A Visit to the Gaza Strip on the Eve of The Gulf War in 2002
- Published in The Middle East
"Do you speak Hebrew?"
"Shalom, and that’s about it."
"This way please."
I knew that this was going to be an ordeal, but I had expected to at least reach the check-in counter at Heathrow before being separated from my fellow passengers. The surprising news is that Israeli security is bucking the international trend: when I entered last year, I was subjected to seventy-one questions (and yes, I did count), whereas they let me go this time with a mere sixty-two.
I had decided El Al (or El Kebab, as I learned some call it), the Israeli airline, for a number of reasons. With the American conquest of the Middle East just starting, many airlines had suspended flights to Tel Aviv. El Kebab took the war as a challenge, an opportunity to show how strong Israel is these days. The El Kebab web-site promised that all flights would continue, no matter what happened in the war. Jews could relax, safe in the knowledge that the Israeli military would guarantee that life would continue as normal.
As I booked the flight from my home in Croatia, I knew that it would unlike any flying experience before. As a non-Jew, my motives for travelling at this time would be suspicious; I would be labelled an Arab-loving do-gooder, heading for the Occupied Territories to show solidarity with those terrorists. I thought it better to go through the questioning at Heathrow with El Kebab, since there was a possibility I might get my money back if they refused to let me board the plane; being refused entry at Ben Gurion airport after arriving with another airline (as has happened to a number of foreigners who wanted to express solidarity with Palestine) would have been an expensive exercise.
Why was I going to Israel? Where was I staying? What were the surnames of the people I was staying with? How would I get from the airport to their house? Had I been to any Arab countries? Did I have an Arab friends? Why was I coming to Israel now? Had I been to Israel before? Had I been to the Territories before? Why did I not have a Japanese visa if I was going to Japan? Why was my passport issued in Belgrade? Where was my proof that I lived in Croatia? What was the real purpose of my visit?
I had been relieved of my hand luggage some minutes before. Prior to departure, I had carefully selected my hand luggage, for I knew it would all be scrutinised. I wrote the names, numbers and addresses of my Jewish friends in large letters and committed the Palestinian details to memory. Soon I was deprived also of my shoes. It was cold in the room and I could hear whispered conversations in Hebrew behind the screen where they were searching and, it seemed, cutting things open. And then the questioning started once again, this time from a diminutive brunette.
Why was I going to Israel? Where had I been in previous visits? What were the surnames of my hosts? What did they do for a living? Why was my passport issued in Belgrade? Why was I flying El Al? Why did I not have a Japanese visa if I was going to Japan? Where was all my other luggage if I was going to Japan the day after Israel? Where did I stay in London? Who with? How did I know him? How did I know my hosts in Jerusalem? Did I intend to go to the Territories?
I was impressed. There was good variety in the questioning, with certain questions repeated to check the authenticity of my story. It was clear to me that they did not believe me, but they had no reason yet to prohibit my onward journey. A voice from behind the screen resulted in another question:
"Has anyone touched your shoes since you bought them?" I laughed, internally of course, for there was little humour here, and asked her to clarify what she had meant by the question. She wanted to know whether or not my shoes had been tampered with since I had bought them. While I answered truthfully that they had not been interfered with, I would answer differently now, as the soles of my shoes were cut open and resealed behind the screen.
I was free to go to the departure gate, but my luggage was not; I would be reunited with it in the departure lounge. As I approached the lounge some twenty minutes later, at the far end of the terminal, I had some idea of the isolation that Israelis endure when travelling – they pay for their security with curtailed freedoms. But as for freedom, I was not yet free to join the Jews:
"This way please." A smiling uniformed youth ushered me away from the rest and behind a screen. There was my Gentile bag and, while I might have been pleased to see it, my Gentile shoes were once again removed. I went to sit down, exhausted now by the endless questions and searching. There was another shoeless passenger behind the screen.
"I assume you are the only other person in the room with a foreskin?" I ventured.
