“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”
Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.
On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.
Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.
Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.
Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.
Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened. I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.
I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”
Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”
The world blamed her when she hurled her shoes at Ban Ki-moon’s convoy when he entered Gaza. She was angry and disappointed by his prejudice when he refused to meet prisoners’ families in Gaza, after repeatedly visiting Gilaad Shalit’s parents. But they didn’t know to how much she had suffered at Israel’s hands. Read the story of this incident, when shoes and stones welcomed Ban Ki-moon to Gaza, here.
After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.
But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.
When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.
I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”
Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.
Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.
The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.
Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.
About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”
Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”
Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.
The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”
We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.
Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”
“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”
Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”
Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”
My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”
Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”
“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”
“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.
Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”
The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”
I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”
Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.
It was 5:00 pm when I decided to escape my home for a place the power-cut hadn’t reached on June 18. Badia, the restaurant closest to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), is always my first option. Whenever I need to leave the sit-in tent to work on my laptop, I get there after walking less than five minutes. I was drowning in stress from my final exams. I had to double my efforts studying, as I had spent more of the last semester worrying about hunger-striking Palestinian political prisoners than my classes.
Even with stress from being unprepared for any exam, it was difficult to concentrate. My thoughts were filled with the revolution of empty stomachs inside the Israeli jails. June 18 marked the 90th day of the hunger strike Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak had launched against his unjustified three-year detention under Israel’s Unlawful Combatants Law. His hunger for freedom had pushed his life to the edge of death.
I lost track of time while alternating between news Web sites and literary ones for my class. Dad called me, reminding me to return home early. Just before I closed my laptop, I refreshed my Twitter page to see a Tweet saying, “Israel to Release Mahmoud Sarsak on July 10.” I quickly collected my things and ran toward the ICRC, so excited I even forgot to pay my bill.
Even the smell of the air seemed different when I stepped outside. Freedom filled the atmosphere. The chants I heard from the ICRC at Badia’s entrance made me run. The first person I recognized at the sit-in tent was the heroine Hana’ Shalabi, the ex-detainee who hunger-struck for 43 days to win her freedom, under the condition of expulsion to the Gaza Strip for three years. I ran to her and she hugged me happily, saying, “Congratulations on Mahmoud’s freedom!” Everyone was raising victory signs and singing for freedom. Then a man with a huge tray of sweets arrived and started distributing them.
I arrived home very late to find Dad waiting in the dark garden, looking upset. I didn’t want anyone to spoil my happiness, so I walked toward him chanting happily, “We defeated the jailers!” I was sure he hadn’t heard about Mahmoud, as our power was still cut. “Mahmoud will be free on July 10,” I said while looking at Dad, whose face turned into a smile. “People are still celebrating at the ICRC. Hana’ Shalabi was even there.” I was smart enough to find a way to negate his anger.
People in Gaza waited eagerly for July 10, a day that will be commemorated in the history of Palestine. All Palestinian television and radio channels reported this magnificent event. Thousands of people welcomed Mahmoud by the Erez crossing, the same place he was arrested around three years ago. As the ambulance arrived at the Gaza Strip side of Erez, Mahmoud appeared in its window, holding a football with one hand and waving with the other to the crowd of people excitedly waiting to see him.
Despite hating long drives, last Friday, I was crazy enough to tolerate a one-hour trip to visit Mahmoud’s house in Rafah, knowing he might not even be home. A group of foreign activists joined me in my adventure. “And what if he isn’t there?” my friend Fidaa, a Palestinian-American human rights activist, asked. “We’ll wait for him to come back!” I answered immediately.
We arrived at Star Square, near where the star Mahmoud lives. Thanks to posters and graffiti spread all over the walls of the Rafah refugee camp’s alleys, it was easy to find his house. “The groom just left for Gaza City,” his neighbors told us, but we were still excited to be at the house where “the groom” grew up and to meet his parents, who raised him to be a revolutionary.
Mahmoud’s parents were very friendly and welcoming. His house was small and simple, yet full of warmth and joy. It was crowded with neighbors, relatives, and strangers who, like us, had travelled the Gaza Strip to meet Mahmoud. Many of us had no relation to him, but following his struggle since the early days of his hunger strike made us feel connected to him. Mahmoud Sarsak, a Palestinian hero, has become a symbol of our resistance.
“Words can’t describe the happiness I felt when Mahmoud regained his freedom after his unjust detention,” his mother told me. “It felt like my son had escaped the grave! But Mahmoud wasn’t afraid of his. He chose a battle that would lead him to either freedom or martyrdom.”
We asked her how she had gotten news about him during his detention. “Of course, three years passed without a single visit, the same suffering that all Gazan detainees’ families have shared since 2006,” she replied. “So we relied on the ICRC for updates on his situation.”
“We were denied any news for an entire year,” she continued. “After that, we were thankfully able to receive letters from Mahmoud through the ICRC for a short period of time, but I can’t read. Whenever we received a letter, his brother Emad would lock himself in a room and cry for hours. After pulling himself together, he would come out and tell me not to worry, as Mahmoud was doing fine and still playing soccer.”
“During Mahmoud’s strike, I was physically and psychologically exhausted. My sons had to take me to the hospital several times. But I felt like I had returned to life once I heard that Israel had agreed to free him in exchange for an end to his hunger strike. I pray for all detainees’ mothers to experience such relief and celebrate the freedom of their sons.”
The house grew increasingly crowded with visitors. So we left to give others the opportunity to talk with Mahmoud’s wonderful mother.
But I couldn’t give up on meeting Mahmoud himself so easily. We had already travelled from the northernpost point to the southern tip of the Gaza Strip looking for him! So I called his brother Emad, whom I had met frequently in the sit-in tent. When he picked up the phone, I told him I had just visited his family with a group of friends, and that we were very happy to meet his parents. He appreciated our visit, and suggested we meet them in a Gaza restaurant. Excited, we accepted his offer.
We arrived at the restaurant by sunset. My heartbeats grew faster as the time for our meeting drew closer. I could see Emad waiting for us by the entrance. He welcomed our group inside and introduced us to Mahmoud, who nicely asked us to join his table. I felt very nervous sitting directly across from him, but proud that I could look him in the eye while speaking to him. He wore two gold medals and a scarf combining the Palestinian flag and keffiyeh.
“Thanks to Allah for your release,” I said. “How does it feel to be free again?”
“My happiness is incomplete, as the revolution of empty stomachs is still going,” he answered. “My thoughts are with my comrades Akram Rikhawi, Samer Al-Barq, and Hassan Al-Safadi, who are suffering critical conditions in the Ramla Hospital Prison. I was released from there, and know perfectly the medical neglect detainees suffer there. The Israeli Prison Service doesn’t transfer us there for treatment, but for torture.”
His humbleness added a lot to his charm. He kept repeating that he wouldn’t have achieved his victory without the popular and international solidarity he received. “It’s not my victory, it’s yours. I gained my strength and poise from you.” It was obvious that he had lost a lot of weight, but he was still healthy. Joe Catron, an American activist who has met many freed prisoners, said later that he had never seen a recent hunger striker in such good shape.
Mahmoud’s smile didn’t leave his lips the whole time. He paid us all his attention. When I asked him if Gaza seemed different after three years, he laughed and said, “It looks so different to me. Gaza is a very beautiful city despite its small size. I love its beach, its pure air, and its kind people. I missed everything about Gaza. I just missed being home.”
Fidaa asked Mahmoud if he expected to be arrested three years ago when he went to the Erez crossing. “Not at all!” he said. “I was thrilled to achieve a dream to play football in a national team contest in the West Bank, in the Balata refugee camp. When they ordered me to a security meeting, I wasn’t afraid. I expected they would ask me to collaborate with them. I was confident and prepared myself to reject them. I was shocked when they aggressively shackled me.”
I interrupted, asking, “Why do you think they arrested you if you have never participated in resistance?”
“Resistance isn’t only about armed struggle,” he said. “Resistance can be through pen, brush, voice, and sport. We are all freedom fighters, but each of us has his or her own weapon.” His eloquent, passionate answer impressed us even more than we already were.
“Sport is a form of non-violent resistance,” he continued. “Being a representative of Palestine’s national football team makes me a threat to Israel. I’ve always been passionate about building Palestine’s presence in the sports world. I represented Palestine in several football matches locally and internationally, and had the honor of waving its flag wherever I played.”
