(Photo: Alison Glick)
This post is part of the series “Roots of Resistance: 25 year retrospective on the first intifada.” Read the entire series here.
For much of the first intifada, Gaza was my home.
My first visit to Gaza was in January 1988. A group of teachers from the Friends Schools in Ramallah where I had been teaching organized a visit to Gaza to witness firsthand the result of Itzhak Rabin’s policy of “force, might and beatings” — a failed attempt by the then-Israeli Prime Minister to crush the uprising by literally beating the population into submission. The aim was to re-erect the barrier of fear the uprising had broken, and resurrect the mentality that the occupation had control over everything – including one’s body – by the direct, unambiguous application of physical violence. Our guides that gray, chilly day had met us at the law office of Raji Sourani, a prominent human rights lawyer, before venturing out together to the hospitals and camps to visit wounded Palestinians.
A Palestinian woman outside Gaza’s Ansar II prison camp,
January 8, 1988. (Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
With schools still closed in the West Bank – a form of collective punishment that lasted for most of the first intifada — I took a job as a human rights researcher in Gaza and moved there that spring. My new apartment in the Rimal section of Gaza City became my residence, but Raji’s law office was my home away from home. The modest third floor office on Omar al-Mukhtar Street was a constant hub of activity. Foreign journalists and fact-finding delegations sat among women from the surrounding camps hoping for news – any news – about their sons and husbands languishing in Israeli prisons. The arrival of these women would be announced by the steady shuffle in the hallway of their sturdy plastic sandals against the hard tiles, floor-length black skirts and sheer white head scarves billowing behind them. The low wooden coffee table that sat in front of Raji’s desk was perpetually littered with half empty Arabic coffee cups, their powdery remnants drying in the sun, competing for space with ashtrays overflowing with Marlboros smoked down to the butt and others hastily crushed out while nearly whole. Ashes were sifted onto the tabletop by the breeze that would occasionally blow up from the sea.
But on this late spring day a few months after my first visit, there would be others coming with a slightly different agenda. A group of Israeli peace activists, intellectuals, and writers would be visiting, having been put in touch with Raji by an Israeli human rights lawyer with whom he worked. Raji had invited Gazan friends and colleagues to meet them, including a close friend of mine who was fluent in Hebrew. Hilmi had learned Hebrew (and English) in what is known in the Occupied Territories as “Palestinian Universities” – Israeli jails where political prisoners school each other in languages (to learn to negotiate with their captors and communicate with foreign visitors from the Red Cross), politics, art, history, and collective resistance and organizing. Hilmi entered “university” at age 17 and graduated after 14 years. He was meeting the group at Eretz checkpoint, the northern entrance to Gaza, and bringing them to Raji’s office. At the time such visits were possible, before the Israeli blockade and the transformation of Gaza into its current state – commonly described as an open-air prison.
They appeared in the early afternoon – Ronit, Uzi, Ilana, Dorit – chattering in Hebrew, a language whose once-familiar staccato had been largely nudged aside in my brain by the thick rise and fall of Arabic. The sudden sound of Hebrew in that room –usually only spoken by Raji while on the phone with an Israeli military court official – unsettled me like a stray bird darting through the window. I followed its sound and trajectory as it bounced off the walls, trying to orient it in a place that it didn’t belong.
Introductions were made and coffee was served on the hastily cleared table. Hebrew swirled low among the Israelis, translating and commenting on the answers to questions being asked the Palestinians in English, the larger group’s lingua franca. Over coffee and lunch, the flow of the conversation took on the aura of a collective onion peeling. The easy, visible layer offered itself first.
“Raji, how many political prisoners do you defend? Do any actually face charges?”
“When is there curfew? How is life in the camps?”
Subsequent layers were more tender and harder to get under, the separating out having to be done just so to avoid damaging what lay beneath.
“Have you ever been arrested? Do you believe in a two state solution?”
