Thanksgiving in Gaza

It all started with a simple question from Jabar, a Palestinian farmer from Faraheen, during Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice.

“Is there an American eid (holiday) where you slaughter an animal?” he asked Nathan, a colleague here in Gaza, a few weeks ago.

Thanksgiving and turkeys came to mind.

And so, I found myself celebrating “Thanksgiving,” Gazan-style, this afternoon in the small, southern Gazan village.

Layla and her daughters with the turkey in Faraheen

Nathan painstakingly put together a variety of ingredients over the past couple of weeks to make a proper meal: turkey, baked beans, sweet potatoes, biscuits and chocolate chip cookies! We had to nix the stuffing, gravy was too difficult, and pie, out of the question.

After six weeks of falafel (delicious as it is), I was really looking forward to Nathan’s Midwestern cuisine. But would it all come together given Gaza’s regular power outages, Israel’s recent shooting at farmers in the area and the lack of key ingredients due to the siege?

We rose early to accompany farmers in Faraheen to their land within Israel’s 300 meter  “buffer zone” – or “kill zone” – as Palestinians here frequently call it.

The week had not been a good one, and I was concerned that our belated Thanksgiving would turn into Black Friday.

On Wednesday, the Israeli army had shot live ammunition in the air when our group went with farmers to the buffer zone in nearby Khuza’a.

The day before, the Israeli army had called the Palestinian Office of Coordination and told them that they “wanted to shoot” us and twenty Palestinians while we were in northern Gaza nonviolently protesting the Israeli occupation, the buffer zone, and 63 years of dispossession in the buffer zone.  The Palestinian Authority frantically looked for the phone number of Saber Zanin, the organizer of the weekly Beit Hanoun protests and told him, “We are trying to ask the Israelis not to shoot you. They wanted to shoot you and kill you.”

And yesterday, 3 nautical miles of the coast of Gaza, an Israeli naval warship chased our small humanitarian boat, the Oliva, along with several Palestinian fishing boats, towards the shore for no apparent reason.

Today just couldn’t be good.  Would our Gazan Thanksgiving look more like the original Thanksgiving — a symbol of land seizure, dispossession and ethnic cleansing — than the delicious turkey-filled version I was hoping for?

I rose early, gulped down a cup of sugary tea and dry floury date cookies that Jabar’s wife Layla made before heading out to the buffer zone. The sky cleared and I heard Israeli drones overhead.

On the way to the buffer zone, we met 26-year-old Yusef Abu Rjeela, the farmer who want was hoping to sow wheat on his land.  We asked him what he wanted to do if the Israelis started shooting.

“Stay on the land,” he said. If the Israelis shot in the air, he didn’t want to run. And if they shot at us, well . . . .

We continued onward, and my cell phone rang.  It was Nathan. “I put the beans in the pressure cooker for 30 minutes and they’ve become bean soup!” he exclaimed. “Layla says I shouldn’t have soaked them and used the pressure cooker.”

“Stay calm,” I said. “Do you have more beans?” He did.  We continued on our way.

Five of us foreigners donned our yellow vests, and accompanied Yusef and another farmer as one sowed wheat and the other plowed the land.  The drones went away.

All seemed quiet on the eastern front.

An Israeli military tower stood in the distance. A white balloon equipped with an aerial surveillance camera flew overhead.  The former farmland was dry and brown from years of Israeli bulldozing and tank traffic.

After a while, we made bets on when the Israelis would start shooting. It was 11:25 a.m., and I put in for 11:45 a.m., another person for 11:50 a.m. Hussein, a Palestinian university student who came with us, didn’t think the Israelis would shoot at all.

At noon, the farmers had finished and we all started to walk back to the village. Yusef explained to us the lawsuit his family had filed against the state of Israel for murdering his younger brother the day after Operation Cast Lead ended in January 2009.  His father, who had witnessed the murder, had gone to Israel to testify.

As we left the buffer zone, I congratulated Hussein on being right about the shooting. Then we heard it — Israeli army gunfire in the distance. The time: 12:05.

We promptly head back to Jabar’s house in the village. There, Nathan was immersed in a whirlwind of preparation.

“Get the baking soda out of the bag!” he directed.

“You mean baking powder?” I asked him, looking the plastic bag he had brought from Gaza City.

“No, soda.”  There was no baking soda. We were in for a biscuit disaster. Moreover, Layla and four of her five children were swirling around the kitchen, unsure of these strange American preparations.

