Conversations in Khuza’a

An elderly farmer from the southern Gazan village of Khuza’a called us first thing this morning. Would we accompany him to his fields? The Israeli army might shoot him if he attempted to sow wheat with his family.

The four of us — a Brit, an Italian, another American and myself — jumped into a shared taxi and head down south. By the time we reached Khuza’a, it was 11 a.m., and the farmer thought it was too dangerous to farm, as the Israeli army was shooting all morning.

So instead we had a cup of tea with the family and some neighbors in a cozy tent they set up in their front yard. The women took a break from processing the wheat outside and shook our hands. One of them noticed the mendhi on my palm leftover from last week’s henna party in Beit Hanoun.

“Henna,” she exclaimed and proceeded to talk very slowly an in short sentences so I could understand her Arabic.  “I do that for weddings. It’s from India. My mother taught me.”

Inside the tent, three men and several women sat on flowery mattresses and explained to us the violence they faced from the Israeli army when they attempted to reach their wheat fields.  Silvia, who had worked with these farmers in the past, explained to me that their land was near the school where the Israeli army had shot at the two of us a couple of weeks ago.

Then one of the young men attempted to show us photos on his phone of the Eid al-Adha celebrations — including the ritual slaughter of a cow — last week.

“How could you be so inconsiderate,” a man  dressed in a traditional jellabiya and white cap yelled to the young man in rapid Arabic. “Can’t you see she’s Indian? Why are you showing those pictures?”

The young man sheepishly pulled back his arm as the British woman sitting next to me turned away — and then whispered the translation of what went down. Our entire group — except for me — was vegetarian.

Grinding the wheat in Khuza'a

After we finished our tea, the family showed us how they turned wheat into bread, and one of the women asked me of I had a kuffiah, that ubiquitous Palestinian black and white scarf.  When I said no, that I didn’t have one, she brought me one from the house and draped it over my shoulders, and gave me several plastic black and white bangles to match. I felt bad, taking from people who had so little — Israel had bulldozed their orange, lemon and olive groves ten years ago — but there was no saying no.

I’ll be joining the farmers bright and early tomorrow in my yellow fluorescent vest. To be continued . . . .

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

Palestinian Kids Kidnapped and Interrogated While Fishing Tell Story

I interviewed a couple of really sweet Palestinian boys yesterday who had just been released from over 12 hours in Israeli detention.  Why did Israel detain and interrogate two 17-year-olds while they were fishing, force them to strip naked, jump into the frigid Mediterranean in the pre-dawn hours, blindfold them, handcuff them, feet cuff them, interrogate them, photograph one of them with his shirt of, and then ultimately release them without apology or explanation?  Mohamed and Abdul Qader have no idea.  The Israeli army never told them.  Chances are, unless you read the report I wrote yesterday, you never heard their story.

Can you imagine what the world’s reaction would be if armed Palestinians kidnapped two Israeli high school students fishing a couple of miles off the coast of Tel Aviv

I spent most of the time speaking to Abdul Qader, who appeared really traumatized by the experience, and kept repeating “this is no way to treat human beings.”  His dad is a plumber, and since there’s not a lot of work in Gaza now, he often helps his family out by catching fish when there’s a school holiday.  He won’t be going back out on the water for a longtime though.

Anyway, check out palsolidarity.org for the full report, plus photos.

JDate Gaza Strip?

I live in the Gaza Strip, that sliver of land with a 37.4% unemployment rate Israel likes to claim is no longer under occupation.  But whenever I open my laptop and connect to the internet here, I get ads in Hebrew like this one for JDate:

אתר הכרויות לדתיים -‏ מי לא מכיר מישהו שהכיר בג’יי דייט? הירשמו בחינם – מקסימום מצאתם שידוך. ‏  http://www.JDate

Whether I’m reading the New York Times, perusing Facebook or checking my gmail account, Israeli companies bombard me with deals on manicures and massages beckoning me to “meet Jewish singles in my area.”

But I live in the besieged Gaza Strip, where 77% of the population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day, where 15% of children are stunted from malnutrition and the Israeli blockade has caused 163 key medicines to go out of a stock. The only Jewish singles in my area are those routinely flying F-16s above my apartment, firing at Palestinian fishermen off the coast, driving tanks through bulldozed orchards or shooting at me when I’m taking a Friday evening stroll. I really don’t want to meet them in my area “for dating and romance” or any other purpose.  And, given those bullets that passed eerily close to my head two weeks ago, I’m pretty sure they don’t want to meet me.

So why does .il — the domain for Israel — come up when I connect to the internet in Gaza City? Why am I enticed to read about Kim Kardeshian in Hebrew or encouraged to download “the world’s first Jewish news ipad app?”  Perhaps my laptop is telling me what anyone who spends more than five minutes in Gaza knows — that the Israeli Occupation is alive and well. Just because the Jewish-only settlements are gone, doesn’t mean that Israel no longer controls the sky, the water, the earth — and the internet of the Gaza Strip.

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.”

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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