The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil,
but because of the people who don't do anything about it
Occupation magazine - Activism
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In besieged Gaza: Journal of a voyage
By: Gideon Spiro
14 November 2008
27 October 2008
When Mairead Maguire, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Northern Ireland, called me and asked me to join the sea voyage of the humanitarian delegation from Larnaca (Cyprus) to Gaza to break the Israeli closure and to bring medicine to the besieged city, I answered positively without hesitation. It was to be the second sea voyage to Gaza, the first having arrived in August.
I oppose the blockade of Gaza because it is a collective punishment of a million and a half residents, including babies, children, women and old people, not to speak of sick people whom the siege prevents from getting medicine; a completely innocent population that is suffering because of no crime it has committed. Therefore I had no difficulty in agreeing to the invitation to be part of the international delegation. I also considered my participation to be important because I am a journalist, whose duty is to report from places to which most people do not have access.
I departed early in the morning from Israel to Cyprus, a flight that lasts no more than 45 minutes, and at 8:30 we landed in Larnaca. After a quick passage through passport control I was in a taxi that took me to the hotel where the delegation was staying.
Most members of the delegation had already arrived; I was among the last. The delegation comprised 25 members, and together with the boat’s crew we were 30 people. Its composition was diverse and interesting. Most of them from Europe (Britain, Ireland, Italy), but also from the USA. There was a fair representation of Palestinians, most from the diaspora. Among the participants was Mairead Maguire, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize from Northern Ireland who, as I have said, initiated my participation, and Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian parliament and former member of the Palestinian unity government.
As a delegation bringing medicine, we also included 4 doctors.
The age of the members was very diverse, starting from the 20s up to a doctor from Scotland who is pushing 80.
During the whole trip we were accompanied by a crew from Al Jazeera.
Members of the delegation met for several preparatory discussions, mainly regarding the Israeli government’s announcement that it would not permit the boat to pass. A number of possible scenarios were raised, including how much time the boat could hold up if the Israeli navy barred its route in the open sea. The food would suffice for three days. After that we would have to go to the nearest port, the preferred option being Beirut. I was already imagining landing in Beirut and what would be awaiting me there, but the Palestinians in the delegation reassured me: don’t worry, nothing bad will happen to you. You are not alone but with the delegation, and we’re all guarantors for each other.
28 October 2008
At midday we headed towards the place where the boat was docked. The local media was already waiting for us. Interviews, photographs and leave-taking from the organizers, who remained in Larnaca as liaisons for assistance from shore in case we encountered difficulties during the voyage.
Among those who saw us off was a 12-year-old Palestinian boy in a wheelchair, who had been seriously wounded by the Israeli occupation army’s gunfire. His leg was entirely cut off, and he had arrived in Cyprus with the boats of the first flotilla that returned from Gaza. There is no medical facility in Cyprus that can take care of him and he is waiting to be accepted for treatment in a European country.
The vessel or the boat is in fact a medium-sized yacht from the 1970s, acquired by the Free Gaza movement which is organizing the entire trip. The yacht was intended for a family of four or five people at the most, but not 30 people. It was indeed crowded. All the space in the yacht up to the last millimetre was taken up for the passengers’ baggage and crates of medicines.
We also took a megaphone with us, in case our way should be blocked by the navy, and I was assigned the task of addressing the sailors in Hebrew and explaining to them that blocking our way would violate international law and that it was an illegal order that they were obliged to refuse to carry out.
We left the marina at 5 PM. The crowding did not affect the good atmosphere among members of the delegation. Before sleeping, we arranged sitting-places. But at night, the yacht looked like a refugee boat. Everyone grabbed whatever place they could and tried to sleep. It was not easy. It was not a large boat, and it was unstable even when the sea was not particularly stormy. Every trip to the toilet, especially at night, required practically the skills of a contortionist in order not to step on those who were sleeping, and moreover walking involved losing one’s balance because of the fluctuations of the boat, and everyone was knocked around a little as a result of the tipping. Some suffered from seasickness and vomited their guts out. And there were also those who managed to sleep for several hours.
