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Reading Maimonides in Gaza

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I

I lived and worked in Gaza as the Economic Director of Mercy Corps (2011-2013) and as Business and Livelihoods Consultant to UNRWA’s office of the Gaza Director of Operations (2013-2015).  Through four years and two wars, Gaza’s potential left me unexpectedly hopeful. 

Since 1998, I had built social enterprises with communities affected by war: Cambodian former child combatants, people with disabilities, Afghan housebound women.  I met marginalized people through their abilities and we worked around their exclusion. 

A one-line email inquiry arrived on June 28, 2011.  Would I consider moving to Gaza?  The errant wall around Gaza first attracted my secular curiosity, as walls inevitably did. Why was there no Arab Spring in Gaza?  Why did the barrier-busting neoliberals leave that wall standing? 

Growing up in Canada, Judaism and Zionism had been inextricable pillars of our household: to be a Jew was to build Israel.  I left Canada for New Zealand.  I hadn’t been to Israel/Palestine since 1988, when the first Intifada sent my religion crashing into my politics.  It turned me away from the whole, intractable mess of the conflict.  Twenty-three years later, I went back as a professional.  Reluctantly, I withheld my religion from my Palestinian teams in order to avoid any confusion with a sister who was active in Zionist organizations.

The walkway between Gaza and Israel at the Erez crossing. (Photo: Oxfam)

II

From the walls, the car drove into the locked box of Gaza, and plunged into its dog-legged maze.  Jabalia’s face was unrelieved concrete, in all the shades of decay, gouged with a fretwork of holes.  Lacking sufficient or dedicated space, Gazans repurposed the space they had.  They visited sidelong between parked and oncoming cars.  My driver ceded what space he could to the children at every curb.  All of Gaza was their playroom, and our car was the wheeled inconvenience cluttering their hallway.

Units of Hamas made Gaza their obstacle course.  They jogged beneath my window, chanting in that universal military rhythm, and they flowed around the car as I drove to work.

Gazans invoked the ubiquitous authorities like a bogeyman, “Someone will tell Hamas.”  Hamas was ascendant, soon to exchange 1027 prisoners for Gilad Shalit while Fatah tilted at windmills in the United Nations.  Even their opponents grudgingly conceded that Hamas spoke a language which Israel seemed to understand.

“Still,” they cautioned, “Hamas is not Gaza, and Gaza is not Hamas.”

Gaza was a whole community, miniature but complex. A deep vein of joy ran through it, as real as the hardship, and audible in the wedding hour at the end of each day.  Resistance united Gaza, but the walls pressed its many forms into absurd proximity; those who sacrificed the present and those who resisted by living fully each day.  Billboard martyrs glowered down onto wedding processions.  Parents drilled their children relentlessly for exams, after which Hamas drilled them for battle at paramilitary summer camps.

Marilyn Garson

I led a team of bilingual Palestinians, stagnating with their post-graduate degrees.  Their attitudes and opportunities were not typical of Gaza, yet they were powerfully rooted.  Around us, aid built a safety net for people in the most grinding poverty, while we worked with self-selecting ambition and excellence.  My team showed me aspiring Gaza: the business community, artists, start-ups, and job-seekers. 

Resenting the blinkered image of Gaza as a flat plain of violence and poverty, we took as our motto “ Gaza > Relief .”  The narrow, common vision erased my team and everyone we worked with.  Gaza’s breadth vanished, along with the talent pool of Palestinians waiting to compete economically, manage scarce resources, live and co-exist. 

Donors funded the deficient view of Gaza, defraying the cost of the security regime and sending relief food.  I had come from five years in Afghanistan, where neoliberal donor states battered down every imagined barrier to trade.  They increasingly set Afghans to work for their relief, to discourage long-term reliance on aid.  The same donors sent generations of relief food to an eager Gazan workforce, and told them to sit still.  Gaza’s de-development was a global project. 

As Gaza acquired faces and stories, my conflict geography underwent a Copernican change.  I had not assumed that Israel was always right, but I had configured the conflict around it.  Israel fired outward, making Gaza one enemy object among many.  Now the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) fired in.  The drones exposed and militarized every street, every window.  Gaza was their pinball deck.

Newt Gingrich disparaged Palestinians as an invented people.  A colleague flounced into my doorway, offended.  “Isn’t everyone made up?”