In the car on the way to lunch at Raji’s home, the visitors all perched on the edge of their seats, heads swiveling from side to side, taking in the street scenes of Gaza. The crush of humanity – street vendors, shoppers, schoolchildren, day laborers and business men on their way to work – mixed with donkey-drawn carts and the occasional army patrol. Seeing the surge of activity in Souk Fres – the main open-air market – it was easy to discern Gaza’s place as one of the most densely populated on the planet. (I have witnessed the same scene cleared in less than five minutes with the thud of a stone against a patrolling jeep and the subsequent crackle of gunfire.)
During the ride back to Eretz after lunch, the Israelis slumped back in their seats.
“What a place,” one of them murmured. He registered a passing army jeep with a sigh.
“What are we doing here?”
Before departing, invitations were extended by the visitors to their Palestinian hosts to visit them where they lived – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When I heard Hilmi give the standard, non-committal Arabic reply, “Insha’ allah. God willing,“ I thought, “There’s no way!”
I was wrong.
Within a couple weeks as the summer heat bloomed, Hilmi and I were headed for Tel Aviv. Taking Hilmi’s car into an Israeli city for an extended time was problematic. Cars from the territories had blue plates, easily distinguishable from the yellow Israeli ones and thus an easy target. The taxi from Gaza dropped us at the Tel Aviv central bus station. Before we hailed a local cab, Hilmi warned me not to speak in Arabic. He instructed our driver in Hebrew, based on Ronit’s directions, and soon we were ringing her door bell. Ronit and her husband Uzi were journalists at the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. Before leaving the bus station, Hilmi had bought several of the largest candy bars he could find for their four-year-old son Daniel, whose face flared into a smile when Hilmi handed him the bag. There was Arabic coffee and Gaza sweets for the hosts.
In Tel Aviv the coffee of political conversation was Nescafe. Hilmi’s was black, two sugars. With most of the Hebrew conversation eluding me, I could only follow the outlines of what was being discussed by observing intently and catching words like keebush (occupation) khamas (Hamas) and Arafat. At one point Ronit seemed to tense. She kept repeating a phrase, her voice rising a bit each time she intoned the words, “khilofee shovim prisoner exchange?” After the second or third repetition, Hilmi began giggling and nodding, confirming her realization that he had been released in the 1985 prisoner exchange between Israel and the PLO after 14 years as a political prisoner. His laughter rose with Ronit’s voice until he was gasping for air. Her face finally broke a smile as she reached for a cigarette. She inhaled deeply and sighed.
As the sun traced its path along the white walls of their airy flat, the only lull in the conversation seemed to be when Ronit rose to boil more water or Daniel checked in from the television playing loudly in the next room. When Uzi excused himself to prepare for his overnight shift at the newspaper, Ronit suggested we go to the nearby city center for dinner. When Hilmi hesitated, she at first assumed it was a matter of money.
“Don’t worry, we’ll pay,” she insisted, “You are our guests! “
Nervous laughter delayed Hilmi’s response.
“Ma? What is it?” Someone in Danny’s cartoon was screeching to a dramatic halt.
While I couldn’t understand his explanation in Hebrew, the evolving expression on Ronit’s face told me he was informing her that Palestinians from the Occupied Territories weren’t allowed overnight in Israel without a pass. Being on the street at night could be dangerous for him, if we were stopped and had to show an ID. Ronit’s brow knit together over her narrowed eyes. She was at an unusual loss for words. Then she wasn’t.
“B’emet. Really?” She turned to find Uzi, her hands flying in arcs around her head as she stomped down the hall. They had literally invited a Palestinian to break the law. And he had accepted.
“Uzi! Have you heard of such a thing? What are we going to do?”
Hilmi and I looked at each other but said nothing. Their voices bounced down the hall in an odd sort of dance: Ronit’s loud words quick and sharp, leading the softer, even tone of Uzi’s response. After several minutes, Ronit came back down the hall, veering off into the kitchen from where there soon emerged the sounds of cupboards opening and pans rattling.
In the taxi on the way back to Gaza the next day, Hilmi relayed to me some of the conversation from the night before, he and Ronit having stayed up talking long past my attempts to understand what they were saying to each other.
“Some of the things she said were so naïve, silly even,” I said, shaking my head. “How do you have the patience to talk to her about the most basic realities of the occupation?”
He turned to look at me, his head at a slight cant. “Who else are we going to talk to?”