Things change here, but its almost impossible to notice. People are perpetually happy, unless they are dying, or angry over someone else’s death. The look on the face of the average Gaza City resident in the past 2 weeks has not changed. The kids still yell “Whats your name?” at me, the women still shyly look away and the shopowners still say “Welcome.” Prospects for peace haven’t changed any of that. Although I begin to wonder if its because no one is at all hopeful.
The last really ominous night came on late Monday, the 12th. As I was settling into bed at a little past midnight, I began to hear people talking. Gaza usually gets dead quiet by 10pm, so I knew something was not right. Then I heard a loudspeaker blaring, with someone yelling something in an angry voice. True, the banana cart operators tend to announce their produce in a loud angry voice, but not at this hour. I caught BBC news at 1am to find out that neighboring Jabalia was being invaded. Jabalia is so very close - there isn’t even an Isreali checkpoint between it and Gaza City. Helicopters were buzzing us, and I managed to hear a few distant explosions. BBC said that 13 were already dead with the hospital filling up. I was uneasy - not so much out of fear, rather out of the sense that something gruesome was happening so close, yet there was nothing I could do. During the previous week, when Khan Younis to the south of us was invaded, some 26 people were shot to death. Most in the back. The witnesses said that the Israelis picked off any thing that moved with impunity because they knew that no journalists were anywhere around. My friend Jose lives in Jabalia - at least they have him, I figured.
On the next morning I contemplated just taking a taxi to Jabalia and skipping work. Indeed, our other office is located there. But the incursion had ended early in the morning. The Israelis moved in, rocketed some metal workshops, shot 17 people dead (12 in 12 minutes) and pulled out. Still, it was uneasy at work and since there was no power anyhow, we decided to go to Jabalia.
I had never seen a city immediately after such an attack, but if I was looking for gore (was I?) I was disappointed. The incursion had come in at two points, and I set off with one of our fieldworkers to investigate the northern part of the town. For me, however, this turned into a two hour ordeal of waiting around as the fieldworker conducted interviews with property owners who suffered damage, and went on to fill out 4-page affidavit forms. One metal shop owner, who had a woodworking shop next door, had had a massive Merkava battle tank bust through the front of his building. The twin garage doors were crumpled like paper, and much of the walled frame had fallen to pieces. The Israelis were out to destroy potential places where Qassam-2 rockets might be built by Hamas. If the Israelis had ever played with rockets as children, they would know that you dont need a metal shop to place a nose cone and fins on a piece of piping. The Israelis would have the world believe that these primative rockets were dangerous high-tech guided missiles. Of dozens fired, all but two have landed in grasslands. Regardless, this man’s metal shop turned out to be a car service station.
Across the street, Israeli snipers busted into another man’s home and set up sniper positions. Down the road ahead was where most of the deaths occurred. Some of the first to die were the most tragic. A young man stepped onto his roof to see what was happening when a bullet shattered his skull. His father raced upstairs to help him, and he too was shot dead instantly. I guess night-vision scopes don’t let the Israelis see if people are holding guns or not.
We were soon swept up by the funeral procession, or at least the tail end of it. I saw no bodies, but we did catch a prayer service put on by Hamas where a few thousand people knelt to pray all at once, in what proved an awesome sight from a two-story rooftop. As they marched, children raced through the croweds with Palestinian flags while groups of women filed down the side with their own grevious chants. “We wont let Sharon kill our boys” was the loose translation given to me. The fieldguide however was noticably tired of walking in such a packed mass and we opted to head back to the office. Alongthe way an elderly woman in a black gown pulled me aside and began yelling in Arabic. Her flaying arms hit my shoulder as she looked upwards, almost screaming. I was afraid that taking a photograph might encourage her more. “Why does America allow Sharon to kill our children!?” was the best the fieldworker could get out of her in his poor English. He did help on several occassions to keep pestering children at bay, however.
That was all I saw of the situation there, for once back at the office I had to help with translating urgent press releases. Other buildings had suffered grevious damage as Israeli helicopters launched Hellfire missiles into any metal shop they knew of, without warning. Most such stores are mere garages located on the first floors of packed residential buildings.
But since then, it has been quiet around here. I was forced to find my excitement in other people instead.