The more he spoke, the more I admired him, especially when finally I asked him what had changed in his character after his imprisonment. “My faith in our just cause has become deeper and stronger,” he replied. “My determination to unveil the Zionists’ inhumane and fascist practices, and their violations of our basic human rights, has become my reason to live.”
The time grew late, and we had to end our amazing conversation. Mahmoud Sarsak is one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I will remember every word he said as long as I live. According to him, we all contributed to his victory. Let’s unite to achieve more victories for Akram Rikhawi, Hassan Al-Safadi, and Sammer Al-Barq. Make them reasons for your life, and fight injustice any way you can.
Unlike Monday, Tuesday was a happy day. On Monday, I woke up with eyes full of tears after I fell asleep to a tragic story, a story that was not heard widely, but happened in Gaza. Three kids lit up a candle to escape the darkness that filled their house in Al-Bureej Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip and slept. As the candle burned out, the candle of their lives was extinguished, too.
The long hours of waiting inside the bus without moving gave me a backache, but I couldn’t complain with many elderly and sick people surrounding me. An old woman sat to my right. I could read many stories of struggle and suffering in her wrinkles, her traditional Palestinian dress, and her tight eyes. She wore a brace around her neck. I could hear her muttering prayers.
Due to Israel’s apartheid checkpoints, it took us a day to reach Jericho, which is roughly one hour from Allenby Bridge. I waited eagerly, imagining myself walking around the old city of Jerusalem before heading to Gaza. We wasted over four hours waiting for the Israeli soldiers to let us pass through their checkpoints. Being from Gaza made my crossing procedures even more complicated. I spent the whole trip to Jericho counting minutes and hours. The more time we wasted, the less likely it became for me to tour Jerusalem. The time limit that Israel imposed by closing Erez at 7:00 pm made me stressful.
At sunset, I finished all the crossing and security procedures. I hurried to the exit to find my taxi driver sweating, standing by his parked car next to the door waiting for us. He rushed me inside the car, saying that he had to drive me to the District Coordination Offices (DCO) right away to get a permit to leave before it was too late. People from Gaza get permits to cross through Erez back to Gaza there, and people from West Bank get permits to enter Jerusalem and other “Israeli” territory.
On the way to Jordan, I tried my hardest to stop in Jerusalem and visit the Odeh family, whose son Loai was deported to Gaza after his release in the Shalit swap deal. Loai and I became close friends as soon as we met. Before I left Gaza, I promised him that I would do my best to visit his family and give them a hug on his behalf. I couldn’t on my way to Jordan. But I was persistent to make it happen when I returned.
I endured a stream of silence and frustration. Then my telephone rang. It was our travel coordinator from Gaza.
“Listen carefully,” he said in a very serious tone. “The DCO closes at 4:00 pm, and now it’s 5:30 pm. You won’t be able to go home tonight. You’ll have to stay at a hotel, or at a relative’s or friend’s house in Jericho. Keep in mind that you’re only allowed to move within Jericho. No one but you will pay its price for anything outside its limits.”
I said nothing in response and acted as if I was taking his words seriously, but smiled, because only then did I sense how lucky I was. I hung up, turned to the driver excitedly, and said, “I won’t go home tonight. I’m supposed to stay in Jericho, but I’m not going to fear anyone. This night will come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to spend it restricting my footsteps and worrying about Israel’s racist rules or anyone’s orders.”
He smiled and said, “I’m dropping you in Jericho.” I screamed, refusing to accept what he said, but he interrupted me, raised his voice, and continued, “This is what ‘they’ will assume, but not what will happen! I’ll pick you up from Jerusalem tomorrow morning to go to the DCO.” I made sure he meant it before I got too excited, then I burst into screams and tears of happiness. We drove toward Jerusalem while singing one of my favorite Fairouz songs, about Jerusalem: “For you, the city of prayers, I pray.”
The driver warned me of the dangers I might face if I entered Jerusalem. We knew there were risks, but we decided to take them . The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Jericho was the problem. No car can enter Jerusalem without going through it. If we passed it without being stopped by Israeli soldiers, then we were safe.
We put sunglasses on and began chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. We passed without the soldiers noticing anything “wrong”. When the checkpoints disappeared from sight, we shouted, “We made it!” The first person I called was Loai. “I’m now heading to Jerusalem, to meet your family!” I screamed with happiness. “Let the driver drop you at the Jerusalem Hotel, where my brother Obay is waiting for you,” Loai said laughing.
I couldn’t be more grateful to a person than the driver, who put himself at risk to make my dream come true. He dropped me near the hotel, made sure that I was safe, and left me to enjoy the rest of my time in Jerusalem, before the next morning when my adventure would end.
I had never met Obay, but I felt like I already knew him. We talked briefly once when Loai was in Egypt. He introduced us on Skype. Loai had told how special their relationship was, especially after they were reunited in prison. They shared a cell together for over two years before Obay, who was detained in 2002 as a child at the age of 17, was released in 2006. They met again in Egypt last January. I could see many similarities Obay shared with Loai – appearance, behavior, way of thinking and even their expressions – that made me feel closer to him.
The first thing we did was take a walking tour inside the old city of Jerusalem. I can’t describe how good it felt to be there. I took a short noon tour there last June, but the city is even more magnificent at night. I could hear history, authenticity, and solidity narrated by every stone, every wall, every street, everything. But at the same time, I recalled how Loai once described his city: “Jerusalem is a sad town.” It’s true. I could touch the anger, the sorrow, and the challenge everywhere while wandering its ancient alleys.
The people who remained in Jerusalem suffer the most from Israeli occupation and apartheid. While wandering around, we saw many people sitting outside their homes chatting. I passed by a group of girls in a courtyard. They were very welcoming and loving when they learned I came from Gaza. I asked them about the occupation, with which they interact daily. “We will never leave our homes even if it costs us our lives,” one of them replied. “Israel offered to buy these old, small houses with unbelievable amounts of money, but we never gave them up and never will. Our resistance is to stay here, despite all the mocking, humiliation, and violations of our rights.”
I was thrilled by her answer. A young girl among them grabbed me to introduce me to her family. I was shocked to see how narrow her house was. They had only one room, where nine people, including her parents, live.
I kept walking. I could see Hebrew graffiti on the walls and Israeli flags. It’s not only a sad city, but also an angry one. I could sense its anger shaking the floor beneath me, as if it was saying, “My tongue is Arab and my identity is Palestinian.”
In the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to tell where Palestinians and settlers live, even without Israeli flags flying on roofs or Hebrew written on the walls. The Palestinian homes are very old and narrow. They’re not permitted to be renovated. Electrical wires are uncovered and tied to the ceiling. Israel tries every way to pressure Palestinians to leave their houses with the neglect of the civil services and the increase of taxes. On the other hand, the settlers’ homes appeared to be in good shape and enjoyed good electricity and other public services. Settlers are allowed to extend and refurbish their houses.
I followed Obay wherever he went. We climbed snaky stairs until we reached a roof, where an Israeli soldier suddenly came outside to ask why we were there. Obay answered calmly, “Just to see the city from the top.”
I didn’t know exactly where I was, and the soldier, who was monitoring screens connected with cameras spread all over the city, made me nervous. Then Obay pointed. I turned to where his finger stopped to discover that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were right in front of me. I opened my eyes wide and sighed. The exceptional beauty of the golden dome glittered and lit up the dark sky.
No matter how long I meditate on this magnificent view, my eyes will stay thirsty. But we had to leave. Obay had a nice plan to make use of my only night there. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that our next destination was Jaffa. It was always a dream, but one in the back of my mind, which I thought would be impossible to reach. We headed there in the car. Being in Jaffa increased my longing to return to Beit-Jerja, my original village, where my grandparents were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The refugees’ return is a right, not just a dream, and it will be fulfilled someday.
The first thing we did in Jaffa was have dinner in a restaurant that overlooking the beach. We were starving after an hour driving and over two hours wandering around Jerusalem. In Gaza, the last thing I would order is fish, as even it is imported. The Israeli Navy occupies our sea and prevents fishermen from going farther than three nautical miles, cutting down Gaza’s wealth of fish. In Jaffa, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to try the fish of our Mediterranean sea, and I didn’t regret it! I can’t tell you how succulent it tasted.
Immediately after we finished eating, I ran toward the seashore in my bare feet to wet them and feel the warm waves. I kept walking, paying no attention to time or distance, while breathing Jaffa’s pure air and collecting beautiful seashells to keep as souvenirs. It felt so harmonic and spiritual. I never stopped thinking about my people in Gaza, who were very near, but could never reach this side of the Palestinian beach.
