Note: This was first published on Al Jazeera on 20 July 2014. Death toll has now reached over 1900 Palestinians and 60 Israelis.
Boom! It’s 3:05 am. We wake up for suhour, the pre-dawn meal in Ramadan, after a long and horrifying night made worse by the thick presence of Israeli surveillance drones in Gaza’s sky. Friends on my Facebook newsfeed complain of sleep deprivation and continuing Israeli air strikes around them. The radio has a bad signal, so I turn it off. My two-and-a-half-year-old niece flinches as a deafening explosion strikes a nearby area. Her forefinger pointed upwards, she exclaims, “wawa!” (a colloquial Arabic word babies use to say they are in pain).
On July 7, Palestinians found themselves in the throes of yet another Israeli aggression. Thirteen days into the Israeli onslaught on Gaza, over 400 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians. At least 77 children are among the dead. Thousands of people have been injured and over 50,000 displaced. Some 15,000 houses have been destroyed or severely damaged, and dozens of fishing boats have been burned, destroyed or partially damaged.
The main water line for al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza was bombed and damaged, while 50 percent of sewage pumping and treatment centres are no longer operating. A home for the disabled run by a charitable centre was destroyed, killing two women and injuring others. A kindergarten was hit and damaged. A rehabilitation hospital was targeted. The house of police chief Tayseer Al-Batsh was hit by two Israeli bombs, critically injuring him and killing 17 people of Al-Batsh family. Four children playing on the beach were slain as an Israeli gunboat targeted them in broad daylight. Another three children were killed while playing on the rooftop of their house. The list goes on and on.
In response to Israel’s occupation and illegal blockade of the Gaza Strip (with Egypt’s complicity), its wreaking havoc across the West Bank, its constant human rights violations and arrests, shooting at Palestinian fishermen and farmers, and frequent bombing of Gaza – Palestinian armed groups have fired a barrage of rockets into Israeli territory. Sirens go off in Jerusalem, Sderot, Tel Aviv, Isdoud, Ber Saba’, and other areas, forcing Israeli citizens into shelters. So far there have been two civilian deaths in Israel and five Israeli soldiers have been killed in clashes with Palestinian fighters.
In late afternoon on July 16, the house of my deceased grandparents – home to four families and 12 people in East Gaza – was bombed. My uncles and cousins received no phone call, no messages, nothing (not that a phone call telling you “we’ll bomb your house” makes it any better). The distance between their house and that of their neighbours is less than a metre. No rocket could have possibly been fired from their house into Israel. And, yet, an Israeli “targeted” strike hit them. When the first missile fell, they ran out of the house. My uncle and 70 year old aunt sustained injuries but they all miraculously survived. Homeless, in every sense of the word, they are now split into relatives’ homes. Their house has been completely destroyed. Most of their belongings remain in the street; they visit every morning, trying to find and pull out of the rubble anything still fit for use. My uncle’s wife, an agriculture engineer and a lifelong embroidery enthusiast, laments, “How did I not take my embroideries? Why did I leave without them?”
We are still in the holy month of Ramadan, a time of spirituality, reflection and religious devotion, when people socialise outside and at home with family and friends. Mornings and evenings of Ramadan are no longer the same, though. Most workplaces are closed. People do not go to school or work. They are careful not to go out a lot, although many Palestinians still venture out to get food and perform Taraweeh – evening prayers. At night, most people, except for medical staff and journalists, remain indoors.
War is horror. War is our vulnerability and helplessness. It is our inability to protect family and friends. It is deciding not which area in Gaza is safer, but which one is less dangerous. It is packing official papers, a bottle of water, life savings, a mobile with a dead battery, and, above all, memories into one small “emergency bag” and forgetting the bag altogether once your house is shelled. War is having no time to say goodbye to your window, or the stickers on your wall, or a piece of embroidery, or that crack in the door you always hated. War is leaving your house barefoot. War is your grief aired live on TV. War is humiliation. War is remorse for things you have not done. War is traumatised children and traumatised adults. War is broken hearts and scars that do not heal.
War is the painful abruptness of loss. All it takes is a minute, or perhaps less than a minute. A sky lantern lights up the whole area around the “target”, guiding the Israeli apache or F16 through the dark strip. A terrifying whoosh accompanies the missile as it falls upon the house. Screams and silent tears. A last declaration of faith in Allah and His messenger. A last breath. The sky lights up again. A massive explosion is heard outside. Smoke clouds the area and the air around smells of death. Flames erupt. The explosion echoes in your ear. In seconds, someone’s memories are buried under the rubble of their home. Someone’s loved ones are gone forever.