On the 10th, while walking home from an internet cafe a round little man stopped me, almost scaring me with the enormous grin on his face. I thought that perhaps he knew me from somewhere before. “I like to meet foreigners!” he beamed. I think he scared me, for I agreed to go to his house for tea. Unfortunately, that was about as good as his english was. While I cannot blame someone who was in only his first year of learning English for lacking a mastery of it, I can express some trepidation when I spend two hours in his company, trying to think of very simple things to talk about.
His name was Remi, and he was just a bundle of friendliness. In any other part of the world, I would have felt that I was walking into some homosexual pickup, but not here. Remi did insist on walking though, and it took almost an hour to reach his home at the other end of Gaza City. Or at least I think it was his home. We arrived at a building where he proceeded to knock on one of two doors. A man answered, came out and tried to open the second door. It wouldnt open. The man returned inside, rustled around for a bit and then came out through the second door. I observed that a wall seperated the two residences that didnt quite reach the ceiling. The man had pulled up a ladder, climbed the wall and opened the second door from the inside. Down a dank and narrow hallway of peeling plaster and blue paint Remi looked for a place to sit. There were people in his room. “I have guests,” he informed me. Who? “I dont know, I think they are soldiers.” It tuned out that when the police at the local station feared being bombed, they would sleep in the homes of locals. Dont the policemen have homes of their own? I didn’t think to ask any further.
So we sat in the narrow hallway as the other man pulled out some plastic chairs for us. A young boy appeared out of nowhere with tea, subsequently returning with popcorn, then tangerines and finally water. Remi talked mostly to his neighbor, often responding to the man with english, even though the man seemed to speak only Arabic. Finally Remi said that it was getting late and he would need a cab. I didnt understand if this meant we had further to go, or what exactly I was to do, but I followed him out. After showing me the post-office where he works, he hailed a taxi for my home. Remi insisted on accompanying me all the way to my front door.
Along the way I decided to ask a question that bothered me. Remi seemed different than anyone else I had met. He never spoke about the “situation” as so many others are obsessed with. So I asked if he was at all interested in politics.
“No, I dont like politics. I think all the people, Fatah, Hamas, Jihad, are all demented. People who celebrate when people are killed.. That is demented,” he asserted. “Their brains go out to sea and not come back. You understand?”
I did. Remi had earlier said that his dream in life wasn’t to travel far and wide. His dream was to visit Natanya, an Israeli coastal city. On parting, he pleaded that I wouldn’t forget about him.
Other views struck me in the opposite way. One of the owners of an internet shop I frequent had asked where I work a couple days ago. On telling him that it was at a human rights center, he asked me why, insisting that such groups did nothing. I told him that it was important to get the message out about what life was like here.
“But you talk and talk, and still, look where we are! We have gotten nowhere.”
Well, I reasoned, it wont be solved without doing anything.
“So you talk to the UN over and over, and still, nothing happens!”
I tried to explain how only through international awareness would pressure be brought to change the situation. Yet he insisted, that since America’s view wouldn’t change, talking about the problem was useless. So I asked what he does instead.
“I have patience. It will end.”
Someone at my work, insisting that I should socialize among other westerners, urged me to go to the one place in all of Gaza Strip to drink: the old UN Evacuation Center, known as Beach Club. Having been open since the 1950s, it has long been established in this more conservative part of Palestine (bars do exist among the Christian communities in the West Bank) as the hang out for the UN workers and any other non-Palestinians who have a burning desire to begin drinking at 7pm to old Bon Jovi songs.
As having a monopoly on all of Gaza’s booze, its impossible to complain about the prices which are comparable to Madison’s. The patrons are indeed mostly burned out, balding, Norweigan UN staff, but it makes for a peculiar atmosphere. The manager is actually an American woman. She is an former US Marine, who after getting a Masters’ in political science, decided she was sick of the States and sought work abroud. Personal conviction brought her to Gaza, but after some unsatisfying shifts with different NGOs, she wound up managing the UN’s bar. Its nice to have someone to discuss the logistics of destroying a Merkava tank to.