“Yes, of course,” I agreed.

I could not add that statelessness reverberated with me as a Jew.  Statelessness was the problem statement of Zionism.  Jews wanted a state, because we recognized statelessness as a precursor.  And we were right.  Naturally, I was attuned to the stateless vulnerability of others. 

We:  from the start, I grappled with pronouns.  I could not disavow Their missiles, because I was They and They were We.  But when Israel fired in, We increasingly fired at Us.

View of Old City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. (Photo: yeowatzup/Flickr)

III

Every month or so, I spent a weekend in Jerusalem.  Compulsively, I paced back and forth between its neighborhoods.  Israel-Palestine-Israel-Palestine.  I walked to remind myself that fractal Jerusalem will not unwind.  Around me, two peoples studiously avoided each other.  Their leaders banged on in two monotones, calling forth the magic that would make the other give up or go away.  In four years of listening I did not hear either government challenge their people to enter into a difficult partnership with the other.  They did not acknowledge that the other held just as deeply to a different telling of history, and a different interpretation of justice.  Instead, they ranted from within the fragile, totalizing edifice of being right.  When had this become a conflict of monocultures – and who would want to be a monoculture in an entropic world?

Shabbat mornings and sundowns, I sat by the walls of the Old City, watching Jews descend through empty streets to pray at the Western Wall. I felt a hard lump of possessiveness around the Old City.  I could not imagine Jerusalem as anything but the capital of Israel. 

It took a year or so to let go–not of Jerusalem but of the limits of my imagination. 

I read from the Contested Cities project, about communities who shared their cities rather than destroying them.  Then I spent my walks thinking of the many ways to define and co-exist in a city:  there were values beyond the ownership of square inches.  Co-existence had dimensions beyond flat earth.  The creativity that weaponized space could also harness it to better ends.

I began to study by night, equally unnerved by the prospect of Hamas or Shin Bet happening across my electronic reading list.  I had no Jewish practice from which to lapse, and I was in the midst of living nine years among Muslims.  What did that make me?

Maimonides outlined eight levels of charity, the highest being that which gave others the means to support themselves without further charity:  my work was Jewish work.  I read from the Prophets’ mission of co-creating the world and critiquing its power structures. My values were more Jewish than I recalled. To my surprise, I found that I had gone to Gaza as a Jew after all.

I unearthed a half-remembered Judaism through its principles, as I encountered Israel through its exercise of power.  I doodled marginalia and turned aside, preserving my beautiful theory from becoming a gritty, applied religion.

We normalized the escalating fire overhead, postponing war in our minds.  On an unseasonably warm Wednesday afternoon, the 2012 war interrupted my hour on the treadmill.  My iPod blotted out the first explosion.  Only when I stepped down did I realize we were in trouble.  I’d never seen the streets deserted in daylight.

On the first night of the bombing, the Israeli navy shelled Beach Camp to the north, firing explosives into a thickly populated refugee camp that had no weapons to return fire.  A few blocks inland, members of my team taught their children to dance to the peculiar backbeat of naval fire, to distract them from their fear.  The colleagues living nearest me wanted to leave their families, to pick me up and shelter me in their homes.

Each time an engine disengaged from the chorus overhead, I watched the ceiling and waited for something to explode.  Sat and waited.  I thought of the Cambodian colleague who, humiliated by seeing his people killed unreachably from the sky, walked into the jungle to join the Khmer Rouge.  And the young Afghan, so stymied by the bloody aftermath of a suicide bomb that he went to join the bombers and regain a sense of power.  Defenselessness was crazy-making.

My team gathered on Skype.  They announced their survival and encouraged others.  They found their strength by caring for each other.  As the war went on, one team member called around in the morning and another called again to buoy everyone’s spirits before dark.  They composed explanations to preserve their children from bitterness and hatred.

I was evacuated with other foreigners who had no role in the emergency response.  I spent seven leaden days in Jerusalem, dispensing platitudes by phone.  The war was waged by missile and smartphone:  message war, confusing and frightening everyone with tens of thousands of directives.