A night sail in the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat with very limited lighting is a unique experience. Complete darkness all around, clear skies and stars lighting the cosmos.
With the dawn we were approaching the coast of Gaza. Someone sees vessels of the Israeli navy on the horizon. I was the pessimist in the group and thought that we would be stopped. I lost a bet on that with Greta Berlin, one of the leaders of the organization that had taken the initiative to break the blockade.
We receive a radio communication from the Israeli coast: what is the name of the boat? How many are you? What is your port of destination? The captain replies: Gaza, and the reply: thank you and shalom. The way is free, no one stops us, and there is much joy among members of the delegation. The naval vessels remain at a distance from us. I was happy about losing the bet. I said to my friends in the delegation that contrary to expectations, the Israeli government was behaving with wisdom this time, someone in the ruling circles there understood that to detain in the open sea a boat that is bringing medicines and a delegation including a Nobel Peace Prize laureate would give Israel a bad reputation all over the world. Definitely a pleasant surprise.
After 15 hours of sailing we approach the Gaza coast. Palestinian fishermen blow their horns and cheer at us. At 8:30 in the morning we docked. On the shore dozens of television cameramen were waiting for us. Dozens of Palestinian police were on the scene. As soon as we docked armed police approached in order to prevent any unauthorized person from boarding the boat. We went on shore and got a warm reception from everyone. “Welcome” was heard again and again.
As we were about to arrive at Gaza, I experienced a certain degree of stress. I did not know how I would be received by the Gazans in the knowledge that I am Israeli. The surprise was total. Not only was I warmly welcomed everywhere I went, but I received repeated requests for interviews. Gaza, I learned during my stay there, contains scores of TV camera operators. Some of them represent famous international channels, others are freelancers who hope to sell their product to a TV station, whether in Gaza or in the Arab world.
In all the interviews I was asked: what is my message to the people of Gaza? My reply was: my message to Gazans and Israelis is identical: don’t shoot, talk; and I added that the blockade is a crime, the collective punishment of innocents. I am not the only Israeli who opposes the blockade; there are many others like me. We are neighbours and must learn to live together with mutual respect and respect for human rights. A precondition for all that is the end of the Occupation. I got the impression that the words fell on receptive ears. I also emphasized in all the interviews that there must be an exchange of prisoners between Israel and the government of Gaza. That is a confidence-building measure. That too was welcomed.
After we got off the boat, and after the members of the delegation finished being interviewed, which lasted a not insubstantial length of time, we got onto a bus that the government of Gaza put at our disposal during our tour in Gaza. The bus had known better days, but no one complained, for we knew that it was a consequence of the siege.
They treated us as very important guests. The bus was always escorted by police cars with flashing lights and sirens which took care to clear the way for us. Security people travelled with us and guarded us to make sure nothing bad would befall us. I have never felt more secure.
Our first stop was the Marna House hotel. The hotel manager Basil Shawwa gave us a warm and courteous welcome. The hotel has a beautiful courtyard that serves as a restaurant and a café. Every two members of the delegation received a room. The rooms were large, there was a TV (which I did not succeed in turning on, maybe because of my general incompetence with remotes) and a bathroom. The hardships were manifest in small things, the flow of water was not always adequate and such things as that, but we always received extremely courteous service. After we deposited our bags in the rooms and drank a cup of coffee, we got on the bus for a visit to the Shifa hospital.
In the hospital we were received by the health minister, Dr. Basim Naeem. As would be the procedure in subsequent visits, we first assembled to hear a report on the place and its hardships. Naturally the blockade and the siege played a starring role in all the lectures as the primary reason for the great distress that was everywhere in evidence.
The Shifa hospital is the biggest of the Palestinian hospitals. A complex with several buildings.
After the ceremony of handing over the medicines that we had brought, we toured the various departments: cancer, radiology and others. My layman’s impression is that the hospital is making efforts to give as much as it can to the patients, but that is not enough. We saw this in every department: it would be possible to give much better and more efficacious care were it not for the closure and the shortage of medicines.