It is 3:30 A.M. I hear the third boom in a span of only a few minutes as a reminder of the war. War is waking up for suhour not by an alarm clock, but by a blast. Faces are pale and food is tasteless. Time is meaningless. Power is now off and there is no way I can make sure my friends are alive. My niece, still crying and terrified by the sounds of bombing yawns, her tears lulling her to sleep. I turn on the radio again only to hear about Western leaders staunchly asserting, from the comfort of their countries, the right of our oppressor to “defend” itself, while simultaneously denying a defenceless and besieged population that right. I smile at the irony of it all as another explosion roars in the background.
Also on the Electronic Intifada
Last December, I was invited to take part in a speaking tour in the United States about Gaza Writes Back, a book to which I contributed. The book is an anthology of 23 short stories written by young Palestinians commemorating, in fiction, the fifth anniversary of Israel’s 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, known as “Operation Cast Lead”.
There was no hesitation. No second thoughts. “Yes! Of course,” I promptly wrote back to Refaat Alareer, the book’s editor. The three-week tour started on 1 April and included cities across the US. But, sadly, I did not make it, and I was not part of the tour.
There is, of course, the furious patriot inside me that wanted to tell Americans about their tax money helping Israel kill my people; there are stories that I wanted to tell about Palestine and Gaza. I wanted to raise awareness about the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinians.
But there is also the sardonic Gaza citizen who simply wanted to escape all of this for a while, and who just wanted to travel and have a good time (and visit Friends Central Perk).
I wrote down the names of the books I didn’t find in Gaza and wanted to look for in the US. My family gave me a list of things to buy from the States, and I had many American friends I knew from the Internet for years and who I was finally going to meet in person. I had big plans, and since I lived most of my life in Gaza, I was sincerely grateful to be offered such an opportunity.
But first, I had to apply for a US visa. To my surprise, I was given a one-day Israeli permit to go to the United States Consulate in Jerusalem for the visa interview. Visiting and praying in Jerusalem was a surreal experience to which no piece of writing can do justice. Even though traveling through the Erez Crossing from Gaza into present-day Israel was tiring and psychologically humiliating, the trip was emotional and uplifting, especially because it was my first time outside Gaza in fifteen years. Two weeks after the interview, I got my passport back with the US visa. I was one step closer to being in Amriiikka (that’s exactly how we say it in Arabic). I was bursting with excitement. I was quite aware what a visit like this would do for me, for my personal growth and intellectual development as a young Palestinian academic. Meeting all those people I interact with on Twitter and Facebook would affect me beyond imagination and would help me acquire more perspective on the struggle against injustice as well as the activities on American campuses. Coming face to face with Palestinians in the diaspora and meeting Palestinian solidarity activists would be invaluable experiences.
With my visa in hand, now all I had to do was travel. But getting out of Gaza is not easy. With the escalation of the political crisis in Egypt, the Egyptian coup government has tightened its grip on the Rafah Crossing, which has been open for just twelve days this year to a tiny number of patients and students. I was not even able to register to travel through Rafah because there were hundreds still waiting on the list to travel before the Palestinian interior ministry in Gaza could accept new registrations. Rafah was hopeless. So having already got an Israeli permit to travel to occupied Jerusalem for the visa interview, I thought it would not be impossible to get another permit so I could travel through Erez to Jordan and then fly from Amman to the US. The American Friends Service Committee, the organization sponsoring the book tour, helped me apply for a permit. After almost a month waiting for a decision, I was told my application was rejected. Then there came this point in my life where, having failed to travel abroad three times in less than one year, it dawned on me that maybe traveling is something I can only dream of and plan for but never actually do.
The reason the Israeli authorities gave for denying me a permit is that I did not belong to any of the categories normally allowed to travel through Erez. From what I have seen, those include patients getting treatment in Israel, merchants who import goods from Israel into Gaza, foreign journalists and individuals or delegations traveling within US consulate-sponsored programs. Other than that, the decisions as to who is allowed to travel and who is not seem to be so annoyingly random. In fact, one of the most irritating things about occupation is its randomness. One day they allow you into Israel and then the next day you are a security threat. One day the officer is in a good mood so he thinks you are a nice Palestinian but the next day you are a “khamas” terrorist. One day they help you go to a visa interview and the next day they stop you from actually using this visa.