Only away from Gaza, staring down from the Mount of Olives onto the walled Old City, could I comprehend the modernity of the blockade.  Within Gaza, it felt like a medieval siege, but that siege had been a tool of total war.  Instead, the blockade was a modern method of total conflict management.  Gaza’s land, sea and air; its information and economy and bandwidth; everything was mobilized to maintain a conflict without end.  Eight days of bombing changed nothing, because change was not at stake.  Gazans became one more asset to be managed, shunted this way and that, deployed.

I returned after the ceasefire, far more indignant than my team could afford to be.  They had internalized the low value that both belligerents placed upon their protection.  Weary, resolute, they closed their post-mortem and dragged each other back to work.

Palestinian refugees protest outside the offices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza City in demand of undelivered aid supplies on April 15, 2013. The United Nations reopened last week aid distribution centres in Gaza, after a four-day closure in response to the storming of its offices by protesters demanding reinstatement of a monthly cash allowance to poor families which was halted from April 1 due to budget cuts. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/ APA Images)

IV

I moved to UNRWA in mid-2013, followed by four members of my team.  We went to pilot and launch a social enterprise, creating an employment path for some of Gaza’s thousand annual computer science graduates.  The Gaza Gateway now operates as the GGateway. 

I am bureaucracy-averse.  However, UNRWA constituted 16 percent of Gaza’s GDP.  Then-director Bob Turner’s front office wanted to apply some of that to sustainable job creation.  They never stopped touting the potential of young Gaza, and I never doubted my choice to join them.  For 28 months, I reminded myself not to refer to the United Nations as “you people”.  I grew to respect UNRWA’s role in Gaza, and the flabby genius of its extended family of 12,500 Palestinians (and 35 Internationals), brandishing the mandate that time forgot.

UNRWA’s dilemmas were compelling, if thankless.  UNRWA had to reconcile Gaza’s escalating need with the world’s lengthening to-do-list, and its own overdrawn accounts.  Standing between Israel and Gaza, UNRWA was a 360-degree target of opportunity.  Donors funded UNRWA to graft global welfare over injustice, while the donor states’ own choices fairly shouted of the disparity between their peace-process words and their Palestinian deeds.  The same donor states who gave us disaster capitalism and Chinese neo-mercantile infrastructure, gave to Gaza through the UN’s most superannuated agency.

Egypt began to blow up the tunnels, wiping out tens of thousands of jobs.  Already among the world’s most volatile economies, Gaza fishtailed from its rapid, grievous losses.  Refugees (two-thirds of Gaza’s population) fell back onto UNRWA’s relief budgets as cheap Egyptian food disappeared from the shelves.  Abandoned cars, overtaken by sand, gave the side streets a derelict air.  Hamas lost an estimated 40 percent of its revenue, and everyone waited with sweaty palms to hear the monthly fraction of salaries that its civil servants and fighters received.  Boxed into keeping Israel’s peace, Hamas became vulnerable to the harder-line militants on its radical flank.  Electricity dwindled to 20 percent of demand.  Municipalities parked their rubbish trucks and left the work to donkey carts.  Of the nighttime fishery, which should have supported up to 4000 Gazans, one final clump of half a dozen lights broke the horizon.  The storm of a century brought snow and flooding in December.

The enterprise employed recent university graduates, the age cohort Sara Roy called the “children of Oslo.”  Born into the first Intifada, their lives tracked with the closure of Gaza.  Now most were becoming parents without ever leaving the Strip.  Educated, connected by cell phone yet cut off from globalization, they lacked the sameness of consumerism.  Instead of cool, they intuited power and resistance.  They arrived for work already fuming with the effort of finding, and heating, water to bathe their children in winter.

Weekends in Jerusalem now infuriated me.  The graduates had never fired a rocket.  Did anyone believe that their immiseration made Israel safe? 

Did anyone still believe there could be an exceptional Jewish safety in an intolerant world? 

“Liberal? Democratic?” I wanted to shout.  “Ethnic land use, ethnically determined laws and life prospects – you wouldn’t call this liberal anywhere else in the world.”

I was finished with the exceptionalism that shielded Israel from the principles and obligations of a civilized state.  The license which justified the Occupation had expired. 

Graffiti began to appear through the center of the Strip, juxtaposing the letters UN with a Star of David, or a swastika.  Or both.  Protests demanded more of UNRWA.  But UNRWA had announced a $65 million budget shortfall for the coming year.  Gaza’s two largest employers looked like undeclared bankrupts. 

