Gaza and Democracy

DSC00016--thumbFinally, after several years of wanting to go to Gaza, Dunya and I managed to spend two days there under the auspices of election observation. It didn’t take very long for Dunya to observe that the elections in Gaza City were far cleaner than those in Ohio in 2004, where she was working at the time. Lack of democracy is not Palestine’s problem; the democracy here is more thriving than I’ve seen anywhere else. So our two-day trip consisted of about a half hour of “election observation” amidst many hours of travelling around, talking with people, and photographing everything we saw. I know the West Bank well enough at this point that nothing seems particularly new. But from the moment we arrived at Erez crossing, I began to photograph the buildings, the corridors, the Israeli police dogs, the wall surrounding the Gaza Strip that looks very much like the wall being built now throughout the West Bank.

We stayed in Gaza City with Khaled Nasrallah and his family, one of the two families who had been living in the house in Rafah that Rachel Corrie was killed in front of in March 2003. The bulldozer that killed her did not demolish the Nasrallah’s home that day, but within a year the army completed the task and the family was left homeless. They now live in an apartment in Gaza City while a new house is being built for them in Deir Balah. Most of the people in Gaza who have been displaced by home demolition in the past few years have been displaced at least once before, in 1948, and some of them more than once. They’ve lived in a constant state of terror for the past five years, and according to some, it only got worse after the “disengagement”. Israeli shelling and other destruction from the air is not entirely uncommon, not to mention the sonic booms that only started since the settlers have left. A 9-year-old girl was shot and killed by the Israeli army on Thursday in Gaza, somewhere near a border with Israel. Probably just a few miles from where we were. Someone from the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme told us that they have seen no particular change in their work since the “disengagement”, whereas a man at the Gaza International Airport explained a building’s construction by saying, “In the days of the occupation, the Israelis instructed us to build this building so they can observe the border. Now there’s no occupation, so the building is for us.”

The Gaza International Airport is really something else. Or not, but that’s what makes it so remarkable. It looks like any other airport, only with more beautiful design than many. And it is deserted. And the control towers have been bombed by Israeli Apaches. And the runways have been bulldozed every couple hundred meters. According to security at the airport, the only employees currently working there, the airport opened in 2000, and was forced by Israel to close early in 2001. Israel still forbids Palestinians from even beginning to reconstruct the runway. Palestinian Airlines only flies now between Egypt and Amman, and they only have two functioning airplanes. Our host is an accountant for the airline.

And then there’s Rafah. The row of houses along the border of Gaza and Egypt (which arbitrarily divided the community of Rafah in half when the border lines were drawn), are shot up thousands and thousands of times. That is, the houses that are still standing. More of them are in rubble. But the bullet holes through the windows, doors, walls; it looks more like war than anything I’ve ever seen. Our hosts who were displaced from Rafah and now live in Gaza City described to us some of the terror of their last year or two in Rafah: never knowing which rooms were safe to be in, Israeli bullets flying through their windows at all hours, the young daughters waking up in the middle of the night and screaming. The girls are still affected, their mother Samah told us, but only the oldest, now five years old, remembers a specific story from Rafah. The family had been sleeping in the garden because it was safer than the house. At one point they were all at slightly different places, someone in the garden, someone in the house, someone on the stairs. The shooting started, and young Mariam remembers the bullets flying towards their house, hitting a tree, and watching a guava fall off a tree and hit her father on the head. Her mother told the story laughing, saying “alhamdulillah” [thank god] we weren’t hurt any more than we were. She was in the hospital giving birth to her third daughter when their house was finally demolished. Thank god, she said, that nobody was in the house. The things to be thankful for in Gaza are incomprehensible to me.

Hope looks different, too, as Dunya pointed out during our visit to the former settlements. We had hired a driver for the day to take us around. At every turn he explained that the Israelis used to be here, and here, and here. This is where this person was killed, this is a school that was bombed, this is an old checkpoint. And then we entered the old settlement of Netzarim. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting a scene that superficially looked remarkably similar to me to demolished Palestinian homes. The Israelis are good at destroying things, we joked to each other. They destroy Palestinian homes, and they also destroyed the settlers’ homes (and left a huge mess) upon leaving Gaza. And this is hope, I suppose. Can rubble be hopeful?

Speaking of surprise, Gaza City is bustling. We arrived our first evening, met the family, ate dinner, and then Khaled asked, “Do you want to walk around the city?” We were shocked that he would go out at night, especially with two female internationals, but it was completely normal to him. And indeed, the shops were open, everyone was buying ice cream at the local ice cream parlor, last minute campaigning was subtly happening (campaigning is banned for 24 hours before election day, but nobody can be prevented from driving their cars, vegetable trucks, or donkeys around the streets with party flags on them). Apparently Gaza City is the Ramallah of Gaza, a thriving city where poverty is somewhat less apparent than other parts of Gaza. We asked if this is recent, since the disengagement. No, he told us, in Gaza City people have always just gone about their lives, sometimes dodging bullets and shells, but continuing with their lives.