"Unbelievable, isn’t it?" He was a Kiwi, on a business trip to Tel Aviv. There were no tourists. My request for an aisle seat seemed to fall on deaf ears as I was shunted into a window seat, but the flight was pleasant enough, despite it being overnight. Six in the morning at Ben Gurion. I approached immigration with dread – I was too tired to face another grilling. But there was none, for word had got ahead that El Al had done its job. I was surprised also at the lack of military presence there, so much more downbeat than Heathrow.
The dark-haired, olive-uniformed, heavily made-up soldier was cute, but I was in no mood for chat as I handed over my passport. I asked only one thing, that she not stamp my passport (a common request among travellers, since the Israeli stamp bars entry to most of the Arab world).
"Certainly," she smiled, then stamped my passport, handing it back to me with a broader smile. "Welcome to Israel." Bastards. I have no doubt that she had been instructed to do that. Had the same thing happened to me last year, I would have been prohibited from returning to my job in Somalia.
West Jerusalem was more relaxed on this, my third visit, than at any time I had seen it. The cafes and restaurants, so empty last year, were now brimming with confidence and style. The buses were full. There was a marked reduction in the number of troops on the streets. After all, the United States was taking on perhaps the last Arab strongman and, if certain rumours were to be believed, Syria and Iran would be next. Perhaps finally the threat of Arab invasion and Israeli annihilation, so real in the early life of the Israeli State, would soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps soon Israelis would be able to be able to walk around without fear of attack from missiles and biological attack. Not yet perhaps, as many walked around with gas masks packed in cardboard boxes, slung over the shoulder – sometimes two if there was a mother and child – but soon. As one drunk shouted in a pedestrian zone: "Soon Israel will rule the world."
There was always the threat from Palestinian terrorism of course - that could never be discounted. But the suicide attacks were down and the one that did attack while I was there succeeded in killing only the bomber and nobody else. It was as though even suicide bombers could be rendered impotent in the changing new world order. But even if they did attack and kill, the world was no longer watching the Israeli Defence Force’s violent retribution. And while my sympathies in this conflict are overwhelmingly Palestinian (and I make no apology for that), I also have total sympathy for the innocent civilians on both sides, and as such, I am happy for peace-loving Israelis that the current state of the world indicates that theirs should be a more secure and happier existence. But I can only say that because I can divorce the peace-loving Israeli citizen from the fascist regime that governs them. Ten miles away in Ramallah, the repression and the hopelessness continue.
The real reason I had come to Jerusalem was to see the Bikini Goddess, that fascinating North American who had modelled a bikini for me in Beirut on the Ginger Tour. She was now living in Ramallah, working for an aid agency, and had refused to evacuate, as she and her international colleagues had been instructed to do as soon as the weapons inspectors were ordered out of Iraq. She refused to abandon what she had come to regard as her home, refused to abandon people who relied on her, just because the going was tough. I know that family and friends despaired at her stance, but my reaction was the opposite – admiration and jealousy. Jealousy, because I have never felt sufficiently strongly about anything to dedicate my life to it. I can do a fortnight in Jerusalem, pop into a genocide memorial in Rwanda, get into the Balkans conflict for a while and potter around Somalia, but I am not a stayer. I admired her commitment of more than two years in the West Bank in deteriorating conditions, and I wanted to give her a hug to show her how much I admired her. That was the reason I went to Israel.
As we met at Damascus Gate, I smiled as I approached her. Her hair was shorter than before, but everything else was the same: the pale blue eyes, the nervous smoking, the slim physique. As most of you ladies have discovered to your cost, I am extremely tactile these days and I am a whore for a good hug. I am normally the last to let go, but not this time. The Bikini Goddess held on for several seconds longer and I was happy to oblige.
For someone I have only spent five days with in previous meetings, I feel strangely close to this young lady. The initial bikini attraction has given way to respect, admiration and deep friendship. We are serial e-mailers and I will occasionally call her mobile in Palestine from my island home, just to remind her that there are people in the outside world who care about what is happening in Palestine.
It was an emotional reunion. For my part, I was exhausted – the intensive course in Budapest had been followed by two weeks of manic travel over Eastern Europe, sorting out my house, finally sorting out my divorce, and preparing for a new life in Japan. There were other emotional considerations too, but my troubles were nothing compared to the ordeal that the Bikini Goddess had been subjected to. As we sat in an Arab restaurant in the Old City, we held hands across the posh restaurant table and we both cried, openly and without embarrassment. We cried a river for Palestine, as she explained what she and her friends had been subjected to since last we met.
