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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Sowing Wheat in Israel’s Kill Zone

One need not be an agronomist to know that its been a long time since the farmers of Khuza’a, Gaza have tended to their land near the border.  When we arrived on Friday, the densely packed soil formed small hills with alien, ridged, patterns: Israeli tanks had roamed here, dozens of them. It was hard to imagine how anything ever grew on this brown, barren soil, much less the hundreds of olive, orange and grapefruit trees the Qudaih family reminisced about.

Mahmood Suleiman Qudiah Sows Wheat Near the Buffer Zone

But those groves and the greenhouses too, were long gone: the Israeli army bulldozed them in 2002 to create the ever-expanding no-man’s land Israel calls the “buffer zone” and Gazans call the “kill zone” — any Palestinian who steps foot inside is subject instant death or dismemberment by the Israeli army fire.

Khaled Mahmood Suleiman Qudaih called us a few days before, asking us if we would accompany his family to his father’s fields so that they could sow wheat.  We met them inside a small tent and they explained to us the situation. The Qudiahs and many other farmers were afraid that the Israeli army would shoot them if the attempted to reach their land near the buffer zone.  We informed them that we could not guarantee their safety, that the Israeli army had killed foreign civilians too.

Alas, our presence and our video cameras was all the impetus they needed to risk life and limb.

On Friday, we arrived to the south Gaza village early, drank two cups of sugary tea with sage, jumped on a cart pulled by a white donkey, and were on our way.  We slowly rode down the main street locals waving as we passed by.  Then we head east out to the farmland, passing between giant slabs of concrete placed at the outskirts of the village in an attempt to protect children playing in the streets from Israeli army gunfire.

The donkey cart pulled us down the lone road heading towards the school. I had been down this road before, my second week in Gaza, when I and 3 local children had been shot at by the Israeli army without warning, reason, or explanation. I understood why those farmers feared the Israeli army, and had not tended to this land in four years.

Our donkey continued on, and we passed the bombed-out shell of a house, covered in fuchsia bougainvillea. We had now reached the point where the Israeli army had shot at me three weeks before, where the road curved towards a high school.

It was quiet.  The sky was cloudy, and the Israeli military towers could be seen in the distance. The donkey turned off the road and onto the land, we were now slowly approaching the border, which was about 300 meters away.  Khaled’s father, Mahmoud, took the bag of wheat off the donkey cart, and I along with the other foreign volunteers donned our fluorescent yellow vests.

Mahmoud got right to work, briskly walking back and forth across his land, towards the Israeli military towers and back, sprinkling wheat on the barren surface.  Those who attempted to photograph him would get a fistful of wheat in their face; it had been five years since he had come to this land and nothing would deter him.

I wondered how these seeds would materialize into actual wheat just lying there on the hard ground, and when the Israeli army would start shooting.  Would we get actual warning shots this time?  According to the farmers, the machine guns were operated remotely – there were no actual human beings inside the towers.

Then the tractor arrived, and it all started to come together.  More farmers emerged with donkeys and equipment. They too wanted to visit their land.  One of us sat on the tractor, and others spread out, video cameras out, ready to record should the Israelis shoot at us.

But it was still early, and the people farmed in silence, certain that it was just a matter of time before the Israeli army started shooting.  Indeed, the border seemed very close. Could this nonviolent farming action end well?

I spent my time staring at the towers, thinking up different iterations of how the Israelis would shoot us. Unlike the day before, when I discovered what a crappy cabbage harvester I was while accompanying farmers in north Gaza, there wasn’t any actual work I could help with.

One of the other farmers even brought me a giant metal bullet he found in the earth. It wasn’t like anything I had seen before three to four inches long, and much heavier than a bullet from an M-16 military rifle.  And then he showed me one of the hundreds of white flyers I had seen stuck in the earth containing a little map of the Gaza Strip and lots of writing in Arabic.

Israeli planes had dropped “thousands” of these flyers over Khuza’a,  which state:

Involving yourself in terrorist activities will bring danger to you, your children, your families and your possessions. Distance yourself from this danger .  .  . Consider yourself warned.

The flyers had blown east, inland, towards the border. I wondered if any of them had blown back to Israel.

A couple of hours passed, and the mood grew celebratory. I wanted to caution them. It wasn’t too late, the Israeli army could still shoot us. Surely, if they shot at 2 women and three children farther away from the buffer zone, they would shoot at a large group of  farming closer.

But it was not so.The farmers plowed the field twice, tank tracks erased. Little black beetles scurried out of holes as we walked across the soft, upturned earth back towards the white donkey. It started to drizzle but moods were high.

“For four years I did not reach my father’s land!” said Khaled.

