these words by never using our resources and political power for any of these causes.

While my president met with the Palestinian president in Ramallah to make abstract statements and plan for a peace settlement that will never come to be, I was lucky enough to be with people in Gaza.

I spent that morning at a school in Bureij Refugee Camp. Afaq Jadeeda Association, one of MECA’s partners in Gaza, had completed construction of a water purification system for the school and planned an opening ceremony with children, teachers, and community members. Safe drinking water is hard to find in Gaza so the children’s parliament came to Afaq Jadeeda with this idea. Now 2000 children have access to clean water which is wonderful but not nearly enough.

There are 1.5 million people living in Gaza and more than half are children. The situation has become so bad that it would be worth celebrating if everyone’s basic needs were met. Israel has put heavy restrictions on the border crossings. They have reduced the amount of fuel coming into Gaza so the only power station cannot run at full capacity and homes, schools, and hospitals must go without electricity for several hours each day. We have only had power for three hours since morning and it is now 11pm. Dr. Mona’s computer is ruined because of the fluctuation in power and the same is happening to important equipment throughout Gaza.

The border restrictions and power outages have made the prices for food, candles, cigarettes, and especially chocolate go up and up while family’s incomes go down and down. I visited a farm just outside of Khan Younis today – there were at least 10 people there harvesting onions but they will not be able to earn a living from their hard work because they cannot export the onions and people in Gaza do not have enough money to pay fair prices.

How can Abbas, Bush and Olmert discuss peace just a few miles from these children without clean water? I am turning off the television and the radio and closing the New York Times website. I have seen the effects of US and Israeli policies in Gaza and I don’t want to hear the word peace until they are able to show it to me here in Gaza.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Back in Gaza

I'm back in Gaza. It's been almost a year since my last visit here and I don't quite know what to say or where to begin.

The situation has been terrible and dangerous in Gaza since my first visit in May 2004 (and much before). But each time there are new obstacles and difficulties for the ordinary people to overcome - military incursion, international sanctions, power outages, water shortages, closure - the list could go on for pages.

In May and August 2004 I came just after major Israeli military incursions that destroyed hundreds of houses and acres of orange groves and farm land. I can still picture Beit Hanoun in August 2004. The taxi driver stopped the car and I was sure that he had made a mistake and taken us to the wrong spot. I had been on the same street just a month and a half before and at that time both sides of the street were lined with houses and there were acres of orange trees behind the houses on the left. I was horrified when I recognized one of the houses that was left standing. The neighborhood was decimated.

Since August 2004 my visits to Gaza have been so infrequent that I can no longer be sure whether I have been to an area before. The landscape changes so drastically and the rubble from years of demolished houses, factories, and schools blend together; it's nearly impossible for my untrained eye to discern last week's destruction from last year's.

The long journey

I woke up early on Tuesday morning and phoned the liaison office at Erez Crossing which is run by the Israeli army. After five days my request had been approved so I arranged a ride to the crossing and packed my bags - stopping to get chocolate and cigarettes for friends in Gaza because both are now rare commodities with exorbitant prices.

I arrived at Erez at 2pm and submitted my passport to an Israeli police officer. They told me to sit and wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. There were only a handful of people crossing that day - a few foreigners who work at NGOs, a couple of Palestinians returning from meetings in Israel and the West Bank, and one or two journalists. They all came and went while I sat and read my book.

At 6pm I was finally able to speak with someone besides the woman behind the desk. He told me I didn't have permission but I insisted I did and showed him the call log on my cell phone that showed my phone call to Erez that morning. He sent me to another building to speak with someone from the army. The details aren't that important, just the absurdity of it as I went back forth between the army and the police. I was alternately told I had permission, I didn't have permission, I never applied and needed to send an application, and that I was talking to the wrong person. I was finally sent away at 7pm.

I came back the next morning and was allowed to enter. One woman from the liason office claimed there was a computer error on Tuesday and that everything was fixed now. I consider myself lucky to have been able to pass and to have gotten any kind of explanation, no matter how implausible. There are countless stories of Palestinians seeking medical treatment or wanting to travel for their studies or jobs and they are turned away again and again by Israel, locked inside Gaza with only a word of explanation: security.

First impressions

Most of my family and friends asked me not to come to Gaza. They saw the death tolls in the days leading up to my trip - 11 in 24 hours, 6 the next day including a mother and her children - and told me it was too dangerous. They're right. It is too dangerous in Gaza. Too many people have lost their lives: 290 Gazans were killed by Israeli forces in 2007 dozens more from internal fighting.

But, as always, life goes on. Just like life went on in Rafah after thousands of people were made homeless in 2004 for Israel to build a wall between Gaza and Egypt. And when sonic bombs terrified the population in 2005 because there were no longer Israeli settlers in Gaza who would have also been disturbed. And when the main power plant was bombed leaving much of the population without electricity and international sanctions increased the number of people living in poverty in 2006.

I have spent the past year reading articles and reports of human rights violations; rising poverty; shortages of food, medication, and other necessities; and many other horrors. These are an important part of the story but they are not the whole story. It's strange to say, but it's actually great to be here, surrounded by friends and co-workers, seeing a bit of the other side of life in Gaza. There is no doubt that the situation is hard for people and that they are suffering because of the policies of the Israeli government and the indifference of the international community, but people are making the best of these hard circumstances and I'm glad to be here to see it.

I'll post photos and stories later but need to stop here before the power goes out again.