Her phone rang. I saw her tense up immediately, for every call was potentially tragic news – another arrest, another murder. I watched her face muscles tighten, her eyes close. It was bad news. A suicide bomber had struck somewhere north of Tel Aviv. Rumours of seventeen dead eventually gave way to forty injured, but I will never forget her face as she received the initial news. There was shock, anger, frustration, fear and concern, all in one. Suicide bombing was pointless, so counter-productive and while she (and I now) understands why it happens, it achieves nothing except invite severe reprisals from the Israelis. Especially now, as the eyes of the world are elsewhere.
One of my biggest problems with sympathising with the Palestinian cause is that I deplore suicide attacks on innocent civilians. Most people think of terror and suicide bombers when they think of Palestinians. It is an act borne of the most intense desperation, but this does not make it right. Suicide bomber in Jerusalem kills nine. Twelve Israeli children blown up by suicide bomber in Tel Aviv. Haifa bomber brings carnage to busy pizzeria.
These headlines sound so familiar to a British audience. It is hard to defend the actions of a suicide bomber, even if you want to. And yet, there is something that struck me as I approached my new home of Hiroshima on the bullet train a few days later. Suicide bombings are always reported in isolation, with no backdrop as to why someone is prepared to sacrifice his life in an attempt to kill others. As I travelled at speed through Japan, I wondered how people would react to the following news item, reported in isolation:
Americans drop atom bomb on city of Hiroshima, killing 50,000 (or whatever the figure is). Taken out of context, it is arguably the greatest war crime in history (if we use current trendy terminology). Give it some context – that it brought about the end of the Second World War – and one can, if not agree with, then at least begin to understand why the bomb was dropped. Suicide bombers are never given the luxury of context and yet, after my four hours in the Gaza Strip, I can fully understand why people become suicide bombers, indeed I am surprised that everyone there is not a suicide bomber. Not only that, I am almost certain that if I, an intelligent, educated and rational (sometimes at least) person, was subjected to the realities of day-to-day life in Gaza all my life, I too would happily – HAPPILY – give my life in the same way.
Before I take you into Gaza, I want to describe an incident at a checkpoint between Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Jerusalem, this following a peaceful choir practice, which included me giving instruction in German pronunciation for a Mozart piece. Some of you will have read about it in the newspaper article I wrote, but it serves as a useful Gaza backdrop.
It was dark at the checkpoint and we could make out perhaps twenty people in front of us, in front of whom stood three Israeli soldiers. I couldn’t see much, but I could follow the conversation in English between a soldier and a young Palestinian woman, her white coat the only thing visible in the darkness.
"Please just let me go. I want to go home to Jerusalem. I have nowhere to stay in the West Bank."
"You want to go to Jerusalem? We wanted to go to Jerusalem before 1967 but you Arabs wouldn’t let us. So now you know how we felt."
"I wasn’t born in 1967. I just want to go home."
"I wasn’t born either, but your father wanted to drive my father and my family into the sea." Silence for a moment. "What happened in 1967?" Silence. "I said what happened?"
"There was a war."
"Correct. There was a war. And who won?" Silence. "I said who won?"
"Correct. Israel won. We are in charge. The checkpoint’s closed. Go away now."
It transpired that the reason that the checkpoint was closed earlier than 9pm was that Israel had put its clocks forward by an hour four days earlier, whereas the West Bank was still operating on winter time. If the occupying force changes its time, you can bet the checkpoints will follow suit. An elderly Palestinian man in front of me suggested that we two foreigners go to the front of the queue, because the soldiers would probably let us pass. I thought briefly about this, aware that I was already late for my dinner date with my Israeli hostess, but stayed put – it would have been shameful to cross when these ordinary folk were left behind.
The girl was becoming more desperate.
"If I run past you, what will you do? Will you shoot me?"
