From the emergency room in Lewisham Hospital in London on Wednesday evening, I called my parents to inform them of a sudden allergic reaction I had to something that remains unknown.
I wanted to hear their voices which never fail to comfort me in exile whenever I experience moments of uncertainty – even though I know that they experience an extreme level of uncertainty at their end, in Gaza.
At that moment, around 11pm Palestine time, my parents would usually be asleep, but I called anyway, and to my surprise, my mom Halima answered quickly. She sounded troubled as she offered a list of instructions to avoid such allergic reactions.
The radio was playing in the background and my dad would interrupt the conversation, and both sounded distracted. Something was wrong.
“Bombings are everywhere. May God protect us and have mercy upon us. If you were here, you would have thought it was the beginning of another full-scale attack,” my mom said.
“The sky lights up and then a massive bombardment is heard, and within seconds another one, and another one, shaking the ground underneath us. The walls feel like they’re falling down.”
My parents just celebrated the arrival of their first grandchild. They called her Eliya, one of Jerusalem’s ancient names. Ever since, she’s been the focus of our conversations.
“Eliya, bless her, is crying non-stop as if she senses the danger. We can hear her screams from here as your brother Muhammad and Asma [his wife] are trying to comfort her,” my mom said in distressed tones. “We are panicking ourselves. Imagine how kids are feeling this terror.”
The anti-allergy injection given to me in the ambulance was making me drowsy, but the impact of her words made me switch back on.
This experience seemed to sum up the parallel realities I’ve lived since since I left Gaza.
Growing up in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, uncertainty defined everyday life. Death is always present, even as you do your most mundane activity in your most secure place.
And yet we learned to face our worst fears and continue to live without internalizing this horror as if it were normal.
That is why resistance was a necessity in the face of this life of uncertainty and dehumanization.
Gaza is only a part of a much larger system of violence, displacement and confinement designed by Israel, and funded and normalized by the so-called international community.
The reality in Gaza is the product of settler-colonialism, ethnic cleansing, sadistic militarism, supremacist ideologies and moral hypocrisy. It is a showcase of not only Israel’s inhumanity, but that of the world as a whole.
Ever since I was old enough to understand the injustices that surrounded me as a child, I woke up every day questioning how despite its enchantment with human rights slogans, the world allowed this situation to continue.
Thursday morning, I called my family as soon as I woke up. My brother and his wife had a sleepless night with their 2-week old daughter.
My mom, who just got home from work, was eager to have a nap after a restless night. She works as a nurse in Beach refugee camp, at a children’s clinic run by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
But instead she sat on the tiles by the garden door to let her body soak in the coolness, as the lack of electricity in Gaza, except for a few hours per day, means that the air conditioners my family had installed cannot be used.
As she sat there, she told me stories of the mothers who came to the clinic.
“Several women told me that they had a sleepless night with their children crying out of fear,” my mom recalled. “They were clinging to them.”
Others said their children, including older ones, wet their beds.
“May God help them,” my mom said shaking her head. “I raised you all in extraordinary situations, and I worry Eliya is going to grow up in similar conditions, if not worse.”
I was looking at my mom on the phone with one eye, the other glancing at London’s modern skyline from the 11th floor apartment of a friend that looked out on a city and world that seemed entirely undisturbed by what is happening in Palestine.
Our conversation was interrupted by a troubled silence that indicated there was more to be said.
I perfectly understood her without a word being spoken, however. I remember how we barely expressed our emotions as individuals when we were all in the same boat, experiencing the same violence.
We had no choice but to be strong for each other, and support one another to keep moving forward.
Then my mother spoke about how most families in Gaza had lost a loved one, or had someone suffer a permanent disability due to successive Israeli attacks. Amid the catastrophic humanitarian and economic situation caused by Israel’s siege, people are exhausted.
“Our situation is heaven in comparison to other families who are completely dependent on UN aid and do not have even one member with a regular income,” my mom observed.
“We did not stand idle”
My mother sounded agonized as she spoke about the overwhelming situation and reflected that the challenges of wartime seem almost bearable compared with the grinding aftermath.
“Precisely!” I said, in an effort to bring some hope into the conversation. “What makes people go to protest near the fence with Israel is that they have nothing to lose but a life of misery.”
“Confronting and throwing stones at Israeli snipers lined up behind the fence is a means of survival to escape this cycle of powerlessness,” I said. I told my mother I thought it was an act of defiance and dignity.
“If only the world outside knew how we experience life. If only they put themselves in our shoes for a second,” I added.
“The times when we lived under physical military occupation were much better,” my mom said, interrupting me. She was referring to the years from 1967 until 2005, when Israel maintained soldiers and settlers deep inside the Gaza Strip, instead of besieging it from the perimeter.
I was confused and asked her to explain.
“We had confrontations then, similar to what we have experienced at the Great March of Return, but from even closer,” she said. “They would use their military power on us but we would have a brief window to express resistance, which was somehow consoling.”
“We would stand in their faces without any fear, despite our knowledge that they would eventually do what they are indoctrinated to do – imposing roadblocks, curfews, house raids and detention campaigns,” my mother explained. “We would stand tall in front of them as they attempted to kidnap your father, or one of your uncles, scream at them and curse them, eye to eye.”
“The Tamimis were every family in Gaza, during the first intifada,” she said, referring to the West Bank family of the teenager Ahed Tamimi, renowned for its role in the village of Nabi Saleh’s unarmed resistanceto Israeli occupation and colonization.
“I remember when the army broke into our house in the middle of the night, soon after your birth, looking for your father. They turned everything upside down and stole your father’s pictures and notebooks,” my mom said. “We did not stand still as they ruined everything. We resisted. We pushed them and threw our belongings which they had broken back at them.”
“But now they just drop missiles at us from their warplanes, gunboats or tanks as we sit in our homes unable to confront them.”
My mother mentioned the pregnant mother and her young daughter killed in their home in an Israeli airstrike Wednesday night.
“They could have been any of us,” she said.
Whenever I talk anyone in my family, they say nothing much has changed, as if time has forgotten about their corner of world.
But time did not forget them completely. They experience time differently: through an innovative form of military occupation which has turned Gaza into a caged laboratory for lethal technologies to be sold later to other countries as “battle tested.”
They experience the progress of time as a regression, with resistance – not accepting their abnormal situation as normal – the only way to break free.
This article was first published on the Electronic Intifada
A clip on AJ+ titled, “Save the Children says Gaza has become unlivable for its one million children,” triggered a troubling anger in me. Sounds familiar? A UN report published in 2005 warned that the Gaza Strip could become “unliveable” by 2020.
As a person born and raised in Gaza’s open-air prison until just before Israel’s deadliest attack in summer 2014, this statement evokes numerous traumatic flashbacks. It makes me wonder: Has Gaza ever been liveable since Israel came to existence?
I cannot help but be furious at how the world continues to be blind to the fact that Gaza has already been unliveable for not only a year, or a decade, but for several decades. The disastrous humanitarian circumstances that this enclave has endured do not go back to when Israel officially designated Gaza as a ‘hostile entity’, legitimating the collective punishment of its population. It goes back to when Israel was created and the consequent influx of displaced Palestinians that were crammed into Gaza.
My grandparents were among those dispersed and dispossessed. Right now it just feels too painful to even think of how they coped with the experience of being uprooted from their evergreen villages. Yes, since even then, Gaza has been unliveable. Israeli missiles don’t have to be falling over civilians’ rooftops, killing innocents, for life there to ‘become’ unliveable.
It’s been almost 4 years since I left Gaza, and my memories remain very vivid, despite some memories I wish I could forget forever. I wish I didn’t have to draw examples from them.
A few months before Israel launched its most recent massacre in summer 2014, I remember being so depressed at times that I questioned whether my life was worth living. But I should have only questioned the humanity of the international community and imperial powers that endorsed our dehumanisation. Although I always compared myself with others who were in worse situations in order to be thankful for what I had, my life was unliveable. I remember being upset for missing the graduation ceremony, to which my classmates and I were looking forward, so we could celebrate surviving four years of our BA degree together. To comfort myself, I kept reminding myself of my privilege to have ‘luckily’ received a full scholarship to further my higher education, a dream that we all shared.
But this ‘privilege’ has an enormous toll on me, physically and mentally. Some of its costs accompany me still. For weeks, I persistently tried to cross the Rafah border while focused on my goals, in order to feed my hope and determination. For weeks, I woke up before anybody in the house did. My attempts to cross the border failed so often that I gave up on saying goodbye, and I couldn’t handle the sorrow in my parents’ eyes from having seen me in that situation – trapped, scared and distressed. For weeks, I shared this journey of humiliation with thousands of stranded people, including patients dying, students, children, elderly, and women, all desperately and miserably waiting for their nightmare at the Rafah border to come to an end. I eventually made it out without saying goodbye.
That was neither human nor liveable.
Numerous aspects of life there were unbearable. They still are. Whenever I talk to my family, we rarely engage in a serious conversation. We spend the little time we have – as long as there is power, thus internet – teasing each other and making jokes that usually revolve around electricity. Their humor itself is a coping mechanism that hides immense sorrow and unshed tears. However, being their daughter that knows them so well, I feel the sorrow in their eyes and voices and the topics they choose to share with me – I even feel it in their exaggerated pride of me. They believe that our separation and dispersion is a price for our success, and therefore any symbolic success is overly celebrated among the extended family and even on social media to cope with the trauma of our forced absence. I do feel a heartache when I think of them and of how they’re coping in these increasingly suffocating circumstances. I do feel a stab when I look back and count the years that I had to do without their physical presence in my life. No family should ever live with being forcefully dispersed.
None of this is liveable.
If we are enduring this brutal reality, it is because we love life. We are desperate for an ordinary life, and for that end we have coped somehow with the extraordinary and inhumane situations which surround us. For us, that is a form of resistance, as the other option was succumbing to despair. But our resistance to despair does not make our reality livable.
It’s been forever unliveable. We have expressed our pain and recounted the brutality that we endured before the eyes of the whole world. We voiced our desperation in so many ways, ranging from testimonies, to art and documentary, to armed-struggle against our occupying power, Israel, which has the mightiest military in the world. It doesn’t need an expert or the UN or Save the Children or an international body to testify that Gaza ‘has become unliveable’ or ‘might become uninhabitable by 2020’.
Gaza has been unliveable as a direct result of Israel’s existence, and the whole world has to be accountable for this ongoing dehumanizing cycle of violence that is endorsed by treating Israel as a normal state, which effectively means sentencing Palestinians to eternal misery.
International boycott of Israel is the way forward.
Ever since the emergence of the Palestinian cause, art has been the visual expression of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Most visual production of Palestinian artists has been strongly tied with the political conditions that Zionist settler-colonialism brought in, shaping every facet of the Palestinians’ daily life. Palestinian artists are not exempt from these conditions. Palestinian art has mostly – but not only – reflected the Palestinian people’s suffering and state of loss and exile that the traumatic events of the 1948 Nakba caused.
The well-known Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata raised some questions regarding Palestinian art that I will try to offer a humble answer for through my drawings.
“How does one create art under the threat of sudden death and the unpredictability of invasion and siege? More specifically, how do Palestinian artists articulate their awareness of space when their homeland’s physical space is being diminished daily by barriers and electronic walls and when their own homes could at any moment be occupied by soldiers or even blown out of existence? In what way can an artist engage with the homeland’s landscape when ancient orange and olive groves are being systematically destroyed? When the grief of bereaved families is reduced by the mass media to an abstraction transmitted at lightning speed to a TV screen, what language can a visual artist use to express such grief? (Boullata, 2004)”
This piece will be a personal reflection on my life journey through the lens of my art that was mainly inspired from experiences instilled in my memory from my life in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
Palestinian art as a narrative instrument of resistance:
Palestinian art, from the twentieth century up until now, has always been a visual reflection of the Palestinian struggle that aimed to depict the reality of the Palestinian people, their hopes and aspirations, their suffering, coupled with resistance. It is also a visual self-representation tool that aims to provide a counter narrative to the hegemonic Zionist misleading narrative of the Palestinian reality, to raise political awareness on the Palestinian issue and urge for mobilisation at an international level.
Speaking of narrative brings to mind the words of Edward Said, the late Palestinian exiled academic and writer, which reminds that, “no clear and simple narrative is adequate to the complexity of our experience” (After the Last Sky 1986: 6).
“To be sure, no single Palestinian can be said to feel what most other Palestinians feel: ours has been too various and scattered a fate for that sort of correspondence,” Said eloquently stated. “But there is no doubt that we do in fact form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering and exile” (After the Last Sky 1986: 5-6).
