Witness To Memory: Gaza, March 2009

gaza_port_021

Early morning, Gaza City port

“…Once something gets left out of the historical record, that absence itself becomes a fact and not something you are free to recreate/reinstate later…”
(Ferran, 2009)

I didn’t write much while I was in Gaza. I was not able to somehow. It seemed that I should be writing all the time, trying to remember, trying not to forget. Trying to retain all that we are witnessing – somehow to give this horror a voice. However; the whole time spent there, I felt as if I were walking through a surreal section of history that could have no place in the present world – and certainly not the present world that I am to know in my waking life. I regret now not writing just for the sake of writing, just to have something to look back on how I immediately felt; I have been deliberating on how to truly and accurately reflect the gut-churning salty eye feelings that were ever-present in those 9 days we spent in Gaza.

I am going to attempt to back track here almost a month now, and go through some thoughts and events in a non-sequential order, and also the past and present tenses will be mixed up, so bear with me.

14.03.09

This day I pinched my skin, testing to see if I am awake, if I am here, if I have been present this whole time here in Gaza. This day the clots and knots of air found their veins to flow through to keep me alive. There is a mixture of feelings and emotions present whilst about to leave this nine-day lifetime: of all that we’ve witnessed, and post-witnessed, and re-witnessed, of all that people have re-lived for our cameras and pens. This day I felt overwhelmed by a type of grief of which I didn’t know how to own, unable to photograph anything anymore, unable to listen anymore, unable to explain the reasons for this, I had to walk away. We were visiting the Bashir family, who had lived with Israeli soldiers occupying their home for five years, the whole family of 10 lived in one room for five years, and yet the whole family spoke with not even a hint of malice or hatred towards the Israeli’s, they simply wanted to live side by side with them in peace… I wasn’t able to listen anymore, as if I would burst with one more story of an experience so incomprehensible; I had to go into the newly ploughed field and clasp my chest and weep and sob, a sobbing of which I hadn’t known before; of an inability and uncertainty of how to leave with all that we had gathered…and most of all, a sobbing of this reality so real of which I am not to know in my own reality, of which I am not sure if I could hold in my hands and see, feel, touch, taste or smell.

I am watching the children running down a dirt laneway, running home from school, laughing and chasing each other, glancing at me as they pass, a stranger simply crouching in a field staring glassy-eyed at their existence. I stand up and look back towards the house to see a young girl from the family running towards me and as she approaches she looks at me straight in the eyes and I notice she too is crying, and she notices I am crying, I look away and she looks where I’m looking and then sits in the dirt, we don’t speak, she takes out a pen and paper and starts writing a letter, she writes a few lines and then scrunches up the paper and throws it away. She starts writing again and I crouch down to her level, she asks, “why are you crying?” I point to my eyes and say, “because of what we see in Gaza”. She nods. I ask her “why are you crying?” “Yusef” she says, “I miss him”, then she reaches out and hugs me, we hug, and cry, and it all feels strange and awkward and comforting at the same time, she stands up and takes my hand and leads me back to the house, I am not ready to go, but I follow her.

View of Gaza City from Al-Awada Hospital

View of Gaza City from Al-Awada Hospital

The minute I walked through the borders of Israel into the hands of Sinai on the 28th of February I felt a sigh of relief wash over me, I felt as if I had been tensing all of my muscles for three months in Israel, grinding my teeth, biting my tongue, and looking through a tunnel-eyed-vision of conflict and darkness. Perhaps the perpetual state of unease had been eating away at my psyche for three months, perhaps I was unable to see anything else while I was there; whatever the reason was, I needed at least three days next to sit by the Red Sea to calm my thoughts and heart-beats before meeting the 60 person delegation in Cairo that I were to join in travelling to Gaza for International Women’s Day.

Even these three simple days became a struggle; with myself, unable to focus on books, unable to focus on simplicity, unable to remove myself from the past three months in order to regain my groundedness to move forwards with this memory.