Beans with sugar? In the oven? Nathan opened the ancient iron contraption, and held out a spoon for me.  I stuck my tongue out and slurped up the brown deliciousness.

“Is it good?” asked Layla, suspiciously. “Is Nathan a good cook? Can you cook better?”

Zacky ikthir,” I responded. Very tasty. “Not quite done,” I said to Nathan. “I can cook, but maybe Nathan is better than me,” I added to Layla. She didn’t seem convinced.

Nathan shooed everyone away, but we stayed in the kitchen, it was the warmest room in their small, cement block, metal sheet-roofed house.  And, I was clearly the only one cut out for the role of taster. Layla turned to more important questions.

“You’re a lawyer, can you sue Israel for me?” she asked. “All our problems come from Israel. When I was 14, they shot me in the hip. Then they bulldozed our olive trees and took our land. What can we do?”  I hadn’t realized that Layla’s limp stemmed from about 1980, when the Israeli army entered her school and shot her as she tried to help a wounded friend.

She turned away to take the turkey out of the pot.  The oven wasn’t big enough for a whole bird, which was only sold in pre-cut pieces. All in all, it was a delicious lunch, and no one got shot. And that, is something to be thankful for.

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Meanwhile in Gaza

I awoke today with the news that the NYPD was clearing out Occupy Wall Street and that Israeli tanks were shelling “northern Gaza.”  In the West Bank, Palestinian Freedom Riders, inspired by the US freedom riders of the 1960s, were getting ready to board segregated buses to occupied East Jerusalem.

Here in Gaza, we head to Beit Hanoun for their weekly nonviolent protest in the buffer zone.  For three years, Palestinians in the north have been marching into the barren, no-man’s land which encircles the inside of the narrow strip like a slowly-tightening noose.  

Photo by Huma Waqam

We arrived around 11 a.m. and gathered in front of a bombed-out house down a dusty road leading to the border. This was my second buffer zone protest. At my first, two weeks ago, the Israeli army had fired a few shots from the military towers at the border.  I wondered what would happen today.  As a foreigner, I was to don a reflective fluorescent yellow vest and walk in front of the Palestinians, which seemed to provide them a degree of solace.  They seem to think that the Israelis were less likely to use lethal violence when Americans, Italians, and Brits walked with them.

I was not so sure.

About two dozen people waving Palestinian flags marched down the dusty path towards the buffer zone.  The landscape reminded me of home, of California, with its thorny tumbleweeds and cactus.  It was hard to believe that only ten years ago fruit orchards and olive trees filled this area. But Israel had bulldozed it all, claiming it needed 300 kilometers of Gaza’s most fertile land, but in reality taking more.

Onwards we walked, the Palestinians singing songs and holding a giant Palestinian flag. I wondered what was in store for us today as Israel’s concrete wall and military towers became visible. Would they shoot in the air first? Or would they shoot at us? If they shot us, would they shoot someone standing in the middle first (as I was) or someone standing off to the side?  Would they shoot us in the legs?  And how good was their aim?

Planting the Palestinian Flag on Nov 1 in Buffer Zone

We past a small farm and the family waved at us. They were very brave to have stayed, I thought.  Another farm had stuck a large white flag in the dirt in front of their house, as I had seen other families near the buffer zone do. Other farm houses had clearly been abandoned.

We were getting close to the buffer zone now, and the journalists that had come along moved from the front to the back. They didn’t want to get shot either. I started to imagine what it felt like to get shot.  Excruciatingly painful, I decided.

At that point, I recalled that I had never made a will. If I died intestate, what law would apply? I had just moved from California to New York, but was I officially a resident of New York? And how would Gaza factor into it all?  Was Gaza like the West Bank, where Israel applied a strange patchwork of Ottoman, Jordanian and Israeli military law as it pleased? Not that I really had much to bequeath.

We continued on, and I could see the Palestinian flag we had planted in the earth two weeks before. It was a windy day, and the flag billowed beautifully. The Israeli army had not shot it down.  About 50 meters behind it loomed the wall and the military towers.

“Our flag is still there!” I exclaimed to Nathan, an American volunteer walking next to me.  The Israelis had used the last Palestinian flag as target practice.

“Do you want to sing the star-spangled banner?” he joked.  I smiled, I hadn’t intended to make the reference. Yasser Arafat had symbolically declared Palestinian Independence 23 years ago today, on November 15, 1988.