Certainly, Palestinian art has served as a narrative instrument that is used to challenge the hegemonic Zionist narrative which has been tirelessly trying to erase them. Zionism’s existence was fundamentally based on the negation of the very existence of the Palestinian people, a fact that is implicit in Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir’s infamous quotation that, “There was no such thing as Palestinians, they never existed” (Matar, 2011, p. 84).
Among many other forms of expression, art for many Palestinians was seen as a way to visually participate in writing their own narrative, to express their identity, to empower the Palestinians’ voices, and to move beyond the victim circle to become actors who actively, critically and creatively engage with their surrounding matters.
Over the course of the Palestinian struggle, the Palestinian people increasingly regarded every piece of art that came to reflect their living conditions in the Israeli grip as a means of resistance. Many Palestinian paintings displaying the ‘forbidden’ colors of the Palestinian flag have been confiscated, and many artists faced interrogation or even a prison sentence due their art that was perceived as ‘an act of incitement’. Let us not forget the late Palestinian influential exiled artists Ghassan Kanafani and Naji Al-Ali, whose art and literary production led to their murder.
Reflections on my artwork
The majority of Palestinians have become politicised due to their complex and intense political reality that shapes every aspect of their lives. I am no exception. Art for me was an expressive tool in which I found empowerment to my voice. It served as my humble tactic to overcome the state of siege and occupation imposed on us, to escape the feeling of helplessness that can be easily felt in such suppressive and oppressive life conditions that the Palestinian people endure which I was born within. It was also a tool that I used to engage politically and socially with the harsh surrounding. While living in Gaza, my art was an attempt to connect not only on an internal level as a part of the Palestinian community, but also internationally through online social networks that I used as a bridge that connects the international community with the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation, which should be addressed as a central global issue.
Since my birth in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, the biggest and most densely populated refugee camp in Palestine, I have never known what life is like without occupation and siege, injustice and horror. Like the child depicted in Figure 3, growing up in Jabalia refugee camp was the window to understanding the Palestinian reality under occupation. Art has been the way I naturally sought since a very early age to describe what I felt was indescribable.
In the context of Palestine under which people endure unbearable living conditions, creativity is a necessary tool for survival and a way towards less depression and better physical and mental health.
Personally, observing the Palestinian children being born in a difficult reality that subjugates them to terror and trauma at very young age was the most painful. Thus, most of my drawings are of Palestinian children whose innocent facial expressions I find most telling. Check Figure 3, 4 , 5, 6 and 7 in the slideshow below:
An ongoing Nakba:
My generation, the third-generation refugees, was already blueprinted with the traumatic events of the Nakba, which for Palestinians, is not only a tragic historical event that resides in the past, only to be commemorated once a year with events that include art exhibits and national festivals among other things. “It was never one Nakba,” my grandmother used to say asserting that it was never a one-off event that happened in 1948. The Nakba is experienced instead as the uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination that was given continuity by the 1967 occupation, and which every aspect of daily Palestinian life is affected by. Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before, the dispossessed lands that most would never see again, has formed the collective memory of the Palestinian people. My grandmother described a peaceful life in green fields of citrus and olive trees, the tastes, the sounds, the smells that remained only in her memories in our village Beit-Jirja which was violently emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the ground in 1948 like hundreds of other villages.
As Boullata described, ‘Today, memory continues to be the connective tissue through which Palestinian identity is asserted and it is the fuel that replenishes the history of their cultural resistance’ (Boullata, 2009, p. 103). Palestinian art has been always perceived as a cultural form of political resistance which often addressed issues related to collective memory, memories of the Nakba, and the lived reality of injustices and oppression endured by Palestinians under the on-going occupation with an emphasis on the people’s resistance in the face of Israel’s brutality as coupled with hope, which in itself is resistance. Art has served as a basic mobilization tool that was gradually perceived, not only by the Palestinian public, but also by the Israeli forces “as emblematic of a collective national identity and crucibles of defiant resistance to occupation” (Boullata, 2004).
Several drawings of mine, such as those featured below, were an attempt to emphasize this hope through the continuity of the struggle from one generation to another. They were my response to several Zionist leaders who assumed that time will make the Palestinian refugees forget about their right to return. The drawings come to assert that they were absolutely wrong. The old will die and the young will keep on holding the key, embracing their legitimate right to return. The key is a symbol of the undying Palestinian hope that return is inevitable. The young generation is perceived as those who will carry the burden of the cause and continue the struggle that the previous generation started until freedom, justice, equality and return to the Palestinian people. Thus, Palestinian children became the symbol through which “We nurse hope” as Mahmoud Darwish said (Darwish, 2002).
From an early age, drawing was not only a tool of expression, but also a way to convey a political message, to call for mobilisation in support of the Palestinian struggle. The power of art lays in the fact that is a universal language to communicate the unspeakable that many people in safety zones cannot fully understand. With the availability of online platforms, it became possible to reach beyond borders and checkpoints to a wider audience.
I was only nine years old when my parents noticed my drawing skills that were limited to black warplanes, pillars of smoke in the sky and crying eyes. This coincided with the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000 when I used to accompany my mother and aunt to the martyrs’ funeral tents to offer our condolences. I used to hate the green colour, as it was associated in my memory with martyrs’ funeral tents, which were disturbingly visible in Jabalia refugee camp’s landscape. The first poem I ever learned to memorize by heart was one by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish entitled, “And He Returned …In A Coffin”. As a nine-year old girl, I stood in front of everyone sitting along the benches in the marquee, looked into the people’s tearful eyes, and in a powerful but shaking voice, I recited,
They speak in our homeland
they say in sorrow
about my comrade who passed
and returned in a coffin
Do you remember his name?
Don’t mention his name!
Let him rest in our hearts.
Let’s not let the word get lost
in the air like ash.
It was moments like these, during the tumult of the second intifada that fundamentally shaped my consciousness about the land and my place in it. Since childhood, the scenes of war, the faces of martyrs, the injured and detained people, the cries and weeping of the martyrs’ relatives over the loss of their beloved, have been chasing me day and night. These scenes pushed me to seek art as a way to express my emotions, to reconcile with my wounds, to reflect on my memories and experiences that many Palestinians share.
Humanising Prisoners’ issue through art
Moreover, being a daughter of an ex-detainee means I have grown a unique attachment to the plight of the Palestinian political prisoners, not only from a political perspective but also from a personal one. My father spent a total of fifteen years in Israeli jails, a part of his original seven life sentences. The stories of resilience, suffering and oppression that I grew up hearing from him about his stolen youth in Israeli jails have made me develop a particular passion to advocate for justice for Palestinian political prisoners who endure inhumane living conditions under the Israel Prison Service which denies them their most basic rights.
However, in spite of its importance, the issue of Palestinian political prisoners and their families who suffer immensely from the pain of longing and separation and are often denied their right to family visits is not given the deserved attention in the political arena. They are not only marginalized, but also dehumanized as whenever they are mentioned in the media discourse, they are mentioned as merely statistics or numbers. Through the drawings below, I attempted to humanize the prisoners’ plight and draw attention to their daily resistance in the face of the oppressive Israeli jailers that treat them as if they are not humans. I tried to depict their determination to break their chains, their resisting spirit in Israeli jails. I also tried to express their families’ pain as they are imprisoned in time, waiting for a day when their re-union without barriers in between will be possible again.
This drawing above was an attempt to show how waiting for a reunion between the prisoners and their families is in itself a torment. My mother experienced seeing my father being violently captured in front of her eyes from the middle of their house three times when the first intifada erupted in December 1987. She was a newly married bride expecting her first child, my eldest brother Majed, when he was re-arrested and forced to serve an administrative detention order, an arbitrary procedure that Israel uses against the Palestinian people to imprison people without charge or trial, usually based on secret information that neither the detainee nor his lawyer have access to. The experience was repeated when my elder sister Majd was born, and lastly soon after my birth. My mother has always described the torturous experience of waiting for my father’s release, how she spent days and nights staring at the clock, waiting impatiently to hear some news from him while her right to family visits was denied.
The imprisonment experience repeats itself hundreds of thousands of times across Palestine, regardless of gender or age. I have many family members, friends and neighbours who experienced unbearable conditions that range from physical torture to psychological torture to even sexual torture. Palestinian political prisoners have always resisted the brutality of the Israel Prison Service. They have no weapon but hunger to protest their inhumane living conditions and call for their right to proper medical care, the right to family visits and other basic rights under international law while imprisoned. “Hunger strike until either martyrdom or freedom” is a motto that many prisoners adopted. The drawing below aimed to illustrate the spirit of this motto.
Memories of War
The turning point of my life was at the age of seventeen, after witnessing the 22-day massacre that the Israeli occupation forces committed against our people in Gaza in 2008-09. During that dismal period when we remained in darkness amidst the continuous bombing, destruction and mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza, I had a terrible sense of being isolated from the rest of the world. The trauma of seeing such levels of brutality was intense. No one was certain if they would live for another day or not.
One of the most memorable moments is that when one night, I was sitting in darkness, surrounded by my mother and siblings in one small room of our house under one blanket. No voice could be heard, just heartbeats and heavy, shaky breaths. The beating and breathing grew louder after every new explosion we felt crashing around, shaking our home and lighting up the sky. Then suddenly, the door of our house opened violently and somebody shouted, “Leave home now!” It was my dad rushing in to evacuate our house because of a bomb threat to a neighbour. I remember that my siblings and I grasped Mum and started running outside unconsciously, barefoot. For three days we stayed in a nearby house, powerless as we sat, waiting to be either killed, or wounded, or forced to watch our home destroyed.
This merciless and inhumane attack killed at least 1417 men, women and children. I wasn’t among them but what if I had been? Would I be buried like any one of them in a grave, nothing left of me but a blurry picture stuck on the wall and the memory of another teenage girl slain too young? Would I have been for the world just a number, a dead person? I refused to dwell on that thought. Many drawings of mine, such as those below, were inspired from memories attached to this traumatic event whose memories always floated back whenever an attack was repeated. Most importantly, resorting to art was a necessary means that helped me preserve my sanity and overcome harsh traumatic events that I experienced throughout my life in the suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip.
While living under conditions of ghettoization, occupation and military assault, a continuation of the Zionist domination of the Palestinian land that was dispossessed in 1948 for the ‘Jewish state’ to be founded, Palestinian artists continue to be driven to express themselves in paint, photography, and other visual media, with having the Palestinian struggle for liberation as the central theme for their artwork. Art has offered Palestinians a platform to engage with the politicaly complex reality and express the suppressed voice of the Palestinian people in visual forms that can communicate universally. It was also a way to humanise the people’s suffering that is usually dehumanised in mainstream media and reduced to a dry coverage of abstractions that present them as numbers and statistics. Palestinian art, therefore, has been perceived as a form of political resistance, a mobilization tool, a way to assert the Palestinians’ embrace of our legitimate political and human rights, such as the right to return, the right to self-determination, and the right to live in dignity and freedom.
Below is my translation of a powerful article Louay Odeh wrote about the relationship between our Palestinian people in Gaza and resistance. I thought it is worth reading.
“The full support of resistance demonstrated by the Palestinian people in Gaza has been the greatest and the most obvious since the first Intifada 25 years ago,” A friend of mine from Gaza who is responsible for centres which became refuge to tens of thousands of families who have become homeless since the start of the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
It is not surprising to see the clear popular support of resistance, its call upon them to continue until their demands are met, and the total willingness and readiness of the public to pay whatever price entailed. It is not only related to the political affiliation, but resistance has become an integral part of geographic identity. It is difficult to find someone in Gaza who is opposing resistance, regardless of her/his political affliction. This is neither resulted from a united political program or adopting one strategy that unites everybody. It is the outcome of a general awareness our people in Gaza acquired by experience.
Every person in Gaza has become more experienced that the most well-known military or political analyst on earth. Everybody inGaza recognises the fact that there is no other option. They believe that they cannot trust any project, except for resistance, as it is the only thing that is able to offer a dignified human life to them. This conviction came after they lost trust in the so-called “peace process’, and anyone who represents it. They also lost trust in the international solidarity and human rights organisations and its agendas. Above all, they lost confidence in the Arab governments which usually exploits their cause to serve their own interest, not them.
Our Palestinian people in Gaza have paid blood and years amidst unbearable life under a suffocating siege until they reached this outcomes. No one managed to open a single crossing or offer the least human needs for them, such as water, electricity and freedom of movement. There are many attempts by political analysts who graduated from the most prominent universities, and political experts worldwide to understand Gaza and the harmonic relationship between its people and the resistance. They failed as Gaza doesn’t bend to any equation, and no political, or social or economical rule can be applied to Gaza due to its uniqueness.