I was appointed to the task force that devised UNRWA’s new system for allocating relief food.  For 16 months, we debated privacy and fairness and the fiendish details of household composition.  We drafted policy and set new operations in motion, but we could not dislodge the fact of Gaza’s ballooning poverty, which competed for donor budget with the bloodier crises around us. 

Already walled and vilified, Gaza had been nudged off the donor map.

During the spring, an official visitor gently chided Bob for his alarm.  The delegation had driven all the way from Erez without seeing starving children or blood puddles.  Gaza looked so civilized.

Bob nodded sagely, a diplomat’s silent cry for help.  He swallowed hard.  “We are alarmist, because we are alarmed.”

I often passed Ismail Haniyeh on my way home in the evening.  Jogging glumly with a small entourage, he looked as miserable as everyone else.

The task force – the fact and the ethics of apportioning scarcity behind a wall –  dragged me to confront that wall.  What was it?  I loathed the open-air prison metaphor.  It pointed to the wall and denied the whole community within.  Prisons were the legitimate, permanent institutions of civilized societies.  Gaza’s walls were built upon a different problem statement altogether.  Gaza’s walls judged an ethnicity to be irredeemably dangerous, such that its babies must be born into preventative, open-ended confinement.

We all knew the word for a permanent, ethnic enclosure. 

I spoke it aloud to myself.  Once I placed the wall beyond polite categories, the wall became my obligation:  Jews oppose ghettoes.  We are compelled, as part of the assignment of “Never Again”, to stand up to ghetto walls.  It does not matter who builds them (and the obligation does not compare the intentions of these builders with those). 

I tried it out:  I oppose this blockade wall because I am a Jew.

Finally, after their long estrangement, my politics found my religion. 

By then, Israel and Hamas were walking to war.  I volunteered to stay.  Bob pointed out that, having turned up my nose at staff jobs, I did not enjoy United Nations staff privileges or immunities.  I volunteered to stay without them. 

After the kidnapping – which was not a Gazan act – Netanyahu whipped Israel into a paroxysm of righteous, misdirected rage. 

The stigma and the sidelining of Gaza left it so exposed. 

Displaced Palestinians sleep on the ground on July 23, 2014 at a UN school in the Jabalia refugee camp where families fleeing heavy fighting in the besieged Palestinian territory have taken refuge. (Photo: Ezz al-Zanoun/ APA Images)

V

On the first night of the war, the sky was congested with lights moving at a dozen speeds.  Rockets arced overhead, missiles sliced down and inward to erupt as fireballs.  Jets discharged their chaff.  The navy shelled Beach Camp.  Trackless drones zipped and zagged, and something unidentifiable slid in on a frisbee’s low, flat trajectory. 

Around 1:00 a.m., they struck the fire station across the street. I watched dark figures sprint toward the fire.  They ran straight at it, peering in to find anyone still alive.  In the vacuum of sound that followed the bombs, I would remember them again and again; neighbors racing heedlessly to dig with their bare hands, haul forth survivors, or carry what they found for burial.

Seventeen international men and two women moved into UNRWA’s office later in the morning, to work in the Central Operations Room, or COR.  In the streets around us, thousands of our Palestinian colleagues kept delivering water and collecting rubbish.  They operated health clinics and distributed food.  Eleven of our colleagues died.

Three of my tasks confronted the war’s strategy.  I managed the distribution of non-food items (including bedding, hygiene and cleaning supplies) to the emergency shelters that UNRWA opened in flagged United Nations neighborhood schools.  I compiled the twice-daily statistics on displaced people. And I sent regular notices to the IDF coordination office, detailing the precise location of each designated emergency shelter.

To be clear, these designations added an extra layer to the IDF’s existing responsibilities under International Humanitarian Law (IHL), by providing specific information about each building that was currently being used for humanitarian purposes.  The IDF was already obligated to act in compliance with IHL, including the legal obligation to distinguish between military and civilian objects, and to exercise precautions each time they targeted and fired.  Our notices did not create the obligation, and no party can absolve themselves of their obligations under IHL.  IHL applies to each state and non-state party, at all times during armed conflict.  By sending these shelter notices, UNRWA was additionally promoting the safety of persons and buildings; making doubly sure that each emergency shelter was regularly identified as such.