I wished I could watch the sunrise there, but we had to go back to Jerusalem a little earlier, as Loai’s father was worried about us. I couldn’t complain about anything. I received more than I expected. I repeatedly described how happy I was this way: “I am afraid I will die from too much happiness.” I hoped for at least an hour in Jerusalem, and unexpectedly, I had a whole night in both Jerusalem and Jaffa. Alhamdullah, God was very generous to me.
It meant a lot to be at Loai’s house. His pictures hung everywhere, even in the garden. I caught only two hours of sleep before I had to leave the house to get a permit from the DCO. Before I said goodbye to Loai’s family, I took pictures of every corner of the house to show Loai the place where he was raised, since he had almost forgotten its appearance after ten years of detention. I also picked two branches from a beautiful tree in their garden. He was very happy to receive these photos and branches.
All these adventures felt like a dream, one so happy that I never wanted to wake up. But my return to Gaza was obligatory. I spent seven hours in the DCO, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to issue my permit to return to Gaza through Erez. As I arrived in a Gaza blackout, I was welcomed by a very loud bomb that exploded near Beit Hanoun. I was scared at first, but then I burst out laughing and shouted, “Welcome back to Gaza!”
If you didn’t read the first part of my story, kindly press this link to read it first.
I left Gaza at 10:00am and arrived in Jordan by sunset. The weather was freezing. I couldn’t wait to climb into the warm taxi that would drop me near the Marriott Hotel, where the reunion was held. I wrapped my body with my kuffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf, and slept. The hour-long drive passed without my notice. When we drew near to the hotel, the driver woke me up. I rose quickly to the window and took in my surroundings. The place exceeded my expectations. I was truly tired, and very sleepy and hungry, but as I saw the beauty around me, I felt refreshed and excited once again.
As I entered the lobby, my first glances fell on my friends, who were the main reason I decided to attend the reunion. I spent all my time in the US with them. Seeing them again filled me with happiness. After an hour of greetings and exchanging stories, the time came to check into my room. A hotel worker helped me with my luggage and showed me my room. Once I got in, I left the responsibility for my luggage to the worker and eagerly hurried to the balcony.
I stood motionless, with my eyes wandering around my surroundings. I had ever seen a landscape that so deserved to be painted. I was captivated by the beauty of the big garden behind the building. Dim lights spread nicely amongst the colorful trees, flowers and swimming pool. Behind the beautiful backyard, the Dead Sea lay peacefully. It was cold and the sky wasn’t very clear, so more beauty lay hidden behind its dark clouds. I had never seen the Dead Sea before then, but my parents had told me many times about its breathtaking beauty. They used to tease me and my siblings, since they had gotten to swim there and walk on Jericho’s beach, while we couldn’t. The movement restrictions got more intense during the latest couple of decades of the Israeli Occupation. I smiled while remembering these memories and wished they were there.
The next day, during our break, everyone else preferred to stay inside to avoid the cold winds. But I didn’t want to let that hold me back from meditating on the beach of the Dead Sea. So I put my jacket and my kuffiyeh on and eagerly went to the closest point to the shore. As I got closer, my gaze grew longer and my heart beats got faster. I lost my breath as I saw the wind forming small waves, tenderly wetting the golden sand, and hitting the rocks, colors and sizes, that lay on the shoreline.
It was a bittersweet feeling to be on the other side of Jericho. I could see Jericho’s hills in the horizon line. I was so close yet so far away, since Israel’s apartheid regime deprives me as a Palestinian from Gaza from reaching it.
The reunion schedule was very busy. We had tasks to accomplish and workshops and lectures to attend. One was about democracy, which is not my favorite to discuss. I was obliged to sit and listen to a professor whom I didn’t like. I argued with him once, about Israel and Palestine, when I briefly met him after he defended Israel’s crimes and illegal existence and occupation by saying, “I believe in Israel’s right to exist.” I remember our heated discussion about that, which left him trapped. Then he became mad and tried to get himself out of the debate by raising his voice. After his speech about “democracy,” we were given a chance to share our points of view and tell stories of democracy in our homelands.
I had been waiting anxiously for the moment to speak up, so I raised my hand. “In 2006 in Palestine, we experienced this democracy,” I said angrily. “We had a democratic election, which Hamas won. But because the result of this ‘democracy’ didn’t satisfy Israel and its friend America, they imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip as a collective punishment for everyone, whether they voted for the ‘terrorist’ Hamas or not.”
The professor didn’t like what I said, but I went on speaking. “I don’t think democracy exists in reality. There is no such thing. In fact, this definition should be replaced in the dictionaries with HYPOCRICY.” He interrupted me by saying that I should give others a chance to speak. I stopped, but could no longer listen to more hypocrisy and left.
On the fourth day, we had an exhibit. Posters by all participants, briefly describing the projects they were planning to implement in their home countries to seek change, were hung on the walls. Having a passion for art, I decided to focus on artists in Palestine. For more regarding my project, you can see me presenting about it here.EQxqnvWhnGQ
That was basically the end of the reunion. Only then did I have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Dead Sea again. The weather became a little better, but was still cold. A single day was left for me in the Dead Sea, and this opportunity might not come again. Therefore, I joined a group of my friends who decided to challenge the weather and swim for the same reason. We encouraged each other to go crazy and take the plunge. I dyed my skin with the famous Dead Sea mud -— it looked scary. Then I slowly and carefully got into the water. It was torture before my body adjusted to the coldness of the water. Suddenly I found myself floating and oh my God! It felt like heaven. It seemed like I had no control over my body. But I felt safe and peaceful in the bosom of nature.
I was scheduled to leave the hotel on March,5 to Amman. I enjoyed its archeological sites that speak of the history and culture of the Roman Empire. I went to many interesting places like the Roman theater and the citadel. I had a great time with my friends there, but I also felt homesick, especially after I heard about the Israeli attacks on Gaza that had resulted in 15 martyrs by then. Watching these attacks from outside is different than being inside. I felt so much panic. I was very worried about my family and my people, and wished I could be there, sharing their difficult times.
11 March is the day when my permit in Jordan went invalid. Thus, my awesome Jordanian friends offered to drop me at Allenby bridge to go through more checkpoints on the way back to Gaza.
My journey in Jordan ended like that but another journey, or risky adventures, inside the occupied lands started. To read more about come tomorrow!
As I realized today’s date, the 4th of February, a stream of memories flooded into my mind. Today, last year, marked my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni’s last birthday I spent with him.
I remember it was a nice, rainy Friday. I felt happy to be rich, having just gotten my $1,000 share from YouthSchool for my work on the Gaza 2011 calendar “All I Want Is Peace”. My best friend Adie Mormech, an English activist who spent a year in Gaza working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), reminded me that it was Vik’s birthday. That day, Vik missed the Friday lunch, to which he always looked forward. I knew about Vik’s stress regarding his father’s deteriorating health, and that it was a reason he didn’t join us for lunch. He would always say “Zaki”, delicious, as his gentle but funny way of thanking Mum for the food that was fondly ranked by “his majesty” as the best in Gaza.
Having not seen him, and being worried about him, I decided to surprise him by going to the ISM office where he and the other ISMers (Adie, Inge, Vera, and Silvia) were gathering. It was already night when I left home for Mazaj, the cake shop Vik preferred, and it was raining heavily. But it was worth getting wet for the sake of Vik’s smile and the fun I expected to have when I arrived at the office. I got the cake and hurried with excitement to meet Vik and my other friends. I couldn’t wait to tell him about the greetings that his friends from Italy had told me to send him, and to put the smile on his face that always sent warmth and happiness to everyone around him.
Vera, an ISM activist from Germany, welcomed me as I knocked on the door. When she saw the excitement on my face and the cake I carried, she whispered, “It’s not the right time for a party now. Vik is sad.”
My happy features turned sad. I left the bag by the entrance and went to look for Vik. He sat in the living room alone as Vera had told me. The curtain that separated the two sitting rooms, which were open to each other, was pulled down. I felt like even the house looked sad. I wanted to check on Vik, though. After asking him if I could come in, I sat next to him on the purple couch for a couple of minutes of silence. “I hope you’re OK,” I said while pressing his hand. “I’m worried for my father,” he said. “He’s going to have an operation that might reveal a terminal illness.”
