Letter from Palestine
Letter from Palestine is a book of essays I wrote after a brief visit to Israel and occupied Palestine with Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace in 2002-2003. It is not any kind of expert or insider testimony, but a record of one New Yorker's attempts to understand the world after the events of September 11, 2001. I hope it's an alchemy, to help keep transforming numbness and despair into an activist's long-term alert endurance, which in Israel and Palestine I had the honor of witnessing many times. The epigraphs are from Deuteronomy—"Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations; / ask your father, and he will show you, your elders, and they will tell you"—and from Isaiah: "Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. / Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?"
Below are two chapters: the first, "Letter from Palestine," and the sixth, "Gaza."
1 Letter from Palestine
So many stories begin this way now: ‘On Tuesday morning I was.’
On Tuesday morning I was driving to work, north along the Hudson, listening to the radio, the sky brilliant after hard rain the night before; on the radio someone was interviewing Bernhard Goetz, the white man who shot four young black men trying to rob him on the number 2 train the year I moved to Manhattan. “Then I entered the subway car,” he said in a calm voice, as if describing the plot of a movie, “Yes, five shots were fired,” as I drove alone in a comfortable car big enough for five people, the city neighborhoods to the east flashing past the passenger’s window.
As I crossed the bridge between Manhattan and the Bronx I saw as usual the high statue of Christopher Columbus in Riverdale, franker than the one in Columbus Circle in its attitude of conquest, his body held and aimed the way the bodies of the policemen in Times Square just before the war started would be, but none of this has happened yet, as Bernhard Goetz describes the paths of the bullets through the bodies of the young men he encountered in the subway car, “Five shots were fired,” “And that bullet severed his spine”; as I park at the quiet campus where I teach, just outside the northern limit of the city, people are calling to berate the interviewer and his subject, and Goetz agrees to a break by saying he’s perfectly comfortable, in bed at just before nine in the morning with his pet squirrel. In my office I listen a little more, until the interview is over, with suggestions that the interviewer be fired and that Goetz run a second time for mayor--then tune to another station, in time to hear the music interrupted and the strangeness in the announcer’s voice when he says there’s been an accident, between one of the World Trade Center towers and a plane.
It’s evening before I see a television, at the house of the president of the college, in her kitchen, where the faculty from the city have gathered because the bridges are closed and we can’t go home; by then I know my family is safe, as are all the people I personally know. The image of the second plane crashing into the tower, over and over, makes me lean against the kitchen wall and close my eyes; but it’s not until someone drives us to the 2 train at Wakefield running south, over the Westchester border into the Bronx, not until we cross into Manhattan, that I can feel the waves of nausea and panic and grief, the southern tip of the island burning and the threat of the burnings to come, settle into my chest and face in a way I suspect has become permanent, a way I can see in photographs, which suddenly fall into the categories of ‘before’ and ‘since.’
One of those photographs is from the first week of September, my daughter leaning back against the rail of the Circle Line, the silver towers behind her head. I always found them an intrusion into the complex warrens of lower Manhattan, along the skyline, seen from an eastern or western bridge, or from Sixth Avenue on summer nights; they seemed arrogant, oblivious, like the Cross Bronx Expressway slashing through what were neighborhoods, an imbalance in that contentious New York dialogue between money and the lives of those without much of it. But the next morning, as clear and radiant as the one before, the southfacing windowsills of our apartment on 96th Street and the leaves of the plants are filmed with ash--and it’s easier to think of the towers themselves, of being shamed into missing them, than to think of why there are so few sounds of rescue, of why the blood donors have nothing to do, of ash. I’m forty, my children twelve and seven. When I spoke to my daughter that first afternoon I said, “I’m so glad everyone in our family is safe.” “Yeah,” she said, “but if you think about it, a lot of people in our family died this morning.” And later, on one of those mornings I don’t manage to get to the Times on the doorstep before she does, she sees the smoking ruins seven miles away and asks, “What are those dogs doing? Where is that? What’s under there?”
On the morning of September 12, I walked south along the river on the closed highway, then east on 50th Street and took the train to 34th, as far downtown as it would go; the woman sitting next to me carried a sheaf of photocopies I didn’t understand yet, with a photograph of a man named Steven, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, who held a baby in his lap, a scar on his left knee and a platinum wedding ring, and a note: Check Bellevue. Check St. Vincent’s. We all got off at the same time and found outside that terrible smell, thicker as I walked to 14th Street and past the police line after showing my Manhattan driver’s license, to Sixth Avenue and Houston, the sky to the south so strangely empty, where I stopped because I couldn’t breathe. By that point there were fire engines and utility trucks flying flags tearing through the Village streets, television reporters walking toward cameras describing how much dust they couldn’t get off their clothes, and residents, tourists, a woman begging on MacDougal Street singing Day-O, walking with shirts or bandanas or surgical masks over their faces. At the basketball court on Sixth Avenue and West 4th, young men stood around talking and arguing, with that dislocated look on their different faces we all suddenly shared. “We’re gonna wipe those cockroaches off the face of the earth!” one yelled from one side of the chainlink fence, jabbing his finger, and another leaned toward him from the other side with his hands in the meshes: “Okay, I know who killed my cousin,” he yelled back. “I know where his family lives. Should I go find him? Should I go get him myself? Should I go get all of them?”
By that time it was already clear from the newspaper that “cockroaches” referred to al-Qaeda, associates of Osama bin Laden, neither of which I’d heard of more than vaguely. On Saturday night I took the train all the way down, to try to teach myself the reality of the situation, to shake off the feeling of being in a dream; the site was floodlit, surrounded by flags, already embarked on its career as spectacle, and on Greenwich Street rats were weaving among the café tables and chairs. At home I closed the windows to hear less well “The Star-Spangled Banner” shouted from the Orthodox synagogue on the next street, and closed the bathroom door to keep from crying in front of my children after listening to radio commentators weigh the pros and cons of nuclear war, after reading quotes from Paul Wolfowitz about “ending states,” and the beginnings of the list of the dead that would go on for such a long time.
Less than a month later the bombing of Afghanistan began, although fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia; by the end of October it wasn’t a radio commentator but a Congressman from Indiana, and then a Congressman from New York, recommending the use of tactical nuclear weapons. (Stephen Buyer of Indiana led the way, in a television interview, followed by Peter King speaking to WABC.) By December the detention camp in Kandahar had been created, soon to be copied at Guantánamo, and the rules for the treatment of prisoners of war, the Geneva Conventions, and various aspects of the Constitution had been set aside; in The London Review of Books in 2006, Andrew Bacevich called this “a rolling coup.” In Manhattan the question “How are you?” in those first months seemed strange, because the answer was both obvious and unspeakable; how we were had become not personal but public, and too frightening to put into words. In December the newspaper carried weather reports on Afghanistan--were the night skies cloudy or clear?--and photographs I studied as if trying to learn a new language: one of Afghan men proudly standing behind their toddler sons, helping hold the rifles around the boys’ necks; one of Afghan men standing in a concrete room beside the dead bodies of three boys; and one of boys somewhere else, five of them, in Bethlehem, carrying a sixth, whose pants slipping down his hips and over his boots and whose left hand’s gesture reminded me of my son, my son’s age, his eyes rolling back in his head, who died soon after the photograph was taken.
In December I attended one of several college-wide forums on what had happened in the fall; this one was about al-Qaeda, and featured the showing of one of their recruitment films. There were no gleaming images of weapons, as in the recruitment films on video screens in Times Square, with airplanes sweeping through empty blue skies--and the faces of the soldiers, as they moved through city streets after explosions, through ruined buildings and dust, weren’t confident or cheerful but stricken in a way I had come to recognize. The film also included CNN footage of a Palestinian boy cowering in his father’s arms and then dying under Israeli Army fire in Gaza, and CNN clips of Israeli soldiers slapping children and arresting them, pulling on balaclavas to beat bound prisoners, pushing down old women in scarves with their guns. We were watching propaganda, and I tried to look at the images with the detachment of mistrust, the images of the Israeli soldiers in particular; surely that footage was staged somehow, we’d be informed of this when the lights came on.