"Well, I am desperate enough to take the risk." And with that she disappeared into the night. The soldier, caught off-guard, dropped his weapon, ran round the desk that had separated them, and gave chase. The tension among the rest of us was palpable. I felt a hand clutch my upper arm:
"Don’t worry, they will not shoot her," pronounced a soft female voice.
The girl was back fifteen minutes later, a little ruffled and a lot desperate.
"I know I am nothing to you, that I am not a person in your eyes, but I ask you as a human being to let me go home."
"The checkpoint is closed. Leave now." We lingered, what else was there to do? Some walked dejectedly back to town, but most hung around as the chill of the night crept upon us. Cigarettes, so many cigarettes were smoked and there was silence. What was there to say? Suddenly, a loud screeching sound, as a barrier was pushed back and then the soldier barked:
"Go now, go to Jerusalem." We could not understand the change of heart but we moved quickly, surprised and grateful. And then the soldier became Mr. Nice Guy.
"Don’t be angry on us. We are just doing our job." In other circumstances, I might have corrected his English, but it was all I could do to refrain myself from punching him, I who have not raised a finger in anger since John Barrow stole my orange at primary school.
Lying in bed, I thought about my evening and I smiled. I still felt the warmth of the school and the average choir, and I hummed the tune of one of their songs, Freedom is coming, oh yes I know. I have never seen a group of people who were so free. Palestinians are the freest people I know; for two hours every Tuesday evening, these choristers experience total and exquisite freedom. Their only problem is coping with the other one hundred and sixty-six hours a week, every week, for the past thirty-six years, and the other one hundred and sixty-six hours a week, every week, for every year that this illegal occupation continues.
An Israeli friend kindly dropped me at the Gaza checkpoint on the way to work. We laughed and joked all the way about the absurdities of life. She was convinced that there was no way I would be allowed into Gaza, especially as the breaking news on Hebrew radio was that helicopter gun-ships had entered Rafah refugee camp and attacked certain targets. But we laughed about trivial things – my fear of dogs, my soft spot for her friend, the prospect of teaching Japanese infants. We even had a Coke fight as we drove, showering the car and each other in Diet Coke. We laughed as we cleaned the car. The sun was shining, life was beautiful. She dropped me at the checkpoint and headed to Tel Aviv, sure that I would be refused entry with my Coke-stained trousers.
Gaza. So many stories, so many rumours. I had no idea where to go, even if they did let me in, but I would worry about that later. Given the Israeli penchant for questioning, I had prepared my story. Carrying my Teach Yourself Japanese and my certificate of eligibility from the Japanese government, I was en route to Tokyo, but had agreed to meet some aid workers for some Japanese colleagues, in order to write a health proposal for the Japanese Government to fund. If only there was not so much Coke on my trousers…
The first checkpoint waved me by after a cursory look at my passport – he was pre-occupied with a delegation from, and I can’t explain why, Madagascar. Next I visited the office, where my passport was registered and my tourist card stamped ‘Gaza.’ Oh fuck, how many questions is that going to invite on my flight out? The answer was 177, of which more later. I explained my purpose in visiting and was free to proceed to the final checkpoint. On my way, I heard voices to my left. As I walked in splendid isolation towards Gaza, I peeped though a hole in the wall and caught sight of hundreds of Palestinians being herded in the same direction. It was wrong of me, but my thoughts went back to a Polish prison sixty years ago.
It was oppressively hot and this was late only March. The Eres checkpoint was deserted and I walked more than a kilometre from one end to the other, this next to one of the most densely populated areas in the world. There were a few yellow cabs in front of me, but the Palestinian drivers did not hurry in my direction – I would need a cab and they were all brothers, so negotiations could wait until I reached them. The Bikini Goddess had recommended a quaint (whatever quaint might mean in the Gaza context) hotel by the beach. "Al Deira?" I enquired.
"Fifty shekels." Perhaps a reasonable price in Israel, but clearly a rip-off in Gaza, where people could not afford taxis. I didn’t argue – who was I to haggle over ten dollars with someone who probably had a wife and eight children to feed? His English was broken and, as we drove, he offered me a tour a Gaza, for which I could pay what I liked. Which meant whatever you offer will not be enough and I will give you the real price later. I looked at him and agreed, thinking bizarrely of my mate Dave in Serbia, who is convinced I am a war junkie. Perhaps he is right.