In Gaza, you can find the Fateh-affiliated people opposing their leadership in Ramallah and chanting for resistance. In Gaza, you will find Muslims and Christians, the poor and the wealthy people, the Communists and the Islamists, all standing hand in hand with resistance with one hope uniting them: The victory of resistance.
Gaza which celebrate as it bleeds has its own uniqueness. Even Nature rules, such as sunset and sunrise, cannot be applied to like in Gaza. Life there is organised according to the power-cut program. For example, the morning may rise at 10 pm and disappear as sun is rising. Moreover, only in Gaza, a car can be sold after 5 years of use with a higher price because of how much it costed its owner. In Gaza, which is complex despite its simplicity, everybody knows that the end of this crisis and its outcomes will contribute to change their lives at least 2 years onwards. They have strong faith that the resistance will impose the conditions of truce which are going to be related their day-to-day life such as electricity, water or opening of borders. Therefore, this leaves no other option to the people but supporting resistance no matter what the cost will be.
Armed struggle is no longer a political strategy or merely a means of resistance. Resistance has become a wide term that includes many things. It is life. It is the ability to travel, to study, to receive a proper medical care. Above all, it has become a symbol for their dignity and an integral part of their identity. We’ve never heard them chanting for opening the borders, as they already know that it much be included among the conditions of possible ceasefire. Opening the borders will be the axiomatic outcome of the steadfastness of resistance in the battlefield. It will no longer controlled by a human will related to the mood of neighbouring countries and their agendas. The fact that everyone is conspiring against this piece of land imposed a new definition of resistance on them which will be taught later in military sciences. Gaza has managed to formulate this new definition which has become a central part of this geographic identity. Yes, it is identity that its most important component is resistance, and anyone who believes in humanity should feel honoured to adopt it.
Free Palestine. Down with Zionism. Glory for the martyrs!
I have tried many times to write about my experience at the closed Rafah border crossing with Egypt that has left thousands of people in Gaza stranded. Every time I start, a deep sigh comes over me. Shortly after I feel paralyzed, and finish by tearing apart my draft. I have never found it this difficult to write about a personal experience. No words can capture all the suffering and pain our people in Gaza deal with collectively under this suffocating, inhumane Israeli-Egyptian siege.
As I write, I am supposed to be somewhere in the sky, among the clouds, flying to Istanbul to begin my graduate studies. But I could not catch my flight, as I am still trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip, sitting in darkness during the power cuts caused by fuel crisis, trying to squeeze out my thoughts during what is left of my laptop’s charge.
As much as I am attached to Gaza City, where I was born and spent all 22 years of my life, each day I spend trapped in it makes me despise living here. Each day that passes makes me more desperate to set myself free outside this big, open-air prison. Each day makes me unable to stand the mounting injustice, torment, brutality and humiliation.
Hardships and happiness
I have never experienced as many extreme ups and downs as I did this month. Despite the hardships throughout September, I also had some immensely happy moments. I think will remember them the rest of my life. This is life in Gaza: highs amid lows, everything in the balance, nothing secure from day to day, no plans, no guarantees.
At the beginning of September, I started the process to secure my visa for Italy. I am supposed to be there on 10 October to celebrate the publication of my first book, the fruits of my work over more than three years of writing. It is the Italian version of my blog, Palestine from My Eyes, which I started in May 2010. My book launched on 22 September. It was impossible for me to attend its release in Italy.
My blog was never about me as an individual. It is rather about a young Palestinian woman who grew up in the alleys of a densely inhabited refugee camp with an imprisoned father. It is about a woman whose awareness of her Palestinian identity was shaped in a besieged city under the brutal Israeli occupation. My blog is about our people, who are routinely dehumanized and whose stories are marginalized and unknown to the majority outside. It was about our Palestinian political prisoners and their families, whose lost and missing loved ones have become statistics, numbers which fail to communicate all the injustices they face under the Israeli Prison Service, which denies them their most basic rights.
The book, inspired by the harsh and complex reality we are forced to endure, makes me feel that my responsibility as a voice for our Palestinian people has doubled. Some amazingly dedicated Italian friends are fixing a busy schedule of events, book fairs, conferences and presentations in many different cities. My presence in Italy is very important, because I am sure few people there have met Palestinians. I am anxiously waiting for the Rafah border to open so I can be there for these events, to help my book spread as widely as possible.
I read on Reuters last Tuesday: “According to Abbas’s request, Egypt agrees to reopen Rafah border crossing on Wednesday and Thursday for four working hours each.”
My first reaction was laughter. Where was Abbas while the Rafah border was closed to thousands of patients seeking medical care abroad which they cannot access in Gaza, or students whose dreams to pursue their education overseas were crushed?
We are not only paying the price for the unsettled situation in Egypt. We have even become the victims of our own divided Palestinian leadership. It makes me furious to think that the opening of Rafah crossing, a lifeline for our people in Gaza, has come under the influence of the internal division between political parties competing to seek favors from our colonizers. The ruling factions seem to have become participants in the collective punishment we suffer.
The headline infuriated rather than relieved me. Opening the Rafah border for eight hours over two days was not a solution to the crisis caused by the complete closure of Rafah for more than a week.
The same day, in the taxi heading home, I received a call telling me I finally got a visa to Italy. I was so happy I forgot the conservative nature of my society and started screaming out of happiness in the car. The visa process took shorter than I thought. I called my friend Amjad Abu Asab, who lives in Jerusalem and received my passport for me, since Israel prevents Palestinians in Gaza from visiting the city, urging him to find someone coming into Gaza via the northern Erez checkpoint on Wednesday.
This can be my chance to leave Wednesday or Thursday, I thought. My happiness didn’t last. “Erez checkpoint will be completely closed from Wednesday until Sunday, 22 September, because of the Jewish holidays,” Amjad said. “No express mail, and no person, can cross Erez to Gaza during this period.”
“What an absurdity!” I screamed. “When the Rafah border crossing finally reopens, Erez checkpoint closes. We have to deal with Israel from one side and Egypt from the other. How long will we live at the mercy of others? There must be some emergency exit.”
Life of uncertainty
“The definition of uncertainty in the dictionary is Gaza,” my fellow Electronic Intifada writer Ali Abunimah once told me. That describes in short my life at the moment, and the lives of our people generally: a life of uncertainty.
I had no choice but to wait for the Jewish holidays to end for Erez to reopen and to get my passport. But on Wednesday, I insisted on going to Rafah. I refused to sit at home, powerless, unable to do anything but wait. At Rafah border crossing, I saw a gate of humiliation. People crowded on top of each other, roamed the waiting hall, waited impatiently for some news to revive their hopes, and ran after policemen, asking for help and explaining their urgent need to travel.
I met many of my fellow students who were stuck as well. They came with their luggage, hoping they could leave, but ended up dragging it back home.
I stayed until 2:00pm, hoping that I could at least register. I did, I think. I explained my situation to a policeman at the gate. He took my scanned copy of my passport and returned after about five minutes, saying, “Your name is registered.” I am not sure what he meant, but he did not say anything else. I asked him if there was a certain date I could leave. His reply was, “Only God knows.” I wish someone could tell me when I will be able to leave so I can have a break from worrying. But no one knows anything, “only God knows.”
While doing an interview with the Real News Network that morning at the border, an elegant elderly man in a formal black suit and holding a black bag interrupted. “I would like to make an interview,” he said. “I speak English, and if you like, I can do Hebrew.” The old man looked very serious as we awaited his poignant words. “This border, all this area, was mine. They came and stole it.” As he continued, the Real News crew and I realized the interview was descending into farce. “I have bombs in this bag and I can explode the whole place in a second!” the man said. We started laughing and said jokingly, “Go explode, then. We’re standing by you.” Yes, this Rafah gate of humiliation must be wiped away so we, Palestinian people in Gaza, can have some breath of freedom.
The Rafah border crossing closed again after 800 persons left to Egypt on Wednesday and Thursday. I am sure this closure would be easier to understand if it was a natural disaster. But knowing that other human beings are doing this to me and 1.7 million other civilians living in Gaza, while the rest of the world looks on, is too difficult to believe. It is more painful and shocking to realize that our neighboring Arab country, Egypt, is joining our Zionist jailers and collaborating with them to tighten the siege.
This experience made me believe that human dignity has become a joke. International law is nothing but empty, powerless words printed in books. We are denied our right to freedom of movement, our right to pursue our education, our right to good medical care, and our right to be free or to live in peace and security. But no one in power bothers to act.
I spent September worrying about the border and my dreams which may fade away if Rafah remains closed. This takes a lot of my energy and makes me suffer from lack of focus and sleep, and makes it hard for me to sit and express myself in writing or with a drawing. Our people’s tragedy caused by the ongoing closure of Rafah border continues, and the crisis is deepening. Living in Gaza under these circumstances is like being sentenced to a slow death. Act and set us free. It is time for these injustices we face on a daily basis to end.
I left very early in the morning with my youngest sister Tamam, heading to the Rafah border crossing with her to give her as much moral support as I could. Having experienced what can only be described as the torture of waiting at the border previously, I know very well how much of a nightmare going there is.
Tamam returned home from Turkey after 9 months of studying Turkish Language there. About a year ago, she earned a scholarship to study for her BA in journalism in Ankara. After enjoying three weeks of her presence at home, the time had finally come for her to return to Ankara, as her summer vacation is about to end and she has to go through many procedures in order to register for the first semester of her undergraduate studies.
In fact, she was scheduled to leave through Rafah border yesterday. Hearing of the crowds who have been trying to cross in vain for days- if not for weeks, and the restrictions that Egypt imposed on Rafah border, led us to decide to stay at home. A few more hours of sleeping would be worth more to us than the hours we would have wasted if we had gone to the border. Yesterday the Palestinian side allowed five buses in but Egypt allowed only one.
Today we decided to go, hoping that she would be fortunate enough to cross the border. As we were pulling her luggage into the car, we started laughing while mocking the dark situation we have to go through, while knowing deep inside that we will eventually have to return back home. But we insisted to go and see the situation with our own eyes. It was hard to imagine to what extent the border situation and the travelers’ crisis is getting worse, especially during the difficult times that Egypt is going through.
My sister didn’t realize that a normal decision like returning home for a visit may threaten her to lose her scholarship and keep her locked inside Gaza. She didn’t know that she should have considered such a thought a thousand times before making up her mind. Such a decision is supposed to be normal in a normal situation, but not in our case, which is very far from being normal.
As we arrived at the hall where travelers gather in hope to hear their names called out so they can ride the bus that drives them inside the border, we were shocked to see the numerous people waiting already there. Some people had been waiting since sunrise and had been trying to cross for over a week. Most of them were students traveling for educational purposes or patients leaving for medical reasons.
The scenes of the children who were lying down and sleeping on chairs and those of elderly people who could barely stand on their feet were the most heartbreaking. Elderly people were shouting at the police which was forming a fence in front of the travel coordination offices. They were powerless and had nothing to say or do, but were trying their best to keep people’s anger and frustration in control and to maintain some semblance of discipline.
We were ashamed of complaining about anything, just sitting and watching people huffing and puffing. We met people who have been trying to cross for about two weeks.
At about 1 pm, the police said via speakers, “We ask everyone to return back home. We received a notice that Rafah border is completely closed and not even a single Palestinian will be able to cross due to the killing of 22 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. We don’t know when the border will re-open. Keep following the Internal Ministry Website for more information.”
I expected people to rebel and break the police fence and turn the hall into chaos. But they just turned their backs, dragged their luggage and went home. I heard many saying, “at least they finally said something. At least we didn’t have to wait until sunset.” For many people this scenario has been happening for many days, so they expected the same to be repeated again and again.
My sister has expressed her experience in few moving words she wrote on her Facebook page. The following is my translation of her words.
“I dragged my luggage very early in the morning to Gaza’s only exit to the outside world, though I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to cross. Dad stood watching me from a distance and finally he stepped closer and uttered one sentence, “May Allah ease your way my dear”. I cried a lot. More accurately, we both cried. I wondered why I cried despite having a strong desire to leave this city after a 3-week visit which was more tiring than joyful, while worrying about Rafah border’s situation. This complicated city is becoming more choking. It makes us weep out of happiness and sorrow. It restricts our freedom. It forces us to learn to adapt to the inadaptable. At this point of frustration and thinking negatively, I can’t think of any reason why we’re so attached to this mysterious city. Nevertheless, one can’t but be always longing to return to Gaza.”
My sister’s flight is scheduled to leave from Cairo to Istanbul on Thursday. It is very likely that she will miss her flight, like many other Palestinians living in Gaza.