What I knew about Israel and the Arab world before September 11 consisted mostly of a chaotic collage of film clips: the heroic pioneers of the movie “Exodus,” haunted by the filmed images of the Holocaust; the Palestinian murderers in balaclavas at the edge of the Olympic Village balconies on television when I was eleven; the Saudi royals in sunglasses cursed for the gas lines in my Massachusetts town when I was thirteen. If one kind of ignorance is based on no information, another is made of powerful flashes of information with no way to connect or make sense of them: hijackers, prisoners in camps starved or dead, terrorists, heroic settlers, scheming sheikhs. Then sometimes history becomes intimate, and can begin to teach a different way to see--as for me in September of 1982, when I was living at the home of a college friend, whose mother and grandmother had fled the Nazis from Vienna in 1938, and I saw the looks on their faces when the newspaper photographs from Sabra and Shatila arrived. Or when the city I live in and love was torn apart another September by men speaking Arabic on planes.
At the end of the film, the expert from Columbia began to discuss the editing techniques of propaganda, but I found I couldn’t listen well; I was wiping away tears and thinking of South African soldiers shooting children in Sharpeville, of Southern police beating women in Birmingham, brought to those places by the images I’d just seen. It’s a human reflex to make comparisons and connections, in order to make sense of the unfamiliar, and dangerous to lose the nuances of difference along the way; it’s another reflex, protective maybe, but one that proves dangerous in times of crisis, to look at the plain reality before you and say, This cannot be happening. Every day I try to teach myself some of the nuances missed by the first reaction and some of the realities missed by the second. When I cross Sixth Avenue and look south at the gap where the towers were, I do it again: Not there. How could this be? Not there. When I saw the first photographs of the blindered shackled prisoners at Guantánamo--when I see that the secretary-general of Amnesty International has called Guantánamo “the gulag of our times”--I do it again: This can’t be happening. But it is. Against available evidence, I’d kept faithful to one of the themes of the chaotic American collage I’d been shown, that of the victimization of the Jewish people of Europe leading to the virtue of the Jewish state of Israel. I had made and kept in my mind some room in which things like those shown by CNN could not happen--where in the terms of W.H. Auden, those to whom that particular evil had been done could not do evil in return. As I sat there in the auditorium I thought, All right, some of my ancestors, all from Christian Europe, owned slaves and participated in the American genocide. The Christian Europe they left behind perpetrated the Holocaust. With years of help and attention and study, I have learned a few ways out of the room of pretending this is not true. What I saw in the film was not a portrait of genocide, but of a racist violence it should have been easy to recognize; but as I tried to hold in my mind the portrait it was, I looked around the room in disbelief, as if I might find some exit from this: how could young men wearing the star of David--how could Jews--be treating people this way?
But there it was, meant in the film to provoke outrage, grief, and fury, as it did in me, as it still does when I remember: a burning letter from Palestine, as those September airplanes might also in part have been--Palestine as a place that doesn’t exist, erased place and place of nightmares and dreams, like ‘Warsaw’ in the mouth of a refugee after the destruction of the ghetto, or the aching place where ‘Israel’ might have been in 1941, or ‘Andalucía’ for a refugee from fifteenth-century Spain, from a place where Jews and Arabs once lived. This is not to say that the search for justice in Palestine motivated Osama bin Laden and his organization. The men who overtook those planes and those who sent them might fairly be said to be concerned with their own idea of honor, with vengeance for historical humiliation through violence, with hiddenness, with purity, with territory, with the attempt to reel history backward, with the cult of death. Osama bin Laden, like the head of any army, might be said to be concerned with finding large numbers of young men willing to die for that idea of honor--and with finding the torch to set that willingness alight. The men of al-Qaeda might fairly be said to be less concerned with what I would call justice, with addressing history and the human community in words, with openness, in the mestizaje that is the human future--with making a new world whose foundation is not murder: with life. But life, against odds, is persistent and resourceful, and can turn even that September morning, and worse, toward its own purposes. It can turn the lost towers to a haunted, broken place that can’t be kept from signalling, from radiating questions--or turn the manipulation and murder in this particular letter from Palestine toward Jeremiah’s frightening, seditious message: “Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?” This book is my attempt to see.
It comes not from an expert or a scholar but from someone who’s walked the streets of Manhattan for twenty years now with a conflicted involuntary devotion usually given to a person and not a place--and from a poet, a proud member of the group banned from Plato’s republic for discouraging soldiers with too many references to the joys of life, whose first published book began with the line, “If I forget you, let my sleep dwindle,” in a section called “To the City of Fire.” It comes from neither an Arab nor a Jew, someone raised singing in the choir of a Congregational church in Massachusetts, a New Englander by birth and a New Yorker for the past twenty years, with unillustrious ancestors in both those places reaching back to the colonial beginnings--someone whose idea of religion falls somewhere between Walt Whitman finding letters from God dropped in the street and Eva of Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me A Riddle”: “Race, human; religion, none”--who has no television, who reads news, now as much in the ethers as on the page, like following the fever chart of a sick friend, stumbling in the spirit of the Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Bratslav: “One needs to strive to achieve a higher realization of ignorance at higher levels, ad infinitum.”
A book is usually written from a presumption of some kind of expertise, and then criticized when it departs from this standard; this book is more of a record of ignorance, a kind unfortunately widely shared, in this country with a central role in perpetuating Israeli and Palestinian and Arab miseries. The process I followed was usually one of writing one or two sentences, reading them, and being astonished at their vacuity or vagueness or factual inaccuracy; I would spend the next seven or eight months reading books whose names are not listed here, and return to try the sentences again. A book like this is also usually written with the goal of making cogent arguments; I have my son to thank for helping me out of this dilemma, who said as I set off to work one day, “Why don’t you try to write a book without an argument,” about this subject whose arguments could fill the beds of several seas. There is no bibliography here because I do not want to be mistaken for an expert or a scholar; almost all the quotes can be Googled, leading to more research journeys different from mine. I have tried to make a record of my experiences and my thinking around this rompecabeza--the Spanish word for ‘puzzle,’ with which I have become intimately acquainted, literally, ‘break head’--so my tangents and interruptions of contradictory thoughts are sometimes included, sometimes in italics, often in reference to the dead, who kept shouldering in with opinions. After ignorance, my most constant companion in this project has been despair--whose temptations I keep at bay with the importunings of the garrulous dead just mentioned, and with the lives of some of the people you will meet in these pages.
To see is also to listen; one voice I kept hearing in those first September days was of a boy I never met, let me call him D, the son of another person I never met (C who started work at five, selling on the telephone), a friend of a friend, who died that September morning. D lived in a mansion in Princeton (Who spent summers in the Catskills, who grew up in Brooklyn), and when his mother once brought him to a small Manhattan apartment (Who had panic attacks when she was pregnant) he said, “Someday I’d like to live in a house this small.” When his mother asked why, he said (Whose son delivered the eulogy) “Because then I could see everybody.”