We stopped, well before the flag, at a large cement block painted red, black and green. Sabur Zaaneen from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, the leader of the march, had thought the area to be more dangerous in recent days.

He gave a brief speech on Palestinian independence and the countries that were standing in the way of Palestinian freedom. As he spoke, I stared at the Israeli towers and the wall, the Israeli flags on top and of the land beyond it on the other side. I wondered if at that moment, Palestinians were attempting to board Jewish-only buses in the West Bank, facing violence from Israeli settlers not unlike the KKK in the Jim Crow south.

The speech ended and the Israelis had not shot at us.  A few of the young men broke into a dabke dance, a Palestinian line dance of sorts, as one of them played the tabla and sung, and the women clapped in rhythm. I didn’t know the words but I clapped along as well.

We head back, and I had the star-spangled banner stuck in my head. “O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

One day, Palestine too would be free.

Beit Hanoun locals march to Buffer Zone

Gaza, Amitabh Bachchan and the Greatest Love Story Ever Known

Palestinians in Gaza love Indians.  They love Indian dancing, they love Indian music, they love Indian clothes.  Whenever I walk out of the house, someone inevitably asks “hiyya hindeyee?” Is she Indian?  “I knew it!” they say when the response is in the affirmative. “Bheb al Hind,” I love India.

Regular people here in Gaza know a lot about India — far more than the average American or European – which is really surprising given Israel’s closure of Gaza and its isolation from the world.  So why this love for India?

Is it because, nearly a decade before India’s independence from Britain, Mahatma Gandhi rejected the Zionist colonial endeavor in Palestine, writing on November 11, 1938:

What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home.

Or is it the fact that India opposed the partition of British Mandate Palestine at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, was the first non-Arab country to recognize the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in 1974, and did not extend full diplomatic relations to Israel until 1992?  Could it be that Yasser Arafat, whose visage can be seen on many a Gazan wall, billboard or door was warmly welcomed in India?

No, no, no and no.

But I had a sneaking suspicion I knew the answer after I recently showed a photo of my Indian-Canadian husband to a family I was visiting in a village in the southeastern part of the Strip a couple of weeks ago.

“Oh, handsome,” said 43-year-old Layla, gazing at the photo I had taken of Suresh on the subway.  Layla’s orange, lemon and olive trees had been bulldozed by the Israeli army about ten years ago when Israel created a “buffer zone” within the Strip. Her family had to vacate their farm home because the kids were terrified by the nightly Israeli army gunfire.  “I’ve seen him on the television.”

The kids came around and looked at the photo, “He was on the television, he was on the television,” declared 12-year-old Samaher, pointing at the small T.V.  “Raj Kapoor,” she added, naming the famous Bollywood actor from the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Tell him he’s invited to Gaza,” added Layla.

I was pretty sure that my husband had not been featured on Palestinian television in the month I had been away.  The mystery continued.

Then on Monday, I visited a Sammouni family for the Eid holiday in the Zaytoun neighborhood of Gaza.  I had last visited that neighborhood in February 2009, in the aftermath of “Operation Cast Lead” when Israel had killed 48 members of a single extended family and turned the entire neighborhood into rubble.

I brought a big plate of sugary sweets and my wedding pictures.  They women went nuts. “It’s just like in the Indian films,” they cooed, “Amitabh Bachchan. Kareena Kapoor,” they added.

It all seemed to be coming together.  Amitabh Bachchan was largely responsible for my popularity, along with Kareena, Aishwarya, Hrithik Roshan and the whole gang.

Then yesterday, a woman I had met at a memorial event marking the 5-year anniversary of Israel’s shelling of a row of houses in Beit Hanoun, in the north of Gaza, invited me to a pre-wedding henna party.  We lay a wreath on the graves for the 19 killed – which included 14 from the same family — and then delivered Eid sweets to Bedouin families living near the buffer zone. Afterwards, we head to a modest home to see the bride.

I told the women at the party I had just gotten married five months ago.  A grandmother who appeared to be in her early seventies gave a short speech in Arabic which I interpreted as “Do you and your husband love each other a lot?”

“Of course,” I declared, thinking she must have found it odd that I came to Gaza so soon after getting married.

“What she means,” another woman translated, “is that Indian people, they have great love stories, she has seen it in the films, and she says that you and your husband, must have had a great love story too.”

