So the latest round of Israel-Gaza fighting has ended – how many has it been – 16, 17, 18? How did Pete Seeger put it in “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – “When will they ever learn?”
While the fighting was going on, I reflected on my personal relationship with Gaza. I have actually visited Gaza four times:
- My first visit took place in July, 1967, right after the war ended, when most Israelis headed out to explore the newly accessible neighboring areas, partly motivated by the thought that they might soon be given back as happened in 1957 after the second Arab-Israeli war. My most vivid memories from that visit were seeing shocking anti-Semitic images painted on some of the walls of buildings in Khan Yunis. I didn’t meet any Gaza residents during that visit. I also remember seeing the first bottles of Coca Cola and Seven-Up in the Middle East, since the Coke people given the Arab boycott preferred to do business with the entire Arab world and not Israel, a policy which ended with the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a change which made the Israeli dentists very happy;
- My second visit took place in 1985, this time at the invitation of journalist Mohammad Khass. I had met Mohammad the previous year when I participated in a Peace and Justice speaking tour in the U.S., sponsored by 5 major American peace organizations with speakers from trouble spots around the world who believed in a non-violent resolution of their conflict. Mohammad had told me his story.
“Towards the end of the 1948 war, the Israeli forces led by former Palmach commander Yigal Alon were fighting the Egyptians on the southern front. As the war was drawing to a close, Ben Gurion ordered Alon to withdraw from Gaza. Much to their surprise, the Israelis had found me, a Palestinian from Gaza sitting in an Egyptian jail. I didn’t look like a typical criminal, so Alon asked me what I was doing there. I explained that since I had been an active member of the Communist Party which supported the UN Partition Plan, they had put me in jail. Alon then said – “We can’t leave you here to face the Egyptians. We’ll take you back with us to Israel and bring you to your Party colleagues in Haifa.” That’s where I met my wife, Mary, a Christian Arab who was active in the Party. We married, and I worked as a journalist at the Communist daily Al Itihad which was published in Haifa. When the Israelis captured Gaza in 1967, we decided to move back to Gaza where my family had been living for 11 generations. Today Mary is responsible for the UNWRA pre-school programs and also works with the Quakers, I edit a weekly publication in Gaza, and we are both active in promoting non-violent resistance to the occupation and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.”
After our respective return to Israel and Gaza, Mohammad invited me to visit them in their home, which I did, and he also took me on a guided tour of Gaza City.
- My 3rd visit took place in September, 1994. At the time I was a Tel Aviv representative in the Peace Now national leadership forum, and we decided that the way to mark the 1st anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which at the time we believed was the first major step towards Israeli-Palestinian peace, would be to visit PLO President Yasser Arafat, who had recently returned from exile in Tunis, at his Gaza seaside headquarters.
We took a bus from Tel Aviv to the Gaza border, about an hour’s drive, and after going through the Erez checkpoint on foot, were picked up by a Palestinian bus to head towards Gaza City. A senior Palestinian officer with a lot of bars on his uniform joined us on the bus to guarantee our safety while a jeep rode alongside us all the way to the city, protecting us from potential violence from either Israeli settlers or Palestinian extremists.
When we arrived at Arafat’s seaside headquarters, we discovered a series of delegations from all sectors of Palestinian society waiting to meet him. Apparently, the Palestinian leader had a hands-on approach to leadership, displaying a readiness and desire to meet with everyone. We were ushered into a room with a long table, filled with Palestinian snacks and water for all of us after the journey through the desert. It was clearly a festive occasion, and Arafat gave us a warm welcome. We had decided that a young Peace Now youth activist would come with us and make a presentation on our behalf as a representative of Israeli youth who support peace.
It was the days before everyone had a camera on their cellphone, and it turned out that I was the only one who had brought a camera with me. After the meeting drew to a close, Prof. Galia Golan asked if she could have a photo together with Arafat. The PLO chairman was happy to oblige, so I took a photo of Galia standing alongside him, wearing his traditional khaki military fatigues and keffiyeh, with a big, broad smile. Then everyone else wanted a photo, Arafat was willing, so I took a photo of each member of the delegation standing alongside the Palestinian leader, always with the same smile. I wanted one too, so I gave my camera to someone who took my photo with him as well.
Those were the days before digital photography, so when I got back to Tel Aviv, I brought the film to my neighborhood photo store on Ben-Yehuda Street. The owner of course looked at all the photos he developed, frequently making comments, and the case of this film was no different. “I see you made a visit to Madame Tussauds’ Wax Museum in London, and had these photos taken alongside Arafat’s wax figure”. “No” I exclaimed, “that’s the real Arafat in Gaza!” “Wow!” he responded. “That’s great! You know, I support Oslo.” So I suggested why don’t you put up some of these photos on the wall of your store? Well, he said, of course I support the peace process, but maybe some of his customers didn’t, and he didn’t want to upset them.
- My last visit to Gaza took place a year later, when a delegation from The International Center for Peace in the Middle East with headquarters in Tel Aviv arranged an encounter with the Palestinian leadership in Gaza. About 60 Israelis in two busses headed from Tel Aviv to Gaza, I remember sitting next to poet Natan Yonatan, whose eldest son Lior had been killed in the Yom Kippur War. We had a very warm meeting with the Palestinian leadership, and also a lunch at a Gazan seaside restaurant.
Yes, all of this was before the 2005 Israeli disengagement and the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
However, communication between Israelis, particularly those living in the kibbutzim, Sderot and other adjacent towns to Gaza, and Palestinians in Gaza has continued via the “Other Voices” movement:
And there is also a film very worth seeing, “OSWAT ACHERIM (Other Vocies) about their ongoing encounters made by Ose Oyamendan:
Do we really have to continue to have these mutual rounds of fighting every few years that get us nowhere?
Why not consider alternatives, like having the Israeli government and civil society, and also international community factors trying to engage Hamas in dialogue about a resolution of the conflict? It would also help if the major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, would achieve a form of reconciliation that would enable them to be a united address for any attempts at resolving the conflict. One thing that’s clear, Netanyahu’s policy of divide (Hamas from the Palestinian Authority ruled West Bank) and try to rule doesn’t work. It only leads to more suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians on both sides of the southern border.