Sleepless in Gaza: Living under the Drone

I was so exhausted yesterday I swore that nothing, nothing, would keep me from going to bed at a decent hour.  I ate my dinner, put on my pajamas, and crawled under my fluffy blue blanket. And then it started. A loud humming sound. It grew louder and louder, like the offspring of a killer bee and a Boeing 747 was flying toward my apartment building, and then pulled away, and then returned  again. I tried to ignore this sound. I pulled my blanket over my head and stuck my head under my pillow.  But they only grew in number; now there were many of them. I reached onto the floor from under my blanket for my ipad to see if the internet would provide any information on to what the hell was going on in Gaza; I checked Haaretz and Maan news, but no word on this strange sound.  I finally got out of bed.

“What the f!!k is that sound?” I asked my flatmates.

“Drones,” they replied.

“Is this normal?” I asked. They nodded.

I went back to bed and unsuccessfully tried to go back to sleep.  The sound of aircraft and loud noises overhead were not new to me. I grew up 15 minutes from an airport.  I spent the last 3 years in a section of Los Angeles where the police department regularly uses helicopters in police chases.  Last year, a fire started in the apartment next door to mine, burning through our shared roof and wall–I slept through the smoke alarm. Sleeping is one of my talents.  Last night, I could not sleep.

I tossed and turned, thinking of those kids in Beit Hanoun, close to the border, who I had picked olives with last week and how scared they must be. What do parents in Gaza tell their kids to allay their fears? Were my Pakistani and Yemeni counterparts having similar sleepless nights?

Anyway, I must have slept, because I awoke . . . to the sound of drones.  It was 6:30 a.m., and I again checked the internet. Israeli drones over Gaza were not newsworthy. I got up. I attempted to write. The sun rose overhead, but the drones did not leave. I had a meeting with some university students at noon; the drones were still there.

“We could hear them during class,” said one.  I asked them if this was normal.

“Oh yes, they’re here all the time. It was really bad during Ramadan,”  she added.

As I write these words I can still hear the drones above me.  I shouldn’t complain. A mother living alone with her four daughters in Khoza’a (south Gaza, near the border), where I got shot at on Friday reported hearing Israeli Apache helicopters and the booming of Israeli tanks all night yesterday.  Of course, this isn’t newsworthy.  Even Palestinians in Gaza think its normal. I was telling one of the university students who wants to be a journalist when she graduates that she should write about this stuff, how when Israelis suffer from shock it makes the front page but no one knows that Palestinian kids get shot at while playing or walking to school in Gaza.

She seemed to agree with me. “We in Gaza, we are shocked when they don’t shoot at us,” she said.

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The Israeli Army shot at me and 3 Palestinian kids in Gaza today

After a lovely day of drinking excessive amounts of tea with a few families in South Gaza (Faraheen and Khuza’a, to be exact), an Italian colleague, Silvia, who used to live in Khuza’a, suggested walking down the road towards the local school.  It was late afternoon, about 4:30 p.m. and dozens of children played in the area.  We walked past slices of a giant concrete wall placed in the middle of the road.  The slivers reminded me of Israel’s Apartheid Wall in the West Bank — 25 feet of reinforced concrete.  The local villagers had apparently retrieved these sections from a former settlement and placed them there so that children could play outside while being (somewhat) protected from Israeli army gunfire

Silvia pointed to a school farther down the road.  “That’s where the children go to school,” she said. The sun was beginning to set and the area was quite beautiful if one didn’t look too hard at the Israeli military towers in the distance. I took some pictures, and even asked Silvia to take a photo of me.  Kids played nearby and a donkey cart passed us.  I photographed a house that looked like it had been bombed, but the bougainvillea had grown back in vibrant fuchsia.  Two boys playing with a piece of plastic ran towards us from farther up the road and begged me to take a photo.  I snapped a sloppy photo, and they eagerly checked their digital images on my camera.  One in a green sweater thought it was terribly funny that the boy in a red hoodie’s head was missing in my photo.

They ran up ahead, and we walked for about 15 seconds when I heard a strange whiz, a whistle, eerily close to my ear. I paused, a bullet?  Red hoodie and two younger boys up ahead hit the floor as I momentarily pondered the strange sound.

The kids turned around and yelled at us to stupid foreigners to get down.  We bent down and started to walk away — fast — and they yelled at us to get completely on the ground.  The Israeli army left us no time to be scared. No gunshots over our heads.  No warnings.  A second bullet whizzed  past the three kids, and then us.  The Israelis were shooting at us from the towers 500 meters ahead. This time, we were on the ground. I continued to look at these 9-year-olds or 10-year-olds or whatever they were for cues–walking towards their school under Israeli fire was clearly routine for them and they knew what they were doing.  We waited on the ground for several minutes.  As I still had my camera in hand, I snapped a quick photo of them from the ground.

A minute or two later a father and his toddler, also further up on the road came towards us and offered a ride on the back of his motorized cart. We jumped in and he “sped” back to behind the wall.  Anyway, I got back to my apartment about an hour later, just in time for my Arabic class.  Even though I had actually studied this time, I couldn’t concentrate.  Why was the Israeli army shooting at our heads? 