Why should Tamam or any other traveler living in Gaza pay the price for anything happening in the neighboring countries? How many dreams are going to be crashed or how many more patients are going to die before we have a permanent and a secure way to travel? Will we ever live a normal life? This situation is utterly insane and inhumane. Collective punishment policies must end.
“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”
Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.
On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.
Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.
Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.
Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.
Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened. I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.
I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”
Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”
The world blamed her when she hurled her shoes at Ban Ki-moon’s convoy when he entered Gaza. She was angry and disappointed by his prejudice when he refused to meet prisoners’ families in Gaza, after repeatedly visiting Gilaad Shalit’s parents. But they didn’t know to how much she had suffered at Israel’s hands. Read the story of this incident, when shoes and stones welcomed Ban Ki-moon to Gaza, here.
After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.
But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.
When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.
I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”
Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.
Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.
The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.
Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.
About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”
Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”
Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.
The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”
We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.
Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”
“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”
Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”
Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”
My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”
Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”
“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”
“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.
Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”
The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”
I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”
Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.
It was 5:00 pm when I decided to escape my home for a place the power-cut hadn’t reached on June 18. Badia, the restaurant closest to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is always my first option. Whenever I need to leave the sit-in tent to work on my laptop, I get there after walking less than five minutes. I was drowning in stress from my final exams. I had to double my efforts studying, as I had spent more of the last semester worrying about hunger-striking Palestinian political prisoners than my classes.
Even with stress from being unprepared for any exam, it was difficult to concentrate. My thoughts were filled with the revolution of empty stomachs inside the Israeli jails. June 18 marked the 90th day of the hunger strike Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak had launched against his unjustified three-year detention under Israel’s Unlawful Combatants Law. His hunger for freedom had pushed his life to the edge of death.
I lost track of time while alternating between news Web sites and literary ones for my class. Dad called me, reminding me to return home early. Just before I closed my laptop, I refreshed my Twitter page to see a Tweet saying, “Israel to Release Mahmoud Sarsak on July 10.” I quickly collected my things and ran toward the ICRC, so excited I even forgot to pay my bill.
Even the smell of the air seemed different when I stepped outside. Freedom filled the atmosphere. The chants I heard from the ICRC at Badia’s entrance made me run. The first person I recognized at the sit-in tent was the heroine Hana’ Shalabi, the ex-detainee who hunger-struck for 43 days to win her freedom, under the condition of expulsion to the Gaza Strip for three years. I ran to her and she hugged me happily, saying, “Congratulations on Mahmoud’s freedom!” Everyone was raising victory signs and singing for freedom. Then a man with a huge tray of sweets arrived and started distributing them.
I arrived home very late to find Dad waiting in the dark garden, looking upset. I didn’t want anyone to spoil my happiness, so I walked toward him chanting happily, “We defeated the jailers!” I was sure he hadn’t heard about Mahmoud, as our power was still cut. “Mahmoud will be free on July 10,” I said while looking at Dad, whose face turned into a smile. “People are still celebrating at the ICRC. Hana’ Shalabi was even there.” I was smart enough to find a way to negate his anger.
People in Gaza waited eagerly for July 10, a day that will be commemorated in the history of Palestine. All Palestinian television and radio channels reported this magnificent event. Thousands of people welcomed Mahmoud by the Erez crossing, the same place he was arrested around three years ago. As the ambulance arrived at the Gaza Strip side of Erez, Mahmoud appeared in its window, holding a football with one hand and waving with the other to the crowd of people excitedly waiting to see him.
Despite hating long drives, last Friday, I was crazy enough to tolerate a one-hour trip to visit Mahmoud’s house in Rafah, knowing he might not even be home. A group of foreign activists joined me in my adventure. “And what if he isn’t there?” my friend Fidaa, a Palestinian-American human rights activist, asked. “We’ll wait for him to come back!” I answered immediately.
We arrived at Star Square, near where the star Mahmoud lives. Thanks to posters and graffiti spread all over the walls of the Rafah refugee camp’s alleys, it was easy to find his house. “The groom just left for Gaza City,” his neighbors told us, but we were still excited to be at the house where “the groom” grew up and to meet his parents, who raised him to be a revolutionary.
Mahmoud’s parents were very friendly and welcoming. His house was small and simple, yet full of warmth and joy. It was crowded with neighbors, relatives, and strangers who, like us, had travelled the Gaza Strip to meet Mahmoud. Many of us had no relation to him, but following his struggle since the early days of his hunger strike made us feel connected to him. Mahmoud Sarsak, a Palestinian hero, has become a symbol of our resistance.
“Words can’t describe the happiness I felt when Mahmoud regained his freedom after his unjust detention,” his mother told me. “It felt like my son had escaped the grave! But Mahmoud wasn’t afraid of his. He chose a battle that would lead him to either freedom or martyrdom.”
We asked her how she had gotten news about him during his detention. “Of course, three years passed without a single visit, the same suffering that all Gazan detainees’ families have shared since 2006,” she replied. “So we relied on the ICRC for updates on his situation.”
“We were denied any news for an entire year,” she continued. “After that, we were thankfully able to receive letters from Mahmoud through the ICRC for a short period of time, but I can’t read. Whenever we received a letter, his brother Emad would lock himself in a room and cry for hours. After pulling himself together, he would come out and tell me not to worry, as Mahmoud was doing fine and still playing soccer.”
“During Mahmoud’s strike, I was physically and psychologically exhausted. My sons had to take me to the hospital several times. But I felt like I had returned to life once I heard that Israel had agreed to free him in exchange for an end to his hunger strike. I pray for all detainees’ mothers to experience such relief and celebrate the freedom of their sons.”
The house grew increasingly crowded with visitors. So we left to give others the opportunity to talk with Mahmoud’s wonderful mother.
But I couldn’t give up on meeting Mahmoud himself so easily. We had already travelled from the northernpost point to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip looking for him! So I called his brother Emad, whom I had met frequently in the sit-in tent. When he picked up the phone, I told him I had just visited his family with a group of friends, and that we were very happy to meet his parents. He appreciated our visit, and suggested we meet them in a Gaza restaurant. Excited, we accepted his offer.
We arrived at the restaurant by sunset. My heartbeats grew faster as the time for our meeting drew closer. I could see Emad waiting for us by the entrance. He welcomed our group inside and introduced us to Mahmoud, who nicely asked us to join his table. I felt very nervous sitting directly across from him, but proud that I could look him in the eye while speaking to him. He wore two gold medals and a scarf combining the Palestinian flag and keffiyeh.
“Thanks to Allah for your release,” I said. “How does it feel to be free again?”
“My happiness is incomplete, as the revolution of empty stomachs is still going,” he answered. “My thoughts are with my comrades Akram Rikhawi, Samer Al-Barq, and Hassan Al-Safadi, who are suffering critical conditions in the Ramla Hospital Prison. I was released from there, and know perfectly the medical neglect detainees suffer there. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t transfer us there for treatment, but for torture.”
His humbleness added a lot to his charm. He kept repeating that he wouldn’t have achieved his victory without the popular and international solidarity he received. “It’s not my victory, it’s yours. I gained my strength and poise from you.” It was obvious that he had lost a lot of weight, but he was still healthy. Joe Catron, an American activist who has met many freed prisoners, said later that he had never seen a recent hunger striker in such good shape.
Mahmoud’s smile didn’t leave his lips the whole time. He paid us all his attention. When I asked him if Gaza seemed different after three years, he laughed and said, “It looks so different to me. Gaza is a very beautiful city despite its small size. I love its beach, its pure air, and its kind people. I missed everything about Gaza. I just missed being home.”
Fidaa asked Mahmoud if he expected to be arrested three years ago when he went to the Erez crossing. “Not at all!” he said. “I was thrilled to achieve a dream to play football in a national team contest in the West Bank, in the Balata refugee camp. When they ordered me to a security meeting, I wasn’t afraid. I expected they would ask me to collaborate with them. I was confident and prepared myself to reject them. I was shocked when they aggressively shackled me.”
I interrupted, asking, “Why do you think they arrested you if you have never participated in resistance?”
“Resistance isn’t only about armed struggle,” he said. “Resistance can be through pen, brush, voice, and sport. We are all freedom fighters, but each of us has his or her own weapon.” His eloquent, passionate answer impressed us even more than we already were.
“Sport is a form of non-violent resistance,” he continued. “Being a representative of Palestine’s national football team makes me a threat to Israel. I’ve always been passionate about building Palestine’s presence in the sports world. I represented Palestine in several football matches locally and internationally, and had the honor of waving its flag wherever I played.”
The more he spoke, the more I admired him, especially when finally I asked him what had changed in his character after his imprisonment. “My faith in our just cause has become deeper and stronger,” he replied. “My determination to unveil the Zionists’ inhumane and fascist practices, and their violations of our basic human rights, has become my reason to live.”
The time grew late, and we had to end our amazing conversation. Mahmoud Sarsak is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I will remember every word he said as long as I live. According to him, we all contributed to his victory. Let’s unite to achieve more victories for Akram Rikhawi, Hassan Al-Safadi, and Sammer Al-Barq. Make them reasons for your life, and fight injustice any way you can.
Unlike Monday, Tuesday was a happy day. On Monday, I woke up with eyes full of tears after I fell asleep to a tragic story, a story that was not heard widely, but happened in Gaza. Three kids lit up a candle to escape the darkness that filled their house in Al-Bureej Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip and slept. As the candle burned out, the candle of their lives was extinguished, too.
The long hours of waiting inside the bus without moving gave me a backache, but I couldn’t complain with many elderly and sick people surrounding me. An old woman sat to my right. I could read many stories of struggle and suffering in her wrinkles, her traditional Palestinian dress, and her tight eyes. She wore a brace around her neck. I could hear her muttering prayers.
Due to Israel’s apartheid checkpoints, it took us a day to reach Jericho, which is roughly one hour from Allenby Bridge. I waited eagerly, imagining myself walking around the old city of Jerusalem before heading to Gaza. We wasted over four hours waiting for the Israeli soldiers to let us pass through their checkpoints. Being from Gaza made my crossing procedures even more complicated. I spent the whole trip to Jericho counting minutes and hours. The more time we wasted, the less likely it became for me to tour Jerusalem. The time limit that Israel imposed by closing Erez at 7:00 pm made me stressful.
At sunset, I finished all the crossing and security procedures. I hurried to the exit to find my taxi driver sweating, standing by his parked car next to the door waiting for us. He rushed me inside the car, saying that he had to drive me to the District Coordination Offices (DCO) right away to get a permit to leave before it was too late. People from Gaza get permits to cross through Erez back to Gaza there, and people from West Bank get permits to enter Jerusalem and other “Israeli” territory.
On the way to Jordan, I tried my hardest to stop in Jerusalem and visit the Odeh family, whose son Loai was deported to Gaza after his release in the Shalit swap deal. Loai and I became close friends as soon as we met. Before I left Gaza, I promised him that I would do my best to visit his family and give them a hug on his behalf. I couldn’t on my way to Jordan. But I was persistent to make it happen when I returned.
I endured a stream of silence and frustration. Then my telephone rang. It was our travel coordinator from Gaza.
“Listen carefully,” he said in a very serious tone. “The DCO closes at 4:00 pm, and now it’s 5:30 pm. You won’t be able to go home tonight. You’ll have to stay at a hotel, or at a relative’s or friend’s house in Jericho. Keep in mind that you’re only allowed to move within Jericho. No one but you will pay its price for anything outside its limits.”
I said nothing in response and acted as if I was taking his words seriously, but smiled, because only then did I sense how lucky I was. I hung up, turned to the driver excitedly, and said, “I won’t go home tonight. I’m supposed to stay in Jericho, but I’m not going to fear anyone. This night will come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to spend it restricting my footsteps and worrying about Israel’s racist rules or anyone’s orders.”
He smiled and said, “I’m dropping you in Jericho.” I screamed, refusing to accept what he said, but he interrupted me, raised his voice, and continued, “This is what ‘they’ will assume, but not what will happen! I’ll pick you up from Jerusalem tomorrow morning to go to the DCO.” I made sure he meant it before I got too excited, then I burst into screams and tears of happiness. We drove toward Jerusalem while singing one of my favorite Fairouz songs, about Jerusalem: “For you, the city of prayers, I pray.”
The driver warned me of the dangers I might face if I entered Jerusalem. We knew there were risks, but we decided to take them . The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Jericho was the problem. No car can enter Jerusalem without going through it. If we passed it without being stopped by Israeli soldiers, then we were safe.
We put sunglasses on and began chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. We passed without the soldiers noticing anything “wrong”. When the checkpoints disappeared from sight, we shouted, “We made it!” The first person I called was Loai. “I’m now heading to Jerusalem, to meet your family!” I screamed with happiness. “Let the driver drop you at the Jerusalem Hotel, where my brother Obay is waiting for you,” Loai said laughing.