Gaza is beautiful. I’ve heard statistics about it being the most crowded place on earth, so I wasn’t prepared for the open space, the parks of palm trees, the plazas with monuments and wide roads that are pedestrian friendly. But of course, by contrast, while driving south along the road with a beautiful beach and the Mediterranean to the right, we would look left and see refugee camps that look more like I expected refugee camps to look before first coming to Palestine. The camps I’m used to in the West Bank have slightly narrower streets than cities and villages, and a few more visible signs of poverty, but much of the refugee issue is somewhat unseen if just driving by. Some of these camps in Gaza are different, and with their tiny buildings and narrowest of streets they certainly look like they could be described as the most crowded places on earth.

The little bit of election observing we did was exciting, if only to see the incredible amount of civic engagement. In fact, you couldn’t be in Palestine and not be doing some sort of “election observing” during these past couple weeks, when all anyone has been talking about has been politics. I realize that I come from an American context where civic engagement is among the lowest in the world, so it excites me to be somewhere where even with such difficulty living under occupation, at least 75% of eligible voters voted. There is, of course, the knowledge in the back of my head that Israel is holding 8,000 Palestinian political prisoners who can’t vote from Israeli prisons, that the Israeli government only permitted 6% of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to vote in the Palestinian elections, and that the 2/3 of the Palestinian population that lives outside of Palestine, mostly as refugees, do not have any say in who will be representing them and potentially negotiating away their right to return to their land. Not that negotiations will be happening any time soon here, since Israel refuses to negotiate with a Hamas that doesn’t disarm. I wish Hamas would refuse to negotiate with an Israel that doesn’t disarm. Maybe Hamas has already said something to this effect. I don’t know, I haven’t been reading much of the news. Mostly I have just been talking to Palestinian people, people who are shocked, excited, worried, and curious about what their future may bring. Hamas won on a platform of “change and reform” that mostly focused on ending corruption within the Palestinian Authority and bringing economic development to Palestine. Apparently they did not focus either on religion or resistance against Israel, probably realizing that these two points would get them less popular support from the Palestinian people. And indeed, they received in votes what people say is twice the amount of popular support they actually have. So there is shock. Some hope in the possibility of change, but concern about the opinion of the international community, and specifically the end or slowing down of cash flow from Western governments.

The most common joke I’ve heard made in the past couple days, if it can be called a joke, is that I’ll have to start covering myself fully. A man joked today that he’s already starting to grow his beard. I was in Dheisheh refugee camp yesterday where the kids were discussing the election, and the teenage girls unanimously decided they would never wear hijab, even if Hamas legislated it. One of the boys we were working with told us he didn’t want to eat any sweets that we had brought for our meeting, because Hamas won. We had a vote on the title of the exhibit that we’re putting together with the children about the trips we took them on, with suggestions like “Life Within Two Days”, “New Life”, and “Destroyed Villages”. At the end of the voting one of the kids said, “Hamas won!” So there is a lot of light joking about the situation, while everyone waits to see if Fatah will agree to work with Hamas or not, whether the government will have enough support to maintain control over the people, what their relationship with the outside world will be, and whether religious law will or will not come into place in some form.

Either way, as I’m reminded daily here, there is still occupation. I was able to meet my friend Fatima’s mother in Rafah, who hasn’t seen her daughter since 1997 because people in Gaza can’t get out and people in the West Bank can’t get to Gaza. A 20-year-old man we spent some time with in Gaza did not go an hour without saying, “Take me with you to the West Bank”. He’s never been there. Our crossing out of Gaza showed us firsthand for the first time what can only be described as indentured servitude. Thousands of Palestinian workers, those lucky enough to have permits, were standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting for hours to be allowed to cross back home to Gaza after a long day at work in the fields or building construction. They would go home for an hour or two to sleep, and come back to the border at midnight to wait until 6 am to cross back through again.

So the occupation and injustice goes on in all of Palestine, regardless of its status. In Gaza, in the West Bank, and in Israel, Palestinians do not have equal rights. Someone tried to convince us yesterday that while Palestinians inside Israel don’t have equal rights, at least they have some rights. Unequal rights are not rights, Dunya pointed out. It’s a concept that seems to escape many people in this context, people who in other contexts would agree and would be fighting for justice.

I know the Gaza “disengagement” caused people around the world to start thinking that occupation is over and everything is okay. I hope the Hamas win does not cause even fewer people to work for justice here. I haven’t been reading newspapers and I don’t know what you’re being told. But I’m pretty confident that I can advise you to be skeptical of both words and images that come out of this place these days. I doubt the mainstream media has suddenly decided to start telling the truth in the past two days. So question, question, question, and know that Palestine still needs all the support it can get.