Gaza: Summer in the Strip

F-16 Warplanes zoom overhead daily. In Rafah they’ve been breaking the sound barrier. At night you can watch flares light up the sky so that the Israeli soldiers in their fortified bunkers all along the perimeter of the Gaza Strip and surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements on the interior can survey the area.

The staccato sound of gunshots in the distance is so familiar I pay no attention.

Up close it’s something different. A boy has been shot in the back beneath the shoulder.

He is crying and lying on his stomach on a stretcher as medical personnel attend to him. A reporter from Palestine Space TV is filming him now instead of the cloud of thick brown dust rushing upwards from the tunnel between Rafah and Egypt that the Israelis have just blown up. Illegal weapons smuggling, you know: can’t have this sort of thing. The logic is perverse but accepted. The military superpower mini-state can test its state of the art technology on anyone and anything. Palestinians are not allowed to arm themselves even with homemade fireworks.

Fair’s fair.

The boy is sweating and breathing heavily now. The attempt to keep him alive is failing. His body goes limp on the stretcher and we watch him die. “What do you mean by filming this!” An indignant soldier shouted at the cameraman. Bad P.R. for Israel you know, Israel — the innocent victim of the poverty-stricken, unemployed multitudes of the Gaza Strip. Shoot the TV bastard. They do, but miss, and the cameraman gets to go home another day.

In an incident of heavy fighting in the Rafah refugee camp Iyad peers out from behind a wall to see what he can see. Two people lie dead on the ground nearby. Someone fires at him and the bullet grazes his ear as he ducks away. The sound rushes through his head and he runs for his life, trying to reach the relative safety of his home in the Yibne block of the camp but his shock is such that, after 20 years of living in this prison, he can’t find his home. He is dazed with fear. Twice he passes his home before being able to recognize it, and when he finally does he walks in, sits down where his family is eating their dinner, and eats in silence until all the food is gone. He has no recollection of this. His brother tells him about it later — about the blank, crazy look on his face, and about how he recognized nobody there. Iyad has seen many people die. His own life is the gift of Fortune.

Now we are sitting in Iyad’s home eating hot stuffed grape leaves. Flies settle on the food, on our faces, hands, and feet. It does no good to brush them away. Sweat drips down our faces as we sit on the floor around the food. The children are dusty and hot. All of Rafah is without electricity today — the hottest day of the summer so far. The door is open so that a stale breeze can drift in now and then. It carries with it an overpowering smell of sewage. A huge, flying cockroach zooms in, hits the wall, and drops to the ground near our dinner. It is the sixth one this evening. Samira shrieks and someone smashes it with a shoe and sweeps it back outside. The quiet, stagnant evening engulfs us again. The temperature will drop to 85 degrees Fahrenheit tonight. Iyad lights the kerosene lamp when it’s too dark to see.

How do you bear it? I ask. It’s an embarrassingly stupid question. What choice do they have?

How did he bear the bullet in his leg, and the prison sentence for passing out PFLP flyers on campus? How did he bear the interrogation? Or the smell of the sack cloth placed over his head in the interrogation room, the cloth with the vomit, spit, and urine of thousands of others? But it didn’t make him talk. Neither did the beatings or the insults or the chains around his hands and feet. Neither did the kicks to his chest and testicles. Neither did sleep deprivation for 18 days. He was released in two months. Got off easy.

I have yet to meet an adult male in Occupied Palestine who hasn’t been to prison or seen a brother or father sent there. The crime? Being Palestinian, of course; wanting to live on their own land in peace.

There are rumors again that Gaza will soon be invaded; hot, weary Gaza, the Palestinian Alcatraz. People are too tired to be tense this time. In the office, Leila wonders aloud what will happen to the people like her who are living in Gaza illegally — Palestinians who came here or to the West Bank on three month visitors’ visas and stayed because they had no other place to go. What will happen to the people who are living in this God-forsaken prison without permission? The ironies are endless.

At the checkpoint an ambulance with its red lights flashing waits for permission to pass. Two hours later, when the traffic is finally allowed to move, it inches forward with the other vehicles. I never found out whether its sick or wounded passenger lived or died.