At the end of a ceasefire that never was

15 August 2003 — There is shooting along the border and shooting at weddings and for an untrained ear it’s hard to tell the difference except by location. A Kalashnikov is low and hollow and echoes. An M-16 is a bit shriller, a bit louder. Machine gun fire comes from the border only. Tank shells come from the border only.

The border is under assault again. We are taking more caution with walking to our homestays at night, taking care to arrive early and walk out of sight of military towers. Two days ago, a tank, two bulldozers, and a bulldozer with a large arm for moving things worked threateningly close to Abu Jameel’s house from noon until 4:30pm. During this time, the military made four large underground explosions about twenty meters away from their home, supposedly to collapse underground tunnels. The way they do this is with a large machine that looks like a microscope perhaps 5 meters tall.

The machine makes a hole ten meters deep and deposits dynamite. We felt the vibrations here in our office half a kilometer away. When we saw the family later in the day, they were tired. They called us only a bit before the bulldozers and the large microscope tunnel-collapsing vehicle left the area (the tank remained for a while but this is “normal”). The military activity in the area that day is so routine that the family is used to having tanks around and only calls us in rare and sustained extreme circumstances.

17 August 2003 — Mohammed says roosters can see angels, that every time we hear them crow they are looking at angels. He says donkeys bray because they see the devil. We are sitting in Abu Jameel’s living room. Roosters are crowing downstairs. Molly says, there must be a lot of angels in this house.

Abu Ahmed says that when Israeli soldiers show up for service, their commander removes their heart and replaces it with a hand grenade. When they return to visit their families, he finds their heart waiting on a shelf, takes it from its place and returns it to the soldier who then goes to see his family, humanity intact. A tank revs its engine from outside. It has been parked next to the house since morning. We drink orange soda and tea in the shade.

Abu Jameel turns chicken parts on a grill in the hallway, his own chicken killed this day. Onions roast on kabob sticks. The smell permeates the house. Salah el-Deen tower shoots machine gun fire into the street where the people are still chewing the day into words sitting on thin mattresses and sand. It is after 9pm. Abu Jameel turns towards the tower, “Talloo, asha,” Come in for dinner, this belief that hospitality really can fix everything.

I catch personal glimpses of what it might be like to live under occupation. Friends come and go from the country and I don’t get to see them because the Gaza Strip is closed. Our relationship with our colleagues in the West Bank exists exclusively through phone and email. Egypt peaks out from behind the Wall, from the rooftops you can see it glimmering like a dream, so green, so vast, untouchable.

More bombs. Two days after the tunnels at Abu Jameel’s house, we go to the Al-Shaer house to sit with the family as the military sets off three underground bombs that shake the earth and send layers of sand into the house. Some of us stay back in the office for a meeting and feel the explosions from there.

I am trying to wrap my mind around the violence that is directed at the people here, around the experience of being accustomed to extreme violence. Not to be surprised to hear gunfire directed at your home. I try to imagine Rafah transposed onto my city back home, in Pittsburgh. I cannot. Pittsburgh is the place I go home to, where they don’t have walls and tanks, the place I hold in the back of my mind when Rafah gets to be too much, my way out, my returning spot. I imagine Rafah as the place I was returning to from anywhere else. I cannot.

One conversation yields this: that Palestinians have moved beyond fear, that they are used to walking in the face of death, and that they worry more about us, the internationals, who have come from the comfort of an upbringing absent of the constant threat of death, we who are not accustomed to this close acquaintance. They worry more for our weaknesses. The families we stay with fear as much for us as for their own children.

18 August 2003, 2AM Gunfire in Tel es Sultan is far enough away to be mistaken for thunderstorms, if it weren’t for the late-August heat. It sounds like wretching.

We’ve gone to the two border homes we stay in to speak with the families about contingency plans for the end of the ceasefire that never was. We discuss signs, flourescent jackets, orange tape, bullhorns. As we walk through the motions, a colleague of mine recalls her own contingency plans with her mother from years back, where to go in case of fire, in case of earthquake. I envision the escape ladder buried under some blankets in my parents’ home. The divide between our emergency situations hangs like an awkward cough in the air, ahem. Rafah holds up its mirror and we look inside.

Laura Gordon is a 20-year-old American Jew who came to Israel in December 2002 with the Birthright Israel program and proceeded, three months later, to begin work with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah. She moved to Rafah two days after Rachel Corrie was killed and has been there since. She works primarily in media work and documentation; and also to liase between the Rafah community and the international community through summer camp projects, cooperative building projects, and English teaching.