Perfect Israeli roads gave way to potholes, flash cars to mangy donkeys pulling women in chadors in carts. There were some fields, but not many. The concrete jungle was soon upon us. Hot, dusty, busy, goat-infested, bustling, chadors, shops peddling anything, people, so many people. It reminded me of one place so much – Bosaso, in northern Somalia, not a great reference point for most of you, I realise, but this was Bosaso times thirty.
We parked next to a rubbish tip – it would have been difficult not to in Gaza. Children, barefoot, were scavenging, as though there might have been something worthwhile discarded by the other refugees. Disease was rife among them, but they smiled and waved. We passed a boy of three - thin, frail, gaunt, frightened – wearing dark red ‘Snoopy’ pyjamas. He too was barefoot and looked as though he had not eaten for a week. In my childhood, Snoopy had been a figure of warmth, of comfort – his appearance on that child’s pyjamas was grotesque.
We entered Jabalya refugee camp, a warren of streets, with families in such close proximity that one snoring man could have kept hundreds awake. Rubbish everywhere, children barefoot, yet smiling. "Salam Aleykum" I said in bad Arabic, offering my hand. Lots of giggling as they took the hand of the fat foreigner. Kids. Rwanda, Somalia, Gaza – life might deal them a pile of shit, but it only takes a warm word to bring out their best smile.
"This way." I was ushered into a house at the heart of a camp, to be greeted by an old man with a crooked toothy grin. I removed my shoes and was shown into the main room, a pleasant whitewashed affair, blue cushions lining its walls, a simple rug in the middle. As we waited for the tea to arrive, there was an awkward silence.
"I love these cushions, they are really pretty."
"Do you? Israeli rubbish. Israeli not want. Good for Palestinians only." How to kill a conversation in three seconds. I was saved by the tea and, as always in the Arab world, hospitality was the priority. Tea was followed by coffee and spicy vegetables wrapped in cabbage. And with refreshments came conversation, animated conversation. Ahmed’s English improved as his anger intensified, much to the amusement of his three dutiful daughters, dressed in black chadors.
The girls intrigued me. Huda was the eldest, twenty-two, extremely bright and with a good command of English. She was a fourth-year chemistry student (thirteen girls in a class of thirty-three, which surprised me in this conservative society) and was concerned about finding a job upon graduation – nobody else in the family worked, because there was no work as they were not allowed to look for work outside Gaza. I smiled, internally, at the irony of it – here in Gaza, international capital of bomb-making and here is a sweet Muslim girl with a chemistry degree fretting about job prospects.
When I was in Croatia, I had been struck by my builder’s German. He had worked in Germany for eight years and his building site German had been perfect – cement mixer, screed, tea-break – but he could not answer simple questions about the weather. Here too in Gaza, the specialist English knowledge was astounding – mortar attack, suicide bombing, repression, rocket attack, curfew, imprisonment, helicopter gun-ship, occupation. From girls of twelve years old. What had happened to their carefree childhood? The same childhood that included them being awoken in the middle of the night to the sound of helicopter gun-ships circling above and destroying the houses of neighbours and family. Childhood does not exist in Gaza.
I asked about water. Water? Well, it came every day, for an hour. They queued with their buckets with all the other families to collect as much of this increasingly salinated and hazardous drinking water, before the supply was turned off for twenty-three hours. Water is an emotive issue and in short supply in many parts of the world, but it is plentiful supply in some parts of Gaza – 6,500 Jewish settlers enjoy a third of Gaza’s water supply, while 1.3 million Palestinians make do with the rest.
It was my turn to face the questioning. I was British. What was Blair doing? Have people forgotten the people of Gaza, kept in this prison? Should Ahmed have hope for outside intervention? Do people in England care what is happening in Gaza? He told me of the time that the soldiers came into his house, shot dead his cousin in front of them all, then left. What was eerie about the tale was that his three daughters giggled through the story, laughing as their father struggled for the English for cousin. Death and suffering were so common to them that it did not touch them. Twelve years old.
