Images from Rafah flicker on my computer screen. Gazans blowing up chunks of the wall that stood between them and Egypt, punching holes in the largest open-air prison in the world and streaming across the border. An incredible refusal to submit.
I learn via email that my friend Khaled Nasrallah rented a truck in order to drive food and medicine from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. He was acting for no humanitarian organization. He's just a resident of Rafah, a Palestinian town which borders Egypt, with a deep need to help and an opportunity to seize.
Rarely does our media offer images so laden with the palpable despair that has become daily life in the Gaza Strip. The situation has bordered on desperate since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000, when Gazans could no longer work inside Israel and the attacks and incursions of Israel's military, the IDF, became a regular occurrence. Closures on the Strip progressively intensified.
On January 25, 2006, Hamas, an acronym for "the Islamic Resistance Movement," won the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections, defeating the reigning secular, nationalist Fatah Party. Israel, the United States, and the European Union all refused to recognize the new Hamas government and many elements within Fatah also went to great lengths to ensure that it failed.
Tension and violence mounted between the Palestinian factions, culminating in June 2007 in Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip. Israel responded by sealing the Strip. On September 19, following the repeated firing of crude Qassam rockets from the Beit Hanoun neighborhood in the northern Gaza Strip into the Israeli town of Sderot, the Israeli government unanimously labeled all of Gaza a "hostile entity." Since then, restrictions by the IDF on who and what is permitted to enter Gaza have grown harsher still. There are not many witnesses to testify to the plight of Gazans these days. I was lucky: In early January, in order to visit the participants of a peace-building program I once worked for, I got in.
It was a brief visit, so I didn't stroll down largely empty supermarket aisles or visit hospitals to check on which supplies were unavailable. Instead, I used the time to talk to Gazans involved in responding to the international siege and the internal crisis that had led to it.
There were even rare moments when the dual crises faded into the background, such as the afternoon when I drank coffee in Rafah with Khaled Nasrallah, his brother Dr. Samir Nasrallah, and their wives and children. Rachel Corrie, a 23 year-old peace-and-justice activist from Olympia, Washington, had been killed on March 16, 2003 while standing in front of their home trying to prevent its demolition by an Israeli military bulldozer. Between October 2000 and October 2004, the IDF destroyed 2,500 homes in the Gaza Strip. Nearly two-thirds of them, like the Nasrallah's, had been the homes of refugees in Rafah.
Now double refugees, like so many residents of Rafah, they ushered me into the living room of the apartment they have occupied since their home was destroyed in 2004. It was sparsely furnished, but the family's spirit more than compensated. When, for instance, thin, quiet Dr. Samir saw an opportunity to make his young daughters or nieces smile, his own face lit up. He clowned around as pictures were taken, encouraging the girls to find ever sillier poses.
Only as I was leaving did the siege make its presence felt. I pulled a few chocolate bars and a carton of Lucky Strikes from my backpack, saying, "I understand these are hard to find these days."
Dr. Samir accepted the gifts with an odd solemnity. He then unwrapped a single bar of chocolate, carefully broke it into small pieces and distributed a section to each of the little girls. With an equal sense of gravity, they sat on the thin, foam mats that lined the room, slowly biting off tiny pieces, letting the chocolate melt in their mouths. They were still sucking on the final bits as I said goodbye.
When I first found out that I had permission to enter Gaza, I wondered what I should bring with me. How much could I carry? What did a people under siege need most? I imagined filling my backpack with bags of rice, coffee, sugar, beans -- until I called my friend Ra'ed in Beit Hanoun.
"Hey, Ra'ed. I'm coming to Gaza on Wednesday. What can I bring you?"
There was a short pause. "Can you bring cigarettes? Lucky Strikes?"
Requests from other friends started coming in. Could I bring a carton of Marlboros? Viceroy Lights? Rania requested chocolate. Ahmad asked for shampoo.
There was something tragic and yet comic in these requests. Were they a sign that the situation wasn't as desperate as I feared? Or maybe, given the sustained stress Gazans have been enduring, the need for psychological relief took priority even over the staples of survival?
Ra'ed called back with an additional request. "Can you bring one of those rechargeable florescent lights? The power's being cut off now for eight hours at a time and my kids have exams. They can't study without light."