01.03.09

Today I walked for many hours along the beaches, through the remnant camps, huts, some with people lazing about, others completely deserted; Bedouins smoking hash and shisha with travellers; a Bedouin offers me tea inside his makeshift fishing hut; whilst sipping the sage-filled sugar-rich shay I mention that I want to go walking in the mountains, that they look so inviting – but he warns me not to go alone, for many people die in there. “You must be smart, sensible, it is not smart to go there alone…”
It reminds me of the plethora of times I have walked off into the desert with friends in South Australia and the Northern Territory, on no specific path, just walking towards a landmark in front of us and with a landmark behind us to return us home. I think of how comfortable and safe I feel when walking on the soils back home, of how much trust I put in the land and how so definite and sure I feel that I would never get lost. But these landscapes and these mountains are a different world to me; they feel as if they could swallow me whole.

02.03.09

I have been away from my motherland for only three months and yet I am yearning for her oceans, for her soils and her smells, to be rolled up in her comfort, love and safety; and yet I do not see a returning to her coming any time soon.

East Jabaliya

East Jabaliya

You can read about the beginning of the journey to Gaza in previous posts, so I will try to continue from where I left off…

East Jabliya Refugee Camp

East Jabliya Refugee Camp

East Jabaliya refugee camp

East Jabaliya refugee camp

“And this very sky is a cage…”
(Darwish: Beirut: 1982)

Day four: 10.03.09

Stepping of the bus in east Jabaliya to see the one of the first refugee camps I have ever seen in my life was like stepping off a curb and being hit by a car. Here I am walking around the neatly lined tents surrounded by the completely destroyed homes of the families who are now inhabiting this camp, and I’m filming clothes hung out on the concrete remains of a house to dry, all I can hear is the sound of wind so strong as if I were listening to a recording of the wind on my headphones, and above us the clouds are so dark, and in the distance young men are attempting to break apart the remains of concrete homes with a sledgehammer. I am looking through my lens, and then without it, and then through it and then without it, and there seems to be no difference; I do really not comprehend what is before me.

I look inside the tents and all that exists is a mattress and a box, a child and some tea, of which we are offered. And the absurdity of how we can be offered anything by someone who has nothing is played over and over again in Gaza.

I walk over to a group of women and signal if it’s okay to film and photograph. They are obviously used to foreign journalists coming in asking for a piece of their memory and then leaving again, they know what to do and to take up any opportunity to speak in the hope that it will potentially reach out of the prison gates of Gaza.

East Jabaliya Refugee Camp

East Jabaliya Refugee Camp

“We need just to live in a home on our land in peace.” Says Haleema Ahmad Dardona, an older Palestinian woman and resident of this camp, “We need some help to protect us from the raining and the cold. We need our children to be with us.” She is speaking with a sense of urgency as if she knows I too am simply walking in and out, taking with me what is most ‘essential’. “We have no bread, we have no food, we have no water. We need to be warm. The little children eat from the sand.” She says picking up a handful of sand and letting it sift through her fingers. “We just need it to be peaceful, we need it to be safe. We don’t need people to feed us, we just need our own home…” And the group pulls me away as we need to keep going, and I feel like an impostor, coming here and filming such sadness and simply leaving on a bus to witness other devastated areas.

American International School

American International School

We drive through the areas that have been completely flattened in the north east of Gaza, not far from the border of Israel, we are being told what has happened in each place and when it happened, but I cannot remember, it is all blurring now, I cannot make any distinction between the destruction, it all seems absurd, surreal. There are cement factories with trucks blown up lying on their sides, piles of rubble with men hacking them apart, breaking them down (for reuse perhaps?). Little children play amongst the remnant houses and buildings, places we used to reconstruct in our own fantasies as kids, places where we could hide, pretending to be the bad and good guys, now manifest themselves in reality for these generations. This child is but two years old, on his/her own, falling down on the discards, picking himself/herself up again, I wonder what kind of mental scars are left on the children of Gaza.

devestation_05

Devestated areas, northern Gaza

“What am I going to do?” Says an elderly Palestinian man from another completely devastated area in east Jabaliya. “I have to look after 10 people. They destroyed my home, and they kicked us out. They didn’t leave anything for us.” He is leaning against a makeshift concrete wall, next to his shack-home, gesturing his hands upwards as he speaks. “The Israeli’s are so close to us. They keep watching us from the mountain.” He tilts his head in the direction of the border, “Just 10 minutes they can come here. So where are we going to go now, the border is just right there.”