The list weighed a ton.  To designate one building was to leave its neighbor out in the cold.  The map co-ordinates outlined such limited safety, but it was all that could be offered to Palestinians who fled their homes, yet remained blockaded into the battle.

By day, I gauged the heavy, proximate strikes by the angle to which they flapped the blinds.  All of COR turned apprehensively toward someone’s neighborhood.  Then the sound of work rushed back into the void.  We rarely commented.  What can anyone say, so many thousands of times?

I paid more attention at night.  The monitor danced on my desk while I wrote to my teams.  The bombing grew loudest between 3:30 and 6:00 most mornings, when families sat together for their meals before the daily Ramadan fast.  I was soon dumb and sandy-eyed from lack of sleep.  Skilled at the sleep deprivation of Ramadan and bombardment, Gazans remained far more polite than the foreigners.

On the night of July 17, I scanned websites in search of a military objective against which to measure progress.  Over 200 Gazans and one Israeli were dead; their deaths justified only by vague statements about restoring calm. I turned off the computer, and tried to sleep before the worst of the night’s bombardment. 

A few minutes later, Israel invaded Gaza.  The head of security came down the hall and said softly into each doorway, “Boots on the ground.”

The bombing grew so heavy that I thought they must hit us, because they were hitting everything around us.  There were new noises, not only the angling whistle but a whoosh of things raining straight down, as if something overhead was hurling explosives directly onto us.  Sometime in the night, I gave up on sleep.  Bracketed beneath the desk in thoughtless, limp exhaustion, I listened. Whoosh-CRRRUMP-screaming-sirens and behind my eyelids, the sight of my neighbors converging on the fire station.

Dawn came as a tremendous relief.  I pulled the air deeper into my lungs and watched the desks take shape.  Now I understood why my team called around at sundown.  Night, formerly a quiet respite from Gaza’s crowds and demands, during war became a slow-moving enemy.  I staggered down the stairs to COR, prodding my face.  Skin stretched tight over my forehead, and sleepless pockets puffed out my cheekbones. 

When I stepped outside, smoke striped the horizon. 

The shelters had felt full but orderly when they held 20,000 displaced people.  Each school held neighbors who had sheltered together before, and school staff who knew them well.  The shelter population doubled to 50,000 with the invasion, matching the limit of our preparations.

The following day, we sheltered 63,000.

Thereafter, we posted the runaway numbers each afternoon on a whiteboard – then three whiteboards and then five; to drive planning for the following day’s food and water deliveries.  Before they fully entered COR, people turned to solemnly acknowledge the whiteboard wall. 

The whiteboards stood over me as I took call after call from the shelters.  They needed more supplies than we had.  I felt dishonored by our depleted stocks, as if I were personally refusing to return the hospitality Gaza had shown me.

UNRWA scoured the Middle East.  An airlift took shape in Jordan, two countries away.  Each truck had to cross the Allenby Bridge, traverse Israel, and line up at the Kerem Shalom entrance to Gaza.  There, cargo was unloaded, transferred to a Gazan truck, and sorted for distribution.  My distributions imagined a theoretical fairness, before the logistics team confronted blockade reality.

I fixated on the mattresses.  I tried to invest my heart in some smaller, life-saving priority for transport.  Instead, each bulky, non-essential mattress acquired the moral weight of welcome.  One mattress meant one safe place to sleep.

A fully laden truck carried 1,106 mattresses.  One thousand Gazans were entering the shelters each hour.  As the relentless war of numbers ground on, my symbol of hospitality came to signify our inadequacy.

On July 21, I got up early, thinking to watch the garden grow light.  Instead, I read that 7,000 people had overwhelmed a Beit Hanoun shelter.  Unknown numbers were piling into any nearby structure that might be designated as a shelter. 

We sheltered 6 percent of the population.  I had no brooms, no bleach, no cleaning supplies to send to these new concentrations of people – but as the shelter count surged into six figures, there was no further point in faulting our preparations.  Cassandra herself could have hoarded 100 truckloads of mattresses (if Cassandra thought she could get 100 trucks through the bottleneck of Kerem Shalom), and they would not have lasted through the first 96 hours of the invasion.  We could not offer a dignified welcome amidst an unprecedented strategy of mass displacement.

