February 7, 1988, Morning
“Welcome to Gaza,” the sign reads, but the streets are not inviting. The long road into town is nearly deserted, its shops and shanties locked shut; only a few men gather sporadically for coffee or a cigarette. Beyond, the camps stretch toward the sea like a giant junkyard, people and goods cast off on this spit of land.
It is the start of a two-day general strike, and unwise to be on the street. Soldiers are everywhere, visible and not.
A small contingent guards the gate to Shifa Hospital. Hundreds of casualties have passed through its wards; soldiers have tear-gassed and abducted its patients. Soon, a young man running from the army will turn to face a soldier, bare his chest and say “shoot me.” The soldier will comply. Everyone will talk about it.
“You are journalists,” Madame ‘Aliya says from behind the desk at Marna House, walled in with poinsettia and orange trees. She smiles and shuffles a stack of media business cards. “I have them all. You must sign in. I have to turn in three copies to the military every morning.”
The forbidden but ubiquitous cracked map of Palestine hangs on the wall. In the office cupboard are a few rubber bullets and tear gas canisters — souvenirs of current history. The fine print on the canisters reads “Made in Pennsylvania, USA, January 1988.”
‘Aliya is anxious to tell stories. She descends from one of Palestine’s wealthiest landowners; now a widow, she runs this guest house, and her son nearby runs a supermarket.
“Do not feel sorry for us,” she says, waving her cigarette in the air. “We are not starving people. We do not want your food. And we are not afraid. No one is afraid of their guns anymore.”
She is reminded of the beatings that ostensibly displaced bullets. “Yes, with a bullet one can die and it’s finished. But to be humiliated like this — it’s horrible.”
A phone call informs us there is shooting on ‘Umar al-Mukhtar, one of Gaza’s main streets. The grapevine is astounding; word travels at lightning speed. Another phone call summons Dr. Agha, head of the local Arab Medical Association. He runs through the litany of medical needs in Gaza’s eight camps, emergency supplies and equipment as well as antidotes for chronic malnutrition, gastroenteritis, respiratory and stress diseases. Duty over momentarily, he contemplates what violence — physical and structural — is doing to his child.
“Imagine — every house always has someone in prison. The other day my five-year old daughter was drawing. I went over to see what it was. She was drawing wheels of fire, and blocked streets empty of people.”
W., our guide and a human rights field worker, appears and we drive out onto the street, which smells of burning tires. The sea is not far off, a simple but grand surprise of nature beyond Gaza’s clutter. We have come for a view of Ansar II, the detention center. It crouches on the shore, nearly hidden among the dunes, with several watchtowers, barbed wire fences and a conspicuous heavily guarded gate. Outside the gate, across the road from the soldiers, sit small circles of families vigilant for their sons, brothers, fathers among the 1,200 crammed inside.
Between Ansar II and the sea, scores of fishing boats lie scattered aimlessly, their upended hulls cracked and peeling. W. tells us that since the uprising began December 9, 25,000 fishermen’s families have been banned from their livelihood. The reason: security. All the same, men saw and hammer the skeleton of a boat, repairing it for a new season.
On a concrete jetty, children watch waves crash into geysers. We drive near them and are immediately swarmed by ten-year olds flashing the V-sign and smiling. Far down the beach a circle of horses gallops gracefully. Their riders wear helmets.
Back at the hotel we pick up L. — a student leader at Birzeit, under town arrest in Gaza these last two months — and R., a French journalist. Next stop: ‘Ali ‘Arab Hospital, a routine check on the latest casualties. On the way talk turns to the PLO, to political Islam. In recent months, all agree, Islamic Jihad has satisfactorily toed the nationalist line; the Muslim Brothers have not.
“We don’t judge according to religion,” says W. “We judge according to the value of your nationalism, which you can show in many ways. You can lower the price of your vegetables, give help to the injured — or you can carry a gun.”
In the halls of ‘Ali ‘Arab, a private church hospital of 70 beds, medical staff press toward us urgently. “What are we to do?” asks the diminutive nurse matron, leading us to intensive care to view one of the worst cases. A young man lies on an operating table, naked to the waist, a bandage swathed around his head. His body is bloated, stamped with giant purple bruises. An uncle, an elegant blue-eyed man with a silver mustache, Arab headdress and Mandate English, steps forward.
“The soldiers put him in a hole and beat him,” he said. “Can you believe the savagery?”