From this area you can see the industrial Israeli city of Ashkelon. Recently I read the article in Ha’aretz on the IDF soldiers testimonies about their actions in Gaza, a soldier was talking about how he was able to go home to sleep in his bed in Tel Aviv at night, and fight in the war by day, unlike other troops who would occupy a Palestinian home and live there for a week or more. It reminded me of the absolute removal from the reality of the situation that people in cities like Tel Aviv experience, if at night you can hang out with your mates in a bar and by day kill and wound Palestinians.

“The most important thing for me is just to live in a home.” The elderly man continues. “They keep giving us food but they should give us a home. What kind of humans can live like this?”

East Jabaliya devestated areas

East Jabaliya devestated areas

I walk up the street a little and am stopped by a few men who want to talk as well. One man, Hanay Abu Namus starts talking. “We live/d here. This is my home, fifty people who lived in these houses died [during the war]; now we don’t have a home. Six houses were destroyed that belonged to our family.” He starts walking towards the remains of his house and gestures for me to follow. I stop at the base of the destruction and start filming, Hanay and another man walk on to the rubble and start pulling clothes out of the concrete, holding them up then dropping them, shrugging his shoulders and looking up, as if to say “why?” The other man does the same thing; he picks up a pair of children’s trousers, maybe the size for a 3 year old, and then drops them back onto the rubble. This ceremony of unfathomable experience lasts for maybe five minutes, but it feels much longer. As they walk back towards me Hanay directs his arms to the sky and says, “I don’t have to complain to you god, because you see everything, and you are responsible to give my rights back to me.”

Devestated areas, northern Gaza

Devestated areas, northern Gaza

al-Awada Hospital

al-Awada Hospital

Later we visit the al-Awada Hospital in Gaza City, and we are told the harrowing stories of women, men and children’s bodies being brought here non-stop during the war; dead, alive and everywhere in between, of limbs missing, of shrapnel lodged into heads and stomachs, of any gruesome image you can relate to war, it was here on these beds, on these floors and now, forever in these minds, although I am sure the people who work here have witnessed this before. Again, it is surreal walking around the hospital on the squeaky clean floors, devoid of the images that have just been detailed to us. I feel the silence and emptiness almost as distressing as the horror it recently contained.

al-Awada Hospital

al-Awada Hospital

al-Awada Hospital

al-Awada Hospital

al-Awada Hospital, two new born twins, named by the same names of their grandmother's sons who were killed during the war

al-Awada Hospital, two new born twins, named by the same names of their grandmother's sons who were killed during the war

al-Awada Hospital

al-Awada Hospital

Of what is left for the living? Of the memories and visions and knowledge of losing your families and friends, of images and sounds and wounds to remind you day-in-day-out of what you have experienced, how can children grow with these memories, and how do they deal with what they have experienced?

al-Awada hospital

al-Awada hospital

We met with some people from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program who explained to us some of the psychological effects caused by war that people experience in Gaza, and particularly the lasting effects on children.

“When we talk about mental health in these situations,” says Husam El Nounou, the PR Director for GCMHP, “when we talk about insecurity, we know people will suffer psychologically in these situations, especially the children, who are usually the most affected group in this population. Usually by their nature, by their psychological structure, they are unable to cope with these kind of situations.”

“We observe during the war, the children became more clinging to their parents.” Tel Houa states, a psychologist working with GCMHP. “They all the time want to be with their parents,” he continues, “They have nightmares, night terror all the time. The children are becoming more and more restless and hyperactive, they are unable to concentrate; they become easily provoked and cannot deal with their frustration [because of] the war; they have avoidance behaviour, [it is] difficult to talk think and even watch TV. They are unable to even talk about their experiences during the war.
“We predict that our children will become more aggressive; this desire for aggression and revenge will become internal as they have no outlet for the [anger created by the] occupation and the war/s.

“The international community has to deal with their terror, they have to support them with their trauma; the international community needs to integrate their trauma.
“We are the victims of the victims; we have to help them [Israel] to understand what they are doing.

“There is no guarantee from the international community that things will change. I think one international decision will change the impacts of mental health in Gaza, and this is to end the siege. The mental link with human rights is interlinked, and we have to raise our voices to talk about this.

“We are misled by this big lie; democracy. We are punished because we practiced our rights during this election.”