In pursuit of what objective?

The damage reports from Shuja’iyya mounted so improbably, the fog of foreboding grew so thick that it took me hours to grasp the horror unfolding in the north.  Shuja’iyya was a dense, high-rise city of 92,000.  Messages from petrified friends and relatives, trapped in those 6 square kilometers (3.7 miles), hushed COR voice by voice.

When we heard the timing of the Shuja’iyya pause, we called, we texted, we told people that they must leave, they must flee in this moment, no matter what.  And then I held my breath.  One of my team had given birth three days before the war – how would she run?  Another had spent nine days in a room with four pre-schoolers – how fast could they go? 

Some people checked in and other messages got lost, like stragglers in the chaos.  Who got out?  How many were left? 

The obliteration of Shuja’iyya made the ground tremble.  Reports would cite 100 one-ton bombs and 600 artillery shells, as if this were a battle whose outcome might have been in doubt for one blink of time.  But there was no doubt.  The skirmish had ended.  Israel was wiping out the homes.

I cried uncontrollably in the garden.  Primo Levi’s words rang in my ears.  “Meditate that this happened.”

I felt a fabric tearing as Israel left me.

In the vertigo after Shuja’iyya, atrocity hung in the air like the smells after a fire.  Work required a physical pushing against shock.  Voices lowered; the same effort produced less sound.  I heard that 65 trucks spent the day lined up at the Allenby Bridge, trying to cross into Israel with cargo we had ordered when UNRWA sheltered 23,000 displaced people.  I heard of colleagues who died with their families, and others who survived alone.

The violence did not abate.  The IDF bisected Gaza along Salahuddin Road, militarizing the eastern 40 percent of the Strip.  Waves of people were driven across the road, to be shoehorned into the western schools that remained accessible.  Israel bombed the power plant, affecting not only light but refrigeration, communications, water pumps, sewage treatment and medical facilities.

The infrastructure was already crumbling, and the schools were already teeming.  UNRWA appealed to Gazans to bring bottled water to the nearest school, and they did. 

An UNRWA shelter in Deir El-Balah was struck on July 23. 

Schools had been damaged before.  Militants fired from, and the IDF fired at, positions very close to buildings.  I braced myself each time they fired near our compound wall.  Advocates should spend a night waiting for the retaliatory missiles to strike their homes and families, before they defend such firing. 

But this time, someone fired into the shelter (the explosive would later be identified as an IDF anti-tank missile).

While we waited for news of casualties, two of us pored wordlessly over the map books and back-checked the shelter location notices.  Had I sent the wrong map coordinates, designated the wrong building as our shelter?  There was no error.  My personal relief was swamped by dread:  Israel fired at a shelter.  Palestinians came to us for safety, and the IDF had violated their safety.  In a walled battlefield, where would they go?

UNRWA sheltered 141,000 people and 23,000 walked through the school gates that day.  They had nowhere safer to go.

The next day, mortars struck the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun, as its residents gathered in the schoolyard to be evacuated.  This time, I disbelieved.  It made no sense at all.

As with the other strikes, a team measured, photographed and collected physical evidence.  I had not previously wanted to see the scores of labeled fragments.  Each time I heard a blast, I had not wanted my hands to remember the weight of the sharp metal shards that hurtled through the air and tore through human flesh.  After Beit Hanoun, though, the shards’ weight and identifying marks felt like tangible proof.  Someone would assign responsibility for the killings in that schoolyard.

The postwar Board of Inquiry attributed the fire to the IDF.

In the final days of July, the shelter population exceeded 200,000.  2,400 people shared each school, eighty resided in each classroom.  UNRWA stated publicly that the organization was reaching its limit.  We sent what supplies we could toward the many, many Gazans who sheltered in other classrooms and mosques and offices and apartments, in tents and on grass verges, and on mats in every courtyard.  As they came through the streets to work, UNRWA colleagues were assailed by displaced people, asking where to go for shelter and safety. 

Yet the IDF escalated, bombing Jabalia and demanding the evacuation of Zeitoun.  Those were dense urban neighborhoods of hundreds of thousands of residents; where would they go?  I didn’t know what to call this, this stirring of civilians in aimless circles with no safe passage away from a war that had no objective.

Where was the world?

