Thursday (July 16th) was the anniversary of the death of the four Bakr boys who were shot and killed by an Israeli gunboat operator on the beach in Gaza as international reporters staying at the al-Deira hotel looked on. Last month after an extensive investigation, the Israeli military exonerated itself and deemed the incident a “tragic accident.” This kind of “tragic accident” has become normalized as the siege on Gaza and the occupation of Palestinian territory continue.
I visited Gaza in May of last year. After co-workers, one Palestinian and one African-American, were interrogated by the Israeli Defense Forces extensively, we all walked through the half mile barbed wire enclosed tunnel at Erez checkpoint. We walked past the remote controlled machine gun that shoots Palestinians in Gaza who dare to venture to the “no man’s land” (prime agricultural land) next to the separation wall, and saw the destruction from recent floods and the remains of the last Israeli settlements before Israelis pulled settlers out of Gaza.
Though I had learned a lot during my time in Israel and Palestine, I didn’t really know what to expect in Gaza. I expected to encounter suffering, trauma, and stories of pain and struggle, but did not expect to encounter the deep love and generosity of Spirit that we found. I did not expect to find joy and such deep connection. What I found in Gaza was a passionate determination to live fully despite the perpetual war machine and the way the people have been imprisoned by the siege.
We met with participants in AFSC’s Palestinian Youth: Together for Change program early in our visit. Nearly 30 young Palestinians sat around a table with us and told us their stories of struggle and resistance, their hopes and dreams. One of the women, Ayah, told us that during the Israeli army “Cast Lead” assault in 2008 her four-year-old brother asked her if the bombings would happen again in the night. Ayah told him, “no” and stayed up each night that followed covering his ears so that he wouldn’t hear the bombings. Every time the house shook, she worried that he might wake up.
Ayah said her dream is to drive from Gaza City to Haifa, to be able to move freely in Palestine. She said she wondered what it would feel like to be free. She seemed so hopeful, joyful even despite all she has experienced. Though I heard her determination to work to end the siege on Gaza and the occupation of Palestinian land, I heard no bitterness in her voice, no desire for retribution, only a desire for freedom, for peace with justice. We danced the dabke dance with these young people and dreamed together of freedom.
On our last night in Gaza, we shared a meal with many of the program participants. That meal felt like communion, like breaking bread with spiritual brothers and sisters, coming together in love to work for justice, for freedom, for peace.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with Palestinians in Gaza, but when we left, as we walked back through the checkpoint, as we walked through the remote controlled metal doors, as we traversed the maze of security doors that resembled a cattle shoot, I wept. As we waited for our luggage in the shadow of an Israeli soldier with a submachine gun, I wept. I didn’t know when I would see my friends again, it felt a little like betrayal to leave them behind, imprisoned by the siege, not knowing when the next bombardment might occur, all supported by U.S. tax dollars.
When the Israeli army began “Operation Protective Edge” on July 8th and for the seven weeks that it continued, I couldn’t really breathe. Each day I would wake up, check Facebook, and email to see whether friends and co-workers were hurt or killed. Ayah’s Facebook page was the first I checked, and I heard from her reports of bombs going off nearby, of her brother pounding the walls when he heard of the death of his friends, of the constant buzzing of drones overhead, of very limited electricity and water, of calls from the Israeli military telling her family to evacuate because they were about to be bombed.
During the bombardment I became very clear: why were my friends having to endure such suffering, such persecution, just because of who they are? My life is not worth more than theirs. I felt so helpless. If there had been a way that I could have placed my body in the way of the bombs, if it could have made a difference, I would have done it. The tie that binds me to them is strong; it is human. When we forget that connection we become capable of atrocities, of violence, of oppression, of indifference.
Last summer we held a meeting for worship here at Friends Center during the bombardment. My co-worker, Mike Merryman-Lotze, Director of the Israel-Palestine program, spoke about how he had been in Ramallah in 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield, in Lebanon shortly after the 2006 massacres, in Gaza shortly after Operation Cast Lead in 2008/2009, and had visited Gaza shortly after the 2012 attacks. During each attack he thought, “It can't get worse than this. The world must awaken.” And then a few months or years go by and another attack occurs worse than the last. He says, “Despite, or perhaps because of this reality, we all must lift up our voices and demand change. The status quo is killing people.”
Since the end of “Operation Protective Edge," less than 1% of the construction materials needed to rebuild Gaza have been allowed in. 100,000 Palestinians in Gaza are still homeless. Many people are living in their destroyed homes without water, without services. Now I understand why Palestinians in Gaza said they were willing to endure the bombing last summer until it resulted in the end of the siege. With their lives rent asunder, living in ruins, they say the siege is just a slower version of the bombardment, killing them more slowly. But at least when Israel bombs them, the world pays attention. I didn’t take a real breath until the bombardment ended last summer. Now, with so little changed, I still can’t breathe.
I invited Ayah to write a guest post for the anniversary of the bombardment. She said, “No.” This I understand. She has written so much, she has cried out and worked tirelessly, as have so many Palestinians, for the help of the international community. She has spoken and written and each time relives the trauma. How many words must be written? How many Palestinians must die before we say, “No more?” How many times will we let Israel bomb and massacre the Palestinian people before we care enough for the humanity of the perpetrator to say, “No, you must stop.”
I don’t know. My prayer is that through boycotts and divestment, with more and more people speaking out, Palestinian voices are growing stronger. My prayer is that co-resistance among Jews, Muslims, Quakers, and people of faith everywhere is building. It has to.
Ayah wrote a piece last summer, “Eid in a dystopian Gaza,” during the bombardment. Please read it. She ended it this way: “Whenever we get hopeless or start whining about life in Gaza, mother would say, ‘We raise our children up for Israel to kill! We construct and build our houses for Israel to obliterate! We cannot surrender to this. We cannot afford hopelessness. We have to endure the suffering and stand by the resistance. All those are dying for us/you to live in dignity,’ That is to say, we wake up in Gaza every day to say, 'We are well in Gaza, how is your conscience doing? Does the world wake up?'"
**This piece draws some from an earlier piece I wrote, A hurricane of Spirt to end the occupation of Palestine