After it became known that one of the members of the delegation was Israeli, a man wearing a jalabiyya approached me, and in fluent Hebrew requested that I help him to transfer his brother, who is a cancer patient, to Israel.
The man is Ismail Yusuf Abu-Zor, who worked for years in renovations in Tel-Aviv. With much emotion he said to me: look what the closure is doing to us, it kills sick people. His brother, Muhammad Yusuf Abu Zor, is sick with blood cancer and the doctors at Shifa recommended that he receive treatment in Israel. There is a chance that he will recover if he receives appropriate treatment. But the cruel closure does not permit that, and few succeed in crossing the seven circles of Hell of the Israel Security Agency [ISA, also known as Shin Bet or Shabak – trans.], which determines who will live and who will die, and in most cases it sentences patients to death for “security reasons”, and Ismail is bursting with frustration. I explained to him that I do not have the right connections to the ISA, that I am here because of my opposition to its policy. I told him about the Israeli organization Physicians for Human Rights which perhaps can be a life-line for him. The attending physician in Gaza has connections with the organization and we hope that he can help.
From the cancer department we passed on to the MRI machine. The doctors inform us that the machine is only partially functional because Israel does not permit the passage of additional parts that would permit it to be fully exploited. Another example of the wickedness and evil that are at the base of the closure which harms patients who need the machine.
The hospital has set aside two rooms for a modest museum that is dedicated to the consequences of Israel’s bombing. The museum contains mainly pictures of citizens who have been harmed by the bombs, including women and children, certainly not a combatant population, and also tables on which fragments of Israeli bombs and missiles are displayed.
The museum is impressive due to its very modesty. Not the splendour and the technology of Yad Vashem (Israel’s official Holocaust Museum), but it clearly demonstrates the hellish consequences of the Israeli bombardments. As an Israeli I felt the unpleasant feeling that comes over Germans who visit Yad Vashem. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to emphasize that I am not equating the bombing of Gaza to the Holocaust; only expressing the feeling of discomfort that afflicts the visitor who comes from the country that has committed the crime.
From the hospital we returned to the hotel for lunch. Not a gourmet meal at a fancy Tel Aviv restaurant, but definitely a tasty and satisfying meal.
At the end of the meal we received an announcement from the organizers that our agenda had been changed a little because the prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, wanted to meet the delegation.
The prime minister’s office is in a villa at the end of a quiet street. At the entrance to the premises stood two policemen, who saluted the delegation. What impressed me was the simplicity of entering the building, compared to the practice in Israel. No checking of bags, no machines to detect metal, no guards scanning the visitor’s body with metal-detectors, no need to empty our pockets. The whole time I was thinking to myself: there is an Israeli in the delegation. But they did not discriminate against me; I did not undergo a more rigorous inspection.
Comparison to the Israeli practice cannot be avoided. When any delegation, no matter how friendly, meets with the prime minister in Israel, its members have to undergo a very rigourous inspection, and if it includes an Arab, he will be separated and humiliated by a series of inspections reserved for Arabs only.
The prime minister’s office is definitely impressive. In the reception room the government ministers stood in a line. Each of us shook hands with the ministers until we reached Haniyeh, a man of large dimensions, wearing a suit but not a tie. I introduced myself by name and the country I came from, added a few words in condemnation of the closure and I expressed the hope that there would soon be an exchange of prisoners between the two sides, and he replied, inshallah.
Not for nothing was the reception room full of photographers. The Gaza government had planned a ceremony in the full sense of the word. Ismail Haniyeh spoke first.
He highly praised the delegation’s members, called them heroes who had risked their lives, and he offered Palestinian citizenship to each one of us. The Palestinian people, he continued, is a people that loves peace and justice, but they will not waive their legitimate rights. He did not mention Israel by name, but spoke of the Occupation and the occupiers that deprive the Palestinians of their rights, and as long as it continues, the resistance too will continue.