The most terrifying night closed in; a night of unremitting noise and smoke and great gobs of flame, explosions that shook the ground and fireballs that lit the horizon.  Screaming, always screaming – but no pause for the sirens.  I knelt on my mattress and peeked over the desk as the horizon glowed and burnt through a smoky film.  Flares wafted down ahead of smoke trails.  Through the window grilles, the descending flares wove little squares of light that snaked across my floor and up my walls.  The whole world churned.

Curled like a caterpillar under the desk, I decided that people did not lose their minds.  When they’d had enough, when there was no sense left to grip, they pushed thought away and dispensed with their minds.

The number of explosions did not blunt any one bomb.  Each detonation tore through sound and threw off metal shards and added one more wall to the heap of rubble and thickened the smoke that would slide like hooks into the throats of the neighbors who ran to help. 

The morning report counted more than one explosion per minute overnight.   Over 100 Gazans would be found dead in the rubble, and 423 were injured.

My hands shook as I opened the news websites. 

“What would your headline say,” I asked each one, “if it happened in Tel Aviv?”

With that night, we entered a war of minutes. One of my team called me, barely audible.  Her phone battery was low on her fourth day without electricity.  She said that she was holding her children in the dark, not-dying one minute at a time.   

Without a strategy, where did the minutes lead?

I knew Palestinians who had spread their families across several governorates in order to ensure that the family survived any one strike.  Now they began to gather in single homes.  The world was ready, one explained, to let them die.  They preferred to die together.

Jabalia Elementary Girls School held 3,000 people.  They had abandoned their homes as they were told, and they went where they were told to go.  The IDF shelled them where they slept.  They fired four artillery shells into a shelter without warning in the dawn of July 30, killing 17 and injuring 99.

Robotically, I compared the shelter notices with the map books.  Again, and again, and again.  That morning, I wanted to find an error:  if this could be my mistake, then the principle of protection might be preserved.  But there was no error.  The Israeli army knew that the building was packed to the rafters with displaced people.  They fired into it anyway.

Order began to fray. 

42,000 people walked into the shelters in 48 hours. 

A UN official was quoted as saying that “the world watched in horror.” I felt only bitterness toward the world that did no more than watch.

In the first days of August, the violence was like a curtain drawn around us.  A hundred Gazans were dying each day.  Traumatized people banged on gates, pleading for safety.  Impossibly, 270,000 people were crushed into 90 shelters, one microbe away from a public health calamity.  With the out-and-out assault on the city of Rafah, as people ran through the streets to escape from the bombs, I felt that we were glimpsing the way the world would end.

Then they pulled back.

I left for a break during the August ceasefire.  I hadn’t been out of Gaza since June.  On the train to Tel Aviv, I was transfixed by the smooth, squared, white walls of passing buildings.  Nothing in Gaza was that smooth anymore.

I felt raw and I made uncertain contact with the physical world.  I measured before I entrusted my feet to stairs.  I wandered through Tel Aviv, looking for the face of the violence I had left.  They weren’t talking about it. 

I knew it happened because I could still smell the fires.  But their silence suggested it hadn’t happened to them.

The sunset illuminates one of tens of thousands of homes that was destroyed throughout the Gaza Strip. (Photo: Dan Cohen)

VI

Neither we, nor Gaza around us, were the same after.  Colleagues found each other in the halls.  They propped each other up with long, rocking hugs and thousand-yard stares.

One vibrant young woman now wore only black.  “I don’t feel whole anymore,” she muttered.

Gaza was drawn in zones of grief, and pockets of disbelief.  Everyone had lost.  The straight lines of buildings sagged and the sidewalks twinkled with window glass.  The land itself was jagged and dangerous.  People were dwarfed, crawling over rubble that was measured in millions of tons.  Barter prevailed in some neighborhoods.

Returning from Shuja’iyya, for several hours I could not join the letters of my name into my signature.  I wrote the first letters and drifted away, curious about the dry, fraying leaves of the date palms outside my window.  If it was September, how had I missed those heat-wobbled summer horizons?

Intermittently through the year, my team and I talked about the neurological effects that wore off and the ones that didn’t.

I outlined the economic early recovery plans, and I put the plans away when it was no longer early.  Donor pledges did not arrive, as if Gazans no longer deserved homes.  The common wisdom said that donors would not rebuild without political progress, as if the homeless thousands were being obstinate.