I couldn’t be more grateful to a person than the driver, who put himself at risk to make my dream come true. He dropped me near the hotel, made sure that I was safe, and left me to enjoy the rest of my time in Jerusalem, before the next morning when my adventure would end.
I had never met Obay, but I felt like I already knew him. We talked briefly once when Loai was in Egypt. He introduced us on Skype. Loai had told how special their relationship was, especially after they were reunited in prison. They shared a cell together for over two years before Obay, who was detained in 2002 as a child at the age of 17, was released in 2006. They met again in Egypt last January. I could see many similarities Obay shared with Loai – appearance, behavior, way of thinking and even their expressions – that made me feel closer to him.
The first thing we did was take a walking tour inside the old city of Jerusalem. I can’t describe how good it felt to be there. I took a short noon tour there last June, but the city is even more magnificent at night. I could hear history, authenticity, and solidity narrated by every stone, every wall, every street, everything. But at the same time, I recalled how Loai once described his city: “Jerusalem is a sad town.” It’s true. I could touch the anger, the sorrow, and the challenge everywhere while wandering its ancient alleys.
The people who remained in Jerusalem suffer the most from Israeli occupation and apartheid. While wandering around, we saw many people sitting outside their homes chatting. I passed by a group of girls in a courtyard. They were very welcoming and loving when they learned I came from Gaza. I asked them about the occupation, with which they interact daily. “We will never leave our homes even if it costs us our lives,” one of them replied. “Israel offered to buy these old, small houses with unbelievable amounts of money, but we never gave them up and never will. Our resistance is to stay here, despite all the mocking, humiliation, and violations of our rights.”
I was thrilled by her answer. A young girl among them grabbed me to introduce me to her family. I was shocked to see how narrow her house was. They had only one room, where nine people, including her parents, live.
I kept walking. I could see Hebrew graffiti on the walls and Israeli flags. It’s not only a sad city, but also an angry one. I could sense its anger shaking the floor beneath me, as if it was saying, “My tongue is Arab and my identity is Palestinian.”
In the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to tell where Palestinians and settlers live, even without Israeli flags flying on roofs or Hebrew written on the walls. The Palestinian homes are very old and narrow. They’re not permitted to be renovated. Electrical wires are uncovered and tied to the ceiling. Israel tries every way to pressure Palestinians to leave their houses with the neglect of the civil services and the increase of taxes. On the other hand, the settlers’ homes appeared to be in good shape and enjoyed good electricity and other public services. Settlers are allowed to extend and refurbish their houses.
I followed Obay wherever he went. We climbed snaky stairs until we reached a roof, where an Israeli soldier suddenly came outside to ask why we were there. Obay answered calmly, “Just to see the city from the top.”
I didn’t know exactly where I was, and the soldier, who was monitoring screens connected with cameras spread all over the city, made me nervous. Then Obay pointed. I turned to where his finger stopped to discover that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were right in front of me. I opened my eyes wide and sighed. The exceptional beauty of the golden dome glittered and lit up the dark sky.
No matter how long I meditate on this magnificent view, my eyes will stay thirsty. But we had to leave. Obay had a nice plan to make use of my only night there. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that our next destination was Jaffa. It was always a dream, but one in the back of my mind, which I thought would be impossible to reach. We headed there in the car. Being in Jaffa increased my longing to return to Beit-Jerja, my original village, where my grandparents were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The refugees’ return is a right, not just a dream, and it will be fulfilled someday.
The first thing we did in Jaffa was have dinner in a restaurant that overlooking the beach. We were starving after an hour driving and over two hours wandering around Jerusalem. In Gaza, the last thing I would order is fish, as even it is imported. The Israeli Navy occupies our sea and prevents fishermen from going farther than three nautical miles, cutting down Gaza’s wealth of fish. In Jaffa, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to try the fish of our Mediterranean sea, and I didn’t regret it! I can’t tell you how succulent it tasted.
Immediately after we finished eating, I ran toward the seashore in my bare feet to wet them and feel the warm waves. I kept walking, paying no attention to time or distance, while breathing Jaffa’s pure air and collecting beautiful seashells to keep as souvenirs. It felt so harmonic and spiritual. I never stopped thinking about my people in Gaza, who were very near, but could never reach this side of the Palestinian beach.
I wished I could watch the sunrise there, but we had to go back to Jerusalem a little earlier, as Loai’s father was worried about us. I couldn’t complain about anything. I received more than I expected. I repeatedly described how happy I was this way: “I am afraid I will die from too much happiness.” I hoped for at least an hour in Jerusalem, and unexpectedly, I had a whole night in both Jerusalem and Jaffa. Alhamdullah, God was very generous to me.
It meant a lot to be at Loai’s house. His pictures hung everywhere, even in the garden. I caught only two hours of sleep before I had to leave the house to get a permit from the DCO. Before I said goodbye to Loai’s family, I took pictures of every corner of the house to show Loai the place where he was raised, since he had almost forgotten its appearance after ten years of detention. I also picked two branches from a beautiful tree in their garden. He was very happy to receive these photos and branches.
All these adventures felt like a dream, one so happy that I never wanted to wake up. But my return to Gaza was obligatory. I spent seven hours in the DCO, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to issue my permit to return to Gaza through Erez. As I arrived in a Gaza blackout, I was welcomed by a very loud bomb that exploded near Beit Hanoun. I was scared at first, but then I burst out laughing and shouted, “Welcome back to Gaza!”
If you didn’t read the first part of my story, kindly press this link to read it first.
I left Gaza at 10:00am and arrived in Jordan by sunset. The weather was freezing. I couldn’t wait to climb into the warm taxi that would drop me near the Marriott Hotel, where the reunion was held. I wrapped my body with my kuffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf, and slept. The hour-long drive passed without my notice. When we drew near to the hotel, the driver woke me up. I rose quickly to the window and took in my surroundings. The place exceeded my expectations. I was truly tired, and very sleepy and hungry, but as I saw the beauty around me, I felt refreshed and excited once again.
As I entered the lobby, my first glances fell on my friends, who were the main reason I decided to attend the reunion. I spent all my time in the US with them. Seeing them again filled me with happiness. After an hour of greetings and exchanging stories, the time came to check into my room. A hotel worker helped me with my luggage and showed me my room. Once I got in, I left the responsibility for my luggage to the worker and eagerly hurried to the balcony.
I stood motionless, with my eyes wandering around my surroundings. I had ever seen a landscape that so deserved to be painted. I was captivated by the beauty of the big garden behind the building. Dim lights spread nicely amongst the colorful trees, flowers and swimming pool. Behind the beautiful backyard, the Dead Sea lay peacefully. It was cold and the sky wasn’t very clear, so more beauty lay hidden behind its dark clouds. I had never seen the Dead Sea before then, but my parents had told me many times about its breathtaking beauty. They used to tease me and my siblings, since they had gotten to swim there and walk on Jericho’s beach, while we couldn’t. The movement restrictions got more intense during the latest couple of decades of the Israeli Occupation. I smiled while remembering these memories and wished they were there.
The next day, during our break, everyone else preferred to stay inside to avoid the cold winds. But I didn’t want to let that hold me back from meditating on the beach of the Dead Sea. So I put my jacket and my kuffiyeh on and eagerly went to the closest point to the shore. As I got closer, my gaze grew longer and my heart beats got faster. I lost my breath as I saw the wind forming small waves, tenderly wetting the golden sand, and hitting the rocks, colors and sizes, that lay on the shoreline.
It was a bittersweet feeling to be on the other side of Jericho. I could see Jericho’s hills in the horizon line. I was so close yet so far away, since Israel’s apartheid regime deprives me as a Palestinian from Gaza from reaching it.
The reunion schedule was very busy. We had tasks to accomplish and workshops and lectures to attend. One was about democracy, which is not my favorite to discuss. I was obliged to sit and listen to a professor whom I didn’t like. I argued with him once, about Israel and Palestine, when I briefly met him after he defended Israel’s crimes and illegal existence and occupation by saying, “I believe in Israel’s right to exist.” I remember our heated discussion about that, which left him trapped. Then he became mad and tried to get himself out of the debate by raising his voice. After his speech about “democracy,” we were given a chance to share our points of view and tell stories of democracy in our homelands.
I had been waiting anxiously for the moment to speak up, so I raised my hand. “In 2006 in Palestine, we experienced this democracy,” I said angrily. “We had a democratic election, which Hamas won. But because the result of this ‘democracy’ didn’t satisfy Israel and its friend America, they imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip as a collective punishment for everyone, whether they voted for the ‘terrorist’ Hamas or not.”
The professor didn’t like what I said, but I went on speaking. “I don’t think democracy exists in reality. There is no such thing. In fact, this definition should be replaced in the dictionaries with HYPOCRICY.” He interrupted me by saying that I should give others a chance to speak. I stopped, but could no longer listen to more hypocrisy and left.
On the fourth day, we had an exhibit. Posters by all participants, briefly describing the projects they were planning to implement in their home countries to seek change, were hung on the walls. Having a passion for art, I decided to focus on artists in Palestine. For more regarding my project, you can see me presenting about it here.EQxqnvWhnGQ
That was basically the end of the reunion. Only then did I have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Dead Sea again. The weather became a little better, but was still cold. A single day was left for me in the Dead Sea, and this opportunity might not come again. Therefore, I joined a group of my friends who decided to challenge the weather and swim for the same reason. We encouraged each other to go crazy and take the plunge. I dyed my skin with the famous Dead Sea mud -— it looked scary. Then I slowly and carefully got into the water. It was torture before my body adjusted to the coldness of the water. Suddenly I found myself floating and oh my God! It felt like heaven. It seemed like I had no control over my body. But I felt safe and peaceful in the bosom of nature.
I was scheduled to leave the hotel on March,5 to Amman. I enjoyed its archeological sites that speak of the history and culture of the Roman Empire. I went to many interesting places like the Roman theater and the citadel. I had a great time with my friends there, but I also felt homesick, especially after I heard about the Israeli attacks on Gaza that had resulted in 15 martyrs by then. Watching these attacks from outside is different than being inside. I felt so much panic. I was very worried about my family and my people, and wished I could be there, sharing their difficult times.
11 March is the day when my permit in Jordan went invalid. Thus, my awesome Jordanian friends offered to drop me at Allenby bridge to go through more checkpoints on the way back to Gaza.
My journey in Jordan ended like that but another journey, or risky adventures, inside the occupied lands started. To read more about come tomorrow!
As I realized today’s date, the 4th of February, a stream of memories flooded into my mind. Today, last year, marked my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni’s last birthday I spent with him.
I remember it was a nice, rainy Friday. I felt happy to be rich, having just gotten my $1,000 share from YouthSchool for my work on the Gaza 2011 calendar “All I Want Is Peace”. My best friend Adie Mormech, an English activist who spent a year in Gaza working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), reminded me that it was Vik’s birthday. That day, Vik missed the Friday lunch, to which he always looked forward. I knew about Vik’s stress regarding his father’s deteriorating health, and that it was a reason he didn’t join us for lunch. He would always say “Zaki”, delicious, as his gentle but funny way of thanking Mum for the food that was fondly ranked by “his majesty” as the best in Gaza.
Having not seen him, and being worried about him, I decided to surprise him by going to the ISM office where he and the other ISMers (Adie, Inge, Vera, and Silvia) were gathering. It was already night when I left home for Mazaj, the cake shop Vik preferred, and it was raining heavily. But it was worth getting wet for the sake of Vik’s smile and the fun I expected to have when I arrived at the office. I got the cake and hurried with excitement to meet Vik and my other friends. I couldn’t wait to tell him about the greetings that his friends from Italy had told me to send him, and to put the smile on his face that always sent warmth and happiness to everyone around him.
Vera, an ISM activist from Germany, welcomed me as I knocked on the door. When she saw the excitement on my face and the cake I carried, she whispered, “It’s not the right time for a party now. Vik is sad.”
My happy features turned sad. I left the bag by the entrance and went to look for Vik. He sat in the living room alone as Vera had told me. The curtain that separated the two sitting rooms, which were open to each other, was pulled down. I felt like even the house looked sad. I wanted to check on Vik, though. After asking him if I could come in, I sat next to him on the purple couch for a couple of minutes of silence. “I hope you’re OK,” I said while pressing his hand. “I’m worried for my father,” he said. “He’s going to have an operation that might reveal a terminal illness.”
He knew that if it did not go well, his father would not have long to live. As I remember this, I think of how ridiculous and unpredictable this life is. Back then, who would have ever expected that Vik would die before his father did?