We are not against the Jews, he said, and in fact there is a Jew in the delegation – he said while facing in my direction – but against the Occupation and the occupiers that are depriving the Palestinian people of their basic rights. Gaza is a place that is tolerant of all religions, and as evidence of that he pointed in the direction of the Catholic priest of Gaza who was present.
Some members of the delegation spoke after Haniyeh. The first was Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, who as stated above is a member of the Palestinian parliament and formerly a minister in the national unity government. Barghouti, a secularist who heads the Palestinian National Initiative, received much honour because he refused to be a part of Abu Mazen’s government (which he criticizes harshly as collaborating with the Israeli Occupation and to which he referred in conversation with me as a “Pétain government”). He called for Palestinian unity and Haniyeh jumped in and invited him to participate in a session of the government in Gaza. Barghouti replied something that caused much laughter, but was not translated into English (my guess: “I have enough problems, and now you want to get me into more trouble?”). This is what is known as a “bear-hug.” Other members of the delegation also spoke, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire, who condemned the closure and stressed the importance of non-violent struggle. The problems that must be dealt with in the conflict between the two peoples are difficult and complex, but the peace accord in Northern Ireland proved that even protracted and difficult conflicts can be resolved by negotiations, and she expressed the hope that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be achieved to the benefit of both peoples.
After the speeches, Ismail Haniyeh presented each member of the delegation with a scarf in the colours of the Palestinian flag and a gilt medallion on which was printed a map of Palestine with Gaza outlined in red with the words “Free Gaza” in Arabic and English. At the end of the ceremony we accompanied the entire entourage of ministers and other VIPs to another room where light refreshments were awaiting us, cans of non-alcoholic drinks and cakes.
After the ceremony, I tried my luck with the issue of the captive Gilad Shalit. I turned to the Catholic priest, a short-statured man with a full body, wearing a beret, who smiled a lot and exchanged words with everyone, and I got the impression that he was an insider on the Gazan political scene. I approached him, introduced myself, and told him about my desire to meet Gilad Shalit. I told him that it was important that Shalit meet during his captivity with an Israeli from the Israeli peace movement, and hear about the circumstances of his long captivity from the lips of a man who opposes the policies of the government of Israel. He thought it was an excellent idea. I asked him whom I should speak to among the present public figures, and he pointed to the health minister as one who is very close to Haniyeh.
The health minister was a kind of half-acquaintance, for we had met that morning during the visit to the Shifa Hospital, and I had exchanged a few words with him there. That made my mission a little easier. I turned to the minister and requested to meet with Gilad Shalit. I repeated the reasons I had mentioned to the priest. I told the minister that I was aware of the sensitivity of the subject, and I was prepared to be taken to the place of captivity with my eyes blindfolded, to be uncovered only in the room where Gilad Shalit is located, and for the conversation between us to be in the presence of one of his captors who speaks Hebrew, so that nothing would be hidden. The minister did not reply in the negative, only said that this is a very complex issue, but he promised to look into it and give me an answer the next day. To my regret it did not work out.
From conversations with people of lower rank, I understood that there are very few people who know where Shalit is located, and the main reason why visits are not permitted (for example by representatives of the Red Cross) stems from the fear that Israel, with its technological superiority, could trace the route of the visitors and thereby find the place where he is being held.
Paradoxically, it can be said that Hamas wants to keep Gilad alive at all costs, and to prevent Israel from carrying out a military rescue operation that could cause his death, as happened with Nachshon Wachsman, who was captured (“kidnapped” in the language of the Establishment that has been adopted by the media), and whose place of captivity was found. Instead of conducting negotiations for an exchange of prisoners they sent a military unit to “liberate” him, and in consequence, Wachsman was killed with his captors and during the action another Israeli soldier was killed.
In other words, as things look from Gaza, Gilad will be freed only as a result of negotiations in which Israel will accede to Hamas’ demand that it free prisoners, or he will not be released at all. (Until, God forbid, he evaporates like the navigator Ron Arad).