But the victory was bittersweet. “Before, [this area] was full of greenery and trees and now it’s like a desert,” he explained.  “But still I’m very happy to reach my land and plant on it.”

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Under the Missilefire: Celebrating Eid in Gaza

Eid-al Adha began in Gaza at sundown. For those of you not familiar with Eid, it’s the Festival of Sacrifice, and marks the end of the Hajj, the pilgrimage that all able-bodied Muslims should make once in their lifetimes. It’s one of the two most important holidays for Muslims, sort of akin to Christmas for Christians. Since everything would be closed tomorrow, we head to Gaza’s Old City to buy some vegetables.

I was excited to see what Eid was like in Gaza. The last Eid-al Adha I spent in Palestine was in February 2003 in the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem.  At that time, Tulkarem had taken on an air that reminded me of Christmas back in the states, with families out buying presents for loved ones—until the Israeli army entered firing teargas as moms and kids ran to get away from the noxious fumes.

When we arrived to the Old City, the streets were packed with people seemingly there for some last-minute shopping.  The tradition here is to give family members gifts of clothes and candy. Though we walked through narrow streets lined small stalls, it became apparent few people actually appeared to be buying anything.  I first stopped off for a smoothie or a “cocktail” as they call it here. We were the only customers.  We then walked around the stalls filled with candies wrapped in colorful foil. No customers.  Then it was off to buy vegetables, but I got distracted by some deep-fried sweets I hadn’t eaten in 8 years. The sunset and we were the only customers. A bag of crispy dough drenched in sugar syrup cost 1 Israeli shekel ($.25).  A Welsh friend bought a bag, and I bought some larger crescent-shaped ones stuffed with walnuts.

Then, it was on to the vegetables!  We slid past the hordes, but again no one seemed to be buying. A very eager child asked me what I wanted.

“Filfil!” I blurted out. Bellpeppers.

He led me past the onions and carrots towards a pile of yellow and green peppers and thenstarted tossing them into a plastic bag, thinking that I had wanted a kilo, though  I had only asked for the price per kilo. He was so damn cute I bought the full kilo.

I started to eat my sweet as I walked back down to the main square, but then I stopped, feeling bad.  There’s definitely stuff available to buy in Gaza.  Food and goods are clearly making it through the tunnels—at a steep markup.  But nearly 40% of the population is unemployed, with little hope of finding employment.  Though Israel claims that it imposes its blockade of Gaza for security, Israel prevents all goods from leaving Gaza.  Gaza’s real per capita GDP in 2011 is 35% below it’s per capita GDP in 1993.  I’m curious to know how Israel’s strangulation of Gaza serves Israel’s security.

Anyway, upon returning home, I learned that Israel fired on Palestinians in East Gaza  City earlier today without warning, as farmers worked their land.  Apparently, the people were confused as to why the Israelis were shooting at them–something I could definitely relate to. One person was injured.  Since then, Israeli helicopters have been shelling Khan Yunis, in the south.

Doesn’t leave a lot to celebrate.

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Israel Drops Missile on North Gaza Neighborhood, No One Cares

The Israeli Air Force fired a missile into a Beit Hanoun residential neighborhood in north Gaza early Sunday morning. The missile landed in a grove surrounded by homes, creating a crater the size of a tennis court and destroying over forty orange and olive trees. Chunks of shrapnel and oranges lay scattered about the grove

Local children and area residents interviewed appeared to be in shock.  Ayman Ismail Hamad explained that “[a]t 3 a.m. we heard a huge boom. It was so scary for the children and women here and they started to shout and cry – such a scary thing for them.  When we looked out to see what happened we found everything there totally destroyed . . . and the windows from the houses in this area – totally nothing. The [Israeli] F-16 didn’t leave anything behind.”

The owner of the farmland, Sufyan Musa Muhammad, reported losing approximately 40 orange and olive trees, not including the uprooted trees at the periphery of the crater, valued at approximately $200 a tree.  “It’s not just the price,” he added, gazing sadly at the upturned alien landscape.  “It’s that there’s no more fruit.”  According to Muhammad, no journalists had approached him regarding the Israeli missile attack, which went unreported.

Thirteen-year-old Amer Ayman Hamad, whose house is about 50 meters away from the impacted area said, “There was boom . . . I didn’t scream, I just woke up . . .  it was during the night we didn’t hear any plane except for the sound of the drones . . . after that I went to the bathroom.”

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack which terrorized local residents.  No one was injured.  Palestinians in the area believe that Israel used an F-16 to bomb the residential neighborhood due to the size of the crater and the thickness of the shrapnel.

When asked if he believed Israel should compensate him for his loss Muhammad replied, “I don’t want money from the Israelis. Whatever they do to us we are steadfast and strong and we won’t leave our land.”

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