I first saw Cambodia while the Western world embargoed aid to the survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide.  How little had changed in 35 years.

UNRWA’s executive turned over, and the agency revised its priorities.  I left Gaza in September 2015, as my team carried the enterprise to its launch. 

I left, hoping to speak about Gaza’s whole community: educated, ambitious, life-loving, capable and essential to any solution.  While it is vilified and hidden from view, Gaza’s human claims to water, protection, and reconstruction are jeopardized.  Restoring Gaza’s humanity will be a prelude to realizing Gazans’ rights and their role in solutions.

“Gaza,” not Hamas.  I feel no solidarity with Hamas–but Hamas is not Gaza and Gaza is not Hamas.  Each time we accede to the rhetoric that conflates them, we slip into the rationale of the wall.

I had to remember how to be a Jew after Shuja’iyya, in a time of illiberal laws, while Israel blurs its Occupation into its self.  Judaism is intact.  In the religion I aspire to live, Jews stand with endangered people and seek justice. 

When these politicians have finished playing chicken, there will remain two peoples who have to share the same place. They belong in an international forum which recognizes the state of Palestine and the state of Israel.

I towed the mattresses all the way home, those 1,106 safe beds that we–I–could not squeeze through the blockade each hour.  They will always distress me as a symbol of the futility of protection behind that blockade.  Gazans were endangered by an unconscionable strategy of wholesale displacement behind locked doors.  The mattresses acknowledge that 293,000 of them found shelter, but not comfort, under our roofs.

The UN Secretary General’s 2015 Board of Inquiry determined that “at least 44 Palestinians were killed as a result of Israeli actions and at least 227 injured at United Nations premises being used as emergency shelters.  United Nations premises are inviolable and should be places of safety, particularly in a situation of armed conflict.” (Board of Inquiry cover letter, pg 3) 

I am not the judge but I am a witness:  J’accuse.  The war will live, it will be part of a living structure until someone is held accountable.  Someone who knew.

Aleppo is more debased?  Evasions like that don’t get you out of a speeding ticket.  Syria’s total war does not excuse Israel’s choices.

When I idled at Erez and waited to exercise that basic right denied my colleagues – the right to leave – I used to wonder when they would walk out.  It must be Israel’s worst nightmare: two million unarmed Gazans, leaving. 

Since the gates of Erez locked me out, I imagine meeting them as they leave.  At the exit from Erez, army dogs prowl along the base of the walls to the left, and a field lies to the right.  It’s not beautiful, but that field runs all the way to the horizon.  Nothing in Gaza runs all the way to the horizon.  Even the sea flows only as far as the gunships.  So I always paused to stare from that threshold; sniffing for a fresh, grassy breeze. 

The Gaza side always felt hotter.

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I must agree with xanadou. Ms. Garson’s Jewish privilege shows throughout this harrowing narrative. Is that a matter of religion, really? If so, then my dim view of religion in general is justified.

Ms. Garson, thank you for your story. … I could not add that statelessness reverberated with me as a Jew. Statelessness was the problem statement of Zionism. Jews wanted a state, because we recognized statelessness as a precursor. And we were right. Naturally, I was attuned to the stateless vulnerability of others. … You already had a state as a Canadian. You didn’t need – nor were you entitled – to a (religion-supremacist) state “as… Read more »

It’s true that Ms. Garson’s essay shows her Jewish privilege. It would, and has to, given what she’s writing about and given her perspective as a Jew who has separated Judaism from Zionism. She is mourning and acknowledging it throughout her essay. Most Jews who were raised Zionist, if they push through the propaganda to shift their thinking, will have such epiphanies. It is unfortunate that we Jews have to go through with this when… Read more »

Of course Marilyn Garson has Jewish privilege (and Canadian, First World, privilege). And she uses them! as we all should use the privileges we have.

Quiet will be met with quiet. Author seems to have some form of ptsd as do, it’s certain, 1000s of gazan’s. If one believes reports that blame only israel and not both israel and hamas for why u.n. Shelters were hit then there is little to learn and gazans will continue to suffer under hamas. a seaport and an airport on on the table for negotiations from, surprisingly, Lieberman. apparently, The hamas thinks tunnels ,… Read more »