Erez border is the only crossing point for internationals entering the Gaza Strip. The border between Rafah and Egypt had been sealed since the Hamas takeover. I arrived at Erez, struggling with my three brimming bags and two rechargeable lights. The terminal had been completely rebuilt since my last visit a year ago. The modest building housing a few soldiers and computers was gone and in its place was a slick, spotlessly clean, all-glass complex. It felt as if I were entering the headquarters atrium of a multi-million dollar corporation.
My passport was stamped and I continued along a maze of one-way revolving gates. Crossing through the final gate, I found myself in Gaza, the sleek glass building and its sanitized version of the Israeli occupation suddenly no more than a surreal memory. I was on a cracked cement pathway, covered by dilapidated plastic roofing, in the middle of an abandoned field filled with nothing but stones and rubble. Realities, even small ones, change so quickly, so grimly here.
Soon, I was in Ra'ed's car heading south to Rafah with Rania Kharma, a coordinator for the Palestinian-International Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza. I handed her the chocolate bars she had requested. "Thanks, habibti [my dear]" she said. "You know how important chocolate can be for a woman." Normally remarkably passionate, Rania now spoke and moved with the air of someone smothered by wet blankets.
We passed carts piled with bananas and oranges. "So there's fruit here. What exactly is getting in?" I asked.
Before the siege, she explained, there used to be 9,000 different items allowed into Gaza. Now, the Israelis had reduced what could enter the Strip to 20 items or, in some cases, types of items. Twenty items to meet the needs of nearly 1.5 million people. It felt like some kind of TV fantasy exercise in survival: You're going to a deserted island and you can only bring 20 things with you. What would you bring?
Medicine was on the list, Rania told me, but only pre-approved drugs registered with the Israeli Ministry of Health. Frozen meat was permitted, but fresh meat wasn't (and there was a shortage of livestock in Gaza). Fruit and vegetables were allowed in, but -- Ra'ed quickly inserted -- less than what the population needed and of an inferior quality. It was, he felt, as if Israel were dumping produce not fit for their citizens or for international export into Gaza.
"I cut open an avocado last week and found the inside completely rotten," he added.
Diapers and toilet paper were allowed entry, as were sugar, salt, flour, milk, and eggs. Soap yes, but not laundry detergent, shampoo, or other cleaning products.
"I'm not sure about baby formula," Rania said. "Sometimes you can find it, sometimes you can't."
Tunnels under the Egyptian border, once used mainly to smuggle weapons into the Strip, were now responsible for a brisk black market trade. Hamas, which controlled the tunnels, reportedly earning a hefty profit from the $10 it now cost Gazans to buy a single pack of cigarettes. Chocolate couldn't be found, not even on the black market. A bag of cement that once cost about $10 reached $75, and, by the time of my visit, couldn't be found at all. All construction and most repair jobs had ground to a halt.
The Ramadan fast is traditionally broken with a dried date. A special request for dates was made to the Israelis and granted -- but only as a substitute for salt. To get their Ramadan dates, Gazans had to sacrifice something else.
"Israel says they're not going to starve us," Rania remarked with a wry grin as we neared Rafah. "They're just putting us on a really tight diet."
I was traveling to Rafah in order to purchase handmade embroidery from the Women's Union Association, a women's fair-trade collective. I was planning to bring the embroidery back to the U.S. for the Olympia-Rafah Sister City Project, initiated after the death of Rachel Corrie and working to realize her vision of connecting the two communities.
Rafah's economy used to be based on agriculture and on the resale of goods from Egypt, according to Samira, the energetic program director of the association. Over the last seven years, however, most of the orchards and greenhouses in the town had been uprooted by Israeli military bulldozers. Then, once the siege began for real, Rafah's merchants could no longer obtain goods from Egypt. By the time I arrived, only about 15% of the population was working, most employed in government ministries.
Samira brought out a large plastic bag brimming with embroidered work. I fingered beautiful shawls and wall hangings as she eagerly described an exhibition of the women's hand embroidery held in Cairo last May. Every piece had sold out. The women had then stitched new pillowcases, bags, and vests at a frenetic pace for an exhibition in Vienna scheduled for September 2007. The Gaza Strip, however, was sealed in June. Neither the women, nor their embroidery could leave. That plastic bag contained what should have gone to Vienna. The project had already come to a standstill as the necessary raw materials, chiefly colored thread, were now unavailable. Once these pieces were sold, nothing would be left.
