Gaza’s calm determination

Young Palestinians climb over the ruins of their destroyed home after Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. (Matthew Cassel)

To preserve my sense of purpose, and keep the Palestine struggle from becoming a lifeless abstraction, I need periodically to recharge my moral batteries by reconnecting with the actual people living under occupation and by witnessing firsthand the unfolding tragedy. From each trip I invariably carry away a handful of stark images that I fix in my mind’s eye to dispel the occasional hesitations about staying the course. When the memories begin to fade I know it is time to return.

And so, in June 2009, six months after Israel’s invasion, I joined a delegation that journeyed to Gaza for a brief visit. Though I had been to Gaza before, most of my time during previous trips to the region was spent with friends in the West Bank. Israel has prohibited me from entering the country for ten years, thereby making it impossible for me to visit the West Bank, allegedly because I am a “security” risk. An editorial in the Israeli daily Haaretz titled “Who’s Afraid of Finkelstein?” cast doubt on the decision’s premise — “Considering his unusual and extremely critical views, one cannot avoid the suspicion that refusing to allow him to enter Israel was a punishment rather than a precaution” — and went on to argue against banning me. Nonetheless it is unclear if or when I will be able to see my Palestinian friends again. In the meantime, going to Gaza via Egypt at least enabled me to get some feeling for developments on the ground.

Having just spent several months perusing Mahatma Gandhi’s collected works, and deeply inspired by his commitment to living the life of the impoverished masses, I had resolved to rough it in Gaza. But this was easier said than done. Along with several other delegates I volunteered to stay at a Palestinian family’s home rather than a hotel. Dressed to the nines, hair gelled, and reeking of cologne, several Palestinian youths met our group to select their home-stays. They departed first with one young female member of our delegation, then another, then another. The only candidates left hanging at the end of the evening were middle-aged men. We checked into the hotel.

It would be untrue to say that I was terribly jolted by the devastation that I encountered everywhere in Gaza. During the first intifada I had passed time with families in the West Bank living in tents beside the rubble of their former dwellings. Israel would routinely detonate the family residence of an alleged activist in the dead of night after giving the occupants just minutes to evacuate. Soon after the 2006 war I toured Lebanon. Many of the villages in the south had been flattened. The Dahiyeh district of Beirut resembled photographs from bombed-out cities during World War II: large craters where apartment houses and offices once stood, the occasional shell of a building in the distance. So by now I have become somewhat inured to Israel’s calling card to its Arab neighbors.

Nonetheless a few memories from that trip to Gaza remain etched in my mind with particular sharpness. I remember an 11-year-old girl peering out of thick-lensed glasses while she lingered beside the American International School that had been demolished. Speaking in perfect English (her father was a physician and her friends ranked her the top student in the class) the girl wistfully remembered that it had been the best school in Gaza. I also recall the evening we met with government officials in a tent beside what had previously been the Palestinian parliamentary building and was now just a pile of smoldering rubble. Although the devastation was apparently designed not just to subdue Hamas but also to humiliate it, the representatives seemed oblivious to any slight to their dignity from having to convene in such reduced circumstances. And I can still see the huge rectangular depression in the heart of the Islamic University campus where the science and technology building once stood. An administrator recalled with pride tinged by melancholy that, just prior to the attack, the university had installed cutting-edge equipment for biological research in the building.

No Palestinian I met evinced anger or sorrow at what happened. People appeared calmly determined to resume life, such as it was, before the invasion, although the continuing blockade plainly weighed heavily on them. A young hijab-clad guide sitting next to me on a bus one night casually mentioned that her fiance had been killed on the last day of the invasion, and then punctuated her statement by staring, dry-eyed, into my pupils. It was neither an accusation nor an appeal for pity. It was as if Israel’s periodic depredations were now experienced as a natural disaster to which people had grown accustomed; as if Gaza were situated in the path of tornadoes, except that in Gaza every season is tornado season. Some demented mind in an air-conditioned Tel Aviv office conjures up poetic names for its numberless “operations.” Why not a little truth in advertising just this once and call them “Operation Attila the Hun,” “Operation Genghis Khan,” or “Operation Army of Vandals?”

