The writing on the bullet ravaged wall said "If you destroy our houses you will not destroy our souls."
We spent four days in Khan Yunis and Raffa, the southern most city in all of Gaza, right on the border of Egypt. Everything there is more intense, the heat, the poverty, the devastation, and the spirit of the people. The people here can see the ocean, can dream of wading in the Mediterranean, but have not been able to reach the beach for over two years. The population of Raffa area is around 140,000 in 24 kilometers. The Israeli settler population is between 100-200 people.
To "protect" these settlers and settlements (many of which are nearly empty) the military has imposed grueling checkpoints and fences (a mother and her two very small children were shot in the head at the Khan Yunis checkpoint yesterday, which has no real security purpose
as nothing is searched and no id's are checked), has evicted hundreds of families, and has completely demolished over 250 homes and partially demolished a similar number. Every night we were in Raffa more homes were destroyed. We came to the Hai Al Brasil camp in the
morning to find nine homes gone (the only warning given was the first ramming of the bulldozer). Shoes, cleaning supplies, and sweaters were sticking out of the rubble, a fig tree uprooted with fruit still fresh and green. Families asked us to stay with them to help protect them from the shelling and the bulldozers. We alerted the media, and
made banners to hang from the windows announcing our presence and reminding the soldiers that "The Whole World is Watching."
However, when we arrived the families, without any history or knowledge of direct action and us being the first real ISM group in Gaza, changed their minds and felt we might attract more attention to them. It was really frustrating, as most things in Raffa were, but we are dedicated to following the lead of the locals and only doing actions with their approval and help. Most of our work in Raffa was just meeting with officials and laying the groundwork for future ISM groups. What we've found, particularly in Gaza where the ISM is new, is that it is really important to first build relationships with the people here, and then gain their trust before busting in to start direct action.
The Palestinians have a very specific way of doing things, a wonderful hospitality, but the pace is much slower then we pushy "Americans" are used to. We are so well fed right now. It contrast to the fear of hunger we experienced under curfew in Ramallah, the families here have been laying out spreads that would impress a king. We sit in rooms lacy with bullet holes and eat hearth warm pita, spicy fel fel, and lemon soaked tomato salads.
Everywhere we go they serve tea, coffee, and soft drinks before we barely sit down. One of our first nights in Raffa happened to be the 4th of July.
We had been invited to stay at an athletic center which was very very warm inside, so a few of the women opted
to sleep on the roof. Our host, Ali, smiled and said, "Ah...just wait you will be lulled to sleep by the music of Raffa." We were very confused until minutes later choruses of machine gun fire began. Ali assured us we were quite safe, and that this is an every night occurrence here. (We met several mothers who told us stories about
psychological and emotional affect this has had on their children. Two year olds crying out at night that the Israelis are going to come kill them, a three year old who stopped talking after his neighbors house was razed.)
The gunfire became more and more intense, and we
heard several explosions. We tried to relax and take the attitude of the Palestinian we have talked to who upon seeing our tears tell us.."This is our life. We don't get upset. This is just the way it is." But when we actually SAW the "rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air," we decided to head inside. It's unbelievable they live with this nightmare all the time.
At one point many of us felt like we were falling to pieces, like we couldn't keep it together at all. We were trying to get into Al Mawasi, a town near the ocean that has been cut off form everything for a long time. The soldiers wouldn't budge, and barefoot street children were swarming us. The boys were beating relentlessly on a
little girl, and for the first time I just began crying inconsolably. With the shrieking of the soldiers in the background, I could see so clearly that the behavior of these children was a direct result of the violence of the occupation.
When we stopped to rest I wrote the following stream of consciousness/list: too much to soak up, I can't hold it all, the poverty, the violence, the culture, the hospitality under dire conditions, dirt, bullet holes, graffiti, posters of martyrs, checkpoints, donkey drawn carts, barefoot children with grabbing hands, women in black hijab, houmos, pita, syrupy sweet sodas, glass after glass of sugar sweetened tea, blind begging men, cigarette smoke, ocean full of jelly fish, falafel stands, rotting teeth, the cut scarred faces of children, roadblocks,camouflage, the ring of machine gun fire, the swish boom of missiles,
the skepticism and the thank yous, women walking with bundles on their head through trash filled streets, the over wrapped sweating babies, the screaming soldiers, the heat, the stench, the fear, the desperation, welcome to hell, dotted with Israeli flags...how can I ever wear my star again? Fruit stands, watermelon, bottled water,
communal eating, affinity group, negotiations, trying to figure out how we can make it all go away.
We met with the mayor of Raffa, Said Zourob, he sits in a circle in the sand outside his home every day so that people in the community can come bring problems to him after office hours. He tells us 48% of those killed by the IDF in Raffa are under the age of twelve. He tells us the occupation has made things so bad that people are
struggling just to survive, they don't have time to think about resistance. But he warns us that the practices of the IDF are dangerous..."If you make us more crazy...it is against the security of Israel." He shoos the women off to meet with his wife and children. His eldest daughters attend University studying majoring in economics and engineering. The whole family is bright and talkative.
The spill out their stories to us, while pushing bowls of hummus towards our mouths. Here in Palestine the elite and the working class have common experiences and a common enemy. Even in their elegant homes they upper classes are not protected from the horrors of the
occupation and the sound of gunfire at night.
We had the chance to meet with, Dr. Ghazi Hamed Hamed, a representative from Hammas. He is by far one of the most interesting and suprising people I have met here. Calm, well spoken, and very upfront. He spoke frankly, and gave us a picture of Hammas that we
would never imagine in the West. He told is about the organizing they do for those in need, the construction of schools and social service organizations. They also have a women's group, "some people misunderstand us. We do not discriminate against women and there is nothing to prevent them from being leaders." He also said that
although he supports the Palestinian right (as detailed in
international law) to armed resistance, he does not personally support suicide bombings. However he reminded us that many people feel that is the only way they can fight against the occupation. "Bush is stupid. He's acting just like Sharon," he told us,"Pushing the war machine, which will create a million Osama Bin Ladens."
After meeting with Ghazi we visited the Children's Parliament. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever witnessed. Children gathered together to voice their concerns and vote on ways to address the problems. These children were very small some only around 8 years old, but they spoke with great understanding and maturity.
They spoke of the problem of being shot at on the way to school. Little children learning to process and respond in democratic ways that I've never seen in the USA. One of the littlest girls had been in the car when her father, and several siblings were killed by an Israeli missile. The only survivors were herself and her mother. She got up without prompting and sang a song, with clenched fist and closed eyes, about her father. She sang, Where are you my daddy..when are you coming home. I know you are not coming back, but I understand. You were a fighter, doing what you must to fight for our land, to fight for the freedom of Palestine.