Everyone leaned in, arms held out so as not to smudge the intricate lines of green henna drying on their hands.  I reflected on our time together . . . . was it an action romance adventure with mustached villains and elaborate choreographed dance scenes?

“Um, yes,” I said, wondering if they wanted more details.  They turned to more important questions.

“Do you know Kareena Kapoor?” one woman asked in Arabic.

“We love Indian films,” declared another.

“Dhoom 2 is my favorite,” added one recent college graduate.  “But I also love Jhoda Akbar.”

So Amitabh, Abhishek, Aishwarya, Amir, Hrithik, Kareena, Salman, Shahrukh, if you’re reading this, how about a shout out to 1.7 million of your biggest fans in the Gaza Strip?  Israel has forbidden pasta, tea, cement and freedom flotillas from entering Gaza, but it hasn’t stopped Bollywood. We watch you under the Israeli drones and the F-16s, after being shot at by the Israeli navy and army while fishing, picking olives or going to school.  You bring a sliver of joy to people living under the world’s longest occupation in the world’s largest prison, and for that we thank you.

While Picking Strawberries

Today was the first day of Eid, and I awoke to the Arabic dance beats of Nancy Ajram. The alleys around around my apartment where alive with the sounds of children playing late into the the night, but I didn’t mind the sleep interruption. At least it wasn’t drones. And I love Nancy.

In the afternoon, we went to a special Eid children’s fair at a park in Beit Hanoun, in the north of the Gaza Strip.  Fifty percent of the population in Gaza is under the age of 18, and as we arrived, that statistic became quite clear. There were kids everywhere.  Playing, dancing, singing –riding horses — all in their brand new Eid clothes.  Poofy synthetic dahlia barrettes were all the the rage among the girls. Volunteers from the Beit Hanoun Local Initiative, which works with children traumatized by Israeli violence (among other things) were singing and clapping as dozens of kids shrieked with pleasure as we arrived.

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Then there was a sort of homemade karaoke where Arabic songs were played over speakers and kids would sing along.  Everyone got a prize.

Afterwards, one person in our group wanted to stop at the morning tent in Beit Lahiya to pay respects to the family of the farmer killed by the Israeli Air Force on Thursday,  Nasr Ibrahim Alean.  Here in Gaza, its the custom for the family to receive people for three days after the death of a loved one.  I admit, I didn’t want to go. We had such a nice day with the kids, and I just wanted to go home. And wouldn’t we be bothering them anyway? They didn’t even know us.

Our car turned down a dirt road and we pulled up along a cement block house.  Men sat on plastic chairs outside under a tarp, and they warmly welcomed us in.  We asked where the women’s side was and I along with Silvia and Hama were led behind a plastic tarp to the area where the women family members had gathered in a circle.

We sat down, and I wondered if it would be in bad form to ask them what happened.  An attractive woman in a purple headscarf introduced herself as Nasr’s Aunt told us the story. Periodically others would join in.  Nasr, who was 23, was picking strawberries on Thursday, when an Israeli helicopter shot him in the leg.  As he lay on the ground bleeding, he called his brother, and told him he had been shot.  The helicopter fired again and blew his head off.

“His brother was to get married in two days,” said Nasr’s Aunt. “I had gone to the salon to get my eyebrows done, and then he was killed. He wasn’t in the resistance, he was just trying to work.”  She added that Palestinians just want freedom, they want their own state, but Israel had completely closed Gaza. “They don’t even want us to work. If it wasn’t for the United Nations, I don’t know what we would do.”

Other women echoed the Aunt’s sentiments, saying they just wanted freedom. They were so happy we had come, and offered us dates, insisting that we take three, when we reached for one. “The prophet Mohammed always ate in odd numbers,” they explained. But one is also an odd number, I thought. But it was too late, I had taken three.

After the dates, they served us bitter coffee, the tradition after a death, and brought out a photo album of Nasr. Someone mumbled that he was very handsome and indeed he was. We flipped through photos of him eating with friends, posing in a studio with hearts as the backdrop, and just hanging around.

An old woman in her seventies appeared and sat behind me. She wore a white headscarf and a traditional blue Palestinian dress with red and white embroidery down the front.  “They [the Israelis] don’t care about human rights,” she said. “There are no human rights here.”