Before we can answer, we are rushed out to the parking lot, where an ambulance has just shrieked to a halt. Two stretchers are unloaded: boys clubbed on the head this morning. One of them will die. As we watch, stunned, the old man — once a farmer, now living in Jabalya, Gaza’s largest camp — comes toward us. He invites us to his home tomorrow morning — to hear another piece of history.
“If you gave me $1 million,” he says, “or a big building in Egypt, I would say ‘no.’ I want to look at a Palestinian sky, to breathe the air of my home, to eat the greens from my land.”
At dusk, W.’s friend H. drives us along the shore road toward Jabalya, still under curfew. Across a rough but verdant pasture we reach H.’s home, a small farm set like a boulder in the middle of this field, rolling just short of the sea. We pull up in a courtyard full of goats, and a tin door swings open, revealing H.’s mother in traditional dress, agitated. She steps toward her son, who is halfway out of the car, waves her hands in the air and tells him what any mother would: Come home soon.
Night has fallen when we reach the camp and have been handed over to H.’s cousin, a Jabalya resident. We follow him through the maze — 60,000 people in a few square kilometers, alleyways strewn with cans, old shoes, spent refrigerators and tea kettles, many paths lined with an open sewer trench. Streetlights are rare, so the houses — cement, wood and tin — glow from the inside, if at all. There is no sound — aside from an occasional baby’s cry or dog’s bark.
At the UNRWA clinic havoc rules. The army may arrive at any moment, perhaps to raid its patients. It has been a heavy day for beatings: 35 casualties treated here and 14 passed on to Shifa.
“Because they cut our phone lines we have a new system to call for help,” says Samir Badri, the doctor on duty. “People shout from rooftop to rooftop, and eventually the cry reaches us.”
The army is late. We don’t wait for them, and instead follow our guide toward his home in Block 2. This happens to be the block of someone we are seeking: Fathi Ghabin, an artist once imprisoned for painting the Palestinian flag. We are determined to find him.
But we get no farther than our guide’s home; there is a quick exchange by the lighted doorway between him and his family while we wait in the shadows. H. has fled with the car; the army got dangerously close. As we set off into the blackness again, Fathi’s presence is rendered more real by its prohibition.
Our guide walks on the opposite side of the street from us; he has brought his small boy along for cover, the ruse of an evening stroll, as absurd as that is under these conditions. We are left on a deserted corner, under a street lamp, assured that a car will come for us soon. Arriving first is a group of men who, discerning our predicament, wait with us until we flag down someone leaving the camp. I wonder what we leave behind.
At Shifa, the soldiers are gone, so we are snuck in. A surgeon, K., leads us through the wards to survey “the accidents.” We reach a room full of young men, and the doctor ticks off three patients — one comatose, another with broken wrists, a third smiling triumphant but with trampled knees. “Assaulted by the army, assaulted by the army, assaulted by the army,” the doctor says — no accidents, these.
No one is exempt. In a women’s ward a 15-year old girl in a red spring dress and lavender scarf sits up to speak. Her scarf carries the scent of tear gas. She tears at the sheet as she tells how soldiers invaded her home while she was cooking, beat her, and then tried to force her to sign a statement saying she had stabbed one of them. She refused, so they dragged her behind a jeep to a place where dozens of boys were being beaten. The soldiers said they would stop the beatings if she signed. She did not.
Upstairs a 102-year old man from Jabalya sits upright, with hoary whiskers, missing teeth and a worn gold prayer cap, energy belying his age. With an unsteady hand he offers everyone a cigarette. The soldiers tried to bring a burning tire into his house, he says, and his family resisted. They were all beaten. He is not sure where they are. Raising his hands to God he bursts into tears. Someone touches him on the shoulder, and we go.
The night ends in the doctor’s living room: an overstuffed velour sofa set, a coffee table and side tables with decorative china, the ancestral photograph (K.’s father, owner of a 7-Up factory, one of Gaza’s few industrial plants), on the wall.
Dr. K. does his best to welcome us, but he is conspicuously uneasy in his own home. His outpour is only a little startling — “In Gaza you just touch a person and he will talk for days,” the doctor affirms.
“I am sorry for my English,” he continues. “We are prevented from speaking with people. There was an Arab doctors’ conference in Cairo — we couldn’t go. And the government limits the number of Palestinian doctors here.”
He pauses slightly, seeming to dredge for the ultimate affront. “I once said to an Israeli soldier, ‘It is better to die than to live in this situation.’ And the Israeli soldier said: ‘What situation?’”
