In March 2015 I accompanied 11 other medical professionals through Israel/Palestine, through the Erez checkpoint, and into Gaza. We were traveling with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility (WPSR), a medical and public health group with a longstanding history in advocacy for social justice, environmental health, and elimination of nuclear proliferation.
WPSR has been traveling to Gaza for twenty years and had most recently visited in October, just weeks after the deadly summer siege in 2014 that killed thousands of Palestinian civilians. Thousands more were wounded, and still more are now homeless, left to struggle with even less in a land already cut off at every pass. No piece of life was untouched by death and destruction. Not a hospital, a mosque, nor a school was safe.
Our group spent 10 days in the Gaza Strip. Everything I saw, heard, and experienced was with both joy and pain: joy for the immense love and generosity from the people of Gaza and all that Gaza is and could be, and pain at what has been stolen and gouged out of the land and hearts of the people. A man living in his home with his two children, bombed out. One small rug, three teacups, one tea kettle, several cinder blocks for chairs, and one missile shell. He slept with it by his bed, which was a piece of torn rug. Did the shell serve as a reminder? A souvenir of his disbelief?
He showed it to me as we were waiting for the water to boil, his eager eyes recreating the story of the day his house fell to the ground. His eyes and hands were the only way we could communicate. He reached up and used the bomb to show me how it fell from the sky and landed in his home. Friends translated that they were able to escape without injury, but there was nothing left of their home, nothing left of the city of Khan Younis except for tangled rebar and so much concrete that it grayed out the sky.
Before we returned to the room that once was the living room but now held only the gray cinder blocks and small fire, he pointed to the name on the missile: Property of The United States. I am disturbingly aware that my government is complicit in the Israeli Occupation of Palestine and is its primary financial supporter. To see the name of my country etched into the side of a bomb that was responsible for ripping this man’s life and the entirety of Gaza apart was the most appalling experience I have ever had.
Fast forward two weeks and now I am back in the land of checkpoints, settlements, and Israeli Defense Forces. The Holy Land. My first night out of Gaza was spent in Jerusalem. The city felt so big and I missed the warm smiles of my friends only several hours away. So close, yet they couldn’t be farther. They could never come and meet me here for coffee, stroll through the quarters in the Old City, or go to a museum. They cannot even visit their most revered sites to pray.
My feeling of loss is hard to explain. Once I had crossed through the Erez checkpoint I felt strikingly alone. It is a disorienting feeling to have such harsh barriers blockading access to something that feels so pure–friendship. The fact that my friends are denied their freedom and innate right to navigate borders makes me feel sick. This pales greatly in comparison to all that the people of Palestine endure day in and day out and have resiliently endured for generations.
It was a harsh reality to live in Gaza for those 10 days, but a different kind of edge took hold of me as I transitioned back from Gaza to Jerusalem and finally to Tel Aviv where I caught a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver struck up a conversation with me. He asked how long I had been in Israel, where I had gone, what sights I had seen. Knowing what a divisive topic Gaza is I first answered his question by saying that I visited the “Palestinian Territories.” When he asked further, I told him that I had done work with WPSR in Gaza. He nearly swerved off the road. He seemed equally horrified and intrigued and started asking me questions as rapidly as he was giving me his own version of history.
He already had his opinions and was ready to fight, so all I wanted to convey was that I had experienced an immense amount of kindness and generosity while in Gaza. He wanted to know what life was like there and I fiercely wanted to leave him with an understanding of the strength, warmth, family devotion and hope that I experienced there. I told him about the beautiful new school, the family dinners, how people love the sea, the weddings and the babies — that life and the people there could easily be my family or his. He decried this statement venomously and told me it could be my family, maybe, but not his.
After his outburst, he was silent for a moment and then wanted me to know what the Israeli news had told him about Gaza — about the violence and the desire for the destruction of Israel. I told him that I had not met a person who spoke about the things he was speaking of. There was talk of peace and forgiveness, hope and healing. He just sat there shaking his head and told me that this cannot be true because this is all that the Israelis want. I told him that more than he must realize, everyone wants the same thing: Peace.