Abed Rabu homes, East Jabaliya

Abed Rabu homes, East Jabaliya

Day five: 11.03.09

Most of the CodePink delegation leave and nine of us stay behind; those who have the time, and who feel like we need and want to stay because we haven’t even scratched the surface of gathering personal testimonies, nor been able to really gain an understanding of what has happened here from the short visits and snippets of stories we have had time for with the large group.

Al-Awada Hospital

Al-Awada Hospital

Red Cross sorting aid, Jabaliya

Red Cross sorting aid, Jabaliya

Aid, northern Gaza

Aid, northern Gaza

Palestinian woman and grandson waiting for aid

Palestinian woman and grandson waiting for aid

We visit the area of east Jabaliya again, to talk to the large families that have been displaced in these areas, which are the Khader family, the Abed Rabu family and the Dardona family. Most people who have been relocated in the villages that we visited have come from these families. Most of the camps are like this across Gaza; the family you live with and the area you live in are usually one and the same, the family is the most important thing, and staying with the family after such extreme devastation is essential.

Looking out over devestated areas in East Jabaliya

Looking out over devestated areas in East Jabaliya

We are standing on the roof of a destroyed Abed Rabu home; we are up very high and can view all around this area and to the borders of Israel. The area is flattened homes, streets of dirt and broken concrete, donkeys pulling food along, women, men and children walking through the leftovers. What is there to do now? I wonder. How to live day-by-day waiting for food, waiting for a home, waiting for something to change. We look back at the al-Salaam camp, recently constructed, as it is so windy they have had to reconstruct the refugee camps several times. I look at my footage now and it reminds me of how silent I was, or how silent I felt, how unable I was to speak, how unable I was to offer anything in consolation, as if there was anything to offer. Unable to express my extreme sadness and empathy with the people here, I realise I must simply have expressed it through shaking my head and looking distressed and angry.

East Jabaliya

East Jabaliya

“We were living in a house in this area,” Sabah Abed Rabu, tells me during an interview in al-Salaam camp. “When the war started, when the warplanes started flying around we tried to keep safe in our homes, we tried to tell ourselves that we wouldn’t be targeted and killed. There were 24 people living in this house. After the house was targeted, we started making white flags out of our clothes then left the house. [Then] the Israeli army started to come into Jabaliya and ordered us to leave, “don’t take anything”, they said, “just leave”. My son was injured but he is okay now. We left the area and after the war we came back to find all of our homes had been destroyed.
“We got some aid after the war, and had to go and rent a house, we are paying now $1500 a month to rent this house. After the war we had to buy everything we lost.
“We didn’t do something bad…we just want people to know this.”

Sabah Abed Rabu, East Jabaliya

Sabah Abed Rabu, East Jabaliya

After doing another interview with members of the Abed Rabu family they take us up to their former home and show us a section of a missile that they found in their house which is far too heavy to pick up. We look around at what’s left, there is a couch inside and a place for a fire, even a carpet on the ground because they were still living in here until recently, when it started to get too cold and it was raining a lot and the children were getting sick, they had to move to the camp.

A missile found in the Abed Rabu home

A missile found in the Abed Rabu home

I am taken back to the Al-Za’aneen family I am staying with in Beit Hanoun, and before everyone leaves Ibdisam takes us to the end of the dirt street to where two houses were destroyed by missiles during the war, which are less than 200 meters from their own home.

We approach a large house-sized hole dug deep in the ground, but no remains are left of the house that was here. Just next to it however, is another house that was flattened. “See up there,” says Ibdisam, “that is the cousin of my husband, they have no connection with the resistance, but you can see the top two floors have been blown out, they are completely black.”

She tells us that her son filmed the houses being blown up on his mobile phone, because sometimes the IDF would give a warning to owners of the house to leave, that they had maybe 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 minutes to leave the house before it was destroyed. “This is the one good thing they did during the war.” One of our translators says sarcastically.

Beit Hanoun girls school

Beit Hanoun girls school

Beit Hanoun girls school

Beit Hanoun girls school

Beit Hanoun girls school

Beit Hanoun girls school

Day six: 12.03.09

This day I felt physically and emotionally exhausted, unable to go and collect any more stories, unable to process or focus on what was in front of me, I knew I wouldn’t be of much use, and it was better to re-ground myself. So I stayed around the Al-Za’aneen family household, drinking tea and walking out into the garden every so often to feel comforted by one of the (seemingly) only tree-filled area in Gaza, where even the birds chirp here.

