Rafah, Gaza Strip 10 October 2003
9 October 2003 — This Yom Kippur (October 6th), the most holy day on the Jewish calendar, the day of atonement in which we are supposed to cease every form of work in order to pray and request forgiveness from God, the Israeli army began construction on a new permanent checkpoint in the Gaza Strip, another slice.
Tanks cut off the main road between Rafah and Khan Younis (the city just north of Rafah) by driving ten tanks right in front of the European Gaza Hospital, the only decent hospital south of Gaza City, and the road has been closed for days. Nothing can get to Rafah, many things in Rafah are simply not available right now, things like medicine, the ability to cash checks, basic supplies.
People who study or work in Gaza City and Khan Younis haven’t been to work or university for days. It makes me think of high school, when snow and ice could shut a city down. Upstairs from our apartment, Rasha can’t hide the small relief she feels from this reprieve of study. I wonder how much the relief Rasha feels has to do with getting let off the hook from dealing with checkpoints.
The week before this closure, she spent 5 hours one day waiting for Abu Holi to open so she could go home and the next day it closed all night, leaving her to sleep at her friend’s sister’s house in Gaza City after waiting for 4 hours in a hot taxi in line with hundreds of cars waiting for the checkpoint to open. I compare our worlds, like parallel universes, squinting at each other from both sides of a mirror.
When tanks cut off the main road, people trying to get home used the sandy road and tanks cut that road too, shooting all the time, and bulldozers followed, demolishing anything anywhere near Moraj settlement, mostly olive trees. They are still demolishing. They’ve also started construction of something, people are saying it’s a permanent checkpoint, another Abu Holi.
Nobody knows much, not even the human rights organizations are going, nobody is risking going near the place because the tanks are shooting anyone who approaches. Nobody has dared approach since the first day of the incursion, when the army invaded without announcement, taking people by surprise as they drove to and from work. They injured four people, including a doctor who was shot in the head and is in critical condition in the European Gaza Hospital where he used to work.
In addition Rafah has accumulated another shaheed (“martyr”), Said Abu Azzum, 26 years old, who was driving with his wife and their two sons on a routine trip to Khan Younis, without any idea what was happening some meters down the road; shot in the heart as he turned a corner. He had no job, no money, and no house, and now he leaves behind a 21-year-old widow with nowhere to go, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old with nowhere to go. They couldn’t even have the wake in his sister’s house where he used to stay because it’s near the border and because it’s too small to accomodate visitors, so they sat for three days in a cousin’s house in Shabura so that people wouldn’t be afraid to come and pay their respects.
When I went on the third day, his mother was angry. She said, Where is your camera, where are the journalists? Not one person from the media had come to photograph her. I was embarrassed. I hadn’t brought my camera, thinking it disrespectful to bring journalism to a wake. She said, if you’re going to write, at least take notes that I can see, write in your book that Sharon and Bush murdered my son, from the comfort of their offices.
On the same day Said Abu Azzum was killed, Mohammed’s older sister Wisam was coming home from the European Gaza Hospital, where she works as a nurse, when she heard the army had cut the road, and her taxi went with the other taxis towards the sandy road to bypass the tanks, but not fast enough. Tanks drove into the road as they were crossing into Rafah and began shooting indiscriminately, and it was at this point that people were injured and killed upon running from their cars to try to reach safety. Wisam was part of a group of women that walked together after the men had left, holding a white mendeel to signify surrender and peace.
The tanks shot at them anyway — is this the way to tell this story? — as they were walking — the words are so vile — and they lay down on the ground in the sand for a half an hour while a tank rode back and forth right next to them, a meter away — vile bastards — before retreating. Wisam did not walk to Rafah, she ran, in bare feet (having left her sandals somewhere on the ground) and arrived in her family’s home, her abaya torn, with the black glove of a woman she didn’t know that somehow found its way to her shoe. With her family, she cried for hours, saying that she would never go back to work. The road is closed in any case so, for now, it’s not even a possibility.
She is taking her respite with her family, in Tel Zorrob, farther from the border than the main street in town but not far enough that their third floor flat can’t be seen by the Zorrob sniper tower, which effectively keeps them from using the kitchen and one bedroom. The tower shoots all day and night. It shot at us while we were eating kabbab in the living room, and as Wisam impressed me from room to room with the delicate furnishings in her home. She said, “Yesterday, I couldn’t stop thinking about your friend Rachel. I thought I was going to meet the same fate.”
So it goes. There is nobody in Rafah who doesn’t feel the effect of this new blockage. Feryal is wondering where she will go if the road is closed when she gives birth to her fifth child, who is turning in her belly for the ninth month. When I visit them, her daughter Rula tells me, They’ve closed the road. What can we do? We want to see the world, we want some fresh air, we can’t go anywhere, we’re Palestinians.
Rula is 7 years old. Her older brother Mohammed, 11 years old, has been given an assignment by school to draw something related to human rights. He draws a world, an armed man shaking hands with an unarmed figure. The armed figure is America, he tells me, and the unarmed is Israel. Palestine is a cloud raining down lightning bolts of anger onto them, separate, alone, excluded from the conversation, unable to hold anything but its own fire and tears.
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.