The female head administrator of a children’s library housed in a magnificent edifice that would be the envy of any major city in the United States offered some painful reflections. (Watching the children hard at work in the library, I secretly breathed a sigh of relief that whether wittingly or by miracle Israel had not inflicted on it the same fate as the American International School’s.) She was one of seven siblings all of whom had obtained advanced degrees, and, apart from her, had left for greener pastures abroad. She had studied in Great Britain but against her parents’ recommendation decided to return to her home. She recalled questioning her decision when, on her way to work one day, Israeli soldiers forced her to wade waist-deep in mud to get past a checkpoint.

Our delegation consisted mostly of Americans. Originally I assumed that I was the only Jew on the delegation, but after making several discreet inquiries I began to wonder whether anyone on the delegation was not Jewish. So far as I could tell Gazans did not care much about our pedigrees, although, to my mortification, the rector at the Islamic University introduced me as a “Holocaust survivor.” I politely corrected him: “tenure-battle survivor.” Did I really look 90 years old?!

Hamas has a fearsome reputation, but it met its match with the feisty feminists leading our delegation. Among their complaints, forthrightly expressed, was that Hamas did not allow the delegation sufficient freedom of movement at night. Although Hamas eventually gave ground my sympathies went out to them, and not just because in these verbal bouts they appeared the underdogs. It is not as if Gaza had a lively nightlife. Furthermore, Israeli ships still fired on Gaza every night, and Hamas feared that Israel (or its Palestinian underlings) might create an incident to discredit it. It is also not as if Hamas’s security concerns lacked plausibility: after all we were Americans, and US intelligence agencies have been complicit in the repression of Hamas.

I had several meetings with Hamas officials and cadre. It was later conveyed to me that those I met were mostly from Hamas’s “moderate” wing, although I cannot say exactly what distinguished them from members of the “hard-line” wing, and a lot of the speculation on this matter appears poorly informed. In his dispatch from Gaza The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright knowingly told readers that Gaza-based Hamas leader and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is a “moderate” who has “spoken of negotiating a long-term truce with Israel,” whereas Damascus-based head of the Hamas politburo Khaled Meshal is a “hard-liner” who is “more likely to initiate radical, destabilizing actions.” But Meshal, the “hard-liner,” has repeatedly called for a diplomatic settlement with Israel.

At each of the parleys with Hamas members I repeated the same message: the current diplomatic posture of Hamas seemed in alignment with representative political organizations, respected juridical institutions, and major human rights groups. Many Hamas members appeared genuinely surprised when I rattled off the “pro-Palestinian” positions espoused by these mainstream bodies. If I was correct, then Hamas should couch its political platform in their language because the chink in Israel’s armor is its diplomatic isolation. Hamas must hammer away the critical point that Israel is the real outlier in the international community and obstacle to peace: not “Hamas says,” but “the UN General Assembly resolution supported by 160 nations says”; not “Hamas says, but “the International Court of Justice says”; not “Hamas says” but “Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say.”

My interlocutors seemed earnest and willing to listen. (They even heard out in good humor the head of the delegation when she implored them to shave their “scary beards” to improve Hamas’s image in the West.) Although Hamas sought to emulate Hizballah’s victory in 2006, after the massacre it perhaps sunk in that Israel cannot be defeated by shooting firecrackers and Roman candles at it. When I was leaving Gaza, US President Barack Obama had just arrived in Cairo to deliver his landmark address. Hamas sent a letter to him partly informed by our conversations.

For most of the time in Gaza, our delegation was guarded by young Hamas militants. As we parted ways at the end of the visit I felt moved and obliged to state publicly that in my opinion none of them was deserving of the death Israel has attempted to inflict on them. I am aware that according to the “laws of war” they are “legitimate” military targets. But in a rational world the locution “laws of war” would make as much sense as “etiquette of cannibals.” It is probably true that violent conflicts would be more lethal and destructive in the absence of these laws, but it is also true that, in their pretense of neutrality, they obscure fundamental truths. Whether from conviction, frustration, or torment, these young men have chosen to defend their homeland from foreign marauders with weapon in hand. Were I living in Gaza, still in my prime and able to muster the courage, I could easily be one of them.

This essay is the fifth chapter (“Inside Gaza”) of Norman Finkelstein’s latest book, This time we went too far, available from OR Books.

Norman G. Finkelstein’s books include Beyond Chutzpah, The Holocaust Industry, A Nation on Trial and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.