He knew that if it did not go well, his father would not have long to live. As I remember this, I think of how ridiculous and unpredictable this life is. Back then, who would have ever expected that Vik would die before his father did?
Vittorio was torn between two concerns at the center of his life: his attachment to Palestine, and his father and family’s need for his support. Each thought was more pressing than the other. Then suddenly, “Strong Vik” could no longer control his tears. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing Vik cry. Vik has been always a symbol of strength, humanity, and inspiration for me. He always will be. At the time, I felt confused and didn’t know how to act. With spontaneity, I hugged him, as I thought getting a hug in such difficult times might help more than my words. I cried along with him, too.
Then Vik learned about the cake I brought. He didn’t want to disappoint me and all my plans. He reached deep inside himself for strength to bring smiles back to the faces of his friends, smiled at me, then shouted to all the others, “Yalla, let’s have some cake”. That’s how caring Vik was; he always wanted to be a reason for everyone to smile, but never for anyone to cry. He could easily shift the atmosphere from gloomy to so happy, so much that I didn’t want to go back home.
I remember my memories from your birthday last year and oh, dear Vittorio, you can’t imagine how much I wish I could tell you how much I miss you and joke with you like we used to do. I miss you even though I strongly feel your presence with me, like you never left us. Every Friday that has passed without you, I’ve wished you would come for lunch, your smile lighting the room as you walked through the door.
I wish you could see my drawing that’s dearest to me. It’s your portrait that you always nagged me to make, but never got to see. I am certain that no matter how many more drawing I have produced and will produce, yours will be my favorite. Not only because of my skill, and the love that I put into it, but because, somehow, part of your beautiful soul attached itself to this painting.
As you look down from paradise, on all of us here, I offer you this drawing. I hope it brings you as much joy as you always brought us. I miss you Vittorio. I love you, Vittorio. You will live forever in my heart and in the hearts of all Palestinians, who owe you so much. We’ll keep celebrating your birthday every year and you’ll continue to inspire us, adding more humanity to the world. Rest in Peace, dear Vik. Stay human!
Palestinian political prisoners are not only numbers
Last night, a new friend of mine noticed that I try to highlight the issue of Palestinian political prisoners in my writings. That led to a long chat about my interest in bringing out their stories. I started by describing how being the daughter of a former detainee has inspired a passion toward my homeland and the feeling of having a duty toward my people, especially our forgotten prisoners, within me.
I told him how attending the weekly protest with prisoners’ families in the Red Cross has turned to be a psychological cure for my own pains. It’s true. Sometimes I feel very sad, but as soon as I see a prisoner’s mother, wife, or daughter smiling, my spirit strangely rises. Interacting with the prisoners’ families and listening to their stories, full of suffering and pride, has created a warm relationship between us. They have become an important part of my life, and a reason to live.
I’ve always criticized the way prisoners are presented as numbers. Reports often show them as mere statistics, omitting that behind these figures there are humans desperate for dignified life and justice. Humanizing their issue by making their stories heard has been the main goal of my writings, with faith in humanity preserving my hope that their stories may wake the sleeping to take action.
Unconsciously, my life has recently centered on Khader Adnan. He is an administrative detainee who has been on hunger strike since December 17 to protest his illegal detention without trial. I have followed updates about his continuing hunger strike, his silence, his deteriorating health, the ban on his family visiting him, and the Israeli Prison Service (IPS)’s indifference and neglect of his situation. Gaza has held many events in solidarity with him and his family, who are terrified that each new dawn could bring news of his death.
Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Gaza
From Khader Adnan’s story, which has repeated itself thousands of times in Palestine, to news about United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Gaza, anger and frustration have dominated my mind.
Representatives of families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and martyrs’ families wanted to join the delegation that would meet Ban. Civil society figures made intensive efforts to ensure that this would happen so he could hear about their demands and long years of suffering. However, Ban simply refused to meet these people, who wanted his support and protection for their violated rights. An angry crowd, having heard of his repeated visits to former Israeli prisoner Gilaad Shalit, hurled shoes and stones at his convoy as it entered Gaza Thursday morning.
I watched the video of the prisoners’ families throwing shoes and stones. Honestly, it filled me with joy and pride in my people. I thought that it might make the Palestinian people look bad in front of the international community. But I would have only one response for those who might define Palestinians as mere throwers of shoes against diplomats: Those shoe throwers included angry relatives of prisoners who have endured terrible conditions at the hands of merciless Israeli jailers. They are frustrated with Ban’s biases toward Israel, and have witnessed more than enough of Israeli brutality, tyranny, and violations of their simplest rights guaranteed by international law and the Geneva Conventions. Those people have been filled with anger by more than five years of living under a closure imposed by Israel, and declared illegal by UN bodies. They haven’t been allowed to visit their relatives in prison since Hamas was democratically elected, boycotted by the UN, and marginalized as a terrorist organization.
Om Ibrahim Baroud joined the angry crowd that welcomed Ban “disrespectfully”
Watching the video, I saw Om Ibrahim Baroud join the crowd that greeted Ban. Baroud is the 75-year-old
mother of a political prisoner who has spent 26 years in Israeli prisons, and for 26 years, she has never stopped calling for the freedom of her son. Despite her age, she has joined every hunger strike prisoners launched since her son was detained, and has never missed a protest for Palestinian political prisoners. She always says, “I am not only the mother of the detainee Ibrahim Baroud, but of all the prisoners and oppressed. I’ll keep calling for their freedom as long as I am alive”. Last Monday at the weekly protest in the Red Cross, she limped because of a pain in her leg, but was still fasting in solidarity with Khader Adnan and all prisoners. She spoke for the prisoners to the media, appealing to every human right organization to witness the suffering of Palestinian detainees and act.
In the video, she was angry as never before, gathering all her physical power to hit Ban’s convoy with a stick. Her strength has always impressed everyone who knows her. “I know I am for Ban, nothing more than a mother of a ‘terrorist’”, she told me on the phone with rage. “Why would he bother to listen to me? He must know that I am the mother of a human being who deserves dignity even in detention. And I am a human who deserves to be heard”.
No one should blame this mother, who has been deprived of wrapping her arms around her son for 26 years. No one should blame her after she witnessed countless Israeli attacks on Gaza, especially the 2008-2009 war. She saw the phosphorous bombs, banned by international law, falling on civilians who took shelter in the Al-Fakhoura UNRWA School after fleeing their homes. She lives near it. Don’t blame her when she explodes with anger after hearing of Ban Ki-moon’s thanks to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the architect of the 2008-2009 war – for his “generosity” towards Gaza; his generosity in redeeming the world of 352 children whom, if they hadn’t been killed, would have grown up into terrorists to threaten the holy security of Israel. Don’t blame her or any Palestinian when UN did nothing against Israel for the war crimes Israel committed even at UNRWA sites. Instead, they are biased toward Israel, while we have been terrorized daily by the Israeli Occupation ever since it was illegally established through ethnic cleansing.
Palestinians owe Ban Ki-moon no apologies
After this “disrespectful welcome” of Ban Ki-moon by the angry families of prisoners and martyrs, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) shamefully sent apologies to him.
But I’ll allow myself to speak on behalf of Palestinians and say proudly: “We make no apologies!” And I add: “The PLO doesn’t represent us.” Palestinians aren’t the ones who should apologize. The one who should apologize is who keeps talking of human rights, yet sees human rights continuingly and openly violated by Israel, but does nothing, instead covering up Israel’s crimes against humanity. Actually, thousands of apologies wouldn’t suffice to heal the long, bleeding wounds that Palestinians suffer from the long course of Israel’s occupation and existence.
After all the difficulties I had been through in order to get myself out of the big prison of the Gaza Strip, I made it to USA.
I spent the first week of the program in Gaza against my will. My hope of leaving had gradually been fading until I received a call informing me that I would be leaving through Erez on the 26th of June after a whole week of pain trying to pass Rafah border. I was in Gaza physically but not mentally. My mind was constantly with the people who would become my second family soon after my arrival. I was daydreaming of life in USA and I couldn’t wait till I arrived there. I thought I was so unlucky that I missed a week in my life there but in fact I was such a lucky girl. What had been waiting for me was beyond my expectations.