He told me of his eldest son, who was chased down the street by Israeli soldiers as he went to the mosque to pray. He was so frightened by the incident that all his hair fell out and now, fourteen years later, he is unmarried. There is no work. There is no hope in Gaza. Just the humiliation. Just the hopelessness. Just the knowledge that the occupiers can, and do, do whatever they choose, safe in the knowledge that nobody in the wider world cares.
"Does nobody out there care?" He focused on me with greater earnestness. "Is there no hope for us? Do we sit here and die? Do we sit and wait for Israelians to kill our children? Do we do nothing? Let Israelians take our land, our water, our olives, our everything? Do Britain not care what happens here?" He was angry now, aware that he lived in the world’s biggest prison, where there was no hope of parole. He had almost graduated from university, but the Israelis had prevented him from taking his final exams. He had diabetes and some other illness and medication was intermittent. Where could he go? What could he do? Nothing, except wait. The Israelis came, they arrested some, they killed others. Perhaps his son would be next.
"Does nobody out there care?" Imagine you lived in a city and it was encircled. There was no way out. Normal life is suspended. There is no work. For survival, you depend on sporadic handouts from the UN. The people encircling your city persuade the world that you are terrorists, animals, who must be kept behind barbed wire. But your captors need land for their own and so they begin to demolish some of your houses, forcing the inhabitants deeper into the city. Suddenly, spacious complexes housing the families crop up where your house used to be. You cannot do anything. Some of your friends try and offer armed resistance, but they are branded terrorists in the eyes of the world. Your captors take the opportunity to attack and destroy more of your city, while taking more land for its citizens. Water is in short supply and much is diverted to the occupier’s citizens. Attempts to resist are branded terror attacks. Those animals behind the barbed wire are terrorists. Imagine that you are fifteen years old and watch as the occupiers destroy your house with twenty minutes’ notice, as you watch your mother wail and your father interned. Do you feel angry, helpless? Do you want revenge? Do you want to fight back? There is no hope in your life. It is only a matter of time before they come for you and your new home. The world is not listening. The world does not care. You are nothing but an animal, nothing but a terrorist who lives behind the barbed wire. How do you get your message across to an outside world that is not listening and does not care? How do you fight back when you have significantly inferior weapons? How can you inflict losses on your occupiers? What do you have to live for if not the freedom of your family?
That, at least in part, in my opinion, is the context of the suicide bomber. A person who is dispossessed, humiliated, devoid of hope, stripped of dignity, unable to work, unable to provide for his family, unable to move outside a confined zone, watching helplessly as the occupier destroys more of his neighbours homes, while grabbing more land for occupying families, looking at his nation’s children as they experience record levels of malnutrition. Does he just sit there and accept it, this in a world where nobody cares about the Palestinians. They are a bunch of terrorists. If a Palestinian is armed and attacks Israeli soldiers occupying his land (an illegal occupation, according to those precious UN mandates that seem so important when the cause grabs American attention), he is a terrorist. If an Israeli attacks a Palestinian, he is defending himself or keeping the peace. Never has the phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ been so true for me.
"Does nobody out there care?" Before I embarked on the Ginger Tour in 2001, I never really took the time to see things from other perspectives. My night in Pale, Bosnian Serbia, changed that, as Maja challenged me to decide how I would react if all this had happened to me. So how would you react in the situation above? How would you react if, as in Rwanda, they brought your neighbour to your house and gave you a choice: kill him now or watch as we rape your wife and daughter before we kill them in front of you. It is so easy to call people savages from the armchair in front of the television, but would you do if you were in their shoes?
"Does nobody out there care?" I looked at him and attempted a conciliatory answer, but we both knew I was waffling. No, Ahmed, we don’t care, we don’t give a shit. Ninety percent of people who will read this will have forgotten you by lunch-time. At best you will be an anecdote down the pub. My mate was in Gaza last week and went to see this family of refugees - that sort of thing. If I am sounding holier than thou at the moment, that is not my intention, as those of you who know me well will confirm. It is just that I see a lot of this suffering at first hand and the reality does not filter back home. The night before I flew to Israel, I was at a party in London where everyone was doing lines of coke as I sipped my Chardonnay. A girl was telling me about a mutual friend, who was off to Basra to make a film – how totally cool was that. As she went off to snort another line, I was depressed, so depressed because all that suffering in Iraq had been reduced to an awesome trip that a friend was making into the carnage.