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And I realized this is what Palestinian first, second, third, fourth graders experience daily in Gaza.

The Olive and the F-16: Autumn in Gaza

Today completes another week of olive picking in Gaza.  Another week of pausing, breaths held, as Israeli tanks the color of sand moved nearby along the buffer zone, another week of children frightened at the sound of roaring F-16s, another week below the watchful eye of the drone.

Together with the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, International Solidarity Movement (ISM) volunteers picked olives with families near the buffer zone in the village of Burej and in two different locations in Beit Hanoun this week.

“We’re here to harvest olives and be with the land because this is our land and we don’t want to abandon it,” said 27-year-old Randa Hilou a local student to came to pick in solidarity with the farmers in Beit Hanoun.

On Wednesday, dozens of local children joined in the picking. I asked the children why they had come. “I’m here to pick olives,” declared 9-year-old Mahmoud, taking a break from dumping olives into a blue plastic crate.  “We love olives,” added other children, who gathered around.

At one point in the day, the sound of Israeli F-16s could be heard overhead. “I went picking with my mother and father,” added Bursa, also 9-years-old. “I am not afraid.”

Later in the week, ISM volunteers picked closer the Erez crossing in an area that used to be full of olive, orange and grapefruit groves.

“Before, people came from all over Gaza to pick fruit in this area,” explained Saber Zaaneen, the 33-year-old coordinator of the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative explained to me on Thursday as we sat on a plastic tarp picking plucking purple olives of supple branches. “Why did Israel destroy the groves?” he asked.  “To destroy the economy of Gaza. Why the resistance? Because of the occupation.”

I had asked Saber on earlier occasion why the olive trees in Gaza were so skinny.  In the West Bank, they’re very big, I explained.  He informed me that these trees were new, and that Israel had bulldozed the beautiful old olive trees of Gaza in 2001 and 2002. “Israel does not have a culture of peace,” explained Saber. “They have all of this advanced technology, why do they kill children like this?”

Nine year old Yara, who wants to be a doctor when she grows up expressed a similar sentiment on Wednesday, “They [the Israelis] are always occupying us. They threaten children.”

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The Most Important Verb in Gaza

After a day of olive picking near the buffer zone, I ran home, took a shower, and got out my flashcards.  All attempts at studying on the field had failed.  My Arabic tutor informed me today that Wednesday would be day of the verb.  I already knew “to have,” “to want” and “to go,” and so we continued with the most important verbs, practicing present and past tense simultaneously: to take, to cook, to open, to close, to sleep, to hear, to wait ,  to make/do and then of course, came the most important verb.

“How do you say resist?” he asked.

“Um mookowama?” I answered.

“No, that is resistance.  Resist as a command is kowam.  But I don’t think we need to learn the past tense.” My tutor smiled, to make sure I understood what he was saying. I did.  “Okay, ‘I resist the occupation,” he commanded.

Ana bkowam al ahtilal,” I said.

“Great!” My teacher said. We went through all the different forms: you resist (feminine), you resist (masculine), she resists, he resists, we resist, they resist, you resist (plural).  “Okay, I was just joking about the past tense. Maybe someone they died while resisting.”  There was no escaping the past.

I thought of all the Palestinians that had shot and killed over the past few years while nonviolently protesting Israel’s confiscation of their land.  And then of course, there had been Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall. I must say, I look forward to the day when the present tense is no longer relevant.

Guns, Books and Planes

Daily Travel to the Airport West Bank

My colleague and I chuckled at this one, “We want to go to the airport in the West Bank, can you take us?” we asked.  Of course, there is no way to the West Bank from Gaza  — the only way in or out is through the Rafah crossing with Egypt, if you’re lucky.  Otherwise, its the tunnels.  Palestinians in Gaza say they live in a big prison.  Indeed if one stays here long enough, a suffocating sensation takes over.

I met an American colleague for tea yesterday evening and saw that he had Orhan Pamuk’s book, The Museum of Innocence sitting on the table.

“They have books here!” I exclaimed.

I had assumed books were still not available in Gaza. He had asked me to bring him The Call of the Wild from abroad a few weeks ago, and my Arabic teacher was still having difficulties getting a hold of what appeared to be the only Palestinian Arab text book in Gaza so that he could make a copy.  Israel had banned books from entering Gaza when it imposed the blockade,  so I had brought several books in addition to those already on the kindle app on my ipad. (There are rolling power outages in Gaza, so I wanted to be prepared.)

I flipped The Museum over in anticipation of the label on the back. Would the price be in shekels or Egyptian pounds? Egyptian pounds it was! 170 to be exact — or about $29.  The book had come through the tunnels!  Of course it had.  Since coming here, I’ve noticed that everything — tea, pepper, deodorant, coca-cola, canned chickpeas, wedding dresses — comes through the tunnels.  Of course, there was a black market tunnel trade in Nobel Prize-winning literature.  Israel always refers to these subterranean  trade routes as “arms smuggling tunnels” but Palestinians in Gaza depend on them for everything from shampooing their hair to getting married.