At 8 am, on the 26th of June, my adventure had started. I had passed through Erez and Jerusalem, and somehow I was able to convince my driver to take me by the old city. I wasn’t allowed to leave the bus till I arrived Allenby Bridge in Jericho, but my driver had sympathy for me and he allowed me to have one hour there even though he took a risk by doing that. I actually exceeded the limited time I had as walking in the old streets of Jerusalem and visiting all the holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, stole my mind. I was jumping in the streets and singing out loudly like a nut. Can’t blame me for that! I had to go back to where we agreed to meet in order to get dropped off by Allenby to complete my way to Amman, while wondering why it must be so difficult for me to go to my capital city and why I have to go through all these complex procedures in order to travel.
I had arrived in Amman by 6 pm and had stayed with a very nice woman whom I knew through Facebook as she was supporting the sales of my calendar, Gaza Calendar 2011. I spent a short but unforgettable time in Amman. My plane was scheduled to leave at 5 pm on the following day. I had to travel to Dubai’s airport and then to Washington DC.
I couldn’t believe myself when I took my first step out of the plain in Washington DC airport after a 12-hours-non-stop flight. I was even more excited knowing that only a couple of hours separated me from joining the MEPI family. But I should learn that excitement sometimes works in the wrong direction. I was walking the airport with a look full of excitement, smiling to everyone I encountered, and ended up sitting in a gate that I thought it was the right one, but realized had been the wrong one two minutes after my flight to Philadelphia took off. It was actually kind of funny. I didn’t know how it had happened, but I guess for someone who had taken a 12-hour non-stop flight, sitting between two elderly people who kept snoring the whole trip, it is normal to run out of batteries. My flight was rescheduled for me. It was by then a bit sad as almost nothing remained to meet my MEPI family, but it turned out to require four more hours of waiting. Then I cried like a baby until I fell asleep, only to wake up just as my flight started boarding and return to the same excitement I had before.
“Nothing happens without a reason” – this is something that I started to believe in very deeply. I met wonderful people on that flight that left an impact on my vision for my future. Some of those people belonged to a church group who were volunteering in Zambia fighting hunger and poverty there. By the end of the trip, it felt as if I was one of them. They didn’t leave me tell they made sure that I got my luggage and everything was ok with me. Soon after, they formed themselves as a circle and held each other’s hands and included me. Then they made a prayer with their eyes closed to give thanks for their safe arrival. I am Muslim but I joined them while they were doing their prayer and it felt good to me. I believe that religions shouldn’t create gaps between people. To whatever religion we belong, we are all humans at the end of the day and what we share is more than how we differ from one another.
As I was walking toward the exit expecting to see somebody to drive me to Newark, Delaware, I saw the coordinator of MEPI program in the University of Delaware, waiting for me and holding a paper with my name written on it. After glancing at him, I ran to him and I hugged him as if I knew him already. I was just so excited about starting my journey. He drove me to Delaware where my MEPI family was waiting for me excitedly.
Meeting my MEPI family was so special to me. Thinking of them constantly before the time came and following their Facebook posts from Gaza made them already a part of me, even before I met any of them. That made it easier for us to get along. We were together all the time. We used to leave each other at bedtime, only to dream about the next day. Every day made us more connected and more caring about each other. I felt a real family overwhelmed with love, passion, and care around me. We would laugh together and cry if anyone started to shed a tear. They maybe didn’t know to what extent each one of them affected my personality, but at least I know that they will keep their own place in my heart forever. My colleagues were from 14 different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We had many differences but those differences didn’t keep us apart, they only made our family more interesting. We had fun laughing at each other’s accents and sharing our cultures. The loveliest part was the staff members. They are such great people who accompanied us all the time to make sure that every day would be better than the previous day. They were there to educate us, to help us doing our homework, and to cheer us up whenever we felt down. They dedicated themselves to supporting us in every way they could. Such giving and loving people are rare to find. They have left an enduring impression on me. I feel so proud having had a chance to be close to such wonderful people with amazing characters.
The real wealth is not measured with money but with how many close relationships you form. Therefore, I consider myself to be very rich as I have many real friends that I can trust for the rest of my life.
Apart from making friends, for a Gazan, who got used to seeing gray all around and not much green, it is delightful to see some views of nature. This is another thing I loved about America. I never got bored wandering around in the streets as the huge trees with fireflies that seemed like Christmas tree lights made me full of joy and inspiration. I would go for a walk ifI felt rough, but that was never a way for me to relax in Gaza. I never minded long drives, too. My head would keep swinging from one window to another in order not to miss any views. We would pass by huge lakes that took my breath away, or a group of geese, or sometimes we would see deer standing by the woods.
I felt so fortunate had having a chance to let my eyes enjoy pondering nature there and meeting many interesting people, some of them were great professors who are so passionate about the Palestinian cause. They became excited about setting up a meeting with me as soon as they know I am a Palestinian living in Gaza.
I also enjoyed talking to people that I encountered by chance. Palestine was my favorite topic to talk about whenever I had a chance. It was funny as most times I spoke to anyone, she or he would ask me where I am from, and then I would reply with a smile on my face, “I’m from Palestine.” Then most people would ask, “Pakistan?” and I would say again, “no! PaLLLLestine” to make sure that I make the pronunciation of letter “L” as clear as possible. But this actually didn’t make any difference to some of them, as they would either ask “where is that?” or “what’s that?” My answer would be “Do you know Israel?” They would show all the expressions of confirmation they can and then I would say “well, Israel is in Palestine” to leave them with exclamation marks on their faces. And then they would be confused, which would be the responsibility that I enjoyed the most, to explain what I meant with history as my only evidence.
It was a bit sad that many people didn’t recognize my country. I say MY COUNTRY as I’ll never lose hope that it is going to be a country one day. Sometimes I got emotional seeing maps with Israel written in bold on the world map and not finding Palestine in the resources that were given to us for use during the leadership program. However, that only grew two things inside me: Knowledge of how hard I have to work to educate people about my country, and determination to make Palestine recognized by every human being on the planet.
Writing about my journey to USA can never end. Briefly and honestly, the five weeks I spent there made me much more mature and confident in my potential, and my ability to give as much as to take. I’m not such a different Shahd, but I can assure you I am a better Shahd after this interesting, eventful, and educational journey.
“Oh yes! I got the scholarship! I’ll be going to USA for a leadership program,” I said while jumping with happiness after reading the email with news of my approval। I thought I had passed the most difficult step. It wasn’t actually the step that I should have worried about. I realized later that I had rushed my happiness, and that it had been too early to feel like I was in control of everything.
When the time to book my tickets came, the American embassy gave me two options; either to leave through Egypt to the USA, or to go through Erez border to Amman and then to the US. I was confused. I had a flashback of being humiliated in the Erez border when I went to Jerusalem to get my visa for the USA. I thought that was enough of that, and there was no need to go through the same experience again. In the meantime, I had read articles and followed the news that announced the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. So I quickly decided to go through Egypt, but didn’t know that it was a stupid decision until it was too late.
I was in the middle of a bunch of discordant voices which would eventually end up driving me crazy. Haha, welcome to confusing Gaza! First, I heard that it was not difficult any more to leave through Rafah, and that it was even easier for women. “All you need is your passport and you will leave very easily and quickly.” Most people agreed on that, relying on fake news reported by the media. Later, I realized that this was what should have been implemented, but not what had happened in reality. I had to go the Rafah border and reserve the date of 18th of June to travel. When I went there, I found people fighting because every date before the 22nd of July had already been taken. I was very depressed, thinking that my dream of visiting the USA wouldn’t happen because of a border, but was lucky enough to meet a man who liked me and sacrificed his reservation on the 18th of June for me. Then I thought that there was nothing more to worry about.
The 18th of June came. It was last Saturday. I was at the Rafah border by 7 am. I kept standing for long hours under the burning sun with dad and my friends Joe and Rocky from ISM. I had to beg people to help me. I saw old men and women crying. I realized then that wherever I went, I would get humiliated, and that I shouldn’t have paid attention to what I experienced at Erez, because no matter how hard that was for me, it wasn’t any harder than the humiliation I would face at Rafah. I went back home that day at around 4 pm. I forced myself to sleep to escape from the frustration I felt at having to get up the following day and make a second attempt at crossing. I didn’t only make a second attempt; I had a third, a fourth and a fifth, all for nothing! I used to leave home so early with my suitcase, torturing myself, my family and my friend to return with it after committing around 8 hours there. I’m still stuck in the horrible prison of Gaza.