It was the same as I left Gaza. I hitched a lift with three Swedes up to Tel Aviv. They were involved in the construction of a power plant in Gaza and were regularly fired on by Jewish settlers. Conversation varied from the light-hearted (Russian hookers, famous Swedish exports to England – Sven and Ulrika – and why the Finns are so stupid) to the more serious, especially the current situation in the region.
"So where do you Swedes stand in all this?"
"We are officially opposed to the war. It is so stupid. We are an insignificant country and our voice does not matter. Why don’t we back the obvious winner? Now Swedish companies will be excluded from the massive contracts in the rebuilding of Iraq." Money, money, money. Greed, greed, greed. No, Ahmed, nobody gives a shit about you or your family, or your suffering, or your fellow Palestinians. Even when Israelis murder citizens of the their great benefactor, America, nobody (including America) gives a shit. Have you heard of Rachel Corrie? She was world news for a day and then forgotten. She pledged to help these defenceless Palestinian children and was murdered by an Israeli bulldozer. If they can kill American sympathisers with no consequence, how are you, Ahmed, a mere Palestinian terrorist?
I do care and, perhaps because I was affected directly, because I spent time with Ahmed and his family, I am going to do something I have never done before, despite the numerous worthy causes I have encountered on my travels – I am going to ask you for money.
My time in Gaza affected me deeply. It is a prison, there is no escape, just repression and hopelessness. The people there know that the world has forgotten and does not care. I tried to imagine what it must be like to be given a life sentence with no hint of parole or a loved one who cares. I thought of the Beirut hostages and the sense of hope engendered with a message from a loved one. Perhaps I am being emotional, naïve – whatever – but I want Ahmed to know that, while you and I cannot change the situation, there are people outside Gaza who do care.
His family has nothing and needs everything, but above all his family needs hope, a message from outside the prison that someone is thinking of them. What I am asking is that you think about what I have written and make a contribution according to your means, so that we can do something to help Ahmed’s family, to let him know that there is someone outside his life sentence who is thinking of him. There is so much that they need – food, education materials, medicines, and a host of other things. The Bikini Goddess has agreed to liaise with the family and procure whatever is required. This is a rare care of charitable donation where 100% of the funds will go to the recipient. I have a friend in Oxford who has agreed to open a bank account and handle any cheques that may come in.
Please send cheques to:
C/o Mrs. A. Bidwell
1a Davenant Road
If it easier for you to transfer cash, please contact me and I will give you my bank details, after which I can write a cheque for the amount. Any donors outside the pound zone – please contact me and we will figure a way. If you would like some input as to how your cash is spent, let me know. A full report on how the money is used will be provided on request.
I had by now gained Ahmed’s trust and friendship. Or had I? My cultural awareness is improving and I treaded carefully. The Bikini Goddess had told me that Gaza is the most conservative part of Palestinian society, although it appeared a little freer than Somalia, for example. I wanted to borrow his daughter and, as she excitedly showed my name and email address to her sisters, I knew that she was keen to spend more time with me, conversationally at least.
"Ahmed, if this is not acceptable in your culture, I understand, but can I borrow Huda for two hours to come and show me Gaza with the driver? She speaks much better English." His eyes narrowed, his suspicions aroused. "If she cannot come because of your culture, I totally understand. I just want to see as much as possible and she can translate for me." Huda looked expectantly in the direction of her father. He reluctantly agreed to two hours only. She let out a gasp of joy and then asked me to wait, while she prayed and changed.
