An American girl in Gaza

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“The police will help you” the cab driver said to us as he shooed us out of his car in the middle of the street, where more than 2000 soldiers stood in full armor and arsenal in a two square kilometer area just outside the walls of the Old City. The driver opened the trunk and abruptly threw our bags in the street. He had no idea where anything was in East Jerusalem.

“300 shekels” he demands.

“No” I reply.  “You said 200 shekels at the airport, besides, you didn’t even get us to the hotel.”  I end up paying the agreed price of 200 shekels.

It was 11:30am Friday, July 21, almost time for noon prayer.  There were literal and metaphorical fires everywhere.  The mercury topped 97 degrees Fahrenheit, tempers were hot and many fires were burning in dumpsters now relocated to the middle of the streets to prohibit freedom of movement.

After waiting, asking for help, and several attempts to get through the thousands peacefully protesting the closure of the Al Aqsa Mosque, we gave up and sat on the curb of the bus lot, unable to navigate the last three blocks to our hotel.  Saying the soldiers were not helpful is an understatement. My ten-year-old daughter, Francesca, and I were on our way to Gaza to participate in UNRWA’s annual Gaza Summer Fun Weeks Camp. She had the astute honor to act as a student ambassador from the US.

An elderly Palestinian then yelled “sharmoutah!” to a soldier.  Two younger men pulled him back and told him to calm down.  The next thing that happened made my stomach fall to my feet.  The soldiers pulled down their masks and lifted their machine guns.  I crouched down and put my body between my daughter and the soldiers, not more than 15 feet away, and thankfully realized she was oblivious to the danger in front of us. We were thirsty, hungry and completely exhausted from our overseas flight. I say “I know sweetie, this is what we’re going to do: we’re going to go that way,” I pointed to the opposite direction of our hotel but the only open area, “and figure it out.”

I grab the huge duffel bag and throw it on my back, grab the other two checked bags in my hands (all three full of supplies for Gaza) and she pulls our two carry on bags and we start walking.  Away from the crowd of peaceful protesters,  flaring tempers and aggressive postures of the soldiers. I knew what was going to happen next: tear gas canisters, stun grenades and rubber bullets were going to be shot into the crowd of peaceful protestors.  Sure enough, not long after we got out of there, all that plus live ammunition was shot into the crowd, killing three Palestinians.

A kind young Palestinian asks if we need a taxi, he helps us to his car and takes the bags and tries to make my child smile. He goes as close as he can to the hotel only to find a huge dumpster in the middle of the street obstructing the way. He helps us out of the car and starts carrying our bags to get us to the end of the block, to our hotel. Mohammed from the hotel is walking down the street with a walkie talkie as he heard two Americans are trying to get there, and he fears for our safety. The driver refused payment for the ride since he couldn’t deliver us directly to the hotel. I insist.

My daughter and I collapse in the room and sleep a few hours.  Thirty six hours later Frankie and I are in an armored UN SUV heading into Gaza. I have a connection to Gaza, I am a physician who travels with Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility as often as I can to offer medical education and mental health care to the two million people living under uninhabitable conditions in what the rest of the world calls “the largest open air prison in the world.”

Frankie starting the almost 2 km caged walk from Erez into Gaza

For one week my daughter Francesca acted as an International Student Ambassador in the various campsites throughout Gaza.  She was welcomed with open arms and wide open hearts.  She was fussed over, adored, given gift after gift and questioned about her life in America. The children of Gaza were thrilled that a child from America was there: playing with them, eating with them, dancing with them, and seeing them.  Frankie was often overwhelmed by everything: the sights and smells, the poverty, as well as the kindness and joy one would not expect in such desperate conditions.

For one week my daughter also felt traumatized by what she saw. I had to remind myself of my reaction during my first time there.  Some nights I felt so much despair after bearing witness that I could only lay motionless in bed, words were lost on me.  I could relate to her need to shut down.  I only hoped and prayed she would eventually see the incredible beauty, joy, resilience and hope I saw in Gaza. Everyday I struggled with both feeling guilty for possibly psychologically harming my child yet shameful for feeling that way because the innocent children in Gaza have no choice, this is their unchosen reality.

To this day, my daughter doesn’t speak of her experience much. But occasionally she does bring up a happy memory.  We’ll go for ice cream and she’ll recall when my friend took us out for ‘boozah’ (ice cream). She’ll see words from afar that look like Arabic script and she’ll say: “mom you can read that! Start on the right first,” she still understands some Arabic that she picked up while there, and she’ll talk about my ‘sister’ Alaa’ in Gaza and her two little girls.  Sometimes Frankie will recall a dish or spice she liked.  When I talk about current events in Gaza she recalls people she met.

I hope that someday my child looks back on her trip to Gaza with pride, gratitude and a sense of fellowship.  I hope that maybe she’ll even feel as I do: blessed to know Gaza.

Frankie and all the Student Ambassadors from Gaza for UNRWA GSFW (Gaza Summer Fun Weeks) 2017 with UNRWA Director Mr. Bo Schack.

The Trump administration’s decision this week to cut funding to UNRWA from $350 million per year to $60 million will most certainly ensure the starvation of many Gazans, as 80% of Gazans rely on UNRWA to avoid starvation. This is horrific.

President Trump’s recent gift of Jerusalem to Israel is just the latest in a string of brutal injustices spanning 100 years.  The US is not, and never has been, an honest broker in the whole ‘peace process’ in the Middle East.  How can we be when we give one side $10 million per day in financial and military aid while we give the other side absolutely nothing?  How can we be considered honest brokers while we provide unwavering political cover to Israel time after time when they violate UN resolutions? Does an ‘honest broker’ really look the other way during land grabs by Israel which violate internationally recognized borders? Does an honest broker sit silently by while over two thousand are massacred because they are confined to the world’s only open air prison, living under siege, because those people democratically elected the group we didn’t want them to elect? Does an honest broker not hold it’s ally up to International Humanitarian Law when the ally, time after time, continues to violate international law and  collectively punish an entire population? It is the cruelest of jokes to Palestinians who suffer incredible degradation, humiliation, and subjugation to even pretendwe are impartial.

Impartiality does not include hearing only one narrative, and it certainly does not excuse turning a blind eye to injustice.

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Dr Filippone, let me express my admiration for what you do, and my appreciation for Francesca’s courage in making this trip.

Great article.

An American in Palestine/Gaza.

Perhaps a follow-up article would be great about her/your recounting of her experience to her US student-contemporaries and their reactions to her/your experiences there.

I hope that a kid-to-kid honest exchange on the differences between a free life in the US and life under occupation will follow her peers throughout their lives.

Belgium pledges $23m to UNRWA after US aid cut @AJENews

Thank you for sharing your story, and thanks for your dedication to human decency in the face of such terrible injustice by the state of Israel, funded by the USA, by our tax dollars.