It is, simply, pure hell at Rafah. Every day I went to the border was harder than the one before it. Every day, I just got more and more frustrated. “There’s only one way you’re going to leave: with a strong connection”- this is the system that the Rafah border follows. Every day I went there, I bled tears for the people who have been struggling to leave for weeks, but couldn’t. There was no mercy for anybody, whoever they were: old or young, sick or healthy, or whatever. It’s not like the movies: it is true drama, so sad and so miserable. For the past five days, I’ve been dying to hear a certain response from anyone working there. Nobody can bother to talk to you or tell you anything, you just have to try and try without stopping.
When people said that I didn’t have to worry anymore about crossing though Rafah, and that I could leave easily and quickly, it seems that they meant that you could leave very quickly, within at least two weeks. Oh, what a joke! But after I went though that hell, don’t think that I am going to surrender. No, I’ll keep going. Persistence is the only way to reach goals, and I’ll reach them eventually.
Why should my dreams be crushed at the Rafah border? Why, after I got a chance that a Gazan can have only once in a lifetime? Why should the media lie about reality? Why should they let us go so far with our dreams, then finally shock us with the reality? Where is the honesty of the media and where is the honesty of leaders, be they Palestinian or Egyptian? Who is responsible for all the suffering that Gazans face at Rafah? We are the victims of a web of lies.
It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.
My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.
As I passed through the first checkpoint, the alarm bell rang. I started to feel worried but one of my friends told me that it was because my bag contained a laptop. Seeing some Palestinian men working there helped me to relax. One of them told me not to worry as this was normal. He took it from me and he asked me to enter the gate again. I did, with my heart beating fast. After that we were led to enter lots of gates, one after another.
My eyes waited excitedly to see the green lights. I reached one point where I had to stand in an exact way. I tried to show that I had no fear. I saw the green light and they allowed me to pass. I took a deep breath then, but I was so rushed! Unluckily, I heard some Hebrew through the speakers which were spread everywhere around. Then an old Palestinian man who was responsible to show the travelers where to go yelled loudly, calling me back. “I don’t know what the problem is with you, my daughter,” he said with his eyebrows high, showing surprise and worry. “Come back to the same gate and do as I tell you to do,” he continued. I couldn’t hide my panic anymore. I did as I was told but the signs of worry on my face were obvious. “Smile or else the photo will be dark,” the Palestinian man joked to make me less worried.
I wondered why everybody else was having fewer obstacles at passing than I, but I had no answer to my question. I thought that nothing could be worse than that when I passed that grim gate. I was mistaken again. They sent me to a special check point. I was ordered to go into an empty room with a window of glass and an empty chair, a table, and a microphone behind it. I was about to cry, but I tried to pull myself together because I believed that what would make them happy was seeing me fall. I kept standing and just waited. It was totally quiet and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Suddenly, while I looked around the place randomly, an Israeli female soldier sat in the chair.
“You have to do what I tell you exactly,” she said. “Take off your trousers,” she continued with that severe, intense voice. I looked at her with surprise, asking if she was serious. She repeated the same sentence in a louder tone. I could not summon any reaction but the same shocked look. “It is an order!” she shouted, and continued, “You don’t have to worry as only you and I are here.” I kept my head high and I took them off, insisting on making my dream of reaching Jerusalem reality. She ordered me to turn myself around and then pull my t-shirt up. I put my stuff inside a box to be checked as she ordered, and then got it back to dress again.
I am writing this to you feeling so low. Maybe some would think that I should not speak about this, but I must. People have to know how we are humiliated, how badly we are treated, as if we were less than human beings. What was the point of doing that? Obviously nothing! Why did they choose me in particular? For absolutely no reason! They just wanted to enjoy inflicting psychological torment on somebody, and the lot fell upon me. I tried to keep my strength, but this experience left a deep pain inside me.
All my friends passed earlier than me. They waited for me on the other side. As I joined them again, I felt so much better. I decided to live in the moment and not to let anyone ruin my happiness at finally reaching the bus of the American embassy that had been waiting for four hours to take us to Jerusalem.
I only needed to deeply breathe the fresh air of the lands on the other side of the Erez border to feel relaxed. It was such a special feeling. We got into the bus which drove us to Jerusalem. I kept looking through the windows at the places around us. I was amazed. I saw fantastic nature wherever I directed my eyes. They were so hungry for such views. I looked around wildly in order to not miss any of the beauty: the hills, sandy and rocky mountains, green fields, huge trees, and colorful flowers. On our way from Erez to Jerusalem, as I pondered nature, I sang Fairoz’s song about the streets of the old Quds, feeling so happy that I had made it, in spite of every difficulty I had passed through. The taxi driver, who is originally from Jerusalem, noticed my painting book and asked me about it. “I am an artist and I always wanted to draw the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque face to face one day. So I hope that this will be my chance to do so,” I said. “Do not be so dreamy. I have to drop you by the American embassy, and immediately after you all finish your visa interviews, I will take you back to the Erez border,” he replied. After I thought everything was going to be fine, I was mistaken again.
I don’t blame him, as he just followed the orders issued by the embassy. I pity the situation though, living as a stranger in my homeland. As soon as I got out the bus and stepped onto the ground, I started jumping, feeling happy that I was standing on the Holy Land. Everything was perfect with the visa interview and thankfully I got it. I did not want to go outside the embassy as we would then get picked up to go back. Eventually, we had to ride the bus and I was lucky enough to take two beautiful red flowers with me.
They were so strict about taking us directly to Erez, but the driver sympathized with us and could understand what if felt like for Gazans who are in Jerusalem, for the first time in their lives, to reach it without seeing the Dome of The Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the end, he said that he could only take a street which would allow us to see the view. I saw it from so far away just like it is seen in the picture, such an amazingly beautiful scene that my eyes could not stop gazing. It is like magic. Seeing that view, and the fact that we could not go closer, and even that we couldn’t open the window and put our heads out, made me very emotional.
“I have to move. I am sorry,” the driver said with a broken voice. I turned my head toward the dome until it disappeared into the distance, leaving behind a long silence. I went to an empty seat in the back of the bus and lay on it, closing my eyes and letting my soul fly over Jerusalem’s dome. With a mixture of feelings, I fell asleep. I woke up when I arrived at Erez, and now write to you about my trip to Jerusalem from my own room in Gaza.
It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.
My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.
Last night, I went to bed at 11 pm, much earlier than I’m used to. I forced myself to stay under my blanket. The room was very dark and no sound could be heard but the sound of me moving in bed continually. I wanted to sleep so that 7 am today would come quickly, but all my attempts failed. Daydreaming in darkness conquered my mind. I dreamt about my travel to Jerusalem, the smell of its air, the view of its nature, its streets, and its people. My excitement to reach it kept me awake and I only managed to sleep at 4:30 am, then woke up again an hour and a half later.
Amidst this chaos and all the people around me who are chatting as an attempt to make time pass faster, I’m putting my headphones in my ears and listening to Fairoz, trying to live in my own world. I’m writing now from Beit Hanoun border or the so called Erez border. I’m sitting in a hall among lots of people, many of them patients and traders. Everybody has an excuse to go to Jerusalem and waiting to get permission to pass. My eyes are confused; one eye on the people around me and another on the fences that surround me from all destinations, laughing and sarcastically pitying the situation. Isn’t it funny that all of us here are waiting for hours to have a pass to go to our capital, Jerusalem? It’s not fair at all that I need an excuse to go there!
Now I’ve completed two hours of waiting and I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have to wait. While I was writing nonstop, an old woman sat next to me. Her traditional Palestinian dress lined by red embroidery attracted my eyes. The wrinkles of her face looked like she was bearing so many burdens that I thought she was older than only 66 years old. “Are you a refugee?” she asked. I smiled at her, nodding my head to confirm that. Then she said that she is too a refugee. That was the start of a very interesting conversation about our lands, which all Palestinian refugees were cleansed from in 1948. She was only three years old when her family was expelled from her original village, Acre. “I was the youngest of the family,” she said. “My parents and my old brother took turns carrying me,” she said. “They had to put a cover on my face to protect me from the hot weather on that gloomy day.”
Trying to make her laugh, I said, “No wonder why we met here. We are here to return back home!” I laughed. It wasn’t as funny as I thought. Her expressive face showed sorrow. “Oh, I hope so!” she sighed. And then she explained that she was accompanying her son’s twins who suffer from an illness. They sought a permit to cure them at Al-Maqased, a hospital in Jerusalem, and they managed to get it. I tried to change the topic, hoping to stop her from worrying about her grandparents for at least few minutes. I asked her if she knew where my original village, Beit Jerja, was located. While she was looking through the fence, trying to think where to point, her son came rushing her to to tell her get ready, as it was time for them to leave. She hugged me, wished me luck, and then left.