Vittorio was torn between two concerns at the center of his life: his attachment to Palestine, and his father and family’s need for his support. Each thought was more pressing than the other. Then suddenly, “Strong Vik” could no longer control his tears. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing Vik cry. Vik has been always a symbol of strength, humanity, and inspiration for me. He always will be. At the time, I felt confused and didn’t know how to act. With spontaneity, I hugged him, as I thought getting a hug in such difficult times might help more than my words. I cried along with him, too.
Then Vik learned about the cake I brought. He didn’t want to disappoint me and all my plans. He reached deep inside himself for strength to bring smiles back to the faces of his friends, smiled at me, then shouted to all the others, “Yalla, let’s have some cake”. That’s how caring Vik was; he always wanted to be a reason for everyone to smile, but never for anyone to cry. He could easily shift the atmosphere from gloomy to so happy, so much that I didn’t want to go back home.
I remember my memories from your birthday last year and oh, dear Vittorio, you can’t imagine how much I wish I could tell you how much I miss you and joke with you like we used to do. I miss you even though I strongly feel your presence with me, like you never left us. Every Friday that has passed without you, I’ve wished you would come for lunch, your smile lighting the room as you walked through the door.
I wish you could see my drawing that’s dearest to me. It’s your portrait that you always nagged me to make, but never got to see. I am certain that no matter how many more drawing I have produced and will produce, yours will be my favorite. Not only because of my skill, and the love that I put into it, but because, somehow, part of your beautiful soul attached itself to this painting.
As you look down from paradise, on all of us here, I offer you this drawing. I hope it brings you as much joy as you always brought us. I miss you Vittorio. I love you, Vittorio. You will live forever in my heart and in the hearts of all Palestinians, who owe you so much. We’ll keep celebrating your birthday every year and you’ll continue to inspire us, adding more humanity to the world. Rest in Peace, dear Vik. Stay human!
Palestinian political prisoners are not only numbers
Last night, a new friend of mine noticed that I try to highlight the issue of Palestinian political prisoners in my writings. That led to a long chat about my interest in bringing out their stories. I started by describing how being the daughter of a former detainee has inspired a passion toward my homeland and the feeling of having a duty toward my people, especially our forgotten prisoners, within me.
I told him how attending the weekly protest with prisoners’ families in the Red Cross has turned to be a psychological cure for my own pains. It’s true. Sometimes I feel very sad, but as soon as I see a prisoner’s mother, wife, or daughter smiling, my spirit strangely rises. Interacting with the prisoners’ families and listening to their stories, full of suffering and pride, has created a warm relationship between us. They have become an important part of my life, and a reason to live.
I’ve always criticized the way prisoners are presented as numbers. Reports often show them as mere statistics, omitting that behind these figures there are humans desperate for dignified life and justice. Humanizing their issue by making their stories heard has been the main goal of my writings, with faith in humanity preserving my hope that their stories may wake the sleeping to take action.
Unconsciously, my life has recently centered on Khader Adnan. He is an administrative detainee who has been on hunger strike since December 17 to protest his illegal detention without trial. I have followed updates about his continuing hunger strike, his silence, his deteriorating health, the ban on his family visiting him, and the Israeli Prison Service (IPS)’s indifference and neglect of his situation. Gaza has held many events in solidarity with him and his family, who are terrified that each new dawn could bring news of his death.
Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Gaza
From Khader Adnan’s story, which has repeated itself thousands of times in Palestine, to news about United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Gaza, anger and frustration have dominated my mind.
Representatives of families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and martyrs’ families wanted to join the delegation that would meet Ban. Civil society figures made intensive efforts to ensure that this would happen so he could hear about their demands and long years of suffering. However, Ban simply refused to meet these people, who wanted his support and protection for their violated rights. An angry crowd, having heard of his repeated visits to former Israeli prisoner Gilaad Shalit, hurled shoes and stones at his convoy as it entered Gaza Thursday morning.
I watched the video of the prisoners’ families throwing shoes and stones. Honestly, it filled me with joy and pride in my people. I thought that it might make the Palestinian people look bad in front of the international community. But I would have only one response for those who might define Palestinians as mere throwers of shoes against diplomats: Those shoe throwers included angry relatives of prisoners who have endured terrible conditions at the hands of merciless Israeli jailers. They are frustrated with Ban’s biases toward Israel, and have witnessed more than enough of Israeli brutality, tyranny, and violations of their simplest rights guaranteed by international law and the Geneva Conventions. Those people have been filled with anger by more than five years of living under a closure imposed by Israel, and declared illegal by UN bodies. They haven’t been allowed to visit their relatives in prison since Hamas was democratically elected, boycotted by the UN, and marginalized as a terrorist organization.
Om Ibrahim Baroud joined the angry crowd that welcomed Ban “disrespectfully”
Watching the video, I saw Om Ibrahim Baroud join the crowd that greeted Ban. Baroud is the 75-year-old
mother of a political prisoner who has spent 26 years in Israeli prisons, and for 26 years, she has never stopped calling for the freedom of her son. Despite her age, she has joined every hunger strike prisoners launched since her son was detained, and has never missed a protest for Palestinian political prisoners. She always says, “I am not only the mother of the detainee Ibrahim Baroud, but of all the prisoners and oppressed. I’ll keep calling for their freedom as long as I am alive”. Last Monday at the weekly protest in the Red Cross, she limped because of a pain in her leg, but was still fasting in solidarity with Khader Adnan and all prisoners. She spoke for the prisoners to the media, appealing to every human right organization to witness the suffering of Palestinian detainees and act.
In the video, she was angry as never before, gathering all her physical power to hit Ban’s convoy with a stick. Her strength has always impressed everyone who knows her. “I know I am for Ban, nothing more than a mother of a ‘terrorist’”, she told me on the phone with rage. “Why would he bother to listen to me? He must know that I am the mother of a human being who deserves dignity even in detention. And I am a human who deserves to be heard”.
No one should blame this mother, who has been deprived of wrapping her arms around her son for 26 years. No one should blame her after she witnessed countless Israeli attacks on Gaza, especially the 2008-2009 war. She saw the phosphorous bombs, banned by international law, falling on civilians who took shelter in the Al-Fakhoura UNRWA School after fleeing their homes. She lives near it. Don’t blame her when she explodes with anger after hearing of Ban Ki-moon’s thanks to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the architect of the 2008-2009 war – for his “generosity” towards Gaza; his generosity in redeeming the world of 352 children whom, if they hadn’t been killed, would have grown up into terrorists to threaten the holy security of Israel. Don’t blame her or any Palestinian when UN did nothing against Israel for the war crimes Israel committed even at UNRWA sites. Instead, they are biased toward Israel, while we have been terrorized daily by the Israeli Occupation ever since it was illegally established through ethnic cleansing.
Palestinians owe Ban Ki-moon no apologies
After this “disrespectful welcome” of Ban Ki-moon by the angry families of prisoners and martyrs, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) shamefully sent apologies to him.
But I’ll allow myself to speak on behalf of Palestinians and say proudly: “We make no apologies!” And I add: “The PLO doesn’t represent us.” Palestinians aren’t the ones who should apologize. The one who should apologize is who keeps talking of human rights, yet sees human rights continuingly and openly violated by Israel, but does nothing, instead covering up Israel’s crimes against humanity. Actually, thousands of apologies wouldn’t suffice to heal the long, bleeding wounds that Palestinians suffer from the long course of Israel’s occupation and existence.
After all the difficulties I had been through in order to get myself out of the big prison of the Gaza Strip, I made it to USA.
I spent the first week of the program in Gaza against my will. My hope of leaving had gradually been fading until I received a call informing me that I would be leaving through Erez on the 26th of June after a whole week of pain trying to pass Rafah border. I was in Gaza physically but not mentally. My mind was constantly with the people who would become my second family soon after my arrival. I was daydreaming of life in USA and I couldn’t wait till I arrived there. I thought I was so unlucky that I missed a week in my life there but in fact I was such a lucky girl. What had been waiting for me was beyond my expectations.
At 8 am, on the 26th of June, my adventure had started. I had passed through Erez and Jerusalem, and somehow I was able to convince my driver to take me by the old city. I wasn’t allowed to leave the bus till I arrived Allenby Bridge in Jericho, but my driver had sympathy for me and he allowed me to have one hour there even though he took a risk by doing that. I actually exceeded the limited time I had as walking in the old streets of Jerusalem and visiting all the holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, stole my mind. I was jumping in the streets and singing out loudly like a nut. Can’t blame me for that! I had to go back to where we agreed to meet in order to get dropped off by Allenby to complete my way to Amman, while wondering why it must be so difficult for me to go to my capital city and why I have to go through all these complex procedures in order to travel.
I had arrived in Amman by 6 pm and had stayed with a very nice woman whom I knew through Facebook as she was supporting the sales of my calendar, Gaza Calendar 2011. I spent a short but unforgettable time in Amman. My plane was scheduled to leave at 5 pm on the following day. I had to travel to Dubai’s airport and then to Washington DC.
I couldn’t believe myself when I took my first step out of the plain in Washington DC airport after a 12-hours-non-stop flight. I was even more excited knowing that only a couple of hours separated me from joining the MEPI family. But I should learn that excitement sometimes works in the wrong direction. I was walking the airport with a look full of excitement, smiling to everyone I encountered, and ended up sitting in a gate that I thought it was the right one, but realized had been the wrong one two minutes after my flight to Philadelphia took off. It was actually kind of funny. I didn’t know how it had happened, but I guess for someone who had taken a 12-hour non-stop flight, sitting between two elderly people who kept snoring the whole trip, it is normal to run out of batteries. My flight was rescheduled for me. It was by then a bit sad as almost nothing remained to meet my MEPI family, but it turned out to require four more hours of waiting. Then I cried like a baby until I fell asleep, only to wake up just as my flight started boarding and return to the same excitement I had before.
“Nothing happens without a reason” – this is something that I started to believe in very deeply. I met wonderful people on that flight that left an impact on my vision for my future. Some of those people belonged to a church group who were volunteering in Zambia fighting hunger and poverty there. By the end of the trip, it felt as if I was one of them. They didn’t leave me tell they made sure that I got my luggage and everything was ok with me. Soon after, they formed themselves as a circle and held each other’s hands and included me. Then they made a prayer with their eyes closed to give thanks for their safe arrival. I am Muslim but I joined them while they were doing their prayer and it felt good to me. I believe that religions shouldn’t create gaps between people. To whatever religion we belong, we are all humans at the end of the day and what we share is more than how we differ from one another.
As I was walking toward the exit expecting to see somebody to drive me to Newark, Delaware, I saw the coordinator of MEPI program in the University of Delaware, waiting for me and holding a paper with my name written on it. After glancing at him, I ran to him and I hugged him as if I knew him already. I was just so excited about starting my journey. He drove me to Delaware where my MEPI family was waiting for me excitedly.
Meeting my MEPI family was so special to me. Thinking of them constantly before the time came and following their Facebook posts from Gaza made them already a part of me, even before I met any of them. That made it easier for us to get along. We were together all the time. We used to leave each other at bedtime, only to dream about the next day. Every day made us more connected and more caring about each other. I felt a real family overwhelmed with love, passion, and care around me. We would laugh together and cry if anyone started to shed a tear. They maybe didn’t know to what extent each one of them affected my personality, but at least I know that they will keep their own place in my heart forever. My colleagues were from 14 different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We had many differences but those differences didn’t keep us apart, they only made our family more interesting. We had fun laughing at each other’s accents and sharing our cultures. The loveliest part was the staff members. They are such great people who accompanied us all the time to make sure that every day would be better than the previous day. They were there to educate us, to help us doing our homework, and to cheer us up whenever we felt down. They dedicated themselves to supporting us in every way they could. Such giving and loving people are rare to find. They have left an enduring impression on me. I feel so proud having had a chance to be close to such wonderful people with amazing characters.
The real wealth is not measured with money but with how many close relationships you form. Therefore, I consider myself to be very rich as I have many real friends that I can trust for the rest of my life.
Apart from making friends, for a Gazan, who got used to seeing gray all around and not much green, it is delightful to see some views of nature. This is another thing I loved about America. I never got bored wandering around in the streets as the huge trees with fireflies that seemed like Christmas tree lights made me full of joy and inspiration. I would go for a walk ifI felt rough, but that was never a way for me to relax in Gaza. I never minded long drives, too. My head would keep swinging from one window to another in order not to miss any views. We would pass by huge lakes that took my breath away, or a group of geese, or sometimes we would see deer standing by the woods.