My colleague couldn’t recall how much he spent in shekels for the book, but promised to take me to the bookstore this week.  I can’t wait to find out which books are so important, that people will risk death for.  Stay tuned!

Fishing in Gaza – No Day at the Beach

I saw an Israeli naval warship for the first time yesterday, a concrete monster the color of ash, guzzling up the Mediterranean and spurting it out in its wake.

I rose early to go out with the Oliva, a small white boat used by Civil Peace Service (CPS) Gaza to monitor the Israeli navy’s conduct vis-à-vis Palestinian fisherman.

My colleague Joe and I walked across Gaza’s sandy shore, past a dozen wooden boats painted in bright shades of pink, blue, green and yellow and then jumped onto the Oliva.  CPS’s white and blue flag billowed as Captain Salah started the boat’s engine and we pulled out of the harbor. Burgundy carpets with geometric designs lay across the boat’s floor.   Three orange life jackets sat within an arm’s reach.

“Oliva to base, we are now leaving the port,” Joe radioed.

Because of weather conditions, we didn’t get started until about 8:20 a.m.  Joe showed me how to work the radio and we were off.  Dozens of small wooden boats – hasakas as they call them here – docked in Gaza’s peaceful harbor floated above the water, and if I didn’t know better, I may have felt like I was on a Middle Eastern pleasure cruise.

“So this may sound obvious, but if the Israelis water cannon you, don’t just stand there,” Joe informed me. “Duck,” he said in a matter of fact tone.  “Oh, and go to the front of the boat, they generally target the engine.”

We sped towards the infamous 3 nautical mile line – another unilaterally-imposed “no go” zone imposed by Israel in June 2007 – cutting through the waves. Under the Oslo Accords, specifically under the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994, Palestinians are permitted to fish 20 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza.  Israel reduced this amount in 2002 to 12 nautical miles, and began enforcing a 6 nautical mile limit after Shalit’s capture in 2006.

“How are you feeling?” Joe asked me. At least one other international human rights observer had gotten sea sick on her first journey, and had asked if I would like to take something in advance of the journey for sea sickness.

“Oh I’m totally fine,” I responded.  This was nothing. I mean the Mediterranean — it wasn’t even an ocean, how bad could it be? I declined the pills. And besides, I was tough.  I sat back on the seats and chatted with Saleh for a bit in Arabic. He had 25 years of experience on the sea and told me the name of his village in what is now Israel from where his family was pushed out of in 1948.

At about 2 nautical miles I checked our position. We could see the Israeli naval ship moving towards five hasakas, headed our way. We continued forward, and then stopped our engine as one of them pulled up beside us.

“The Israelis shot live fire at us and we came back,” one of the men on the blue, yellow and white boat said.  All of the hasakas came towards us, as fast as their small engines would be allow.

We all floated around for a while, until the navy moved away and the fisherman head back out.  The Oliva straddled the 3 mile line, engines off, monitoring the situation.  The fishermen explained what I had already read, that there were no fish to catch within 3 miles from the shore. The fish were 5, 6, 7 miles out.  And so, the fishermen went out every day, sometimes fishing within 3 miles, sometimes going out further, in an attempt to ply their trade.

We watched as the Israeli navy played the game of cat and mouse with the working fisherman of Gaza, shooting at them when they came out, then moving south to shoot at another set of fisherman, then coming back towards us, and back again. Some of these fishermen had been detained by the Israeli navy in the past, taken to Ashod and then released, their boats damaged or confiscated.

“There are two more Israeli ships farther north,” Saleh explained.

I jotted down some notes, and, suddenly felt a wave a nausea. Taking notes was making me sick. I lay down.  Joe periodically radioed the base to report our coordinates.  At times, we could hear the crackle of the radio as the Israelis talked amongst themselves, sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English. I tried to recall the Hebrew I had learned years ago, but that too, made me sick.

“The navy is back,” Saleh reported. “Look they are very close to the fisherman.” I sat up and tried to take a few photos and some video footage, inhaling the engine’s fumes as the Oliva rocked in the sea.  I lay back down.  I was the world’s worst human rights observer at sea.

Saleh continued to explain the situation in Arabic, but my brain stopped working. I crawled up, leaned over the side of the boat and gagged a few times. And then, well, my breakfast came up.  All of it. And dinner from the night before as well.

As my head dangled over the side of the boat, I wondered if the Israeli navy was watching us with their binoculars. Didn’t they have anything better to do then harass these poor fisherman? I mean really, the navy is supposed to be one of the most prestigious units for Israelis, and here they were spending all day, every day chasing after skinny fishermen riding in tiny pastel-colored wooden boats.  Gilad Shalit was free, so really, why the 3 mile limit? Were they worried that Palestinians were going to fling sardines at them using 18h century technology?

After about ten minutes I came back up.  Captain Saleh had started the boat and he let me drive it for a few minutes, since apparently that cures sea sickness. It did. Around 11 a.m. the fishermen head back and so did we.

Back on shore, we saw the group that had initially reported the gunfire and they showed us their meager catch of silvery fish – selling for about 20 shekels ($4) a kilo. They would be back out again tomorrow, Israeli gunfire and all.

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