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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Honeymoon in Gaza

I had just finished off a plate of homemade bread knaffe yesterday with a family in the south of Gaza, when we got the call: farmers in Beit Hanoun, a village in the north of the Gaza Strip, requested that ISM volunteers accompany them to pick olives near the buffer zone.

The buffer zone.  I had heard of this area back in the fall of 2002 when I had come to the West Bank for the ISM’s first olive harvest campaign.  Back then, Israeli two-ton Caterpillar bulldozers were crushing homes, orchards and all other life forms to create this dead zone between Gaza and Egypt.  Israel displaced more than 10% of the population of Rafah, Gaza’s sourthernmost town, at that time, making Palestinian refugees from 1948 refugees yet again.

Today, this unilaterally-imposed 300 meter buffer zone extends all around the sliver of land that is the Gaza strip, to the north, east, and south, an effective kill zone for all who dare enter it. (To the west is the sea, also patrolled by the Israeli navy).

Nonetheless, I was excited about the idea of going out with the farmers. I love picking olives! I love being out on the land, feeling the hard purple and green fruit pop off the branches and onto a tarp spread on dirt below. And besides, we weren’t going inside the buffer zone – those trees were long gone – just in some area nearby.

L, the woman who had baked the delicious knaffe snack, and J, her husband, had also lost the majority of their farmland to the dead zone. J had just finished telling me about it, and L was quizzing me about my love life.

“Do you have any children?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

“Why not? Children are wonderful. I have five.”

I provide the response that seemed easiest at the moment. “Well I just got married a few months ago.”

“You should be on your honeymoon!” she exclaimed.  “Where is your husband? Your husband should be here!”

Alas, I’m not sure if she really believed I was married, and I promised that next week I would bring photographs of my wedding.

The next day, Saturday, our group head to Beit Hanoun to pick olives.

“Be prepared to get shot,” said Saber, the founder of the Local Initiative of Beit Hanoun, an organization which works with farmers in the buffer zone to resist the Israeli occupation through nonviolence.  “The Israeli army, they don’t distinguish between foreigners or Palestinians,” he added, pointing to the fluorescent yellow vests and megaphone we had brought along.

Then why are we here, I wondered. Surely not for our physical prowess in picking olives. But I understood that he was making sure were fully appraised of the situation. The task may seem mundane, but here there is always a risk.

We drove out to the edge of Beit Hanoun, where the trees suddenly stopped and nothing but barren land lay between us and the border.  It was a sunny day in Gaza, and if you squinted your eyes and looked really carefully, in the distance, army towers could be seen, and beyond them, the town of Sderot in Israel.  Surely, there could be no danger from the Israelis back here, I thought, we are much farther back than the designated 300 meters.

Turns out I was right and I was wrong.

Mohamed Ashure Shimbari and his family had already begun picking olives by the time we arrived, on a small plot of land next to a cement block house. Every time the Israelis invaded Gaza, they locked the family in a room, and used their house as a base.  And though we were indeed, 800 meters from the border, the area was far from safe.

We began picking olives, and the elderly farmer who owned the land seemed exhausted, not from picking olives, but from living life in Gaza.  J too, though in his mi-50s and younger, had had that look as well. After his family had lost everything in 1948 and fled to Gaza, J had managed to by farmland after working in Israel for over twenty years, as an electrician, a restaurant worker — “everything” — only to see it taken yet again.

In this area of Beit Hanoun where we were picking what was now the barren buffer zone, ten years ago been filled with orchards of lemon, orange, grapefruit and olive trees.  There were also greenhouses of tomato, eggplant and cantaloupe.  Saber pointed all around, explaining what was where and how there was no clean water.  I couldn’t imagine it.  It was like pointing to the Sahara desert and saying, “ imagine these sand dunes are jungle.”

We picked for a couple of hours, occasionally breaking for tea, when someone called out “jeepat.”  Jeeps.  Israeli army jeeps were patrolling the border.  Then came a tank.  A few people stopped picking, to peer at the tank.

“What’s it doing?” I asked.

“Showing they are strong,” one of the young Beit Hanoun volunteers answered.

The army was relatively far away, but apparently, one never knows if the Israeli army will shoot at you. Since Operation Cast lead in 2009, the U.N. estimates that Israeli tank and gunfire killed five Palestinian civilians, three of whom were children and injured twenty in areas near the buffer zone.

After we stripped the trees of their olives, we dumped them into large, 40 kilo bags and then head back into town.  The day passed without incident, as it should have, but it was no honeymoon.