I felt so fortunate had having a chance to let my eyes enjoy pondering nature there and meeting many interesting people, some of them were great professors who are so passionate about the Palestinian cause. They became excited about setting up a meeting with me as soon as they know I am a Palestinian living in Gaza.
I also enjoyed talking to people that I encountered by chance. Palestine was my favorite topic to talk about whenever I had a chance. It was funny as most times I spoke to anyone, she or he would ask me where I am from, and then I would reply with a smile on my face, “I’m from Palestine.” Then most people would ask, “Pakistan?” and I would say again, “no! PaLLLLestine” to make sure that I make the pronunciation of letter “L” as clear as possible. But this actually didn’t make any difference to some of them, as they would either ask “where is that?” or “what’s that?” My answer would be “Do you know Israel?” They would show all the expressions of confirmation they can and then I would say “well, Israel is in Palestine” to leave them with exclamation marks on their faces. And then they would be confused, which would be the responsibility that I enjoyed the most, to explain what I meant with history as my only evidence.
It was a bit sad that many people didn’t recognize my country. I say MY COUNTRY as I’ll never lose hope that it is going to be a country one day. Sometimes I got emotional seeing maps with Israel written in bold on the world map and not finding Palestine in the resources that were given to us for use during the leadership program. However, that only grew two things inside me: Knowledge of how hard I have to work to educate people about my country, and determination to make Palestine recognized by every human being on the planet.
Writing about my journey to USA can never end. Briefly and honestly, the five weeks I spent there made me much more mature and confident in my potential, and my ability to give as much as to take. I’m not such a different Shahd, but I can assure you I am a better Shahd after this interesting, eventful, and educational journey.
“Oh yes! I got the scholarship! I’ll be going to USA for a leadership program,” I said while jumping with happiness after reading the email with news of my approval। I thought I had passed the most difficult step. It wasn’t actually the step that I should have worried about. I realized later that I had rushed my happiness, and that it had been too early to feel like I was in control of everything.
When the time to book my tickets came, the American embassy gave me two options; either to leave through Egypt to the USA, or to go through Erez border to Amman and then to the US. I was confused. I had a flashback of being humiliated in the Erez border when I went to Jerusalem to get my visa for the USA. I thought that was enough of that, and there was no need to go through the same experience again. In the meantime, I had read articles and followed the news that announced the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. So I quickly decided to go through Egypt, but didn’t know that it was a stupid decision until it was too late.
I was in the middle of a bunch of discordant voices which would eventually end up driving me crazy. Haha, welcome to confusing Gaza! First, I heard that it was not difficult any more to leave through Rafah, and that it was even easier for women. “All you need is your passport and you will leave very easily and quickly.” Most people agreed on that, relying on fake news reported by the media. Later, I realized that this was what should have been implemented, but not what had happened in reality. I had to go the Rafah border and reserve the date of 18th of June to travel. When I went there, I found people fighting because every date before the 22nd of July had already been taken. I was very depressed, thinking that my dream of visiting the USA wouldn’t happen because of a border, but was lucky enough to meet a man who liked me and sacrificed his reservation on the 18th of June for me. Then I thought that there was nothing more to worry about.
The 18th of June came. It was last Saturday. I was at the Rafah border by 7 am. I kept standing for long hours under the burning sun with dad and my friends Joe and Rocky from ISM. I had to beg people to help me. I saw old men and women crying. I realized then that wherever I went, I would get humiliated, and that I shouldn’t have paid attention to what I experienced at Erez, because no matter how hard that was for me, it wasn’t any harder than the humiliation I would face at Rafah. I went back home that day at around 4 pm. I forced myself to sleep to escape from the frustration I felt at having to get up the following day and make a second attempt at crossing. I didn’t only make a second attempt; I had a third, a fourth and a fifth, all for nothing! I used to leave home so early with my suitcase, torturing myself, my family and my friend to return with it after committing around 8 hours there. I’m still stuck in the horrible prison of Gaza.
It is, simply, pure hell at Rafah. Every day I went to the border was harder than the one before it. Every day, I just got more and more frustrated. “There’s only one way you’re going to leave: with a strong connection”- this is the system that the Rafah border follows. Every day I went there, I bled tears for the people who have been struggling to leave for weeks, but couldn’t. There was no mercy for anybody, whoever they were: old or young, sick or healthy, or whatever. It’s not like the movies: it is true drama, so sad and so miserable. For the past five days, I’ve been dying to hear a certain response from anyone working there. Nobody can bother to talk to you or tell you anything, you just have to try and try without stopping.
When people said that I didn’t have to worry anymore about crossing though Rafah, and that I could leave easily and quickly, it seems that they meant that you could leave very quickly, within at least two weeks. Oh, what a joke! But after I went though that hell, don’t think that I am going to surrender. No, I’ll keep going. Persistence is the only way to reach goals, and I’ll reach them eventually.
Why should my dreams be crushed at the Rafah border? Why, after I got a chance that a Gazan can have only once in a lifetime? Why should the media lie about reality? Why should they let us go so far with our dreams, then finally shock us with the reality? Where is the honesty of the media and where is the honesty of leaders, be they Palestinian or Egyptian? Who is responsible for all the suffering that Gazans face at Rafah? We are the victims of a web of lies.
It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.
My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.
As I passed through the first checkpoint, the alarm bell rang. I started to feel worried but one of my friends told me that it was because my bag contained a laptop. Seeing some Palestinian men working there helped me to relax. One of them told me not to worry as this was normal. He took it from me and he asked me to enter the gate again. I did, with my heart beating fast. After that we were led to enter lots of gates, one after another.
My eyes waited excitedly to see the green lights. I reached one point where I had to stand in an exact way. I tried to show that I had no fear. I saw the green light and they allowed me to pass. I took a deep breath then, but I was so rushed! Unluckily, I heard some Hebrew through the speakers which were spread everywhere around. Then an old Palestinian man who was responsible to show the travelers where to go yelled loudly, calling me back. “I don’t know what the problem is with you, my daughter,” he said with his eyebrows high, showing surprise and worry. “Come back to the same gate and do as I tell you to do,” he continued. I couldn’t hide my panic anymore. I did as I was told but the signs of worry on my face were obvious. “Smile or else the photo will be dark,” the Palestinian man joked to make me less worried.
I wondered why everybody else was having fewer obstacles at passing than I, but I had no answer to my question. I thought that nothing could be worse than that when I passed that grim gate. I was mistaken again. They sent me to a special check point. I was ordered to go into an empty room with a window of glass and an empty chair, a table, and a microphone behind it. I was about to cry, but I tried to pull myself together because I believed that what would make them happy was seeing me fall. I kept standing and just waited. It was totally quiet and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Suddenly, while I looked around the place randomly, an Israeli female soldier sat in the chair.
“You have to do what I tell you exactly,” she said. “Take off your trousers,” she continued with that severe, intense voice. I looked at her with surprise, asking if she was serious. She repeated the same sentence in a louder tone. I could not summon any reaction but the same shocked look. “It is an order!” she shouted, and continued, “You don’t have to worry as only you and I are here.” I kept my head high and I took them off, insisting on making my dream of reaching Jerusalem reality. She ordered me to turn myself around and then pull my t-shirt up. I put my stuff inside a box to be checked as she ordered, and then got it back to dress again.
I am writing this to you feeling so low. Maybe some would think that I should not speak about this, but I must. People have to know how we are humiliated, how badly we are treated, as if we were less than human beings. What was the point of doing that? Obviously nothing! Why did they choose me in particular? For absolutely no reason! They just wanted to enjoy inflicting psychological torment on somebody, and the lot fell upon me. I tried to keep my strength, but this experience left a deep pain inside me.
All my friends passed earlier than me. They waited for me on the other side. As I joined them again, I felt so much better. I decided to live in the moment and not to let anyone ruin my happiness at finally reaching the bus of the American embassy that had been waiting for four hours to take us to Jerusalem.
I only needed to deeply breathe the fresh air of the lands on the other side of the Erez border to feel relaxed. It was such a special feeling. We got into the bus which drove us to Jerusalem. I kept looking through the windows at the places around us. I was amazed. I saw fantastic nature wherever I directed my eyes. They were so hungry for such views. I looked around wildly in order to not miss any of the beauty: the hills, sandy and rocky mountains, green fields, huge trees, and colorful flowers. On our way from Erez to Jerusalem, as I pondered nature, I sang Fairoz’s song about the streets of the old Quds, feeling so happy that I had made it, in spite of every difficulty I had passed through. The taxi driver, who is originally from Jerusalem, noticed my painting book and asked me about it. “I am an artist and I always wanted to draw the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque face to face one day. So I hope that this will be my chance to do so,” I said. “Do not be so dreamy. I have to drop you by the American embassy, and immediately after you all finish your visa interviews, I will take you back to the Erez border,” he replied. After I thought everything was going to be fine, I was mistaken again.
I don’t blame him, as he just followed the orders issued by the embassy. I pity the situation though, living as a stranger in my homeland. As soon as I got out the bus and stepped onto the ground, I started jumping, feeling happy that I was standing on the Holy Land. Everything was perfect with the visa interview and thankfully I got it. I did not want to go outside the embassy as we would then get picked up to go back. Eventually, we had to ride the bus and I was lucky enough to take two beautiful red flowers with me.
They were so strict about taking us directly to Erez, but the driver sympathized with us and could understand what if felt like for Gazans who are in Jerusalem, for the first time in their lives, to reach it without seeing the Dome of The Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the end, he said that he could only take a street which would allow us to see the view. I saw it from so far away just like it is seen in the picture, such an amazingly beautiful scene that my eyes could not stop gazing. It is like magic. Seeing that view, and the fact that we could not go closer, and even that we couldn’t open the window and put our heads out, made me very emotional.
“I have to move. I am sorry,” the driver said with a broken voice. I turned my head toward the dome until it disappeared into the distance, leaving behind a long silence. I went to an empty seat in the back of the bus and lay on it, closing my eyes and letting my soul fly over Jerusalem’s dome. With a mixture of feelings, I fell asleep. I woke up when I arrived at Erez, and now write to you about my trip to Jerusalem from my own room in Gaza.
It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.
My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.
Last night, I went to bed at 11 pm, much earlier than I’m used to. I forced myself to stay under my blanket. The room was very dark and no sound could be heard but the sound of me moving in bed continually. I wanted to sleep so that 7 am today would come quickly, but all my attempts failed. Daydreaming in darkness conquered my mind. I dreamt about my travel to Jerusalem, the smell of its air, the view of its nature, its streets, and its people. My excitement to reach it kept me awake and I only managed to sleep at 4:30 am, then woke up again an hour and a half later.
Amidst this chaos and all the people around me who are chatting as an attempt to make time pass faster, I’m putting my headphones in my ears and listening to Fairoz, trying to live in my own world. I’m writing now from Beit Hanoun border or the so called Erez border. I’m sitting in a hall among lots of people, many of them patients and traders. Everybody has an excuse to go to Jerusalem and waiting to get permission to pass. My eyes are confused; one eye on the people around me and another on the fences that surround me from all destinations, laughing and sarcastically pitying the situation. Isn’t it funny that all of us here are waiting for hours to have a pass to go to our capital, Jerusalem? It’s not fair at all that I need an excuse to go there!
Now I’ve completed two hours of waiting and I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have to wait. While I was writing nonstop, an old woman sat next to me. Her traditional Palestinian dress lined by red embroidery attracted my eyes. The wrinkles of her face looked like she was bearing so many burdens that I thought she was older than only 66 years old. “Are you a refugee?” she asked. I smiled at her, nodding my head to confirm that. Then she said that she is too a refugee. That was the start of a very interesting conversation about our lands, which all Palestinian refugees were cleansed from in 1948. She was only three years old when her family was expelled from her original village, Acre. “I was the youngest of the family,” she said. “My parents and my old brother took turns carrying me,” she said. “They had to put a cover on my face to protect me from the hot weather on that gloomy day.”
Trying to make her laugh, I said, “No wonder why we met here. We are here to return back home!” I laughed. It wasn’t as funny as I thought. Her expressive face showed sorrow. “Oh, I hope so!” she sighed. And then she explained that she was accompanying her son’s twins who suffer from an illness. They sought a permit to cure them at Al-Maqased, a hospital in Jerusalem, and they managed to get it. I tried to change the topic, hoping to stop her from worrying about her grandparents for at least few minutes. I asked her if she knew where my original village, Beit Jerja, was located. While she was looking through the fence, trying to think where to point, her son came rushing her to to tell her get ready, as it was time for them to leave. She hugged me, wished me luck, and then left.
She left to let me return to the situation of depression I am going through, and to continue waiting to follow her to my lovely city that I have always dreamt of reaching: JERUSALEM.