The three of us did Gaza and I was not sure whether or not to be depressed or happy. Huda took delight in everything, pointing out all the beautiful buildings, the wonderful views. It is a total shit-hole, Huda, I wanted to say, but her pride and enthusiasm made me agree with her in everything. As we approached the coast, the buildings grew more opulent, something akin to a third-rate Turkish holiday resort. Hotels, empty hotels, erected by Arafat and his cronies, using money destined for the Palestinian people. Yes, Huda admitted, she was angry that they had kept the money for themselves. This for me is another real kick in the teeth for the average Palestinian – not only do they have to deal with the occupation, but their own leaders are totally corrupt as well, ruling by decree and terror.
The beach was as sandy and as welcoming as any I had come across. At least it would have been if it was not covered in rubbish. I smiled as we walked, a pretty young girl in black chador walking in the late afternoon on a humid, sandy beach. I closed my eyes and was back in Somalia with Muna, my Kenyan Somali friend, with whom I had shared so many special moments on the beach in Bosaso. Young Palestinian men, clad only in shorts, ran into the water and eyed us with suspicion. Huda could not swim, she was afraid. Swimming here was good though, although the Israelis would only let the boats go out so far and sometimes their gunboats came close to the shore and opened fire.
Arafat’s compound was next, or what was left of it. It was in slightly better condition than his main headquarters in Ramallah, which I had visited the previous day. Nothing remained there except one building at the edge of the complex. An area the size of two football pitches reduced to rubble. Israelis don’t get mad, they get even and then some. While everyone abhors the suicide bombings that kill Israeli civilians, little mention is made of the fact that far more innocent Palestinians civilians die at the hands of Israeli force.
As we drove back to the checkpoint – me to another carefree evening of beer and good food, she to her prison cell – I looked around the curiosity that is Gaza: the only place in the world where I have seen a No Entry road sign on the main street – for horses; the painted murals: Iraqi and Palestinian children – born to live; the numerous portraits of Saddam Hussein – a hero to some Palestinians, not only because he was an Arab strongman who stood up to America, but also because he had linked the withdrawal from Kuwait to an Israeli withdrawal back in 1991 (Palestinians paid heavily for that allegiance, as the Gulf States expelled all Palestinian guest workers, a vital source of income lost for good); but above all, people trying to get on with their lives in extremely difficult circumstances. As I said goodbye to Huda, I did something I have never done before on my travels – I made a promise that I would help her family in some way. And help her I will, and I ask you to help me in that help.
As you have probably realised if you have read this far, this is a subject about which I feel strongly. In a way, I feel bad about asking you for money, but I know a lot of you have Palestinian sympathies. There is my first and last Ginger appeal for cash. In the meantime, relax, the next Ginger Report is from Japan, and features eating raw eggs with chopsticks and a classroom full of Japanese six year-olds learning root vegetable vocab by rote, while running rings round a new Ginger teacher, while not forgetting of course to acquaint you with the machinations of Japanese washing machines, diminutive ironing boards, and my new role as an unlikely sex symbol.
As I returned to Jerusalem, I couldn’t help notice the new hotel by the bus station in Jaffa Street: Welcome to the George W. Bush Hotel.
After a final, wonderful evening in East Jerusalem with the Bikini Goddess and her lovely boyfriend, the only things that stood between me and a frantic day’s shopping in London prior to departure for Tokyo, were the chaps from El Kebab. The Gaza stamp seemed to enrage them and I was subjected to five consecutive interviews, each interviewer billed as more senior than the last. There was consistency in the questioning and I dealt with their questions easily enough. As my shoes were sent off for further analysis, I stuck to my story that no, I had not been to Ramallah and that I had visited Gaza out of curiosity, having heard it on the news so often. The only person I met the entire time was a taxi driver who spoke no English. They broke off the questioning for a while, as they asked me to stand in a cubicle while they went through my bag and shoes, and this was the unnerving bit.
I had nothing to hide, so I was not worried, but a guard was posted to stand directly in front of me, just to observe me, to assess my level of agitation, I guess. I looked up at him a couple of times, and he looked away. After a few minutes, I glanced at him again and this time he did not avert his eyes, but stared right back. We locked eyes for perhaps a minute, his pale blue eyes increasing in intensity. There was hate and contempt in those eyes, those Aryan blue eyes. The 177 questions did not phase me, but I will never forget those eyes. He was not the one who looked away.
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.