Jennifer Bing works on Israel/Palestine issues at the American Friends Service Committee. She went to Palestine last month with a delegation of AFSC staffers. When I heard that the trip had been wrenching, I asked her for an interview.
You just visited Gaza. You’ve been there often before, though, right?
This was my second visit in two years. The last time I was there was in May 2014, two months before the attacks began last summer. At that point it was 13 years since I had been in Gaza, and I wrote about it. Gaza then and now, about the dramatic decade that I hadn’t been there. That time, I went with an AFSC staff delegation, and it was a short visit, just three days. This time, it was only 24 hours, and it was also AFSC staff, visiting an AFSC program in Gaza. That’s how we were able to get permits to enter through Erez.
That’s one of the main questions I get: How did you get in? Can you get us in? Our delegation recognized the privilege afforded not too many people, and we tried to see as many people as we could in that time.
You spent the night?
Yes. In a hotel journalists stay in. The same hotel on the beach near where the Bakr boys were killed. I hadn’t put two and two together, till the morning. I woke up and opened up the blinds and looked out and I saw all the fishermen’s boats, I saw the little shack, and I thought, I know where I am. I got chills.
And life was going on. That’s what Gaza’s about. You see so much destruction and unimaginable suffering and yet you also meet people that are just so insistent on living and hoping and dreaming and resisting.
It was AFSC staff, and all of them besides myself had never been to Israel and Palestine before. Some of them had never traveled over the Atlantic before, or their only other foreign country was Mexico. It was quite an experience on that level. All of them do work on social justice issues– on the US-Mexico border, on immigration issues, on the undocumented, or on economic justice issues in West Virginia, or working with the moral Monday project in Indiana.
Our trip reflects the fact that there’s been a lot of conversation in the general movement for Palestinian human rights, about intersectionality, what we can learn from one another and how we can support one another in our efforts, to build peace and reconciliation and work against injustice.
We always knew about that interaction but it was reinforced this past year with all the efforts to talk about Black Lives Matter, and to challenge the gun culture and growing militarism. And AFSC is uniquely situated in that we don’t have to go to an outside organization to meet people who are working on immigrant rights. We have an opportunity within our own organization to make those connections and provide a deeper analysis, and get beyond the usual audiences of white progressive faith based activists.
Did your colleagues have insights about what they saw?
I’m an oldtimer, but it is always helpful to look at the conflict from a different vantage point. Like my colleague at the US-Mexico border– what was his reaction to the separation wall? What was his reaction to the open air tunnels at the border crossing at Erez, the submachine guns?
There were ten of us, and one thing that has been interesting since the trip, is that everyone on the delegation has had repeated dreams about Gaza after leaving. They have all been wrestling with, what does it mean, how do we integrate what we did there with what we do here? And how do we offer support to the young people that we met? That’s a challenge.
On the one hand we saw the destruction. We went into Shejaiyah with a staff member from that neighborhood. The day we went there were people moving some of that rubble; reconstruction was happening for the first time… AFSC has helped to start a blacksmith shop. We visited that shop, and the blacksmith shared his gratitude, and we felt that we are able to do something rather than feeling overwhelmed. He told us about how many people are committing suicide, or attempting suicide because it is such a place of despair. OCHA [the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] has said that since last summer there have been increased levels of family violence, suicide, social disintegration.
But what we saw were a man making metal doors in his blacksmith shop and kids running up to us and welcoming us and wanting to take their pictures with us. I think that really struck the delegates. I already knew how hospitable people are in Gaza. The welcome and the generosity are such a contrast to the stereotype. And several people in the delegation said they were really amazed at how nice people were to us, knowing we were Americans. They just were kind of overwhelmed by that.
We met with a group we’ve been facilitating for two years, Palestinian youth together for change. It brings together Palestinians from 1948, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem– young people who are out of college but still under 30. And part of that program’s emphasis is to have those young people meet and support one another and develop a connection overcoming the fragmentation and disunity that is so rampant, to work out stuff together.
And not surprisingly the top issue is freedom of movement; and they have had campaigns. Like the HP boycott campaign, which highlights the technology HP provides to separate them when their desire is to be connected.
These young people shared their stories of survival from last summer, and their sense of isolation. The Gaza youth can’t travel. Though last spring, the Israelis did give Gaza youth permission to travel to Nablus, and the group was super excited. But when they got to the border, one of the young men in the group [Yasser Elhattab] was arrested, even though he had been given a permit to travel to the West Bank. He is still in prison. The group was shaken up by that, as was AFSC. Let me tell you, we feel a great deal of responsibility. Though all I can do is share that story, to show, they can’t even travel within their own country.