February 8, Morning
The morning’s task: to find the old man from Jabalya in the orange groves, near the main entrance to the camp. We drive slowly, searching, but the neat rows of trees yield nothing. We circle and retrace our tracks several times. Still nothing, and no one to ask.
It is still quiet: only a few stragglers in the street, an occasional family propped against a wall, laundry drying on scruffy bushes.
Quickly lost, we run into a gang of boys who crowd around when the car stops. After a brief interrogation, they assign the smallest one in their midst to accompany us to the clinic, a reference point in this labyrinth. About 10, he climbs into the back seat and points his finger to the east.
We don’t get far. An army jeep rounds the bend ahead, and lumbers towards us. About 20 feet apart it stops, we stop. A soldier comes to the car window, about 19, solemn and dutiful, careful not to reveal a crack of doubt about his mission. “You must leave,” he says. “This is a closed military zone.”
“Since when?” we ask.
“This is a closed military zone. You must get permission from the military commander’s office if you want to be here.”
Two jeeps — one in front, one behind — escort us out of the camp. When we pass a throng of young children on the road, we discharge our young guide, by now discernibly anxious, hoping the army does not identify him.
Back at the hotel, W. meets us, ready to take us wherever we can go without getting evicted. We decide on UNRWA headquarters. There we find Dr. Ayyoub, deputy field health officer, a man clearly juggling being a health official and being a patriot.
“We are hungry for peace and land,” he says, in an office plastered with maternal and child health care diagrams. “All the time I make lists for new first aid equipment, but why, when I don’t accept this place as it is — to be a ghetto?”
“We don’t need better housing, better this, better that — we need land,” he continues. “We have no guns, no aircraft, but by our solidarity we can do something, and the PLO should follow us on the inside.”
“I grew up in a tent and I don’t mind living in one again. My village is Masmiya, near Jaffa. I am against any solution that will not return me to this village.”
We agree to reunite this afternoon for a trip to Burayj, the camp where Dr. Ayyoub grew up, where his family still lives.
Most of the Gaza Lawyers’ Association has assembled to meet us, to brief us on chronic and recent human rights violations. We meet in the law library, where the association’s ten members spend a lot of time lately; they have been on strike since mid-December, protesting the charades of both civil and military courts.
“By striking, we’re calling attention to these illegal trials going on,” says Sharabil al-Zaym, group spokesman, a contemplative man dressed for court in lawyer’s grays. “And we’re calling for the release of all detainees in Gaza and the West Bank.”
The lawyers have a host of complaints to file against the territories’ legal system; grievances are solicited around the table. They cannot appear in any civil court inside the Green Line. In Gaza’s court system, they cannot see their clients until a confession is extracted, often 20 days after arrest. During the trial, the prosecutor’s files are withheld from them. At any time the military government can declare a lawyer a security threat and ban him or her from court.
And the success rate of a Palestinian defense attorney? The lawyers confer. “About three cases in 20 years. Reduced sentences.”
On the way to Burayj, Dr. Ayyoub driving, we pass a boy grazing goats in a pasture littered with rusted-out cars. Across the street are the well-irrigated fields and cubist white residences of an Israeli settlement, part of a land grab that has already eaten up more than 30 percent of Gaza.
The doctor takes us past legions of soldiers at Burayj’s gate; their encampment is just down the road. Soon we meet another barrier: stones, smoldering tires, and barbed wire strung across the street — residents’ strategy to “liberate” their camp, keep soldiers out. We are allowed to pass; two boys clear stones and peel back the wire. We leave the car at the UNRWA clinic, and follow the doctor farther into the camp.
We go into a home for an affidavit of sorts, another dum-dum bullet case. The room where they seat us is covered with colorful straw mats and floral cushions — quick disassembly. On cue the wounded young man lifts his shirt to reveal a scar on his abdomen and starts his recitation — performances staged again and again until enough people hear them. “He was helping a 10-year-old boy to the clinic in December,” Dr. Ayyoub translates, “and was shot once, through the back.”
Coffee and chocolates arrive; the story continues. Suddenly people stir at the doorway, and rush outside in response to an ominous drone on a megaphone. Curfew. We must be out of the camp in 15 minutes; all others must be inside.
People walk quickly, parents seek their children, a young girl goes to buy food. No one knows how long a curfew will last.