To the government of Israel, Gilad Shalit is no longer a soldier who must be liberated in an agreement for exchange of prisoners, but merchandise on which the price-tag is too high. Thus does the government betray its soldiers.
In the evening we met with civil society, which is composed of various organizations the greater part of which are secular in orientation.
In the room we saw pictures of Dr. Haidar Abd al-Shafi, a physician by training, among the foundation-stones of the secular Palestinian left. In the Second World War he fought against the Nazis in the desert army that the British army set up. He was among the founders of the PLO, he founded the Palestinian Red Crescent, was an interlocutor of the Israeli left and the head of the Palestinian-Jordanian delegation at the Madrid Conference (1991). He supported the two-state solution but opposed the Oslo Accords because they circumvented the issue of the settlements. Of course he was a strong opponent of the Israeli occupation from the beginning, and he was exiled several times from his home in Gaza, once to Sinai, another time to Lebanon, but he always returned to his home in Gaza. He died in 2007 at age 88.
There is no doubt that Dr. Haidar Abd al-Shafi is the political polar opposite of the Hamas regime. But the circumstances under which we met with the civil society did not permit a serious discussion of the problems of Palestinian society. The closure and its problems cast their shadow over everything. Left and right suffer together and resist together, the main message at the meeting with the guests from abroad was: lift the closure.
One of the civil society leaders is Dr. Mona El-Farra, a veteran Palestinian secular and feminist activist, with whom I talked a little in the evening at the hotel. She is a fervent supporter of a secular democratic state for the two peoples. If a two-state solution cannot be avoided, then she sees it as a transitory stage to the single state. Since we’re already talking about vision, I said to her, let us dream of a free democratic and secular Middle East. The idea definitely appealed to her.
There is no doubt that the Hamas regime and the Israeli closure are not the optimal environment for secular and democratic political activism, but it is clear that she and her comrades are active in grassroots organizing among the population.
30 October 2008
In the morning we set out for a tour of the Strip, on our way to the Jabaliya refugee camp and Beit Lahiya. The traffic on the streets of Gaza is conspicuous for its absence. The guide who accompanied us told us that we were now travelling on the main street of Gaza, a road usually packed with traffic, but the results of the Israeli closure that had drastically reduced the supply of petroleum transferred to Gaza are clearly visible. There are hardly any walls without slogans written on them, some of them political, not just Hamas, but mostly so, and some of them praise the martyrs who fell in battle for Gaza.
The route to Jabaliya goes by partially-paved roads and others that are still sand roads full of holes and puddles. The guide explained to us that it was all a consequence of a shortage of construction materials. Buildings that had begun to be constructed and roads that had begun to be paved, all stopped due to the closure which keeps construction and paving materials out of Gaza.
The sides of the roads are full of garbage, junk, and suchlike devastation. The regime is not free at the moment to clean the streets and collect garbage. Most energy is devoted to survival, both that of the regime and of the residents. The refugee camp, home to over a hundred thousand people, is a very congested place. Houses touch houses, some of the streets are very narrow and the bus has difficulty maneuvering between the parked and moving cars.
As things look from the moving bus the traffic seems to be heavier in the camp, the shops are open but the merchants sit outside awaiting customers. We are on our way to Beit Lahiya and from there to the point nearest to the Israeli border.
We got off the bus and found ourselves with a small group of demonstrators, most of them youths, some of them children, waving flags, yelling and chanting slogans against Israel and the closure. Photographers accompanied us the whole time. We walked towards a demolished house, the house of a farmer near the Israeli border that was destroyed by one of the bombs. Not far off a heavily-fortified position of the Israeli army was visible. Speeches were given which I did not understand but the contents of which I could guess.
Michele Giorgio, the Middle East correspondent for the Italian newspaper
, asked me how I felt here, facing an Israeli army position, in the midst of a Palestinian demonstration against Israel? I replied to him that undoubtedly it is not a comfortable position, but I came to Gaza because I oppose the closure, and that is my message to the Palestinians as an Israeli and as a citizen of the world, even here in front of the Israeli army.