So the young people were telling our group about things like that. One member of the group was killed last summer, in Shejaiyeh, this other man was arrested… and just in general describing their lives in Gaza—to people who were new to the issue.
It brought some of our staff to tears, listening to them talk about their daily lives. And at one point, the Palestinians were saying, We don’t want your tears, we want you to go back and do something. A young woman was talking about her best friend, whose husband was killed, and she has a baby without a husband, and how challenging that is. People welled up with tears.
Look, a young man said, we don’t want you to cry about it, we want you to take the story and work for change.
But then it was interesting. The people in the group related to the story. Someone said it is good to have righteous anger. They related this experience to that of people in the United States, the police have killed their family members, or put them in prison, and they use their righteous anger to support one another. It is healing to tell people about their cases. Healing in the telling– and healing in their sharing what is painful and beautiful about their lives with others.
Another person in our delegation was from San Diego, he does border work. He said I’m recognizing the Elbit system, the surveillance power on the border, is the same one here. So you really see that the struggles are not so separate. We really need to learn from one another, and understand that what concerns you here, on the Gaza border, concerns us on our border. These tears are not because you are victims. The tears are just an expression of our solidarity.
Someone who works with farm workers in New Mexico said, The Hopi people say that tears are sadness leaving the body. It’s hard to see people suffer, but it also motivates us to work for justice. More people will engage on the issue.
Are your colleagues working on the issue back home?
Yes. They’re giving presentations, talking on the radio. A colleague in West Virginia talked to the NPR station. He said he can’t imagine not being able to move, movement is such an important thing to everyone in our country. He talked about how these restrictions would feel in West Virginia. Where farmers have such a sense of space.
Someone else gave a presentation in Indianapolis about Gaza, and in the southwest people started talking to members of congress. They’re following up like many people do who go on delegations like this…
They made a connection with Gaza. These young people really rarely get a chance to speak to anybody outside their community. We met with Refaat Alareer. He is always so inspiring. We sat with him and a couple of students late that night on the Mediterranean sea. And he was quoting Mark Twain and various poets. And his students talked about how learning to write about their experiences gives them their lives back. That was pretty powerful for us.
Did your colleagues compare or rank injustices?
It’s hard to say. You know, we also went to Hebron, we were there on a particularly loud day. The center was full of settlers, and they were raucous and obnoxious. And for some of the delegation, the experience in Hebron was harder than Gaza. We saw confrontations and friction between Palestinians and Israelis right there. People describe Gaza as a powder keg waiting to explode– well, the powder keg explodes at Hebron. We saw it. The settlers confront the people, and soldiers had to intervene.
There’s one settler who goes every day to the center of Hebron and blows the shofar during the call to prayer. It is so obnoxious. Dalit Baum was with us and told us the story. And there he was. He’s blowing his horn and the settler youths are coming through, Americans speaking English. They’re all going to the synagogue. And we had just come out of the mosque side of the synagogue. And this guy shouts over the call to prayer. Dalit goes up to him and says, “What are you doing? Why are you blowing your horn?”
And he just blows it straight into her ear. He called her all kinds of names, like enemy of the Israeli people. Then he shoved one of our delegation members who was taking a picture. You could see it escalating. Soldiers came over.
That was a harder day than Gaza, because in Gaza we saw the destruction, we saw the leveled homes, we saw the makeshift buildings and bombed out buildings. But we were also privileged to meet the people who were surviving and trying to make the best of a very difficult situation. We had the OCHA briefing– 90 million liters of sewage into the sea every day, 12 to 16 hour power cuts, hospitals relying on generators, 70,000 homes needed to be built. This is a pressure cooker; we understood how fragile life is in Gaza.
But that was overcome by being with people like Refaat and the youth. That’s why it lingers in the delegation’s dreams.
Another thing is that we had amazing food in Gaza. We went to a little fish restaurant, and they had brought in the fish that day, and the Gaza staff are so proud of their culture. We are fishermen, even though we have so many restrictions, we still get the best fish in the world. We make it the Gazan way. It was all part of the experience.
You remind me of when I met young people in Gaza and was struck by their aspirations. They were just beautiful people. Wanting to go get an education.
There’s a lot of frustration. 80 percent of the people are on humanitarian aid. Over 50 percent want to leave. That was true even among some of the young people we met. They said, I want to travel, I want to have a job, I want a future basically. Their frustration with everything—and then knowing that this is a human-made disaster, there are political reasons these conditions exist. And the social disintegration around them, that’s got to take a toll.