Palestinian fishermen

Palestinian fishermen

Day seven: 13.03.09

We meet at the Al-Quds Hotel, just near the beach of Gaza city at 9am and start walking to meet the others at the port a little way along, who are waiting with some fishermen who will take us out on the sea to do some interviews about the problems they are facing and the impact of the war on their business and livelihoods. We catch a ride on the back of a Hamas police car as they see we can’t find the others. “No we’re not getting arrested, just a ride.” Paul, a photographer from New York, says laughing on the phone to the others who can see us coming down the hill. Paul has been photographing a lot of CodePink’s activities in the US, as well as anti-war protests and organisations like Veterans Against the War.

Fishermen

Fishermen

There are nine of us aboard this small fishing boat, maybe 3 meters long, thousands of dollars of technical gear, lap tops, cameras, etc, as we head out on the Mediterranean sea, watching Gaza City growing smaller in the distance. The fishermen with us point towards some boats on the horizon, “Israeli Navy boats” they say, and I get a shiver of doubt as I remember the stories about members from the International Solidarity Movement who accompany fishermen and get shot at by the Israeli Navy. However, we are soon distracted when we approach another, larger fishing boat with maybe 15 fishermen aboard. We stop next to them and explain what we’re doing and who we are, they welcome us aboard and we all jump ship. Everyone is laughing and joking and they feed us boat cooked spicy beans with pita bread, followed by sweet black tea and shisha. This is the first time since being in Gaza I have felt a sense of lightness and laughter, even though we are hearing about devastating events and the effects of war, this morning was beautiful.

Fisherboat, Mediterranean sea

Fisherboat, Mediterranean sea

Fisherboat

Fisherboat

Fisherboy

Fisherboy

Fishermen, Mediterranean sea

Fishermen, Mediterranean sea

We stay around 2 hours on the boat with the fishermen, doing some interviews, and watching other smaller fishing boats bring in catch. We learn of the impact of the war on the Palestinian fishermen, and the laws that restrict them to go out past a certain distance, however this distance seems to be changing constantly. According to a recent article by Gaza ISM the “Israeli Navy were enforcing a no fishing zone 6 miles from shore prior to the wholesale attacks on the population of the Gaza Strip. It has been commonly reported that in the wake of these attacks, this limit has been reduced to 3 miles.
“It is unclear what the Israeli military regard as the official “forbidden” area. There are no official channels of communication open between the Israeli Navy and the fishermen from Gaza. All the information regarding this that the fishermen have is delivered at gunpoint, and is inconsistent with the actions of the gunboat crews. Experience informs the fishermen that at any moment any portion of Gaza’s territorial waters can be deemed “prohibited” by the gunboat crews, no matter how close to shore, and irrespective of what the gunboat commanders have previously decreed (the status of these decrees as both arbitrary and illegal in the context of international law should also be noted).” (http://fishingunderfire.blogspot.com/)

We return to shore and I am welcomed to eat fish with Abdullah, a Gazan who has been in Egypt for three years studying film, he joined our delegation to return to Gaza to see his family whom he hadn’t seen during the whole time in Cairo. He attempted to leave with the rest of the delegation, however was refused entry into Egypt by the Egyptian border control, despite the fact that Abdullah carries official papers stating his student status in Cairo, and the official papers he and an Egyptian official signed upon entry to Gaza, stating that he would be allowed out again. Since then he has tried to leave Gaza several times. His studies have been jeopardised simply because he wanted to see his family.

Mediterranean sea, fishermen

Mediterranean sea, fishermen

After lunch of fresh fish and traditional Palestinian rice, I re-join the group and we travel to the a-Zeitun neighbourhood of the a-Samuni family, who lost at least twenty-nine members of their family during the war; it is one of the most tragic stories that came out of the recent war, and I am not sure I can even really give the experience the justice it deserves. I think the photographs say what I cannot.

a-Samuni home: The writings on the wall: The words written here in Hebrew say: "Death to Arabs!", "The Givati Brigade Finished mission on 06.01.09" and "We are legends!"

a-Samuni home: The writings on the wall: The words written here in Hebrew say: "Death to Arabs!", "The Givati Brigade Finished mission on 06.01.09" and "We are legends!"