She left to let me return to the situation of depression I am going through, and to continue waiting to follow her to my lovely city that I have always dreamt of reaching: JERUSALEM.
Up and down, this is me in the time since you passed away Vittorio. Moments of shock won’t leave me alone. It’s the fifth day since you were killed. When I heard about you being kidnapped on the 14th of April, we were just welcoming Majed, my brother, home. We were happy that Majed had come back after 10 months of absence around Europe. Our happiness didn’t last as dad received a call informing him that Vittorio was kidnapped around one hour after Majed’s arrival. I didn’t want to believe this and I yelled sarcastically, turning my face to my family, “impossible! And if so, he would be joking with his kidnappers saying his famous word ‘mushkili!’” I laughed trying to hide my worries in order not to spoil everyone’s happiness for Majed. I called you and I found that your mobile was turned off. Then my heartbeats started getting faster and faster.
I’d previously been calling your mobile during the day of the 14th as I received a message from you in the evening of the 13th saying that you would be free at 16:00 so we can meet and so I could paint your portrait face to face. It was turned off. I’m sorry dear that I was planning to fight with you when I saw you or when you would turn your mobile on again thinking that you had forgotten about me. I’m also sorry that it didn’t come to my mind that there was any chance you could be kidnapped here in Gaza. Anyway dear, I’m happy with you that you remembered me and you remembered to bring me chocolate as I told you once about my addiction to chocolate. What I am happiest about is that you wanted my painting until the last day of your life.
I’ve now made the painting my dear and I know you are smiling up there in paradise because I did as I promised. However, this painting that you always wanted brings tears to me every time I think that you weren’t able to see it. I wish I made it for you the moment you asked me to do it. I have to say that part of it was your fault. To be honest, it was your humanity. You sometimes canceled appointments with me so you can go visit families of martyrs who fell victims to the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. I remember when you called me on the 7th of April on Friday and you told me that you delayed your leaving because of the expectation of a new Israeli Cast Lead attack on Gaza, so I wouldn’t have to worry about not being able to draw you before you leave . I sometimes think silently “maybe if you weren’t so true a human, and you didn’t care so much about the people of Gaza, this wouldn’t have happened to you, and you would now be in Italy.”
I know that it is destiny and that I can’t think in this way but it’s only because I have lived unspeakable shock with your loss. I went to your funeral trying to believe this fact. I tried to be strong for you, because for a great hero like you, I shouldn’t sigh, but I should celebrate your wonderful life, so full of achievement and courage. However, sometimes my tears betray me. But, I promise you to be strong and do all that you would want me to do. On the third day of your funeral, your mother made a live call with us, I translated her message to Arabic. Your mother is as great as you. You made Palestinian united with our sorrow for your loss, and she managed to make Italy and Gaza united singing in one voice “Bella Ciao.”
After we finished singing this song together, I spoke to your mother, assuring her that, “as much as your son Vittorio cared so much about the Palestinian cause, I know his thoughts were always with his family through thick and thin.” I remember when I was excited to celebrate your birthday on the 4th of February and I bought you a cake and went to your home. I then saw you in a situation that I’ve never seen you before because you knew that your dad was ill. You were always strong and happy. You were all the time making everybody around you happy with your beautiful smiles. Therefore, it was so hard seeing your tears. I hugged you and you cried on my shoulder. I told your mum that you were having these sad times because you wished you could be there with your family to support them and to take care of your dad.
My dear Vik, I want you to know that you just left us in body but your soul will be living forever. I want you to be sure that everybody who believes in you and in the Palestinian cause will keep taking your path. I want you to know that you are our hero; you define humanity for us because you are the humanity. Stay human, this is how you were all the time with every step you took. Vittorio, you are the winner, you are the dreamer who never gives up, so my dear friend rest in peace.
I am sitting so close to my mother, expecting anything to happen any time. I hate to listen to the radio but I have to. The Radio announcer keeps repeating the same sentence again and again “People, try to take as much caution as possible!” What a silly call! Who knows where is or is not a safe place in Gaza during war time? All I want right now is to see my family members around me. I keep moving my eyes over and around them. They are totally silent but features of worry and fear are easy to make out on their faces. “It sounds like another war” mum said. I just looked and listened in silence, and continued pressing the keyboard buttons. I feel cold like never before. I feel so much in need of a blanket or a sweater but two things stops me from that; my legs and my lips. I can’t break my silence as well as my stiffened state. Nothing but my fingers are moving.
I laughed at myself as I remembered how I bolted down in a flash from the second floor to the first floor where my family stays. Fear takes over, pushes you further. Subconscious strength drove my legs to gather with the others—the safest place I can be. Suddenly, I stopped writing. I couldn’t see anything around me, all colors are unclear. A series of flashbacks from the last war on Gaza that were buried somewhere in my absent memory have reemerged. The sound of war planes is getting louder. The sirens of ambulances are still ringing. I wish I can move and bring some cotton to close my ears. This is the only time when I envy the deaf. “7 children are injured!” the announcer said. I felt as if somebody had thrown freezing water over my face so strongly that it sounded like a slap, though I remained unmoved and unconscious to it.
I went into a very deep sleep out of my control. Silence was spread everywhere. It was as if I was choking in my dreams, there was smoke so thick and stifling. I wasn’t sure if it was real or merely a dream. Suddenly I started coughing, I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t open my eyes, I still hadn’t realized what had just happened. Then I tried to pull myself together. I checked if I was ok; I was quite ok. I still couldn’t see, I couldn’t feel my body. Suddenly my hand touched something and then I screamed. Oh God, that was Ahmad, my four-year-old son, on my lap bleeding. I screamed with the loudest voice I could, “Please, help, please rescue my son.” He was bleeding a lot but nobody answered. People around were either dead or unconscious.
“Oh my other seven kids, where are they?” I said. I put Ahmad on the floor and went to search for them. I could barely see for the smoke. I found Ansam, my 2-week-old girl, she was crying with a throttled voice struggling to get out of her throat. I held her to my chest and continued searching for the other six who were not so far away. I was almost epileptic, crying, lots of bodies on the floor. Then I saw four of my sons in the corner looking silently and fearfully at one boy and girl lying face down on the floor. I stood for a while shocked in such fear that the sensations going through me were true, but then I thought that I should move quickly. Slowly and carefully I turned their bodies to the back. Yes, my feeling was right, that was my 8-year-old girl, Amal, and my 7-year-old son, Abdallah.
Amal was bleeding from her nose, ear, and head. She had some shrapnel in her head. The boy was bleeding from his thigh. I couldn’t bear it. I impulsively hugged my children and burst into tears. I didn’t know what to do. Then I went to bring my son Ahmad who was bleeding on my lap, I could see many dead bodies were under the rubble. I gathered my children around me; I was delirious but struggling to be strong for my kids. Ahmad was bleeding so much, and he seemed like he was dying. It wasn’t to be long afterwards that he would die in my arms. Amal and after that Abdallah opened their eyes, they were so scared of death. I hugged them and promised them that they wouldn’t die, I kept telling them to be patient. The ambulances will come soon, “Why are there no ambulances until now!” I screamed.
I wasn’t really conscious of what had happened. I asked myself “where is Abu-Mahmood, My husband?” Then I remembered exactly what had happened and a flashback sent the horror back through my head. Israeli soldiers executed my husband in front of us when he went out of the house putting his hands up just as one of the soldiers outside had ordered him to. The soldier had said, “the owner of the house must come out now!” He went out with his ID in one raised hand and his old Israeli driving license in the other. Then they killed him. And after that kids started shouting and crying begging the soldiers not to kill them, but they came inside and shot towards the kids randomly. It was then that Ahmad was injured in his chest, dying two days later despite struggling for life as the ambulances were not allowed to enter the area by the soldiers until the fourth day.
After that around 100 people from the same family including me and my kids gathered in a house which Israeli soldiers had forced us to enter. Once they’d herded us together like farm animals, the Zionist soldiers with no conscience and ice cold to the lives, love and history of our families inside, bombed the house that my kids and I were sheltering in with everyone else. It took only half an hour, but they were 30 minutes of indescribable hell with unending sorrow thereafter. Anyway, now I know why I had begun this deep, uncontrollable sleep.