Supposedly, local Palestinians are barred from entry. I guess its just to reinforce the UN’s ability to create a slice of western life no matter where you are, even in a Hamas stronghold. Apparently, some locals have treated the place like an asylum and have even used fake passports to try to gain membership. But a few Palestinians are allowed in, above those working at the UN. One, named Izzedine, stood out from the other field workers, uniformed UN officers and journalists with his tie-less black sportscoat and slick hair. On the first night of meeting him, he explained that he was with the PLO back in the day when it was still hiding in exile in Tunis. He went on to profess how he had been to America on a few State Dept. sponsored trips. He backed up his claim by giving me his mobile number and insisting that if I needed “anything, really - anything” I shouldn’t hesitate to call.
My suspicions about Izzedine grew on my next visit to the Evac Center. He threw me a quick question about what he thought America would do with the new peace plan. He said that he had no faith in Zinni or Cheney resolving anything because it was just a bone to placate Bush’s Arab allies. While I explained how I agreed, and further asserted that the US public is entirely clueless about the reality here, he kept strumming his mobile phone. It rang, and our conversation was quickly over. When he put down the phone an Englishman resembling Eric Idle hussled over with a frantic, “So? Is he coming?”
“Just wait a little bit and I will call him again. Dont worry,” Izzedine assured the man, sipping off his drink.
“Well, Im about ready to leave. Hmm… At this rate, maybe Ill end up having it for breakfast!”
“Just dont worry. Itll come.”
The phone rang again, and Izzedine went off in Arabic on a brief call. A minute later he answered again, this time in Hebrew. I was at that point on the verge of asking just what kind of drugs these guys were able to bring in.
My fantasies were interrupted as a surly Palestinian burst through the door carrying two massive tinfoil wrapped platters. He placed them down to reveal a virtual feast of Turkish BBQ chicken and beef sausages. More dishes arrived with vegetables, humus and bread. I had to laugh at how I much I read into what was simply a late night carryout deal.
While the entire bar was feasting, another Palestinian named Ramsi, known for his eccentricities, offered a toast. “To the greatest orator and statesman of our time, George Bush!” Everyone in the bar, the Americans, Europeans, Japanese and locals alike groaned in unison. “Ok, ok. How about, to Dr. Strangelove, wisest master of force and nuclear weaponary!”
The nice thing about the UN bar, is that no matter how introverted you are, people will approach you simply because of the lack of westerners. For the few young American and British women present, this means constant attention. For me, it means at least I can talk to someone interesting. On my last visit I wound up talking to the Military Advisor to UNSCO, the main UN office for dealing with the conflict. Lt. Col. Michael Humphreys from Australia had absolutely nothing nice to say about the conduct of the Israeli military.
From his point of view, the Israeli commanders were the ones who should be held responsible for the constant misconduct of their troops. This came on the same day that Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily that also comes out in English, had a piece on how Israeli soldiers following procedure, killed a woman because instead of knocking on doors, they used explosive charges to burst into a house. Col. Humphreys was interested in a new initiative by Amnesty International to compile lists of crimes and misconduct by various troops under certain commanders in the area. As a conscript army, the Israelis are especially susceptible to misconduct, namely when 18 year olds are given guns and permitted to treat Arabs passing through checkpoints as they please.
I brought the topic to the issue of the media and the military, since the Israeli army was now considering not allowing reporters to accompany them any more. Unlike in the US, the fear isnt about “secrets” being revealed by the press, or “advance warning” being given to enemy troops, its outrightly admitted that the Israelis dont want anymore bad press. I stressed to Col. Humphreys that I found it abhorrant that the US, with the most diverse population on the planet, virtually rolled over to let the Pentagon have complete control over all war coverage. He agreed, and said that he was thankful that the press in other western nations had far more freedom and was less aquiecent to control.
But for this conflict, he told me of something very startling. He said that he learned, from a “qualified source in the Israeli Defense Forces, someone who would know” that when the Israelis staged operations, they used two spy drones, not just one. Two spy drones - one to look for gunmen and targets, and another to watch for journalists.
The underhanded duplicity floored me. It confirmed for me what I loathed the most about military bureaucracies in democracies - that they fear the truth getting out as much as they feared the enemy.
Peace may very well (temporarily) come, but the mechanizims for war and deception will never go away.