The following spring, in April of 2002, I heard the voice of someone else I didn’t know, via email: “My name is Tzaporah Ryder,” the letter said. “I am an American student from the University of Minnesota. I currently am in Ramallah (Suraida Saleh, American, 21, her nine-month-old baby in her lap). We are under a terrible siege and people are being massacred by both the Israeli army and armed militia groups of Israeli settlers. They are shooting outside at anything that moves. I am urgently pleading for as much outside help as possible to help save lives here.” I had only the vaguest idea where Ramallah was, and that only since the previous fall. Another forwarded message, from someone signed only ‘Huwaida,’ said this: “The presidential compound in Ramallah is currently being fired upon. We still have 34 foreign peace activists inside. There is a dire shortage of food and no water. They urgently need medical supplies. Palestinian doctors were forced to dig a mass grave in the parking lot of the Ramallah hospital today to bury 25 of the dead bodies that have been retrieved over the past 4 days.” By this point George Bush had given his State of the Union address promulgating the idea of preemptive war, and the photographs of the dead boys in Kandahar and Bethlehem and the detainees at Guantánamo and the Israeli cafés and banquet halls made shambles (Lola Lefkovitch, 70, who had been invited to a Paris seder but declined) stayed behind my eyes when I closed them at night; the postwar international security arrangements whose secrecies and brutalities and injustices I’d spent my youth protesting had begun to look slightly quaint in the light of the rule of undisguised force beginning to unfold. There were sixteen suicide bombings in Israel in March that year; I watched it again, the terror and rage and numbness at the carnage, the response of racist rhetoric--Israeli General Effi Eitam, who once spoke of “cleansing the land of its Arab cancer,” said in Newsweek in March, “As far as Arabs are concerned, if you don’t give them the right to vote, you don’t have a demographic problem”--and the dread of the imminent reprisals, not via legal police investigation but via powerful armies mobilized for war. That month 275 Palestinians and 105 Israelis were killed, most of them civilians. I got these letters sitting in my office and thought, This can’t be happening. And then: What would you do if these letters had arrived on pieces of paper from San Salvador in 1980 or from Soweto in 1976 or from Ruth and Hella’s Vienna in 1938? And what would you think of yourself, what would your children and your grandchildren think of you, if you did nothing?
In April I was also listening to the radio again, and heard a young woman asking internationals to come join a peace encampment in Beirut to protest the escalating brutality across the border. When an email returned from the given address, I found she was a colleague's student, on spring break at her home in Lebanon when the Israeli invasion began. On April 13 I boarded an airplane for the first time since September 11, for Beirut, to try to answer two letters from two young women, one named Tzaporah Ryder and one Lana el-Khalil--to protest the turning of city buildings to corpses and dust, in this case to protest what the Israeli army was doing in the Palestinian cities.
“An eight-year-old was shot and killed by an Israeli tank
two days before
I got here, and many of the children murmur his name to me, ‘Ali’—or
point at the posters of him on the walls. The children also love
to get me to practice my limited Arabic by asking me ‘Kaif Sharon?’ ‘Kaif Bush?’ and they laugh when I say ‘Bush Majnoon’ ‘Sharon
Majnoon’ back in my limited Arabic. (How is Sharon? How is
Bush? Bush is crazy. Sharon is crazy.) Of course this isn't quite what
I believe, and some of the adults who have the English correct me:
Bush mish Majnoon... Bush is a businessman. Today I tried to learn
to say ‘Bush is a tool,’ but I don't think it translated quite right.”
Rachel Corrie to her family, February 2003
“To ‘bull-dose’ a negro in the Southern
States means to flog him to death,
or nearly to death.”
Saturday Review, July 1881, via the Oxford English Dictionary
don’t want to see anyone killed, but the Jews kill us and the missiles
kill the Jews, and that makes us happy.”
Man in Gaza in Joe Sacco’s Palestine
destroy their houses.”
Iraqi woman, Fahrenheit 911
By the time we passed the Erez crossing into Gaza I had heard the word Ah’len, Welcome, many times, after Mina first said it in the Beirut airport: at the threshold of living rooms in Shatila, at Islah and Saleh’s in Ramallah, at the house in the Am’ari camp with the wounded man in the back room and the mural of an Apache helicopter on the living room wall. Ah’len in Gaza was not in the doorway of a house but of a tent, with plastic chairs and a coffee pot on a brazier on a rainy Friday in January, in Beit Lahiya, beside where a house had been. Ah’len, someone said, motioning for us to sit down, we who had helped pay for the destruction just outside. On the beach in the morning we walked on a jetty made of broken houses, the waves soothed by piles of twisted rebar and concrete, bathroom tiles, kitchen sinks. At one of the Israel Day demonstrations in New York, two bearded men argued at the corner of 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, about the same height and build and age, leaning across the blue police barricade; “That’s not security,” said the one apart from the parade, as the other turned toward it and said over his shoulder, “Go to Gaza, they’ll slit your throat.” One Israeli expression for ‘Go to hell’ is literally ‘Go to Gaza.’ Ah’len. “A hornet’s nest” according to the newspapers, a “nest of terrorists,” a “hotbed,” “teeming,” “sullen,” “unruly Gaza,” judging from the photographs populated almost exclusively by young men in masks intent on murder. Almost everyone who writes about Gaza refers to it as a prison; what struck me about it in the first days of 2003, from the market streets in Gaza City and the women greeting each other there on a Saturday morning, to the young men squatting by graffitied walls and braziers under corrugated tin in the rain, to the children in a field of strawberries beside a field made mud by tanks, the cars traveling beside donkey carts, the women talking on a balcony, one wearing the niqab showing only her eyes, one not, the families in tents beside houses that had been destroyed, to the quiet beauty of the port, where we were instructed not to walk at night due to Israeli artillery fired from offshore, is that Gaza is a place where people live. Gaza City is a place where people have been living for 3500 years.
In addition to being the home of more than forty people, the house in Beit Lahiya leased its ground floor to the UN’s World Food Programme, storing almost $300,000 worth of relief flour and oil and rice when the Israeli army arrived with dogs and dynamite and Apache helicopters and tore off the well-marked doors with a tank in the middle of the night on November 30, looking for someone from Islamic Jihad. There were white UN rice sacks in the rubble; “It’s too staged,” said someone in our group after the meeting in the tent and the tour through the ruin, the two grandmothers yelling at us in Arabic, gesturing back and forth between the house and the smiling embarrassed children pressed to their knees in clothes too big for them. “The fact that it’s a show makes it unpleasant,” he said, turning away, “I’m getting a headache, this is really stressful. I can’t quite breathe.”
can’t sleep all night,” one man in the tent said, his palm on the curly head of
a little boy between his knees.
“All night he catch at my clothes.
He’s afraid. Your
government. The American
government. Which give Israel the
bombs and the army, army, army, which need to kill us. This boy can’t sleep all night. What is he doing?”
“You want peace,” someone in our group said.
“What peace do you talk about?” he answered. “Bush peace? His peace is to kill us to be peace for Israel.”
“Tell us what you want.”
“To live as you. As anybody.”
“To live as a human being.”
“Or to live as animal! We can’t live as animal! All night we can’t sleep. All the time shooting, shooting, shooting.” Before the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli Interior Minister repeated Prime Minister Olmert’s order “to make sure no one sleeps at night in Gaza,” by bombing the electricity stations that also run the water pumps, and flying over populated areas making sonic explosions. “If you ask this child, Who did this?” the man said, and the boy between his knees whispered, “Yehud.” “’The Jews,’ he says. Look at how this child grows up.”
The week before we arrived, Israeli soldiers had shot dead three teenage boys from the Jabaliya camp, claiming they had knives and were trying to infiltrate the Elli Sinai settlement near Beit Lahiya. The Israeli military commander confirmed that the tank that shot them with four flechette shells and then ran over one of the bodies. “They had some knives for snares for birds,” said Ala Ala’ddin, our guide from the crossing. “They went to hunt.” Our bus stopped at the edge of a camp crossroads for their funeral to pass, and again when we stalled in the mud by strawberry fields at the edge of the settlement, surrounded by acres of ruined fields razed as a barrier around the red-roofed houses a quarter of a mile away. A white donkey pulling a cart stood in the ruts of tank treads, facing the sniper tower on the horizon and a tank slowly crossing the ridge. Children ran up calling “Hello! Hello! How are you? What is your name?,” and Ala pointed out one; “The soldiers don’t like him anymore,” he said, “because he tried to save one of the boys. The soldiers made sure the boys were dead. Then let this young man fetch one of the bodies.”