Take a walk along one of Gaza’s streets. Gaze into the eyes of its people. Try to guess what they are dreaming about. Gaza is a place full of dreamers, but too often it’s also a grave for their dreams.
As I walk in the street, I see an old man sitting by the entrance of his door looking at the movement of the sun in the sky. From the expression of his face, I imagine that he is thinking he might be dead by the next day without having another chance to see his own land—now in the land called Israel and “forbidden territory”. I see fathers seeking to earn some money to take care of their children. I see mothers carrying their babies, looking at them in sorrow, wondering whether it would have been better not to bring them to this vile world!
I see many Palestinian youth with lost futures. Some may think it is funny how enormous the number of youths is who are crowded into the cafés smoking shisha. However, it’s not surprising. There are many graduates among them who have lost hope of finding a job. Others got frustrated of getting work in the profession in which they have trained, so they are laboring as mechanics, builders or they applied for the government to work as policemen—places where they shouldn’t be!
Many 18-year-old youth work hard to earn good grades in high school so they can qualify for a scholarship for advanced education outside of Gaza, only to find the border closed to them crashing their dreams. It’s as if there is a sign at the reading, “NO, WE WON’T LET YOUR DREAMS TAKE YOU FAR AWAY.” No wonder that so many youth lose their motivation to better themselves. the siege is surrounding them in addition to many others who got their degrees and sitting hopeless, jobless, and useless. No progress, no ambition, no country.
As I walk in the Gaza streets, I see many children with bare feet, dirty clothes and pale faces carrying sweets and chasing cars to beg taxi drivers and passengers to buy some! I look at them with anger, blaming the circumstances that have led them to this early heavy responsibility. What has forced those children to working while they should be at school?! I wonder if there are similar scenes in the streets of Israel. Many questions preoccupy my mind but I still get no answers; the international community is still speechless and does nothing!
I see many fatherless children shouldering many responsibilities, too early when they should be playing games and enjoying their childhood like other children around the world! Mahmood Al-Samouni is the eldest son in his family. At the beginning of 2009, while many people were celebrating the New Year, he was crying so terribly because since that moment he must accept to continue living with his father and his youngest brother absent in his life and just keep wishing that he would see them each night in his dreams! I accompany Adie Mormech, an English activist, to help teach him and others of Al-Samouni family—which lost 30 members in the Israeli invasion. We hope that they will someday be able to make their voice heard by learning English. I heard Mahmood once say that “I want to grow older more quickly so I can handle some of the responsibilities that mum takes.” Can anyone imagine how hard it is for an 13-year-old child to wish for the wheels of life to move faster so he can replace his father and be the man of the family?
You might find it strange that children here are not really children. Gazan children become mature at very early age. Children here wait for Eid so that they can collect money from relatives to buy a fake gun, so they can play a game called “Arabs and Israelis.” I remember when I played this game with my neighbors in the evenings. It’s funny that we had a rule that “the one who plays the Israeli soldiers should die.” However, we realized that the roles were inverted in reality, the soldiers don’t die but kill.
As I walk in the Gaza’s street, I see a mountain of sad scenes; which can only be banished once Palestine is free. But, I will never give up hope that I will someday walk in the Gaza streets and look in the people’s eyes, seeing them shining from happiness, not glistening with tears.
The unsettled political situation, and the “crisis of borders,” the permission we must seek for every step we take– causes much stress among Palestinians. But despite our daily struggle, we always know how to create our smiles even though the smile in Palestine is hard to get. Therefore, we stick with everything that can help us find this pleasure.
Ask any Palestinian about his or her favorite place in Gaza, and the answer will likely be “the beach”. The sea is very special for Gaza citizens. It symbolizes escape– the only route possible to run away from reality and thus the only place where we can feel truly alive and free.
However, Huda Ghalia’s family discovered in the summer of 2006 that even the beach can be a dangerous place. This family went there to enjoy swimming and to ponder the beauty of nature. They never expected that their lives would end there, but they were the heroes of a disastrous tragedy. While sitting peacefully on a Gaza beach, an Israeli artillery shell exploded nearby.
Only Huda was the survivor of nine of her family members that day. She ran to her murdered father, shaking him and screaming “dad, wake up!” Without reason, they were killed. Huda’s family had no link with any militants nor had they shot rockets at Israel. Their only guilt was a desire of a little happiness. What excuse can explain what happened to them? Is Israel judged for that? The “international community” does nothing and Israeli crimes will never stop!
After that black day, Palestinians started fearing even the sea. They stopped going to their only escape from life for a long time. My own family stayed away from the beach that entire summer just like all other families.
However, we didn’t give up. Today, Gaza citizens continue to go to the sea even more than before. Every time I go to the beach with my family I find it more and more crowded, and it brings joy to my hearts. Nothing is more beautiful than seeing children flying kites and parents swimming with their children and throwing a ball to each other. It is the liveliest place in Gaza, especially in summer, and it will continue to be like this forever, in spite of the ongoing Israeli violence.
It hurts when I see the people I love bleeding tears. The only thing that comforts me is the fact, that we are Palestinians. Being a Palestinian means that we have strength in spite of injustice, hope in spite of the misery, and smiles in spite of pains.
Escaping from final exams pressure, I went to a wedding with my sisters. Everyone around me was smiling, clapping and dancing for the bride and the groom except for me. My smile turned into tears.
I incidentally met an old friend, from whom I had not heard anything since the ninth grade. We had been in the same class until I moved to another school. I was so happy to see her after five years. However, her situation made me feel sad.
As I greeted her, I noticed an innocent, cute child playing in front of us. “This girl is my daughter.” My friend said with a smile. “Are you joking?” I gasped. “You are only 18 years old!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was a mother of a two-year-old girl! I tried to pull myself together in order not to show how surprised I was. “When was your wedding? Are you happy?” I asked.
“Thank God, I am bringing up my daughter alone,” she said. I kept silent but I am sure my face’s features showed my astonishment. Many thoughts filled my brain. I was thinking if she had broken up with her husband, or if had he left her alone and travelled. I waited for her to continue because really I couldn’t speak then expecting bad news. Suddenly, she got out her wallet and showed me her husband’s picture. “Isn’t he handsome? He is not alive anymore; he was martyred,” she said proudly.
It took me quite long time to understand that she is a widow at such a young age. I didn’t say a word. I felt helpless because I was sure that her sorrow was too deep. Yet, she hid that behind the smile of pride. “How was he martyred?” I asked.
“Two years ago,” she answered with shining eyes, I felt the tears were trying to fell from her eyes but not a tear in sight. “He was in Biet_Hanoon, visiting a friend, when suddenly a rocket shelled an empty area close to him and he was one of the victims. Israel justified this with a trivial excuse as usual, seeing that the empty area is the place where resistance groups trained.”
Just looking at her red eyes following her daughter was killing me. I was bewildered. What was his fault to die in the age of twenty-three after a week of his daughter’s birth? And what is her guilt to deserve being a widow leading hers and her life alone with her daughter? I believe that it’s their destiny, but it’s really a hard one to accept. However, she had. She buried her sorrow and for her daughter, played both the role of mother and father.
I realized that the miserable Palestinian life has some good aspects. It creates iron people able to lead their lives no matter how tough the going gets. That’s why now; I am not surprised that I met my friend at a wedding. Israel has to know that we are strong enough to handle anything no matter how hard it is. In Palestine, Life goes on despite the sorrow.
Palestinians were waiting on fire for the Freedom Flotilla– the vessels that were carrying seven hundred Turkish, some people from different nationalities. Those ships were coming to Gaza carrying 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid to Gaza. Although they were on the international waters they have been attacked by Israel forces. However, nothing that Israel does is surprising. Israel stormed and attacked those vessels violently and prevented them from continuing their pure humanitarian work they were intending to do.
They continued creating trivial excuses for their ugly crimes. Israel said that those ships were not only for providing aid, but also it was an act of provocation. However I need an explanation, will it be reasonable to kill up to nineteen people and wound more than thirty for this reason though? I can’t understand, are they really humans?
Here in Gaza, public strike is announced. Protests are spread in every street. The Palestinian people ignored their differences, including their political point of view, to be one force to express their rejection of the ongoing aggression against them, and declare their solidarity with their brothers in all the countries who were martyred and were injured this morning while marching in the Freedom Flotilla to break the siege on Gaza.
On behalf of all Palestinians, I say thank you for everyone sacrificing to break Gaza siege. We are all proud of those people who insisted to support Gaza even they were threatened by Israel.