Samira encouraged Rania to try on a stunning, exquisitely stitched jacket, its joyous blaze of color strangely out of place in that bare office. It had taken a year to complete, she said proudly. I hesitated to buy it. It felt wrong, somehow, to remove that splash of color from decimated Rafah. But who else would be arriving in Rafah soon to buy from the collective? I asked Samira to prioritize which items she wanted me to purchase. She packed up the jacket, and as many other pieces as I could afford in that same plastic bag, and handed them over to me.
While Ra'ed and Rania argued energetically in Arabic on the drive back to Gaza City, I stared out the window, noting the green Hamas flags and banners that decorated nearly every street corner and intersection. As we neared our destination, I asked Rania if she wanted to join me that evening.
"I'd love to, habibti, but I have to get back to my apartment before 6:30. The electricity will be cut after that and then -- no elevator. I live on the ninth floor and, since my knee injury a few years ago, it's really painful to walk up all those stairs."
Gaza in Darkness
Mahmoud Abo Rahma, a young man with intense green eyes, spent much of his time with me discussing Gaza's acute electricity crisis in his office at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. Israel's fuel restrictions were his primary concern. It wasn't just transportation that suffered when fuel was sanctioned, he explained. Without fuel for Gaza's sole power plant, the ensuing electricity shortage constrains health and education services, leading to an acute humanitarian crisis.
Mahmoud broke the situation down, jotting figures and connective arrows on a small sticky pad. Gaza needs 237 megawatts of electricity a day, 120 megawatts of which are supplied directly by Israel. The Gaza power plant used to supply 90 megawatts, which meant the Strip remained 27 megawatts a day short, even in what passed for "good times." Then, in June 2006 after the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, the Israelis bombed the power plant, truncating its capacity. With the siege and its acute fuel shortage, the plant could generate even less. Mahmoud feared that it might have to stop operating altogether. On top of this, he added, Israel was threatening to curtail the electricity it provides.
Sixty-eight people, he said, had already died as a result of the sanctions. Others had certainly suffered siege-related deaths in which multiple factors were involved. For those 68, however, a clear red line could be drawn directly to the siege -- to disruptions in critical services or to the simple fact that someone couldn't reach Israel or Egypt for needed medical care unavailable in Gaza.
As Mahmoud scribbled down numbers and drew his arrows, my mind wandered from the 68 extreme cases to the thousands of day-to-day small sufferings that have become part of the fabric of life for Gazans. I imagined the Nasrallah family huddled under blankets trying to keep warm without a functioning electric heater, or Ra'ed's children studying for exams by candle or flashlight, or Rania climbing those nine flights of stairs on an injured knee.
The Hamas Takeover
Suhail is the director of the Rachel Corrie Cultural Center for Children and Youth in Rafah and its sister center in Jabalya Refugee Camp. Both centers are under the umbrella of the Union of Health Workers. "We are sometimes asked," Suhail told me, "how a children's center fits under the umbrella of a health organization, but the connection is very clear. According to the World Health Organization, health is not measured only by lack of illness. A healthy child is also healthy socially, emotionally, and mentally -- and this is the role we play."
The obstacles to their work were large, he assured me. "Our activities are designed to help support children mentally, emotionally, but they don't want to leave the house. The kids are depressed. Everyone is depressed."
In 2005, the teens who made up the center's dabke troupe -- dabke is a traditional Palestinian folk-dance -- traveled to Britain, touring and performing in 15 cities. Now, they can't leave the Gaza Strip. "We want Al Jazeera to broadcast them performing in a local celebration," Suhail said. "The youth are also making their own movies, showing their daily realities. There are different ways to break a siege."
Their problems, Suhail made clear, didn't all stem from international isolation. "Yes, the siege makes everything much, much more difficult, but the internal crisis even more so. Religious conservatism is taking a stronger hold."