Gaza is where the first intifada started, in December of 1987, with massive demonstrations that spread over all of the occupied territories, after an Israeli army truck crashed into a van and killed four people in the Jabaliya camp; an Israel plastics salesman shopping in Gaza had been stabbed two days before, and there were suspicions that the traffic accident was not accidental. The PLO had been routed from Beirut and exiled in Tunis since 1982, and the Arab summit in Amman the previous November had relaxed some of the hostility toward Egypt after its signing of the Camp David accords in 1978. The public voice of the refugees had quieted, until the refugees themselves poured into the Gaza streets. By mid-December of 1987, the Gaza director of UNRWA said, “We’re in a situation of either total lawlessness or a popular uprising.” The following January, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced a new policy of “broken homes.”
Gaza is also a place where young men gather in secret to fire homemade Qassam rockets into southern Israel, and where men and woman both have walked to the northern border with the express intent of blowing themselves up and taking as many Israelis with them as possible. When Ala brought us to another house demolished that same November night, this time a six-storey apartment building, we met briefly with Maher Salem, whose father Ashur was crushed and killed in the demolition. “I am the son of Ashur,” he said. “My brother is wanted. So the Israelis say.”
“My children keep asking, ‘Where is our house?’” he said, his hand on the head of a big-eared boy with red hair. “I lie. First he ask me, ‘My father, where is my books, where is my bag?’ I lie one time, two times, three times, then I cannot continue to lie.” His eyes scanned the faces of our group, as if he were trying to figure out what it might be possible for us to understand. “We go out of the house in sleeping clothes,” he said, “the women crying, the children crying,” and described the search through the rubble for the body of his father, deaf and asleep on the sixth floor when the soldiers came. When we got home I saw a photograph of Ashur Salem’s funeral in the Independent, and heard Maher Salem’s voice again, in Justin Huggler’s account; the article said that Hisham Salem had also appeared at the edges of his father’s funeral, Maher’s brother and a senior member of the Islamic Jihad, who had ordered the suicide bombing with forty pounds of nails that killed fourteen people at the entrance of the Dizengoff mall in Tel Aviv in March of 1996 (Little rectangular photos of dead children). In 1996 Hamas launched several suicide bombings to protest the signing of the second part of the Oslo agreements. As Apache helicopters hovered nearby, Hisham Salem answered Huggler’s question about whether house demolitions served as a deterrent. “On the contrary,” he said. “These acts give us new momentum to resist the occupation, and fight till we liberate our holy land.”
The faces of those who seek to liberate holy land by means of killing are much more various than the balaclava gallery in the New York Times might suggest, and include many unlikely to be lined up for special registrations or pulled aside at airport security checks. It’s a question asked every day, in this country, in Gaza, and all over the world, in the name of which enormous social resources are consumed: What does a terrorist look like? Of whom shall I be afraid? When McGeorge Bundy of Brahmin Boston and Tupac Shakur of East Harlem died the same September week in 1996, the Times obituaries were instructive; Bundy, who as national security advisor to President Lyndon Johnson wrote a famous memo in 1965 recommending a policy of “sustained reprisal” in North Vietnam, via “graduated and sustained bombing,” was “Top Adviser in Vietnam Era”--while Shakur, maker of “murderous lyrics,” as he called them, was “Rap Performer Who Personified Violence.” As far as official records go, neither man had ever directly killed anyone; but Shakur’s face, its ‘blackness,’ could be used to provoke fear, while Bundy’s, in its ‘whiteness,’ provoked complex respect--although General Telford Taylor, chief United States prosecutor at Nuremberg, when asked on national television during the Vietnam war if Bundy could be judged guilty of war crimes under international law, replied "Yes, of course."
''To be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at,” James Baldwin wrote in 1962 in “Notes of a Native Son,” “but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one's skin caused in other people.'' But ‘blackness’ and the fears it’s meant to provoke needn’t even depend on skin color; Colin Powell’s face or Condoleezza Rice’s do not fit its contemporary template, but Osama bin Laden’s or Maher Arer’s do, regardless of the level of homicidal threat each may or may not pose. It was possible to submit Maher Arer, Canadian software engineer, to “extraordinary rendition,” i.e. kidnapping by the United States government and supervised torture in Syria, because once the extraordinarily versatile and persistent tools of racism are put to their contemporary uses, he is ‘black’: outside the social compact, dangerous to it, unworthy of its protection. By this definition, Nelson Mandela was ‘black’ on Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for sedition, when there would have been no official outrage from the United States if the South African authorities had killed him; he has since become ‘white,’ his image provoking mainstream affection instead of fear, here in the country that collaborated in his imprisonment, where soulful self-help proverbs are now attributed to him on the internet. Go back to your personal business, says 'whiteness,' so the business of the status quo may proceed; all is well, go back to your diversions, forget about the smell of that smoke. But the smoke persists, because ‘whiteness’ is a fiction--because as Baldwin pointed out, “white people are not white: part of the price of the white ticket is to delude themselves into believing that they are.” ‘Blackness’--the face of the masked Hamas ‘militant,’ Osama bin Laden’s face, Maher Arer’s face, Nelson Mandela’s before rehabilitation, for some the blonde face of Rachel Corrie--interrupts the dream, with the reality of those excluded from it, and with the threat that its narcotic version of the ‘white’ world may disappear.
This rude awakening is of course the intent of every revolutionary, including those who founded this country, for many of whom the idea of naming a borough ‘Queens’ or a county ‘Kings’ would have provoked consternation. For the first official seal of the United States, born in sedition, Benjamin Franklin recommended an image of Moses extending his hand to the sea as it breaks over the armies of Pharoah, a crown on the Egyptian king’s head and a raised sword in his hand. Franklin suggested the motto, “Rebellion To Tyrants Is Obedience To God.” In the less radical final design, the idea of a new world persists, although ambivalently; the “Novus Ordo Seclorum” appears below a Pharoanic pyramid, and the Latin comes from the side of the mouth of Vergil, praise-poet of the Roman Empire. On the other side is the eagle with another ambivalent message in its mouth, “E Pluribus Unum,” sign of democratic mestizaje or enforced assimilation, talons gripping a severed olive branch on the left side and a sheaf of arrows on the other.
Among Jefferson’s recommendations for the seal was an image of Hengest and Horsa, mercenary Anglo-Saxon settlers of fifth-century Britain; in the toolbox of racism, a British face is among the ‘whitest,’ and does not resemble Lennox Lewis or Sir Salman Rushdie. It looks like McGeorge Bundy’s face, and is unlikely to be called “violent” no matter what violences it perpetrates, nor “unruly” no matter what laws it breaks, nor “tribal” whether or not its relatives have framed the structures of power around it for many generations. At the end of August in 1936, a British military patrol was ambushed in the Galilee and two British soldiers were killed; according to Frances Newton in Searchlight on Palestine--”Fair Play or Terrorist Methods?”--police dogs found explosives in two village houses, and the order was given for the demolition of three: the two aforementioned “and also that of Rafi’Bey el Fahoun, one of the largest landowners of the district who possessed a big house in the village, on the ground of evidence having been given that the dead Arab”--killed in the ambush--”had been seen ‘recently serving coffee’ in his house.” Rafi’Bey el Fahoun was given an hour to evacuate, and at three in the morning his house was demolished, including the year’s stored harvest, in a three-storey house of thirty-six rooms. In the demolition of the other houses the wrong one was blown up by mistake.
“It is this kind of thing which drives the young men to join the ‘bandits’ in the hills,” Newton wrote in 1938. “Driven from their homes and their daily occupations, they have nothing more to lose than their lives.” British colonial reprisals were directed at Palestinian Jews as well; the anti-Semitic screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion made its way into Palestine via British officers, fresh from fighting the Bolsheviks in the Caucausus.