During that conversation about tears, and not pitying us, someone said, we have to shed tears. We said, It’s hard to hear and so sad. And the same young man that had shared his anger about the world not doing enough to end the siege and so forth, he was the one who said OK, now let’s dance. He turns on the music, and we made a dabke line. Everyone got out on the floor. We ended a three hour session with dancing. This is the spirit that still exists in Gaza. And it left me with hope. Guess what, they’re still dancing in Gaza.
Did your colleagues form ideas about the ideological roots of the conflict?
They already have a healthy skepticism for US imperialism and colonialism and for some I think the experience definitely made them much more critical of US foreign policy, particularly visavis the Middle East. They work for AFSC, so they already convinced that nonviolent social change is the way to change things, and US militarism is a bad thing. But part of our experience was to talk about BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions]. That was certainly influenced by Dalit [of Who Profits From the Occupation] being along on the trip. We met the folks who do Who Profits, we met the HP boycott folks. Everywhere we went the conversation always would come around to supporting BDS efforts. That means thinking about common targets. And merging with other campaigns.
Tell me how you felt seeing Gaza in 2014 and then now. What had changed?
I haven’t been able to write about that yet because it’s really such a hard thing. I’m going to get emotional here. (Long pause) I can’t tell you what it feels like to walk in a neighborhood that you walked n a year ago that’s been flattened. I can’t put into words what that feels like. The same age kids want to come up and hug you and tell you how old they are and what grade they are in. Everyone says, I’m a kid magnet. Well, I had that same experience a year ago, of connecting with the young people, and this trip, I continued to feel that same spirit and same joy and same whatever. And I was in the streets last summer trying to stop the bombing, I’ve been organizing, and trying to keep Gaza present in people’s consciousness after the bombing, and we have pinwheel exhibits, for the children killed. I’ve been planting that pinwheel with different community groups, with the names and ages of kids that were killed.
So I was there this time and — I don’t want to put a pinwheel with their name on it. I don’t want them to become a name on a pinwheel. These are real human beings.
And some of the kids I saw the last time are not here. Some of the kids may be some of the names on the pinwheels, and the kids I saw this time around, probably were their friends. Because we were in the neighborhood where so many were killed. That to me was the hardest thing.
I’m a white middle aged woman, prone to be emotional. And kids pull your heart strings. Especially if you’re a kid magnet.
Do you ever think: I have failed. I didn’t save those kids.
I wouldn’t say I’ve failed. Because I try to keep the community I know engaged, I try to help them not forget. But in terms of, Have I stopped death and destruction, yes—I’ve failed. We’ve all failed. Maybe that’s why people in our group are having the nightmares or bad dreams. But I think, we‘ve been given the gift of seeing so what does that mean?
But I sense from this trip that you are committed to Gaza going forward?
Yes, it is motivating. It’s totally motivating. Look, it’s not easy to do Israel Palestine work. (Laughing.) Its not easy to talk to folks particularly about Gaza. It’s difficult. They say, what about the rockets, what about Hamas, what about the tunnels? There are good intelligent responses to all those questions. But that’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about people living in an open air prison, as we call it, who are fighting incredible odds against their survival. 80 percent are dependent on aid, there are triple shifts in schools. Everything that affects people’s well-being is challenged there. The environment, the schools, the medicine, the food. It’s overwhelming.
Yet you feel a renewed commitment?
I do feel it is on us to change the situation. In Gaza you can only do so much. It is up to us to demand political changes. That is our burden to carry. That is our obligation. You don’t have to go to Gaza to feel that, but when you do have the privilege of going, there’s an obligation. I wish Jimmy Carter had gotten into Gaza. I do wish our members of Congress would go and see. Our faith leaders I would hope would go there. We shouldn’t have to see with our own eyes to know, but it means so much to go.
Do you have hope?
I definitely do. I feel that the discourse in this country is definitely changing around Palestinian human rights. I went to the Brit Tzedek Chicago Yom Kippur and heard Max Blumenthal talk for two hours about his experience in Gaza, and the audience in the shul was spellbound. Those were American Jews spending their high holidays hearing about Gaza and hopefully being motivated to speak out. That happened after I got back. People in this country are starting to hear what is happening, and I hope they can translate that into action. I hope it doesn’t just stay at the intellectual level. It’s not just reading about it; people should be motivated to act. That’s always our challenge.