Abdullah a-Samuni at the window he described as being used by IDF snipers

Abdullah a-Samuni at the window he described as being used by IDF snipers

There are destroyed houses everywhere, some completely flattened and some with areas, floors or rooms that have been blown out, completely black, with piles of rubble everywhere. There are children everywhere, playing games, running around, screaming and laughing and crying. They rush up to us to be photographed and to see what we’re doing, and talk in the English they know and hold our hands and ask us questions.

My translator and I go to talk with some members of the family upstairs in one of the houses that was occupied by the IDF during the first week of the war. As we enter the house and walk up the stairs we see all the writing on the walls, done in Hebrew and English, stating things like “Arabs must die” and “Arabs are pieces of shit”, and other equally sickening statements. There are bullet holes all throughout the house and photographs on the walls of men, women and children who were killed during the war. We are all tired and feel overwhelmed and stressed by what we are seeing and hearing. The woman speaking to us is speaking with such intensity, re-living her whole experience of being removed from one house by the IDF, put into another and then the house being targeted by missiles, of having to run away and find safety of having to leave others behind of seeing family members dying, of now looking after children of those who have died, and more, I cannot retrace it now, for it was spoken and translated to me with such exhaustion and desperation that day, I feel perhaps only the images can speak.

a-Samuni family

a-Samuni family

a-Samuni child who lost a few of fingers during the war

a-Samuni child who lost a few of fingers during the war

Abdullah a-Samuni, a 9 year old who lost his brother during the siege, takes us around a few of the houses and re-enacts IDF snipers shooting from windows, he throws his hands in the air as if to say “I don’t understand” or “what now?” We follow him up the stairs and it is a kitchen that is completely blackened by an explosion. I stop and unthinkingly say “don’t touch anything”, thinking about the use of white phosphorous, I then realise that it has been like this since the war and many children, men and women have being coming in and out of here every day since, and anything toxic that could be inhaled, already has been.

Abdullah a-Samuni stands in the remains of a blown out home

Abdullah a-Samuni stands in the remains of a blown out home

a-Samuni neighbourhood

a-Samuni neighbourhood

We walk around the streets unable to speak, I am just muttering swear words under my breath, learning how to say god help us all in Arabic, as it seems the only appropriate thing to say here, where no words can change this present memory.

Abdullah takes my hand, I didn’t realise but I had been putting my hand on his shoulders during the time he was taking us around, I just felt I couldn’t say anything and needed to show him, someone, anyone, that I care.

Abdullah a-Samuni and other a-Samuni children

Abdullah a-Samuni and other a-Samuni children

A few more kids gathered around, wanting me to take their photos, but I had run out of batteries and only had my voice recorder left, so they began to sing a song about being a martyr, I record it, knowing it will bring me right back to this time and place every time I listen to it. A haunting song for children to be singing, but they are children and they have experienced what no child should ever experience.

We are the martyr’s with the military clothes
We never feel afraid inside our chests, because we are the Jihadaya
To hell for the enemy who keeps attacking us
We are the saraya coming and to hell for the enemies who keep attacking us
If someone shoots us, we will be in the Bustan (a garden in the heavens)
Our land in Palestine is full of the plants of men and the Bustan
So as the young ones in our land we can do Jihadaya to protect the olives
We are going to dress in clothes of the night…

Wounds from the war

Wounds from the war

Day eight: 14.03.09

It is early morning, around 5:30 am, I am staying with Abdullah and his family in Gaza City now, they have given me a room to myself even though they are a large family in this apartment, everyone sharing a room together or sleeping in the lounge room; everyone is as welcoming as everyone has been in Gaza. It seems, when you have nothing, you are more likely to give everything, and when you have everything you are more likely to give nothing.

I wake with a feeling of deeply entrenched tiredness and am not sure I can rise today; Abdullah comes into the room and asks, “do you want to go to the fish market with the others, or do you want to sleep?” I had been pondering the same question and am not sure, we decide to go, as it is our last day here and we would be wasting our time if we slept.