In 2001 Chris Hedges, a New York Times reporter for fifteen years, published a story in Harper’s about a contemporary version of “this kind of thing,” under the title “A Gaza Diary”; this entry is from Khan Yunis, a small city and adjacent refugee camp in the south, June 17, 2001:
I sit in the shade of palm-roofed hut on the edge of the dunes, momentarily defeated by the heat, the grit, the jostling crowds, the stench of the open sewers and rotting garbage. A friend of Azmi's brings me, on a tray, a cold glass of tart, red carcade juice.
Barefoot boys, clutching kites made out of scraps of paper and ragged soccer balls, squat a few feet away under scrub trees. Men in flowing white or gray galabias – homespun robes – smoke cigarettes in the shade of slim eaves. Two emaciated donkeys, their ribs protruding, are tethered to wooden carts with rubber wheels.
It is still. The camp waits, as if holding its breath. And then, out of the dry furnace air, a disembodied voice crackles over a loudspeaker.
'Come on, dogs,' the voice booms in Arabic. 'Where are all the dogs of Khan Yunis? Come! Come!'
I stand up. I walk outside the hut. The invective continues to spew: 'Son of a bitch!' 'Son of a Whore!…'
The boys dart in small packs up the sloping dunes to the electric fence that separates the camp from the Jewish settlement. They lob rocks toward two armored jeeps parked on top of the dune and mounted with loudspeakers. Three ambulances line the road below the dunes in anticipation of what is to come.
A percussion grenade explodes. The boys, most no more than ten or eleven years old, scatter, running clumsily across the heavy sand. They descend out of sight behind a sandbank in front of me. There are no sounds of gunfire. The soldiers shoot with silencers. The bullets from the M-16 rifles tumble end over end through the children's slight bodies. Later, in the hospital, I will see the destruction: the stomachs ripped out, the gaping holes in limbs and torsos.
Yesterday at this spot the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of eighteen. One was twelve. This afternoon they kill an eleven-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under eighteen. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered – death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo – but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.
Hedges has called war “the most potent narcotic invented by humankind,” a whirlwind of addictive power not confined to its officially sanctioned versions; “Terrorism is a form of talk,” Mark Danner has written, the talk of rational delirium, where each killing becomes a garbled message, half of an endless dialogue of reprisal. “We believe that the best available way of increasing our chance of success in Vietnam,” McGeorge Bundy wrote, “is the development and execution of a policy of sustained reprisal against North Vietnam--a policy in which air and naval action against the North is justified by and related to the whole Vietcong campaign of violence and terror in the South.” He thought it important to demonstrate “US willingness to employ this new norm in counter-insurgency.” After the Dizengoff mall bombing, crowds of angry Israelis gathered around the Defense Ministry, lighting fires, stoning cars, condemning the Oslo agreements and chanting Death to the Arabs; by the end of that year, Hisham Salem was in a Palestinian Authority prison, waiting to be turned over to the Israelis, as part of the Oslo agreements, the circles of reprisal tighter and tighter. This summer it was Palestinian Authority intelligence agents tortured by the Hamas Executive Force in those same prison cells. When the Israelis closed down their Gaza settlements in 2005, Mohammed Deif of Hamas quoted the Koran suras of the Ant and of the Night Journey in his message: “Do not say in your tongue, ‘Leikh Le Azza,’ when you mean ‘go to hell.’ Today, you are leaving hell. And we promise you that, tomorrow, all of Palestine, with the will of Allah, shall be a hell for you.” And in May of 2007, as reported in the Jerusalem Post, Sephardic rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu quoted Genesis and Kings in a letter distributed in synagogues, advocating the carpet bombing of Gaza as the launching pad of Qassam rockets, “regardless of the price in Palestinian life.” "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand," said his son Shmuel Eliyahu on his behalf. "And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop.” Eliyahu ended with a quote from the Psalms: "I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them."
But there are other versions of what it means to be a protector of one’s people, to be a patriot, to be a man--like the one posted on a website called everything2.com by someone called DejaMorgana, who describes himself as a kibbutz member, a tank driver, an orchardsman and a stay-at-home father, who was working for an Israeli television station near Dizengoff Street on March 4, 1996:
“...there were five kids in their early teens amongst the victims of the bombing. A thing like that hardens people's hearts, and people who were previously only theoretically your enemies will suddenly become fanatical haters. I can understand that perfectly well. You look at a front page full of little rectangular photos of dead children, and you wonder what they were going to do on the day they died, whether they had brothers and sisters, were they good students or class clowns, and the only thing you know for sure is that none of those kids had their political opinions set in stone yet, none of them had ever held a weapon yet, none of them were the enemy yet, and you think fuck this, fuck the people who did this, kill every fucking one of them. It's easy to forget that one man did this, or maybe a small group of men, because they kill us indiscriminately and by god we're going to do the same thing to them. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a child for a child. Thus it has always been.
“Other people, they stay on the site until about three in the morning when there's nothing left to film, and they go home and cry until the dawn breaks. I didn't know much about Buddhism then, but on that night I had a vision of samsara, and I realised that this kind of thing went on and on, and one day it was their turn to blow up kids in a shopping mall, and the next day it was our turn to raze the fucker's house and lock down his whole village for a few days so that nobody could work or buy groceries. And his brothers would remember the day we knocked down their house forever, and they would join the same organisation that sent him to blow our kids up, and the brothers of those dead kids would do pretty much the same thing and it would never end. It was a wheel going round and round, and the wheel was made of pain and fueled by hatred. Killing more people didn't stop it or even slow it down. Killing spun it faster.
When it rains hard in Manhattan I remember the rain in Gaza, turning the dirt streets to rivers, and the two union organizers we met in a bare damp room where the rain pounded the tin roof so hard they had to shout for us to hear them. (Dr. Samir's house Hose into sapling lemon tree) They had a VCR and showed us a demonstration to open the borders and allow Palestinian workers to enter Israel; “We used to have friends on the Israeli side,” they said, “We used to have connections to the Histadrut,” the Israeli labor federation, “but not since the closures. We’ve had closures for two years. Most people here have no job, no income. We have 65% unemployment, 60% of children malnourished, these are connected probably.” A girl in an orange sweater brought sweet tea in a kettle (Bicycle Barbecue Paddleball and paddles) and poured it into glasses steaming on a tray. A boy danced around one of the men and he paused to kiss his palm, then continued. (Take not any guardian apart from Me) “Most can’t get permission to pass the border,” he said. “Two days ago one worker died trying to go to his job in Israel. They treat us worse than animals at the checkpoint. We are sent through in a line like cows to the dairy. How does the US let the Israelis do this to Palestinian civilians? Sometimes we watch Americans on t.v., we see groups defending the rights of animals and the environment. Why not us? Do Americans agree with their government?”
“We also see Americans in the street sometimes against the war coming in Iraq,” he said, “or in support of the Palestinians. These look like the biggest demonstrations since the Vietnam War. Honestly we believe in the popular movements, especially in the US. There are many ways to fix this peacefully and with negotiations. If the Israelis have goodwill. We could have compensation. If not land here, we could have land there. Many of our behaviors are not right now, because our conditions are this way.”
In Gaza City we met with Ziad Abu Amr, an Independent member of the Palestinian legislature from Gaza; he has a Ph.D. from Georgetown and has taught political science at Birzeit University. The legislature hadn’t met as a group for two years; there are thirty miles between Gaza and the West Bank, which might as well be three thousand, given the number of Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks along the way. Abu Amr was reelected in the 2006 elections that brought Hamas to power, and served as Foreign Minister of the brief coalition government that has disintegrated as I’ve been writing this, in which Moustafa Barghouthi served as Minister of Information. “The time of reckoning is getting closer,” Abu Amr said. “This is the latest statement I heard from your president today while he was playing golf.”