Nujud, a freckled young female student-volunteer, offered an example. "We used to have a mixed-gender community. There were even more girls participating than boys. Now, it's the opposite. Boys and girls are hesitant even to be in the same room with each other for fear of attack by Hamas." She pointed to a young male volunteer. "We have to be very cautious in our interactions with each other."
Suhail ended our meeting with the comment, "Making cultural change takes a lot of time. And it has a lot of enemies."
Samira, too, had indirectly brought up the impact of the Hamas takeover in Gaza. "After you leave here today," she said, "it's very likely that someone will come and ask about you. Who are you? What were you doing here?"
I sat a moment sipping sweet tea from a plastic cup and taking in her comment. "Did we put you in danger by coming today?"
"Nothing will happen to us," she answered. "They will just ask."
Samira sounded nonchalant. I felt less so. Comings and goings, it seemed, were being carefully, if unobtrusively, monitored.
New Levels of Violence
At the pristine offices of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (GCMHP), Husam al Nounou and Dr. Ahmad Abu Tawahina brought into focus the degree to which the Hamas takeover had affected life in Gaza. Husam, the program's director of public relations, was soft-spoken and Dr. Abu Tawahina, its director general, was animated; both men radiated self-assurance and dignity.
By then, the large-scale, bloody political violence between Hamas and Fatah militants had ended. There were no longer shoot-outs on street corners. Military actions against Fatah-connected individuals were on-going, however. Dr. Abu Tawahina described cases of people leaving their houses only to find the body of a relative dumped on the street, or frantic Gazans calling police stations after a family member "disappeared," only to be told that there was "no information."
The margins of free speech, never large in Gaza, had decreased significantly, Husam told me. Direct or indirect messages of fear and intimidation are now regularly passed on to journalists and human rights workers. Fatah affiliates are beaten up, detained, their cars burned; Fatah-related organizations have been totally destroyed. I was reminded of Mahmoud's reply when I asked him if Al Mezan's ability to work, exposing human rights abuses to the people of Gaza, has been affected since the takeover.
"We are not changing our work at all," he said, choosing his words slowly. "We are not allowing ourselves to be intimidated."
Ideological and political differences between the movements have certainly played a major role in the internal fighting -- Dr. Abu Tawahina carefully explained -- as has the regional factor: Washington supports Fatah, while Hamas is backed by Syria and Iran. But, as Husam pointed out, other factors should not be ignored. "There is no tradition of democracy or transfer of power in Palestinian society," he said. "Fatah was not prepared to lose the January 2006 elections or give authority over to Hamas."
Add to this mix the adamant refusal of both the Bush administration and Ehud Olmert's government in Israel to recognize the democratically elected Hamas government, as well as their support for Fatah's attempts to sabotage it.
"What would have happened," I asked, "if Hamas had been given a chance to actually govern in the first place?"
After a long pause, Husam responded, "There's no way to know for sure. But I think there's a good chance that Hamas would have changed. There are lots of indications that they were initially willing to."
Dr. Abu Tawahina then widened the context of the discussion. Many Fatah officials had spent years in Israeli prisons, he commented, enduring torture at the hands of Israeli interrogators and soldiers. After signing the Oslo peace agreements in 1993, members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (in which Fatah is the most powerful faction) were permitted to establish a self-governing apparatus called the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel put pressure on the PA to arrest those who opposed the Oslo process, particularly when opposition groups carried out attacks in Israel.
As a result, thousands of Hamas members, most of whom had not been involved in the violence, spent time in PA jails. Fatah interrogators then applied the same techniques to the prisoners in their hands as the Israelis had once used against them, even ramping the methods up a notch or two.
"In psychology, we refer to it as 'identification with the aggressor,'" Dr. Abu Tawahina told me.
Now, the very people Fatah abused in prison are in charge in the Gaza Strip and they are seeking revenge for a decade of mistreatment under Fatah. The phenomenon can be found in Gazan civil society as well. One hundred thousand Palestinian laborers used to work inside Israel, suffering daily humiliations at the hands of Israeli soldiers at the Erez crossing. If they directed their anger and frustration at their abusers, they would lose the permits that allowed them to work inside Israel. Instead, many erupted in rage at home at their wives or children, creating new victims.
The present level of internal violence in Gaza, however, has no precedent. Hamas took the detentions and torture that were part and parcel of Palestinian life under Israeli rule and later under the PA and added the previously unimaginable -- Algerian-style executions and disappearances. These were something new as acts among Palestinians.