On our way back to Gaza, we stopped at the Jabaliya camp in order to visit the community centre. At the entrance to the building we were welcomed by a group of young men and women who were waiting for us, dressed in traditional costumes. A secular hand had left its imprint on this centre, which among other things was manifest in the fact that we shook hands with the young women – usually not the practice in a very religious Muslim society.
In the centre we received a crash course on the situation in Gaza by means of a projector and the explanations of the director. Most of the facts were known to me, for example that this is the most densely-populated place in the world and that Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into the biggest prison in the world, but I also learned one or two new things, for example, that the birthrate in the Strip is 5.7 per woman, which the speaker pointed out with pride. I thought to myself that that is not a cause for celebration, because societies in which the birthrate is high are usually also societies that suffer from poverty and underdevelopment.
After the lecture the community centre’s dance troupe, boys and girls together, performed dabke dances for us, into the circle of which most members of the group were drawn.
At the end of the artistic segment we got onto the roof of the building where the children drew a large mural, and each of us was asked to sign our name on the drawing.
Before our departure we received an album of photos of Gaza, which, if we did not know where we were and the circumstances under which we had gone there, might have given the impression that Gaza was one of the most beautiful touristic and recreational places in the Middle East, if not the world, for truth to tell, Gaza has the potential for tourism, if only peace would come.
We proceeded to a rehabilitation centre. A new and well-equipped building, contributed from abroad. There children and youths wounded by Israel’s bombing undergo rehabilitation. Most of them had serious disabilities as a result of loss of limbs. All of them sat in the hall in wheelchairs. I felt ashamed to be Israeli.
This visit, like all the previous ones, was accompanied by speeches, and they were not pleasant to the Israeli ear, for the consequences of the bombings were displayed before us in their full ugliness. It was one of those moments when solidarity and compassion come very close together.
At the end of the visit the delegation received a large map of historical Palestine as it existed before the birth of the State of Israel.
Return to Israel
I took leave of the group in the afternoon, on my way to the Erez checkpoint. I was compelled to leave a day and a half before the others because of a previous commitment to participate in a symposium on Friday 31 October 2008 that was organized by the Committee Against Torture at Artists’ House in Tel Aviv as part of the events around the exhibition “Silence over the abyss”.
Those who were responsible for the group immediately arranged for a police car to take me to the Erez checkpoint. It was the scariest ride of my life. The driver drove through the narrow streets of Jabaliya at an insane speed, and the siren was operating non-stop as if they were transporting a head of state for whom the route had to be cleared. Beside the driver sat an armed policeman, and another one sat beside me in the back seat, lest, God forbid, any harm befall me. We arrived at the last point to which Gazan vehicles are allowed to go, I thanked the policemen for their services, and proceeded on foot to the Erez checkpoint. Between the last Palestinian point and the Israeli checkpoint there is a zone devoid of humanity for about a kilometre or two, which must be crossed on foot.
While the official policy is “not to talk to Hamas,” the reality is that they talk to it all the time. The last Palestinian inspection point reports to the ISA at Erez on every person who is about to arrive, in my case as well. After I crossed the demilitarized zone I arrived at the entrance gates of Erez. A small group of people were already waiting there, most of them journalists and UN people and a few Palestinians, and me, the only Israeli. The doors to the “inspection palace” (and indeed they have built a structure of impressive dimensions) were sealed and the whole area was surrounded by a massive wall which conveys the message that only an atom bomb could destroy it.
Suddenly a Palestinian approached me and handed me his cellular telephone to talk to somebody from Israeli security. The Palestinian worked at the place under the supervision of the ISA, which instructs him whom to let in and who must return to Gaza.
The anonymous voice asked me my name, my ID card number (pure bureaucracy, they already knew everything from the information that had been transmitted to them from the Palestinian inspection point) and hung up.