He had just returned from Cairo, and remarked on the fact that Iraq was not home to a functioning Islamic fundamentalist movement, and yet it was there that the United States had chosen to make a war. (When We desire to destroy a city--) “A more convincing target would be Saudi Arabia,” he said, referring to the provenance of the majority of the September 11 attackers; “it’s a closed society and a backward regime that breeds such phenomena. The fundamentalists I used to watch for entertainment on television are in power now.” (--Our sentence is passed and We destroy it utterly)
“The Israeli pretext about the refugees’ right of return is No, this would undo the Jewish state,” he said. “So let’s negotiate how we can implement 194”--the UN resolution stating that the refugees should be permitted to return to their homes at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid to those who choose otherwise--“without jeopardizing the Jewish nature of the state. Who will stand up and say, You have no right to manipulate the Israeli people and falsify their consciousness?”
In the same conference room we met with Gaza Community Mental Health Programme directors Salah Abdel Shafi and Eyad Sarraj. Abdel Shafi is also an economist, and described how miraculously open the borders of Gaza could suddenly be when the Israelis had decided to export Gaza strawberries (Dr. Samir's garden: Dill Lettuce Onion), labeled ‘Produced in Israel.’ His family name carries much respect in Gaza and throughout Palestine; Haidar Abdel Shafi was one of the founders of the PLO in 1964, and in 1991 led the Palestinian negotiating team at the Middle East Peace Conference in Madrid. Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, served as legal advisor to the Palestinian delegation, and described Haidar Abdel Shafi’s steadfast resistance to what Boyle called “a bantustan proposal,” not for an independent, contiguous Palestinian state but for a series of Palestinian areas, interrupted by Israeli settlements. “While all this was going on,” Boyle has written, in an article called "Law and Disorder in the Middle East," “and unbeknownst to Dr. Abdel Shafi and myself, the Israeli government opened up a secret channel of communications in Norway with PLO emissaries who reported personally and in private to President Yasir Arafat. Eventually, during the course of these negotiations, the Israeli team re-tendered its original bantustan proposal that had already been rejected by the Palestinian delegation in Washington. It was this proposal that became known as the Oslo Agreement, and which was signed on the White House Lawn on 13 September 1993.” As founder of Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Hisham Sharabi wrote in Al-Ahram in 1998, “The Madrid peace process initiated in 1991 produced what Arafat had dreaded most: the emergence of an alternative Palestinian leadership. The distinguished Palestinian negotiating team headed by Dr. Haidar Abdel Shafi projected an image of Palestinians as rational, practical, and articulate, in sharp contrast with the image of Arafat and his group. He had every reason to fear Abdel Shafi, a respected physician, who looked like Nelson Mandela, with an impeccable political record and a long history of struggle, and who would have probably played a leadership role in Palestine had he been allowed to remain in the public eye.” Haider Abdel Shafi resigned from the delegation in 1993, and from the Palestinian legislature in 1997; in 2002, he and fellow physician Mustafa Barghouthi founded the Palestinian National Initiative, or Mubadara, a democratic opposition movement.
Salah Abdel Shafi listened politely as the lawyer from our group advised him about election strategies and documenting human rights violations to the UN; “The problem, sir,” he said finally, “is that America controls the world.” (How many generations have We destroyed since Noah?) There was nervous laughter. “We are aware of American ignorance,” he said evenly. (The dead body we just carried, Tamer Khadeer, age nineteen) “You have so many nice machines, so why bother? The problem is that so many people are being killed in your names.” (That the deaths of people across the ocean seem distant to me)
Gaza Community Mental Health was founded in 1990; Haider Abdel Shafi tops the list of its Board of Advisors. Director Eyad Sarraj is a London-trained psychiatrist who has campaigned for human rights around the world, including in Gaza, where in 1996 he was arrested and beaten and kept in solitary confinement in Palestinian Authority custody after calling the Authority in the New York Times “corrupt, dictatorial, and oppressive.” His program’s mission is “to develop the mental well-being of the Palestinian community through working with three major target groups: children, women, and victims of organized violence.”
“Yesterday at the Rafah border we were given an eight-hour lesson in humiliation,” he said. “We were put in a bus. We were over 150. There are only four buses from Egypt crossing every day. You cannot breathe. There is no room for human needs. We were like this for hours. I was yesterday haunted with the time I spent in the underground solitary confinement cell. Your dream in life becomes to come out of the bus. It was my dream in life yesterday.
“Then you come to one checkpoint face to face and they shout at you in Arabic, very broken, Sit! Come here! Go! Sit! You cannot do anything without an order. Six hours they keep your luggage. This is not security. This is pure racism and humiliation.
“In the Tel Aviv airport coming from Cairo I witnessed the making of a suicide bomber. A woman was passing through and the soldiers were fondling her underwear in front of everybody. This woman was almost bursting with anger. I said to myself, This is one. Ten years from now, she or one of her children will be a suicide bomber. Suicide bombers are the children of the first intifada. They have seen their fathers beaten--55% of the chldren witnessed this. The bomber has taken into his hands the power taken from the father.
“I was born in Be’er Sheva. I still remember the day we had to leave. But I’m ready to give it up for the sake of peace. The children are gods. And no one has the right to kill these gods in the name of God. I want to sacrifice my house in Be’er Sheva. What we need is a world apology and recognition. If we are apologized to, by our honor we have to say yes. But so far we have received bullets and killings and destroying homes instead.
“What is our nightmare?” he asked. “To lose the house. We lost it in 1948. And they keep reminding us. They keep destroying our houses and they grind salt in our wounds by building their own houses on the ruins of ours.”
The Israeli army demolished a hundred and three houses in Gaza the month we were there; seventy-six of them were in the small city of Rafah, just south of Khan Yunis, divided in two as part of the Camp David accords, half in Egypt, “a militant stronghold,” “gateway to terrorism,” “the Grozny of Gaza,” where since the beginning of the second intifada the army has been demolishing “terrorist infrastructure” and building a wall along the border, to interrupt weapons smuggling. The army also killed sixty-four Palestinians that January, thirty-seven of them in Gaza, and sixty-nine in February; in March of 2003 they killed ninety-nine, sixty in Gaza, three among them in Rafah: Mohammad Abed Al Hadi, eighteen years old; Ahmad Mahmoud Al Najar, forty-three; and a twenty-three-year-old woman variously described later as “daughter of Charlotte couple” by the Charlotte Observer, an “American protestor” by CNN, “An American college student” in the New York Times, a “US pacifist” in El País, an “international pacifist” in Le Monde, an “American radical” in the National Review, “martyr, idiot, dedicated, deluded,” in Mother Jones: Rachel Corrie, of the International Solidarity Movement, whose home on one list of the dead was listed as “Gaza/United States.”