Devastated. This is me since you passed away Vittorio. This utter shock won’t leave me alone. It’s the fifth day since your heartless killers cut your life short.
When I learned that you were kidnapped on the 14th of April, we were just welcoming Majed, my brother, home, after 10 months of traveling around Europe. One hour after his arrival, my dad received a call informing him that Vittorio was kidnapped turning the festive atmosphere into sadness. I didn’t believe what I heard and I shouted, “Impossible! This can’t be true. And if so, he would be joking with his kidnappers repeating his favourite word ‘mushkili!’” I laughed but quickly paused as I read concern on everyone’s faces. I hurried to call you and I found out that your mobile was still turned off. Then my heartbeats started getting faster and faster as I tracked back my memories from the day before.
You texted me during the evening of the 13th saying, “I will be free at 16:00. Bring your drawing book to do my portrait. I have a bar of chocolate for you.” I called you multiple times since the morning of the 14th, expecting to meet you at Al-Salam Cafe, our favourite place at Gaza beach. It was turned off.
“You Italians beat Arabs when it comes to disrespecting time,” I remember thinking. I was planning to argue with you when I see you next or when you turn your mobile on again, thinking that you had cancelled on me. It didn’t come across my mind that there was any chance you could be in danger, here in Gaza where you always felt home! I am very sorry I misread the situation. You neither forgot about our meeting, nor my addiction to chocolate. And you wanted my drawing, until the day that I refuse to accept it being the last day of your life.
I’ve done your portrait, my dear, and I know you are smiling up there in paradise. With tears uncontrollably falling, I insisted to make it for you as I always promised. However, it breaks my heart that you weren’t able to see it. I wish I made it for you the moment you asked me to. I have to say that part of it was your fault. No. It was your humanity. You sometimes cancelled appointments with me so you go visit families of those who fell victim to the latest Israeli attack on Gaza, or to report on a new attack against fishermen by the Israeli Navy, or accompany farmers to their lands that Israel declared ‘a buffer-zone’.
You called me on the 7th of April on Friday to inform me that you delayed your travel to Italy because there were talks about another Israeli offensive on Gaza. You said then sarcastically, “Don’t worry. You have more time now to do my portrait.”
I sometimes think silently, “perhaps if you weren’t truly humane, and you didn’t care that much about the people of Gaza, this wouldn’t have happened to you, and you would be safe in Italy now.”
I know that I should not think in this way but it is my unspeakable shock over your loss that leads me to such thoughts. I went to your funeral trying to accept that you’re gone for good. I tried to be strong for you. I kept reminding myself that for a great hero like you, we shouldn’t sigh, but we should celebrate your life that you devoted in pursuit of justice for the oppressed, your courage and nobel cause.
On the third day of your funeral, your mother showed presence through a live call. Your mother is as great as you. The sorrow over your loss made Palestinians united, and your mother managed to make Italy and Gaza united, singing in one voice, “Bella Ciao.”After we finished singing “Bella Ciao” together, I spoke to your mother, assuring her that “revolutionaries never die!”
My dear Vik, I want you to know that you only left us in body but your soul will be living forever. I want you to be sure that everybody who believes in you and in justice for Palestine will keep on taking your path. I want you to know that you are our hero; you define humanity for us. ‘Stay human’ was the motto that guided every step you took. Dear Vik, you are the winner that you wanted to be. You are the dreamer who never gives up. So I hope now, my dear friend, you are resting in peace.
I am sitting so close to my mother, expecting anything to happen any time. I hate to listen to the radio but I have to. The Radio announcer keeps repeating the same sentence again and again “People, try to take as much caution as possible!” What a silly call! Who knows where is or is not a safe place in Gaza during war time? All I want right now is to see my family members around me. I keep moving my eyes over and around them. They are totally silent but features of worry and fear are easy to make out on their faces. “It sounds like another war” mum said. I just looked and listened in silence, and continued pressing the keyboard buttons. I feel cold like never before. I feel so much in need of a blanket or a sweater but two things stops me from that; my legs and my lips. I can’t break my silence as well as my stiffened state. Nothing but my fingers are moving.
I laughed at myself as I remembered how I bolted down in a flash from the second floor to the first floor where my family stays. Fear takes over, pushes you further. Subconscious strength drove my legs to gather with the others—the safest place I can be. Suddenly, I stopped writing. I couldn’t see anything around me, all colors are unclear. A series of flashbacks from the last war on Gaza that were buried somewhere in my absent memory have reemerged. The sound of war planes is getting louder. The sirens of ambulances are still ringing. I wish I can move and bring some cotton to close my ears. This is the only time when I envy the deaf. “7 children are injured!” the announcer said. I felt as if somebody had thrown freezing water over my face so strongly that it sounded like a slap, though I remained unmoved and unconscious to it.
I went into a very deep sleep out of my control. Silence was spread everywhere. It was as if I was choking in my dreams, there was smoke so thick and stifling. I wasn’t sure if it was real or merely a dream. Suddenly I started coughing, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t open my eyes, I still hadn’t realized what had just happened. Then I tried to pull myself together. I checked if I was ok; I was quite ok. I still couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel my body. Suddenly my hand touched something and then I screamed. Oh God, that was Ahmad, my four-year-old son, on my lap bleeding. I screamed with the loudest voice I could, “Please, help, please rescue my son.” He was bleeding a lot but nobody answered. People around were either dead or unconscious.
“Oh my other seven kids, where are they?” I said. I put Ahmad on the floor and went to search for them. I could barely see for the smoke. I found Ansam, my 2-week-old girl, she was crying with a throttled voice struggling to get out of her throat. I held her to my chest and continued searching for the other six who were not so far away. I was almost epileptic, crying, lots of bodies on the floor. Then I saw four of my sons in the corner looking silently and fearfully at one boy and girl lying face down on the floor. I stood for a while shocked in such fear that the sensations going through me were true, but then I thought that I should move quickly. Slowly and carefully I turned their bodies to the back. Yes, my feeling was right, that was my 8-year-old girl, Amal, and my 7-year-old son, Abdallah.
Amal was bleeding from her nose, ear, and head. She had some shrapnel in her head. The boy was bleeding from his thigh. I couldn’t bear it. I impulsively hugged my children and burst into tears. I didn’t know what to do. Then I went to bring my son Ahmad who was bleeding on my lap, I could see many dead bodies were under the rubble. I gathered my children around me; I was delirious but struggling to be strong for my kids. Ahmad was bleeding so much, and he seemed like he was dying. It wasn’t to be long afterwards that he would die in my arms. Amal and after that Abdallah opened their eyes, they were so scared of death. I hugged them and promised them that they wouldn’t die, I kept telling them to be patient. The ambulances will come soon, “Why are there no ambulances until now!” I screamed.
I wasn’t really conscious of what had happened. I asked myself “where is Abu-Mahmood, My husband?” Then I remembered exactly what had happened and a flashback sent the horror back through my head. Israeli soldiers executed my husband in front of us when he went out of the house putting his hands up just as one of the soldiers outside had ordered him to. The soldier had said, “the owner of the house must come out now!” He went out with his ID in one raised hand and his old Israeli driving license in the other. Then they killed him. And after that kids started shouting and crying begging the soldiers not to kill them, but they came inside and shot towards the kids randomly. It was then that Ahmad was injured in his chest, dying two days later despite struggling for life as the ambulances were not allowed to enter the area by the soldiers until the fourth day.
After that around 100 people from the same family including me and my kids gathered in a house which Israeli soldiers had forced us to enter. Once they’d herded us together like farm animals, the Zionist soldiers with no conscience and ice cold to the lives, love and history of our families inside, bombed the house that my kids and I were sheltering in with everyone else. It took only half an hour, but they were 30 minutes of indescribable hell with unending sorrow thereafter. Anyway, now I know why I had begun this deep, uncontrollable sleep.
Take a walk along one of Gaza’s streets. Gaze into the eyes of its people. Try to guess what they are dreaming about. Gaza is a place full of dreamers, but too often it’s also a grave for their dreams.
As I walk in the street, I see an old man sitting by the entrance of his door looking at the movement of the sun in the sky. From the expression of his face, I imagine that he is thinking he might be dead by the next day without having another chance to see his own land—now in the land called Israel and “forbidden territory”. I see fathers seeking to earn some money to take care of their children. I see mothers carrying their babies, looking at them in sorrow, wondering whether it would have been better not to bring them to this vile world!
I see many Palestinian youth with lost futures. Some may think it is funny how enormous the number of youths is who are crowded into the cafés smoking shisha. However, it’s not surprising. There are many graduates among them who have lost hope of finding a job. Others got frustrated of getting work in the profession in which they have trained, so they are laboring as mechanics, builders or they applied for the government to work as policemen—places where they shouldn’t be!
Many 18-year-old youth work hard to earn good grades in high school so they can qualify for a scholarship for advanced education outside of Gaza, only to find the border closed to them crashing their dreams. It’s as if there is a sign at the reading, “NO, WE WON’T LET YOUR DREAMS TAKE YOU FAR AWAY.” No wonder that so many youth lose their motivation to better themselves. the siege is surrounding them in addition to many others who got their degrees and sitting hopeless, jobless, and useless. No progress, no ambition, no country.
As I walk in the Gaza streets, I see many children with bare feet, dirty clothes and pale faces carrying sweets and chasing cars to beg taxi drivers and passengers to buy some! I look at them with anger, blaming the circumstances that have led them to this early heavy responsibility. What has forced those children to working while they should be at school?! I wonder if there are similar scenes in the streets of Israel. Many questions preoccupy my mind but I still get no answers; the international community is still speechless and does nothing!
I see many fatherless children shouldering many responsibilities, too early when they should be playing games and enjoying their childhood like other children around the world! Mahmood Al-Samouni is the eldest son in his family. At the beginning of 2009, while many people were celebrating the New Year, he was crying so terribly because since that moment he must accept to continue living with his father and his youngest brother absent in his life and just keep wishing that he would see them each night in his dreams! I accompany Adie Mormech, an English activist, to help teach him and others of Al-Samouni family—which lost 30 members in the Israeli invasion. We hope that they will someday be able to make their voice heard by learning English. I heard Mahmood once say that “I want to grow older more quickly so I can handle some of the responsibilities that mum takes.” Can anyone imagine how hard it is for an 13-year-old child to wish for the wheels of life to move faster so he can replace his father and be the man of the family?
You might find it strange that children here are not really children. Gazan children become mature at very early age. Children here wait for Eid so that they can collect money from relatives to buy a fake gun, so they can play a game called “Arabs and Israelis.” I remember when I played this game with my neighbors in the evenings. It’s funny that we had a rule that “the one who plays the Israeli soldiers should die.” However, we realized that the roles were inverted in reality, the soldiers don’t die but kill.
As I walk in the Gaza’s street, I see a mountain of sad scenes; which can only be banished once Palestine is free. But, I will never give up hope that I will someday walk in the Gaza streets and look in the people’s eyes, seeing them shining from happiness, not glistening with tears.
The unsettled political situation, and the “crisis of borders,” the permission we must seek for every step we take– causes much stress among Palestinians. But despite our daily struggle, we always know how to create our smiles even though the smile in Palestine is hard to get. Therefore, we stick with everything that can help us find this pleasure.
Ask any Palestinian about his or her favorite place in Gaza, and the answer will likely be “the beach”. The sea is very special for Gaza citizens. It symbolizes escape– the only route possible to run away from reality and thus the only place where we can feel truly alive and free.
However, Huda Ghalia’s family discovered in the summer of 2006 that even the beach can be a dangerous place. This family went there to enjoy swimming and to ponder the beauty of nature. They never expected that their lives would end there, but they were the heroes of a disastrous tragedy. While sitting peacefully on a Gaza beach, an Israeli artillery shell exploded nearby.
Only Huda was the survivor of nine of her family members that day. She ran to her murdered father, shaking him and screaming “dad, wake up!” Without reason, they were killed. Huda’s family had no link with any militants nor had they shot rockets at Israel. Their only guilt was a desire of a little happiness. What excuse can explain what happened to them? Is Israel judged for that? The “international community” does nothing and Israeli crimes will never stop!
After that black day, Palestinians started fearing even the sea. They stopped going to their only escape from life for a long time. My own family stayed away from the beach that entire summer just like all other families.
However, we didn’t give up. Today, Gaza citizens continue to go to the sea even more than before. Every time I go to the beach with my family I find it more and more crowded, and it brings joy to my hearts. Nothing is more beautiful than seeing children flying kites and parents swimming with their children and throwing a ball to each other. It is the liveliest place in Gaza, especially in summer, and it will continue to be like this forever, in spite of the ongoing Israeli violence.