He then said something that gave me hope. He wondered out loud, “If what you are saying is true, could the media be lying to everyone?” I couldn’t tell if he was asking himself, me, or was he just hoping for someone to provide him with an answer that could prove him wrong. He seemed to quickly dismiss the idea that the media could purposefully do such a thing, but I felt the seed was planted. I am hopeful that something occurred for this man on that day to help him expand his sense of reality outside of his current worldview, which similarly has indoctrinated the majority of Israeli people and institutions. But who knows. One aspect of that interaction which quiets me with disbelief is how dangerous the colonial mindset is. The elements of superiority, egocentrism, entitlement, lack of self/collective accountability, and insight. This will always lead to destruction and the worst stripping of humanity.
I began the check-in process at the airport the earliest they allowed, two hours beforehand. Upon my arrival in Israel, they never stamped my passport, though they did stamp it at the Erez checkpoint. This was fine with me. However, this fact created quite a problem for me during the check-in process back in the Ben Gurion Airport.
Upon first glance at the stamp in the back pages of my passport, the young woman screening each passenger silently and quickly changed places with a still young yet more outspoken security guard.
She asked me a series of questions in rapid-fire. Not unlike I had heard before from family members who had traveled to Israel. “Who is my father? Grandfather? Where were they born? Where was I born? Where do I live? How long did I stay in Israel? Where did I go? Where did I stay? Do I know anyone in Israel? Do I know anyone in the ‘Palestinian Territories?’ Who did I travel with? What do I do for a living? Did I go to Hebrew School? Do I speak Hebrew? Did I have a Bat Mitzvah?”
No matter how factual, she seemed to disapprove of every answer I gave her. She called her colleague over — a young man who appeared to be more outfitted for security purposes than she. Again, my passport was handed over and the back pages pointed out. His eyes narrowed in on me, more as a glare, and he asked what I was doing in Gaza. I told him volunteering for WPSR. I explained the group and the work that we did while in Gaza. He continued to question me on the specifics of who I knew there, which organizations we were affiliated with, where did we stay, how many times had I been there, how did I get in. Then he asked me point blank, why didn’t I help the people of Israel, they need help too. I responded that the people of Israel did not need our help. They receive plenty of help and they have a lifestyle that is very supportive and comfortable for the people’s needs. Gaza, on the other hand, has been denied this. He shook his head and said Israel needs help, too, and asked why would I help the Palestinians? I tried to hide the anger in my voice, and very clearly said, “Israel does not need help. Gaza needs help.”
Seemingly unhappy with my responses, he told me to hold on, he must get his manager. She approached me with a warm smile and began the same, long, round of questioning that the other two guards had already gone through. She apologized, and very pleasantly reassured me its just protocol. She then started to ask random and more specific questions. Where and when did I graduate from college? Why was I not traveling with my group? What was I doing in Gaza? Where had I held jobs for the past five years? Why did I move from California to Florida?
The questions became more and more arbitrary and her tone became less and less reassuring. At one point it was revealed that I hadn’t worked for the better part of 2014. She excitedly pointed this out and tried to say that I had lied to her because I told her I had been a nurse since 2011, which is when I passed my boards and graduated. In 2014 I was in a severe car accident and couldn’t work and before this time I had only one year of work experience. She began to call me a liar and said that I had lied about how long I was a nurse. I told her I count the time I have been a nurse as the time that I held my Registered Nursing license. Frustrated, she threw up her hands and point blank asked me, “Why do you go to Gaza? You can go anywhere else. Go to Africa or something. Why do you have to go to Gaza?”
I let the anger wash through me and attempted to step back with amusement at the people in front of me, running themselves in circles, inciting themselves through their own belief systems of hatred and ignorance. But this felt nearly impossible because everywhere I looked I was staring at the face of the oppressor and every link that keeps this system functioning.
I took a deep breath, filled with the utmost love for a place I have only just gotten to know, smiled, and told her, “Because this [Gaza] is where I wanted to go.”
Ultimately, they let me through. Just a glimpse into what my colleagues, who have had much harsher experiences go through each time and what the people of Palestine, who live under militarized occupation, must endure daily.
I created family while I was there. I created ties with people that welcomed me into their homes to meet as many family members as possible, those who were still left. We gathered, and we celebrated. We celebrated being together, being alive, our newfound connections, and the fact that our very presence was a reminder that Gaza is not forgotten.