Gaza City fish market

Gaza City fish market

The smell is strong of fresh fish on the street next to the Gaza city port, where the fishermen are setting up; laying out their catch on display, ready to sell. Abdullah bring us much needed strong sweet tea, and we watch the commotion for a little while; auctioneering boxes of fish with crowds of men huddled together over the boxes, once sold, quickly shuffling over to the next box, and so on. It is humorous. We catch a few glimpses of the fishermen from the day before; they give us a wave and a smile and continue to make their living.

Gaza City fish market

Gaza City fish market

Gaza City fish market

Gaza City fish market

Abdullah and I walk down to the pier, the skies are a deep dark blanket of grey, it is sprinkling a little bit and “the sea, she’s angry” says Abdullah. It is beautiful here; we watch the fishermen bringing in their boats, or taking them out, fixing their nets and beginning the day’s work. We simply walk along the concrete pier out to the end, observing the early morning conversations between the people and the skies, the ocean and herself.

Gaza City port

Gaza City port

Gaza City port

Gaza City port

15.03.09

We leave Gaza this day; a relatively quick and painless exist from Palestine and an easy entry to Egypt. Our foreign nationalities giving us a special privilege that Palestinians do not receive. At the border of Egypt we witness a Palestinian woman screaming and crying, hanging onto the fence, she has in her hand at least ten passports. We learn that she has been trying to get back into Gaza for months now, because she has sick family members inside and she needs to see them, but she is constantly refused. “Why is she refused?” I don’t know.

Five of us travel back to Cairo in a taxi; the sun is going down over the deserts of northern Sinai and we are all quiet for a while, reflecting on everything from the past 9 days in Gaza.

View from Downtown Cairo

View from Downtown Cairo

We arrive in Cairo around midnight and stay up for a while chatting and winding down before having to get up early to leave for our respective places of residence, or places of temporary residence.

16.03.09

After very little sleep, I get on a bus to the Taba border crossing between Egypt and Israel. I am worried about what might happen at the border now that I have the Rafah and Palestinian Authority stamps on my passport. I am naively hopeful, as I believe I have nothing to hide, so why should I try? Having never experienced problems at a border before, this was definitely the wrong way to think.

I exited Egypt in good spirits, using what Arabic I could to say thanks and goodbye. After entering Israel’s border control and putting my bags through the security screens; a young girl, maybe the same age as me or younger who was operating the x-ray machine signals to the other girl to check what I have in my bag. Whether or not they had seen my PA stamps yet, I will never know. She gets out my camera and then my books, and then some papers I have in there that I had forgotten I left in there that had content to do with Gaza on them. I feel a deep heavy feeling wave over me. Why did I think this would be okay? Why didn’t I check properly what I had in there? The girl starts asking me questions, where have you been? Why were you there? What are you doing here? What were you doing here? Who were you with? Where were they from? What were their names? Why are you coming to Israel? What do you mean PEACE?  We don’t have peace. She asks me stupid questions, over and over again, I feel that she is nervous, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she’s self-justified and thinks I am against her, well right now I am, but the situation is so absurd I feel nothing but hopeless humility. They take apart every item in all of my belongings, they make me sit by and watch as my dirty underwear is strewn all over the tables, my computers and cameras are mishandled, I ask them to respect my things, over and over again, my humility turning to anger as I watch a 20 something year old boy reading letters from my lover that were kept in my journal, he is laughing and they are making jokes between them. I simply sit and stare with disdain. I am taken into a room and a girl, my age also says, we have to give you a ‘body check’, I’m sorry. I didn’t have to get naked, however, just take my pants down and hold my arms out.
After all this humility I take about 30 minutes putting my belongings back into my bag, then I am told by the ignorant girl to wait while “I make my decision of whether or not to let you into Israel.”

2 hours pass, and no one talks to me, another 2 and someone comes to get some more information from me, another 2… By this time I am so tired and hungry and thirsty and distressed and upset that I have been crying for some time now. After leaving Gaza and witnessing the aftermath of an extremely brutal and sickly war, and entering Israel into the hands of extremity and fascism; I am overwhelmed and unable to speak.

