When I wrote this last night, I had just completed my seventh hour of detention at the Taba border crossing, from Egypt into Israel. (We left Gaza on Thursday, and are on our way to join other peace activists in Israel to put pressure on the Erez crossing into the Strip.) They don’t like the fact that I have two Palestinian Authority (Gaza) stamps in my passport. And it didn’t help that one member of my group had some incriminating material in his backpack. But apparently what really finished me off was the fact that I volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement in October (at least that is what the speculation is). So…I’m being told that 1) I cannot visit the West Bank and 2) I can only enter for two days. (If I want to stay longer, I have to pay $5,000 as a “bank guarantee” – and she refuses to explain what that means!) And just to illustrate how ridiculous it got – at 10 after 1 in the morning – the BITCH that was interviewing me demanded to know my religion and then insisted that Unitarian Universalism isn’t “legitimate.” I guess the concept of accepting all beliefs is foreign to them….
At least the border crossing facilities had Internet...Here, Medea (left) and Ann use Skype to talk to our compatriots in Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile…I have been without consistent Internet access, so have not been able to blog. But that is life in Gaza. Internet access drops in and out.... and electricity is in perpetual need of "maintenance" -- cutting off for hours at a time, forcing families to rely on rudimentary back-ups like kerosene lamps. For them, these constant disruptions are normal, even routine. And then there are the families like the Al Samouni clan, whom I had the privilege to visit this week. Their situation is beyond the pale even by Gazan standards. This large, tightly knit clan of 38 families (with about 400 members) lived in the Al Zaytoun neighborhood in north Gaza City – or at least did until the Israelis attacked in January, just two days after the siege officially began. I visited the handful of families still living on their ancestral land and had the privilege of hearing from them firsthand just what happened: When F-16s strafed their community out of the blue that morning, one of the missiles struck the third floor of the home of Tallal Hilmi Al Samouni. Luckily, the family nonetheless managed to extinguish the fire that broke out. Earlier, the 16-member family—including the grandfather, grandmother, their children and their families—had evacuated into the first floor in fear of the bombs. As the situation deteriorated and the shelling intensified, three additional Al Samouni families sought refuge in Tallal’s home: Ibrahim Al Samouni (12 members), Rashad Al Samouni (11 members) and Nafiz Al Samouni (10 members). Altogether, 49 members of the Al Samouni clan gathered at Tallal’s house.
Later that day, the Israeli army knocked on the door of Tallal’s home and asked the congregated family members to move to the home of Wael Al Samouni (11 members). The army also asked the men to lift their shirts on their way out (a dehumanizing gesture across many cultures), then surrounded Wael’s home and left the 60 members there without water for 24 hours. As for electricity, it had been cut off entirely in the strip since Israel’s bombardment began on Dec. 27. The next day, the family heard shooting nearby, followed by calm. Some thought that the army had withdrawn from the neighborhood, and so one of the men left to bring water from a tank in front of the house. To his surprise, the Israeli occupying forces and their tanks were still surrounding the house, and he went back inside. Five minutes later, the tanks shot a missile into the house and injured seven people. Only three minutes later, the Israelis aimed another missile close by, which killed several more Al Samouni family members—predominantly children and women.
Terrified, about 22 of the survivors, many of whom were injured, left the house raising white banners and carrying four bodies of the dead. The Israelis began shooting around them, but they continued to walk, and tried to call the ambulance to pick them up. But the Israelis told them that they had banned emergency services from reaching the area. Back at the house, where the dead bodies of Palestinians lay, there were 13 family members who were still alive. Eight of them were children, some of them injured, who had been locked in for three days with the bodies of their dead parents and family members, with no access to food or water. The Red Cross was only allowed entry three days later to evacuate the dead and injured, the majority of whom were so critical that they had to be taken to Belgium, Egypt and Saudi Arabia for treatment. Overall, 26 members of Al Samouni family were killed, including 10 children and 7 women.
In addition to destroying their homes, the Israeli troops left behind racist grafitti on their walls.
And today? More than five months later? Despite the widespread publicity they received, the Al Samounis have fallen through the cracks. They are not refugees from 1948, so they don’t get assistance from the UN Relief & Works Agency. To date, they have received the equivalent of only $50 per family. So, that’s my commitment – to return to Gaza with work crew, to help them clean up, rebuild and replant.
The Al Samouni families who have been tenacious enough to remain on their land are living in mere shacks.
Yet, despite these unbelievable hardships, the Gazans’ hospitality to strangers is humbling to a spoiled Westerner like myself. My problems -- as significant as they seem in the context of our world -- are so very, very small compared to the everyday reality in Gaza for the past 40+ years. And you know what? If I encounter one more person when I return to the States who responds to my description of the devastation and institutionalized poverty here with a comment that pins the blame on Hamas, I no longer think I will be able to keep my cool. According to B'Tselem’s research, from June 2004 to the end of Operation Cast Lead on 17 Jan., just 20 Israeli civilians had been killed by rockets and mortar fire from Palestinians. Contrast that with the 1,400+ Palestinians who were killed during the 22-day Israeli siege alone. But beyond that, the citizens of the Israeli border towns of Sderot and Ashkelon do not live in a 24/7 prison; they have the freedom to go abroad to attend school or visit family, for friends and family to enter the country to visit them, and to support themselves and their community by doing business through exports, imports and other kinds of exchanges within the global economy. These are all basics of thriving over and above mere survival that are denied to the Palestinians of Gaza. To be honest, I'm surprised there aren't more Gazans who have resorted to rockets, despite their clearly rather innocuous track record. Don't get me wrong...I don't condone violence, no matter what the source. But any American who thinks they would not hate, and would not want to resist with every fiber of their being and with every tool at their disposal this kind of constant, daily, indiscriminate oppression should be forced to come here and live with a Gazan family for a week. And if they do, they would quickly learn that -- miracle of miracles -- most of the 1.5 million people here just want to be live in peace. In fact, one young man here who has become a very close, special friend reminds me not to even joke about responding with violence to the injustices here ... that it's too serious and "real" in everyday life here to not carefully consider every signal you send. On the other hand, insisting that all rocket fire stop as a condition of Israeli concessions -- or even as a sign of “commitment” – is like asking any country stop all crime. Or, for that matter, for Israel to stop all settler violence. Why aren’t we just as focused on demanding Israel to do that?
If we need a reminder of the complicity of the American government -- and business -- in the atrocities against the Palestinians, consider this clearly American "label" on this F-16 missile that slammed into one of the Al Samouni homes.