No one knows how many people have gone missing in these last months or the details of their torture. Hamas won't allow Gaza Community Mental Health Program staff to visit the prisons as they once did regularly. Human rights organizations are trying to compile lists of the missing, but there are no comprehensive statistics.
Meanwhile, frustration and anger inside the pressure cooker that is Gaza only mounts. Violence in the society as a whole, including domestic violence, is on the rise. New victims continue to be created.
"We attempted to work with the Fatah government when they were in charge," Husam said. "We tried to warn them of the long-term consequences their torture could bring. They didn't want to hear it."
Dr. Abu Tawahina tried to describe his fervent hope of one day building a community that would enjoy genuine democracy and the rule of law, no matter who was in charge. But in that office, his dream felt, at best, remote.
"Let's say," he added, "that Israel and the U.S. manage to overthrow Hamas and reinstall Fatah. Do you think that Fatah would now institute a program of reconciliation?"
Dr. Abu Tawahina let the question fill the room, unanswered. But from a barely perceptible shake of his head, I knew what his response was.
Because of an ever more traumatized population, the mental health program's services are desperately needed. The staff work feverishly, trying to develop new techniques to meet the catastrophe that is Gaza, but nothing, not telephone counseling, nor bringing in other NGOs, nor holding community meetings to give larger numbers of people coping tools can meet the escalating needs of the community.
"Peace is crucial for mental health services," Dr. Abu Tawahina said pointedly. "Our staff feel inadequate in helping our clients. When the source of someone's mental symptoms comes from physical needs not being met, then there is very little that therapeutic techniques can do."
At the moment, the community's most crucial resource -- itself -- is fraying. In Palestinian society, the extended family has always served as the center of a web of support and protection. Previously, the mental health project used this incredibly powerful social network as part of its outreach, making special efforts to educate family members in how to take care of each other.
With the split between Fatah and Hamas growing ever deeper, Dr. Abu Tawahina suggested that loyalty to political parties might be growing stronger than loyalty to family. In many families, the cracks are showing. Husam told me of families where one brother, loyal to Hamas, gave information to the Hamas leadership about another brother, active in Fatah, leading to his detention. I had even heard rumors of brother killing brother. The implications of this go far beyond the work of one mental health group. The very foundations of Palestinian endurance and survival are now threatened as the social fabric, their strength as a people, begins to unravel.
As our meeting was drawing to a close, Husam suddenly broached a new subject. "The level of hate towards those behind the siege -- Israelis and Americans -- is increasing. We need to show the human face of people from the U.S."
His comment reminded me that Samira and Suhail had also spoken about their desire to launch an Internet program between young people in Rafah and teenagers in Olympia, Washington, Rachel Corrie's hometown. In itself, there was nothing shocking about the fact that anger towards Americans, whose government strongly supported the siege and had also backed Fatah in the internecine struggle in Gaza, was on the rise. If anything, what was surprising, touching, and human was the urge of a few Palestinians to challenge that hatred and put a human face on Americans.
Dr. Abu Tawahina concluded with a sober warning. "Empirical studies show that collective punishment isn't limited to those who are directly subjected to the punishment. It affects the international community as well. What is happening now in Gaza may someday very well affect what happens later in Europe and the United States."
Now, back in the U.S., I stare at those images from just a few weeks ago of Gazans flooding into Egypt. I feel myself on some threshold between paralysis and hope -- anguished by the unending desperation that led to the destruction of that wall and yet inspired by the way the Gazans briefly broke their own siege.
Dr. Abu Tawahina, I believe, is right. What we are allowing to occur in Gaza -- and we are allowing, even facilitating, it -- will come back to haunt us. Still, despite all the indicators of a society locked into an open-air prison giving in to violence and possibly fragmenting internally past the point of reconciliation, I hold onto a small hope. Perhaps those of us outside that prison will be affected by more than the explosive rage that inevitably comes from an effort to collectively crush 1.5 million people into submission. Perhaps we will also be affected by the Gazans who refuse to submit to their oppressors, be they from outside or within. Ultimately, I hope we'll choose to stand in solidarity with them.