My jaw dropped at Erez crossing when I saw an Israeli officer run a very small machine over an empty pottery bowl which belonged to a Palestinian woman — “What are you checking exactly? It’s freaking empty!” I thought to myself. Israel’s “security concerns” about Gazans traveling through Erez sound like a ridiculous joke, especially when suicide bombings decreased and then stopped years ago more because of a change in strategy by Palestinian armed groups than because of Israel’s restrictions on travel. Looking at casualty figures, no one can deny that it is overwhelmingly Palestinians who are the victims of violence whose source is Israel. Yet “security” is the constant justification.
I often hear Zionists smugly say things like, “Why don’t you ask Egypt to let you travel?” as though Egypt’s shameful complicity justifies Israel’s siege on Gaza or changes the fact it is Israel’s sole responsibility that we cannot travel directly from Gaza as Israel bombed our only airport repeatedly.
There is no doubt that Gaza Writes Back is a pro-Palestinian book. It is a Palestinian book. Anyway, I think the facts are inherently pro-Palestinian. But there are stories in the book about Israelis as well, highlighting the fact that occupation might sometimes be just as harmful for the occupiers as it is for the occupied. There is a story about a Palestinian who, having as a child seen his brother shot right in front of him, grows up to eventually blow himself up in an Israeli park full of soldiers, one of whom is a beautiful female soldier who could have become his wife in a different world. There is a story about an Israeli soldier who is haunted by the memories of war, and another story about two farmers, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, on the two sides of the apartheid wall in the West Bank.
Indeed, the book itself and the speaking tour came as a peaceful and creative initiative intended to promote dialogue and mutual understanding. And though I am no supporter of the “peace talks” between the Palestinian Authority and Israel — which have proven futile and a waste of time over and over again — I did accept the invitation and was ready to talk to and argue with pro-Israel individuals, something very much expected when you want to speak to an American audience.
Israeli leaders make the bogus claim that they are fighting “terrorism” (except they don’t consider their own white phosphorous bombs, drones, F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopters to be “terrorist”) and want to achieve peace with Palestinians through dialogue and negotiations. Yet, ironically, when ordinary Palestinians ask for a permit to travel and dialogue, they are faced with apathy, distrust and rejection.
Israel leaves us with few options. As long as all Palestinians, including writers, artists, journalists and academics, are denied basic human rights, Israeli institutions that profit from or support the occupation and siege should be boycotted. Until equal rights are given to all people living in historic Palestine, regardless of race, color or religion, Israel’s oppression should be fought and its racist policies challenged.
Luckily, three of my friends — editor Refaat Alareer and contributors Yousef Aljamal and Rawan Yaghi — did make it to the US for the tour. They were already out of Gaza studying in Malaysia and the UK before the tour started (just imagine if the four of us were all in Gaza), so it was relatively easy for them to travel to the US. I watched some of their talks online: they were moving, funny and inspiring. Rawan read an extract from the story I contributed to the book. They had a poster with a silhouette of me and the words “Sarah Ali should be here” inscribed on it at all their events.
Sometimes when I recall the procedures I followed while applying for the visa and waiting for the permit, each step long and onerous, I console myself by thinking, “Well, at least you had a cardboard stand-in with your name on it roaming America. It might have passed by Central Perk.”
I used to think that calling Gaza “the largest open-air prison” was hyperbolic, but recently I started to believe it might just be the perfect description. Every day, there are hundreds of Palestinians stuck in Gaza. There are students who fear losing their scholarships abroad, people who want to visit their families in the West Bank or abroad, families who risk their residency in the Gulf or European countries if they stay in Gaza longer than they plan to, pilgrims who want to travel to Mecca, and people who want to travel for fun — a very legitimate reason to travel.
Freedom of movement is a human right. No civilian population should be locked up like this. Nobody should have to think of borders a hundred times before they consider traveling or booking a ticket. Nobody should have to live at the mercy of occupation.
Tears pooled in her eyes as she began to talk. Maysa, one of my closest friends at college, happens to live a few meters away from the Prime Minister’s Office in the Gaza Strip (5-10 meters away). The building was flattened on the fourth day of the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. Gathered around her in one of the university’s rooms, two of my classmates and I listened to Maysa as she, albeit quite reluctantly, narrated what happened on Saturday, the 17th of November. She said it was dawn, around 5 O’clock in the morning. Maysa’s father and two younger brothers were praying in the mosque across the road from their house. Maysa and her mother were alone at home. She had just finished her wudu/ablution when an Israeli F16 targeted the ministers’ building, knocking her against the floor. Lying next to her was her mother, who also fell on the ground once the place got bombed. “Then we heard the second airstrike. My mother and I were still on the ground. The third airstrike… the fourth… I had no doubt we were going to die. We both closed our eyes. We started to cry. We hugged each other so tight. Then came the fifth airstrike. It was the last one. They made sure the Prime Minister’s Office was leveled to the ground. Pieces of glass and bricks were still falling on my back, scratching my shirt and slightly cutting into my skin. They didn’t hurt, though. I was numb. Mum tried to cover me. She hugged me again. She hugged me so tight.”