At three o’clock in the afternoon, on Sunday, March 16, 2003 (Jehan's uncle talking to us about labor in his pajamas), Rachel Corrie and other ISM activists began to engage the two Caterpillar D9 bulldozers threatening to demolish the Rafah houses they’d been sleeping in (We have prepared an agonizing punishment), to try to protect them. With megaphones and banners and fluorescent orange jackets, they put themselves between the bulldozers and the houses, often diving away at the last moment to avoid injury, the bulldozers retreating. At one point an activist was about to be pinned against a pile of razor wire, but the bulldozer stopped just before. When one D9 approached the house where Rafah pharmacist Samir Nasrallah lived with his wife and three children (Whenever kings go into a city they ruin), where Rachel Corrie had slept and eaten, watching movies and helping the son with his English homework (When I woke up they were watching Gummy Bears dubbed into Arabic), she stood in front of it, calling to the driver through a megaphone. As he got closer she knelt in the bulldozer’s path. The driver proceeded forward, blade lowered and filling with dirt, and she tried to stand again, visibly panicked, according to those with her (We shall attack this man and his household--), at one point at eye level with the driver as the mound of earth lifted her, then buried, as he moved forward until the cab was over her body, then backed up with the familiar reverse safety beeps (--and then say we did not witness the destruction) and retreated to about twenty meters away. “I saw it, and I know he saw her,” ISM activist Joe Smith wrote the next day. “I don’t know if he wanted to kill her, or if he was just focused on doing his work and didn’t care if he killed her or not, I don’t know which is scarier.” She was conscious long enough to tell the comrades holding her that her back was broken (This is not the world you and Dad wanted me to come into), but she was dead by the time the ambulance brought her to al-Najar hospital, where the director told a Seattle reporter that April, “We will remember this girl all our life.” One of the many condolence letters sent to her parents after she died was from an Israeli reserve officer she’d been in touch with while in Israel, who taught her a few Hebrew sentences to say to the soldiers, like “You’re operating under a black flag,” and “What would your mother think about what you’re doing.”
On April 5 of that year, ISM activist Brian Avery of Albuquerque was shot in the face from a tank in Jenin; on April 11, British ISM activist Tom Hurndall of Manchester was shot through the forehead by an Israeli army sniper as he pulled several Rafah children to safety. On May 2, documentary film-maker James Miller from Devon was shot by another Israeli army sniper, in the throat between his helmet and his bullet-proof vest. You can see that on You Tube too, in this vertigo of information and helplessless; it’s eleven o’clock at night and James Miller and his colleague Saira Shah and their translator are walking out into the dark, filmed by a local cameraman who’s stayed in the house with the family of a girl called Najla, who’s sixteen. Najla and her relatives have showed the British journalists how to walk with a white flag; she and her family are pacing in the foyer with the apprehensive and accustomed looks on their faces I remember from New Year’s Eve in Bethlehem. It’s dark, so all you can see is the white flag on a stick lit by a flashlight James Miller is holding. “Unfurl it a little more,” he says, and they call “Hello? Hello?” like people visiting a house unsure whether anyone is home.
At the first shot they stop moving, and Saira Shah calls, “Hello, can you hear us?” and then slowly, “We. Are. British. Journalists,” and there’s another shot, and the light falls. Saira Shah’s voiceover was made later; “This is the shot that kills James,” she says. The next shot almost hits the cameraman, and the next one scatters the children, and several times Najla says Saira’s name. Then another. Another. Another. And then the cameraman walks out into the darkness flapping a white cloth, after them.
The Israeli army said that Rachel Corrie’s death was “a regrettable accident,” and that Brian Avery’s shooting “never occurred”; in September 2006 the Israeli Supreme Court granted Avery’s petititon for a criminal investigation. As Rachel’s mother Cindy Corrie has written, “While the US Government is on record stating that the report of the Israeli military investigation into Rachel’s killing did not meet the standard of ‘thorough, credible, or transparent,’ the US has taken no steps to investigate this killing of an American citizen by a foreign military.” The Corrie family filed a federal lawsuit against Caterpillar, heard before the US Court of Appeals in Seattle in July 2007, charging that the company has violated international and state law by providing the Israeli military with bulldozers it knew would be used to demolish homes. In 2005 the soldier who shot Tom Hurndall, a member of the Bedouin Desert Reconnaissance Battalion, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison; the IDF lieutenant who shot James Miller, a member of the same battalion, was acquitted of improper use of weapons after a disciplinary hearing. The day after Tom Hurndall was shot, the ISM’s Ghassan Andoni wrote a “Letter to Israelis,” from Bethlehem:
“Each and every one of you is still holding the pain deep inside you because the world was silent when you were persecuted, when you felt defenceless. Those ISM activists decided that it is a crime to stay silent when innocent civilians are being killed and persecuted. Why are you deadly silent? Does it really matter on which side of the bullet you stand?”
In February of 2004, Gideon Levy described in Ha’aretz a 1998 exchange in Gaza between a senior IDF officer and representatives of human rights organizations: “Asked whether Gaza Strip terrorists were more dangerous, he replied, ‘No, but here we can do more.’”
When the United States bombed North and South Vietnam with B52s, the planes flew so high they were invisible and inaudible from the ground, announcing their arrival only by the sudden rain of fire; although the Israeli army has tried to make Gaza remote, violence is intimate there, the distances short, the jet fighters and the attack helicopters flying low, Gaza City about fifty miles from Tel Aviv, what in another world would be an hour and fifteen minutes by train. Under Israeli bombardment in April of 2006, Leila El Haddad wrote from Gaza, “The Earth is squeezing us. I wish we were its wheat, so we could die and live again. That has become our sad reality. Death provides relief. Sometimes it feels like we are all in some collective torture room; who is playing God with us this night, I wonder? When I look up into the sky, and hear the shells, or see the faceless helicopter gunships cruising intently through the moonlit sky, I wonder, do they see me? And when the shells start falling again, I can’t help but imagine some beside-himself-with-boredom 18-year-old on the border, lighting a cig or SMSing his girlfriend back in Tel Aviv ‘just a few more rounds to go, hon...give it another whirl, Ron, it’s been 2 minutes already.’” One ISM activist in Rafah described how “the soldiers, entering this home to prepare its inhabitants for its demolition, with their big dogs and their guns and their orders from god, the soldiers give a 7-year old girl 4 sticks they call candles, and order her to put one in each floor of the house. She is scared, puts two of them where they say, but refuses to finish; they do it for her, of course these are bombs. She is afraid of the dogs and the guns and the soldiers and she tells us this in bare feet this afternoon. I can tell you other stories: the women they use as human shields, the mother forbidden to get milk for her baby, the store filled with tea and sugar and flour reduced to ash, but mostly it is this girl, who can still laugh somehow, this girl is what breaks me.”
On the last morning we were in Gaza, the Miami Dolphins were playing on the hotel television by the window that overlooked the Mediterranean; we had breakfast with a friend of the dean from Connecticut, Hekmat El Sarraj, a union activist and coordinator of programs for women and children in Gaza City. They’d met when she had spoken at the University of Massachusetts as part of a month-long United States tour. “Now they want from the river to the sea,” she said, referring to Hamas, “just like the Israelis. This can never happen.” When I look at my videotape from the alleys of Jabaliya now, five years later, I can read the word ‘Hamas’ in bold red Arabic script, over and over, beside portraits of fighters I don’t recognize, and once beside a drawing of a bus with a star of David on the back window, torn through the middle by an explosion. “The woman whose son died,” Hekmat said, “the bomber son. The first few days she has a lot of visits, a lot of glory. Then nobody visits her after one month, when she is sitting at home thinking. The society is saying she is a hero and he is. It’s dangerous to speak about peace, to say I am sad for the Israelis who died. If you speak about relations with Israelis you are a spy. About peace. About meeting. But we are trying to be democracy.”
At one point as I was writing this, in June of 2007, forty years after the beginning of the Israeli occupation, I turned on the radio and heard thirty seconds of uninterrupted gunfire. I wondered if it might be a report from Baghdad--but it was from Gaza City. The BBC reporter interviewed a man who didn’t want to be identified, who said that Hamas men had attacked a truck and killed two Fatah men in front and five Hamas prisoners in back, and that the Israelis were firing on “Hamas strongholds” in Rafah from the air, and that masked Hamas men were on the roof of his apartment building, shooting into the street at anything that moved. (Did you deny my messages?) At the end of June, Eyad Sarraj wrote about walking around Gaza in the days after Hamas routed Mohammed Dahlan’s Preventive Security Forces, the men they associated not only with high living, corruption and brutality but with cooperating with the Israelis and the United States. “Okay, they destroyed the corrupt,” one old man said to Sarraj. “We welcome that. Can they feed us now?” In 2006 he was part of a small group of Palestinians that met with Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s deputy national security advisor: “He was blunt that the Hamas government, which was democratically elected, must be pushed out at any cost. We’re not Hamas followers, but we tried to persuade him and other officials that engagement, rather than confrontation, is the better choice; but their determination was unshakeable. We warned that there would be suffering and starvation and even armed conflict, but to no avail. It wouldn’t be the fault of the US if that happened, he said.” (One Times headline about Iraq from the end of that November illustrated this favorite tilt of US foreign policy: “Could a New Strongman Help?”)