Finally the head of security comes over to me at 12:00 am, after I had been there for 8 hours, he takes me into his office and says, “because of your activities in Israel, we are giving you a 48 hour visa, and if you want to extend your visa you will have to sign a form stating that you will not go into the Palestinian Territories and if you do, you will pay a 20,000 shekel fine, (AU$6815), of which you have to pay up front, as insurance money.” I am shocked, I really didn’t expect this, I say, “What do you mean, ‘my activities in Israel’? I don’t understand, can you explain to me what you mean?” “I don’t have to explain to you anything,” he says bluntly, “If you want to enter Israel these are the rules.”
I try and ask again what he means, and state that I don’t understand. He doesn’t tell me why he has chosen to do this, and he simply responds with “I don’t have to explain anything to you, and if you don’t agree you can leave back to Egypt.” I would have left back to Egypt but I had belongings in Israel and negatives I needed to send to Australia for an exhibition I was about to be in, so I agreed, unwillingly. As I was about to leave, he gave me back my passports, the two that I own, British and Australian, I was keeping one clean, saving it for travel to Arab countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, therefore disallow anyone who has an Israeli stamp on their passport to enter. He says, “I have stamped both of them so that you know you have 48 hours.” By this time I am so angry I start yelling  “thanks for welcoming me to the only true democracy in the middle east!” and about what a fascist country it is, and how wonderful it is to have a democracy that is so true like Israel, and what a wonderful country Israel is, and thanks so much for welcoming me to it, and all sorts of babble that felt right at the time.

I leave in complete distress, so overwhelmed and tired; I think about the fact that Palestinians experience treatment much worse than this, every single day, simply going to work or trying to return home, I have gotten off lightly placed in this context.
I book into a hostel in Eilat and my girlfriend calls from Australia to calm me down. I don’t know what to do and I want to leave, I don’t want to be here, and eventually I fall asleep.

I wake up the next day feeling better, less distressed, I even begin to laugh at the situation, what a totally ridiculous situation it is. I catch a bus from Eilat to Tel Aviv and along the way I call an organisation who work on the “Right of Entry” campaign, who have never heard of this before, and suggest I re-apply for the visa in the north, somewhere away from Tel Aviv, as this is where this form will be, waiting for me to sign.

So the next day I go with Elad, the Israeli I was staying with and working on a project with, to the Ministry’s office in Hertzeliya, only 30km north of Tel Aviv, by this time I have only about 8 hours left before I either get an extension or have to leave the country. We are told that visas are only processed in the mornings so we have to come back tomorrow, and never mind about staying a day over the visa.

The next day we return and wait 4 hours in the office before they take my details and simply state that they “will process it”, I didn’t mention this form, nor did they.
So I stay for 10 days without hearing from them, whilst trying to recollect my feelings and experiences of the past 2 weeks. Being in Tel Aviv, and only 70km down the coastline from Gaza, looking out at sea in that direction, I was feeling so incredibly lost and hopeless in my actions and abilities to do anything with what I had witnessed and gathered.

Finally I get a call saying I can pick up my visa at a cost of 160 shekels from the ministry; but when I go there the form about the fine comes through the system and they refuse me my visa unless I can pay the 20,000 shekels. I say firstly that I do not have that much money in my life right now and that I am planning to leave to Egypt in a few days anyway. They write on the system that I had applied for an extension and it was refused, so I wouldn’t have any troubles at the border.

And so, here I am in Sinai, in Dahab, I have been here for 9 days now, taking Arabic classes in one of the beachfront café’s in the mornings and going snorkelling and diving, and going through all of my imagery from Gaza, and attempting finally to write about it.
And so I am leaving here for Cairo on Saturday, to meet my girlfriend coming from Australia, to be able to talk about everything that has happened over the past four months, to begin to process it in human form.

We plan to return to Gaza in May with another delegation that CodePink are organising: on both sides, Gaza and Israel.

And so this journey shall continue, this witnessing of memories.

Peace. Salaam. Shalom.

Jess.

*PCHR have determined that a total of 1,417 Palestinians died in the offensive. 926 were civilians, including 313 children and 116 women. 255 were non-combatant police officers. 236 combatants were killed, representing 16.7% of the total deaths.

**more photos from the codepink delegation to gaza can be found here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/36807912@N02/ – more of mine
http://www.flickr.com/groups/iwdgaza/ – General
http://www.flickr.com/photos/gazadelegation/ – Paul Park

Gaza City Port

Gaza City Port

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2 thoughts on “Witness To Memory: Gaza, March 2009

  1. Pingback: From Witness to Memory: Gaza March 2009 « Israel-Palestine News Compiler

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