The dread of being a by-stander

In the book by journalist Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East, Israeli journalist Amira Hass talks about an experience that her mother Hannah had during World War II, as she was marched from a train to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen during the summer of 1944. “She and the other women had been ten days in the train from Yugoslavia. They were sick and some were dying by the road. Then my mother saw these German women looking at the prisoners, just looking. This image became very formative in my upbringing, this despicable looking from the side. It’s as if I was there and saw it myself.”

That dread of being a bystander is something that has filled me up even more than it has in the past. I’ve often felt that if I were in the position of someone trying to get by in Gaza that I would surely hope that someone in the outside world would notice, and do something to help us, whatever that might be. So here’s just the first chapter of my time in Gaza. Come back in a day or two, and watch the story unfold. Photos are on the way as well. And maybe together, we can do something to help, just by knowing, maybe later by taking some action of some kind. But knowing is the first step.

I just returned home a few days ago from what was to have been five days in the Gaza Strip, which practically at the last minute turned into ten days! (One of my fellow delegates, a Scottish professor named Keith, knew I’d been planning on a few days in Cairo following Gaza, and over dinner on what was supposed to have been my last day, said, “Why don’t you stay?!” And I realized I could, so I did.)

Plans to write in Cairo about my time there had to be scrapped when my laptop became unusable due to a virus, so now i find myself back home in beautiful, sunny, northern California, having finished transcribing my notes two days ago, and now trying to convey what I’ve seen for the benefit of those who haven’t yet been.

My inbox has daily been flooded with the writings and postings of images and videos all over the internet on the part of the 65 others who signed up with the US anti-war group Code Pink to travel to Gaza from May 30 – June 4. Sixty-six people from ten nations and from eighteen states decided to go and see for themselves what was happening on the ground in Gaza. We all have new friends, and stories to tell.

We’d left Cairo May 29 in two buses, and arrived not far from the Rafah border crossing in the town of Al-Arish, where we spent the night. The following morning was a harbinger of the emotional times ahead of us when two Egyptian women and friends — a journalist named Mai El-Shiekh and an artist and teacher working with special-needs kids named Nadia Tawfik — were denied permission by the Egyptians to cross with us into Gaza. All of their papers and permissions were in order, but it seems that the Intelligence bureau, or secret police (whatever) had not given their authorization. And so tearful goodbyes were said, and Mai and Nadia were left standing by the side of the road. It was small comfort knowing that they quite aware well in advance their having been let through would’ve been a bureaucratic miracle. The Egyptian government, like Israel’s, like the EU’s, and like our own, wants nothing to do with the democratically elected government in Gaza, aka Hamas, and so permission for Egyptians to cross into Gaza is not often given.

We arrived at the Khan Younis Training Center, a gorgeous facility where a huge feast had been prepared for us. Code Pink was visiting Gaza at the invitation and under the auspices of the UN Relief and Works Agency, and its long-serving director the Irishman John Ging greeted us with a lengthy and informative speech. After a delicious meal under open-air tents, followed by spirited “dubka” dancing, the Palestinian national dance, we re-boarded our buses for the drive into Gaza City’s Commodore Hotel, and those of us who’d asked to be assigned accommodations with families met our hosts for the next five days.

A young Portuguese guy named André who’d just finished his medical studies and I were both assigned to the family of a young guy named Hozaifa, a university student studying Business Administration, in English, at the Islamic University. His best friend and classmate Nasser also greeted us at the hotel, and later that night the four of us were sitting around water-pipes, outside in downtown Gaza City, getting to know each other.

It was during that relatively cool first evening in Gaza, relaxing with “Hoze” and Nasser and listening to the stories of their lives (esp. of their lives since the 22-day Israeli attack last December-January), that André and I first began to get a glimpse of the emotional roller-coaster that lay ahead of us.

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