As she went on, I was trying to concentrate on Maysa’s story and take notes as much as I could. Tears started running down her cheeks. The three of us felt like crying. Gaza is so small all people here share the same pain, although probably in different degrees. Maysa was courageous enough to speak of the unspeakable. She was courageous enough to speak of fear, of horror and death. Throughout history, the typical Zionist occupier has viewed Palestinians as some sort of sub-humans averse to life and yearning to death. Colonizers have tried their best to make the colonized look bizarre, to portray the steadfastness as fearlessness and indifference to imminent danger. They have twisted the concept of martyrdom, depicting it as something we aspire to for no specific reason, not as resistance against their killing machine, not as something we have to live with when they brutally cause.
I was jotting down her words again. As Maysa sipped some water and sighed, my other friend asked her whether they considered leaving their house earlier, since this Prime Minister’s building adjacent to theirs was obviously one of Israel’s targets. As painful as it is, Maysa’s answer was not shocking at all, “Where do they expect us to go? The only place we could go to is my grandparents’ in Rafah, but it wasn’t any safer. They bombed it on the very same day. In my neighborhood, 2 people were injured. In Rafah, 4 people were killed on the same day. 4 people.” Of course, there was no Hamas headquarter in Rafah. Israel still bombed several places there, including civilian areas and a man on a motorcycle.
It has been over than three weeks now since the ceasefire was announced in Egypt. Maysa still flinches when doors bang aloud, thinking they’re some Israeli bombs falling over her head. She still sleeps in the living room because the furniture in her room is entirely gone. A wall in her parents’ room has been damaged, leaving the room partially exposed to the street. Maysa’s father had this house built only 2 years ago. He has not yet finished paying off the money building the house had cost, which makes the damage caused by Israel only more dreadful.
Maysa is just one story. And despite the terror she lived for a couple of minutes and continues to live until now, she deems herself relatively ‘privileged’. She is still alive, unlike the 172 people (mostly civilians) Israel killed in 8 days; her house still has a foundation, unlike tens of other houses which were reduced to rubble. I have seen the Israeli terror. I have seen it in the faces of the elderly mourning the loss of their grandchildren. I have seen it in the smiles of Palestinian kids as they went back to their schools passing by damaged roads, even more determined to learn. I have seen it in the tears of men, sitting on what is left of their houses and concealing their fear of the unknown. I have seen it in the curses of the wounded and the maimed. I have seen it in my traumatized friend, in her tearful eyes and trembling hands.
Resuming life after such frequent attacks is never an easy task. Coming back to school right after the offensive was sheer torture, at least for me. The pale faces. The stories friends tell. The faint smiles and the exhausted beings. It is through the resiliently renewed attempts to live, nonetheless, that I realize how strong my people are. It is through Maysa’s coming back to school, talking literature and simultaneously dreaming of a free Palestine that I believe in our just cause more fiercely than ever. Minutes after she told us about her experience, my friend Maysa was eager to discuss Percy Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’, a poem we’re studying this semester. As she began reciting the poem to me, she couldn’t but refer to the light rain nowadays in Gaza, hoping it will wash away the pain Israel continues to inflict on us and praying that it will help those who have lost beloved ones to survive, resist, and rise all over again.
Looking at the angry man who snatched his flag, watching the crowds afar then eyeing the man once again, trying to get his flag back but getting suddenly attacked by another angry man who happened to be an officer with a gun, knowing he has lost the flag this time, having had enough with the stupid soldier who got oddly enraged neither by a knife nor by a gun but merely by a piece of fabric, remembering he promised he would get back home as soon as he could, considering the consequences of attempting to flee the place, thinking of the distance he would have to run before he could get home, looking at his bare hands for a moment and at the soldier’s gun for another, cameras all shooting him, fears assailing his little heart, thoughts rapidly fighting in his mind, old pains making their way back to his memory, the kid turning into a man history will recall, forgetting about the cameras and the consequences and the distance and the soldier’s gun, getting more and more furious by the deranged officer whose teeth, out of rage rather than delight, were starting to gleam by then, the soldier fiercely biting his hat, the boy standing in front of the people who were chanting ‘Death to Arabs’ minutes before this whole fuss took place, becoming sure he has made a point by holding his flag amongst those who wanted him dead, clinging to life again and again, the boy in pink ran
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
I shall be gentle
A twinge of pain
A mist of thoughts
And you shall go
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Think of the dead
Their tales, their leaving
Your hopes for the meeting
Think of the “gone”
With yearning, go!