Hamas, originally an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was fostered in its beginnings in Gaza by Israeli security services eager to undermine the secular PLO; then in the 1990s, Israel compelled the Palestinian Authority to arrest Hamas members, particularly after the first Hamas suicide bus bombing in April 1994, a response to Baruch Goldstein of Brooklyn killing twenty-nine Palestinians at prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. While the PLO pre-Oslo was absent from the Occupied Territories, Hamas was present. As Time magazine reported in 2004, “Dr. Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member of the Palestinian parliament, says that Hamas’ image as ‘clean’--in contrast to the corrupt Authority--as well as its ability to ‘fill in the gaps left by the Authority’s ineffectiveness’”--through a wide network of social services--”have won it considerable backing, even from many who do not share its extremist positions. ‘It’s not just altruistic,’ he adds. ‘Hamas knows how to use this source of power to build a solid base of support.’” But nothing boosted its support as dramatically as the Israeli ‘liquidation’ of two of its founders in 2004, via Apache helicopter missiles: Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March, in his wheelchair coming out of dawn prayers, along with his bodyguards and nine bystanders--and his replacement Abdel-Aziz Rantisi the following month. Two years later, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, the new generation, was forming the new Palestinian government, of the state not a state, after the first legislative elections since 1996. As pointed out in 2004 by Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery, who joined the armed Jewish underground after British police killed Avraham Stern in 1942, the assassinations served less to quell resistance than to “produce not only thousands of potential new suicide bombers inside the country, but also tens of thousands of volunteers for the radical Islamic organizations throughout the Arab world.”
Whether as intended or unintended gift to Hamas, the US and Israel lost no opportunity to undermine Yasir Arafat and his Palestinian Authority; the invasions of the spring of 2002 targeted every aspect of its power, from the presidential compound to its local police stations and its office computers. In 2003, Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon said, “The Palestinian Authority is an enemy, a producer of terrorism, and we must therefore act immediately to liquidate it.” In August of 2004, Ariel Sharon bypassed Arafat as an adversary to be negotiated with and completed his unilateral ‘disengagement’ from Gaza; before dismantling the settlements, he conducted the assassinations of Yassin and Rantisi and the bloodiest invasions of Gaza since the 1967 war. Sharon’s senior advisor Dov Weissglas told Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz that month, “The disengagement is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians...Arik can say honestly that this is a serious move because of which, out of 240,000 settlers, 190,000 will not be moved from their place. Will not be moved.”
In 2003 the project was to undermine the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, by withholding aid and the release of prisoners and Palestinian tax revenues; in January of 2005, days before the elections for president of the state that is not a state, as Abbas was campaigning in Khan Yunis, Israeli tanks killed seven Palestinian boys harvesting strawberries in the fields we visited at the edge of Beit Lahiya. The mother of three of the boys said in the New York Times, “Suddenly I saw everyone running, and I started running, and then I saw them collecting the parts of my children.” “Put the explosive here!” she shouted, pointing to her waist. “I’ll go to the tank and explode myself!” In the London Review of Books of July 2007, Alistair Crooke, member of the Mitchell Commission and special advisor to European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, remembers a leader in a refugee camp in Lebanon telling him in 2006, “You will see...what this victory for Hamas represents (Are you rewarded for anything except what you have done?) is the final rupture of the Palestinians’ faith in the international community. We can no longer believe that the Americans or the Europeans ultimately can be counted on to do the right thing by us. We know that we must rely only on ourselves now.”
As we walked to the beach in 2003, children leaned out from the upper stories of the apartment buildings in Gaza City, calling Hello, Hello, How are you, beside the little lines of bullet holes edging the balconies. “The closure policy is very bad,” Hekmat said. “It helps the war be always fired. In the closure people’s minds are closed. They’re just killing the nice feeling. If there is still nice feeling they are killing it. The humanity feeling.” She smiled. “Ask the people you meet if they can put their nose in this.”
At Erez we passed the casual Palestinian part of the border, with its leaning soldiers and tattered flags and its sign saying Goodbye, and walked into the chute of the Israeli side; “One at a time,” the megaphone voice crackled, “No pictures,” past the bunker with slits to hand through documents, eye-level with the soldiers’ waists, so the hand on the M16 is all you can see. We were in the line for VIPs and foreigners, and I couldn’t read the Arabic to tell where everyone else was supposed to go. “I think my son may disown me after this trip,” the dean from Connecticut had joked on the beach. “Or maybe I’ll disown him.”
We left Gaza and drove to Tel Aviv to meet with Avraham ‘Beiga’ Shohat, finance minister under former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak; he was discussing the lack of investment in the occupied territories and blaming Arafat for it--”Most of them are very intelligent people,” he said, meaning Palestinians, “They can run an economy”--and mentioning the possibility of cooperative development of the Dead Sea when at about six-thirty there was the sound of an explosion.
“Let’s hope it was thunder in the sky,” he said. And another. “No, it was not thunder.” As the sirens started, he said, “Let’s continue.”
After a moment there were footsteps in the hall, and a young woman brought him a little green slip of paper, which he read and told us that two suicide bombs had exploded by the central bus station, a mile away. He looked tired and worried and our discussion had shifted to Oslo. “My understanding is that Arafat didn’t want an agreement,” he said. “He didn’t want to give up the right of return to Israel. If it’s this, there is no way to solve the problem. No way. No way. No way. No way. No way. The meaning of it is the total ruin of Israel.
“Even me, even my friends, even Meretz. We’ll never accept it. So put it on the table. Then we’ll fight. Fifty, a hundred years, we’ll fight.” It was getting late and we were due in Jaffa for dinner. “Okay, gentlemen,” he said, standing.
“He was really impressive,” said someone in our group. “If the bulk of Israeli citizens were like this guy, there’d be peace here.”
“Hope they didn’t hit our restaurant,” someone else said.
“Hope they didn’t get the bus. My plane ticket’s in there.” Shohat had left the little green piece of paper on the conference table, folded into the shape of a plane.
Outside it smelled like pine and there was a two-day-old moon and the bus driver was shaking after the explosion; he told us about the people who’d dropped to the sidewalk around him, and that the radio said the bombers and twenty-three other people were dead, many of them immigrant workers, and that Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed the attack as retaliation for the nine people the army killed in one day in December, the day before we arrived. Two professors gave us a ride to Jaffa and they had that look on their faces familiar to me from those days in September in Manhattan. One had just reached his son, so he knew he was alive. At one point he angrily switched off the radio; “It’s the after-terrorism music they play,” he said, “so we’ll do what they want now.” We passed the place where Yigal Amir shot Yitzhak Rabin for wanting “to give our country to the Arabs,” now across from a Starbuck’s. “It works,” the professor said. “It makes me almost desperate. I don’t know where that rage goes.” (Homes worm-eaten by bullets and then impregnanted through bullet holes by birds) The bombers were two young men from Nablus; Sharon and his cabinet responded by barring Yasser Abed Rabbo and other Palestinian officials (I was being served tea and playing with two small babies) from attending a negotiating meeting in London with William Burns of the US and Javier Solano of the EU, shut down three Palestinian universities (I am nothing but one of the warners), imposed curfews on Nablus and Bethlehem, and fired rockets at targets in Gaza.