At a cross street we see a pending showdown. To our left, distant behind a thick veil of smoke, the shabab ready themselves with stones; to our right, soldiers cradle their guns. We take a detour, and find ourselves amid a crowd of people handing chairs off the street into a courtyard. A funeral, we learn, for a 16-year old boy whose battered body was found tossed in the camp cemetery. Funerals are forbidden in Gaza.
In ten minutes the camp is nearly dead. We stop briefly outside one house, painted with blue hands to ward off evil. The doctor disappears down the street with its owner, a shopkeeper. He returns in five minutes with a sack of frozen fish; the shopkeeper, with half his shop’s merchandise on his back, is laughing.
One more stop: a rescue mission. We go to the home of the doctor’s parents: a tiny courtyard full of orange peels, a dank living room where his mother, in white veil and embroidered dress, sits on a pile of old quilts. From another room appears an elfin boy in early adolescence, docile but anxious. “My nephew doesn’t want to stay here tonight,” the doctor says. “We’ll take him to Gaza.”
On the way back by the sea we get a brief glimpse of peace: a family circle on the beach, a boy stretched out on the sand. The doctor takes us to his garden, an urban Eden. Almond, lemon, henna, fig, mango and banana trees grow in abundance.
The doctor leads us through the greenery to his prize plant: a cactus transplanted from his village. As we sit down to coffee, Samih, his feisty three-year old, pulls up marigolds. The doctor has four children and two wives, one of whom wants 13 children. He confides his approval, in spite of UNRWA’s efforts at birth control.
“We will sacrifice one or two kids to the struggle — every family,” he says. “What can we do? This is a generation of struggle.”
W. calls us from his home, apologizing for not being able to accompany us today. “I have a 1 pm appointment at the military office,” he says. “They want to discuss my work.” He tells us, of course, there is nothing we can do; he will see us when he sees us.
Madame ‘Aliya is even less reassuring: “They will take him to ID check. Ansar II, give him several beatings, and release him after awhile.” More bad news — the Information Committee’s press release, dated yesterday:
All men aged 14-60 were summoned by the military authorities from Block 2 in Jabalya and were systematically beaten without exception. Many required medical attention and were taken either to the local clinic or to the hospitals in Gaza.
We fear for Fathi, the artist, and the old man we never found among the orange trees. So we try a different tack, and visit Yusra al-Barbiri’s Palestine Women’s Union. Since 1964 this white-haired firebrand-samaritan has run literacy programs, sewing and knitting workshops, nurseries and kindergartens, and health projects in the Strip. She also pays home visits to women whose men have been killed, detained or deported. She has been especially busy lately.
“This is not all that new,” she says. “Palestine has revolted since 1917, since the Balfour Declaration. I remember when I was four years old — my father owned a sesame oil factory here — there had been riots in Nazareth against the British. Palestinian women in Gaza held a meeting to gather donations, and gave me a wooden box to collect them. In primary school we submitted a petition, ‘Down with Balfour.’ I wasn’t sure what it meant. And in 1936,1 remember, all Palestinians went on strike for six months.”
“The British,” she continues, “imposed curfews, demolished homes, killed many. I remember in the old city of Gaza the army used to come knock on doors — Indian and Australian soldiers of empire — just like the Israelis. Once when an Israeli military governor came here to see us,” she recalls, “he said he wanted to bring presents for our girls. I told him, ‘The best present would be if you were the last military governor of this district.’”
An older woman shepherds us off down the street, where tea is served. We sit silently for several minutes, with the shades drawn.
“I am Arafat’s cousin,” the woman says finally, her face wan and tired. “I live here with just my sister. Our mother died this last year; they would not let her out to see her three sons. Now we are locked in, no permission to come or go.”
She realizes there is little we can do. “I am sorry to make you sad,” she says quietly.
There is nowhere to go, or so it seems. Jabalya, Burayj and Beach camp are closed off; someone made it into Khan Yunis this morning, but who knows. We decide to try Nusayrat, the camp opposite Burayj.
The long road into camp looks deserted; a family picnics in a field near the orange groves. We stop outside a sign saying “Town Council,” fronted by a group of men huddling together. We ask about the army — where are they, who has been hurt. “No trouble today,” they tell us, “but who knows — any five minutes.”
We drive farther into the camp, zigzagging around gaping holes. Everywhere we go people stare, and children begin to follow the car, slowed as it is by the construction. “PLO! Israel no!” they shout, or “We give our blood to Palestine!” Soon, 50 or more are in our wake, laughing, skipping, running. I wonder if ten years from now, five, three or one, they will find such an audience — or will need one.