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Fired to kill,
I am to sprint
Through that forehead,
I am to go, I am to melt
Abandon the heat
Abate that relish
I, then, am to perish
And let you go
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Fear me not
Heave one sigh
Tis we with fear:
Him on the trigger
But you should go
Close your eyes
And whisper a prayer
Bring back a memory
Smile at the mourners
Smell that aroma
And peacefully go
Published on Mondoweiss
It starts with a smile. A faint one apparently. But that doesn’t matter. I know as long as I’m smiling, nobody can wake me up. I shall keep the smile on my face. And I shall go on dreaming.
I am having a dream…
I can hear my wife whisper something to the kids, but I’m pretending to be asleep. I am trying to stay focused on the dream: the trees, Jerusalem, my friend.
Sadly, it happens that each time a sweet dream forces itself into my distressing thoughts, a fly would keep buzzing till I furiously start swinging my hand trying to keep it away. I would end up hitting my face, and the fly actually wins! I open my eyes and wonder if that was the end; I so much regret waking up to the extent that I would pathetically try to close my eyes again and make the dream last a bit longer. I fail, miserably.
Last night I had a dream…
This time was different though. Trees were all I could see. Jerusalem looked so close. And my friend was alive. I felt like going on as long as possible. I knew by waking up I would be uprooting my own trees, abandoning my Jerusalem, and killing my buddy. This time, I kept my eyes close. This time, I fought for my dream.
When I was 17 years old, I dropped out of school. My father was a farmer but wanted me to go to college and become a doctor. However, I loved to take care of our land. Of the lemon trees. I told him study was not my thing, but he insisted that I go back to school. I did. I became a teacher, and my father died, leaving me with a piece of land full of lemon trees.
The trees were there in my dream, standing so beautifully.
When I was 11, the family decided to go on a trip to Jerusalem, the city of dreams. It was not that expensive to go there at the time, nor was it too difficult to travel. It happened quite easily. It ended so fast.
Last night Jerusalem seemed to be a few meters away, a lot nearer that it was when we went on that visit.
When I was 8, I met Mu’aath, who later became my best friend. We threw stones together, and, because I was kind of a coward, I used to run away and leave him behind each time an Israeli tank got too close. He never left his spot. Mu’aath seemed like a true hero—at least to me.
He was always throwing stones. Even in the dream!
Last night I had a beautiful dream… trees, Jerusalem, my friend.
Now it’s 5:55 a.m. In a few minutes, the alarm will start ringing, my wife will start nagging me to get up, and a hideous fly might come over to take part in the wake-up drama. My eyes are tightly closed. I guess I’m going to take the day off. Well the UNRWA, for which I work, might deduct some bucks, but that is fine. Now I need to concentrate. Trees are all I can see. Jerusalem looks so close. My friend is alive.
Last night I had a dream, and it was when my wife shook my body I realized that the lemons were gone long ago, that Jerusalem is 79 kms (and a checkpoint and a fence and a soldier) away from me, and that Mu’aath was shot to death. I could no longer fake the smile, for the dream was truly over.
Last night I had a dream…
It ends with a smile. A fake one, indeed. But that doesn’t matter. I know as long as I’m smiling, nobody can wake me up. I shall keep that smile. And I shall go on dreaming…
Of the lemon trees. Of Jerusalem. Of Mu’aath.
July 17th, 2011.
O! I was ten when I left thee
And thou know how love feared to be
Clinging to thee,” I tell my home”
“Space matters not; I have thy key”
I won’t be back, the wicked saith
?So do I die?.. or wait my death
!That is no sense.. that is no me
I’m not to hide.. I’m not to flee
The air was dust.. the wound was sore
Me and the wicked shall talk no more
I shall surmount.. day over day
and held all high when things decay
I shall go and.. seek thy relic
I shall fight and.. pen my epic
Be all mine, and I am all thine
And I shall live to see thee free
Sarah M. Ali