A few more minutes passed and the Palestinian (who was anonymous to me – there was no time to start a conversation) asked me to accompany him to one of the steel doors which opened like in a James Bond movie.
I found myself in a vast hall, full of electric doors and electronic inspection cubicles.
The Palestinian worker asked me to open the zipper of my suitcase and put it on a conveyor belt that undoubtedly transported it to a sealed room made of reinforced concrete in case there was a bomb in it. That was the last time I saw a flesh-and-blood human being in that vast inspection hall. From that point I was addressed by means of loudspeakers like in
, but here it was not a TV game, but more like 1984 than George Orwell’s book.
The anonymous voice from the loudspeaker constantly gives me instructions. Enter by the door on the right when the green light is lit, then enter the inspection cubicle, spread your legs and put them on the foot marks impressed on the floor, raise your hands, take everything out of your pockets and hold it in your hand. A machine scans me all over, 360 degrees. I exit the cubicle and then the voice tells me to enter the door on the right (or to the left facing me) on which there is a green light and I find myself again in a locked and sealed area awaiting the next order. I wait and wait and then the voice instructs me to open another door. I look for it. The voice sees all, and tells me not there; to the left (or to the right facing me, it depends on where you’re standing) and after a process of trial and error I find the door and lo, I am in the baggage-inspection room and I see people again, thank God.
Now comes baggage-inspection stage. I am permitted to watch the inspection, but from a distance of more than an arm’s length. The female inspector wears white gloves and goes through each item. Every sock, all underwear undergo a meticulous inspection lest explosives be concealed in them. Even my medications are inspected one by one, as if she knows what they are. (How is it that there is no pharmacist or doctor on the premises who can verify which medications are legitimate and do not contain explosives? Such laxity!)
The inspector informs me that she will take the suitcase for an additional inspection without my presence. I protest and request to be present, but the officer responsible for security informs me that that is the procedure. I protest and tell him that just as you do not believe me I do not believe you, maybe you will plant something incriminating, and the reply – typically Israeli – was: “don’t worry.” Blessed be he who always worries, I tell him. You have the power, and the fact is I have no real option to resist, except verbally. The suitcase is taken for that secret inspection.
While I was waiting for my suitcase to return from the secret inspection, the security officer approached me and informed me that I must return to the body-search hall where they had spoken to me, as I said before, through a loudspeaker. What happened? What more is there to check after they scanned me from all directions? “Supplementaries” he calls it. And so I find myself once again in that inspection cubicle, spreading my legs and raising my hands, but this time, upon completion of the additional scan, I am taken to another sealed room where I am asked to strip down to my underwear. “Big Brother” orders me to put the clothes into a scanning machine. Of course they found nothing suspicious. But that was not enough. In the twisted brain of the ISA at Erez, maybe I had swallowed an unexploded Israeli cluster-bomb unit, which the Palestinians wanted to return to Israel my means of me, and so a security inspector came into the room, equipped with a metal-detecting device which he passed over my naked body. Nothing incriminating was found.
After the inspection I was permitted to get dressed. With my clothes – which had been suspect until a moment ago – now on my body, I wait for the instruction from the loudspeaker to open the steel door and again find myself in the baggage inspection hall.
What was the purpose of the additional body search? In my opinion it was intended for humiliation only. They treated me like a suspect Palestinian. I am filled with hate for the harassment, the harassers and those who came up with the idea for that course of humiliation. If that is how I feel after a single inspection, it is not hard to imagine what Palestinians feel who undergo that degree of humiliation, which has nothing to do with the security of the State, hundreds of times. Maybe here can be found one of the sources of willingness to carry explosive belts or pipe bombs.
The conclusion of the security orgy was stage 1 of my return to Israel. My passport was transferred to immigration control, but it was not stamped, and so in that sense I am still outside Israel. My passports were transferred to the border station police post. I have more than one passport, including a world citizen passport, which was produced by an organization that believes in a world without borders according to which all humanity are citizens of the globe. That passport aroused the suspicions of the ISA people and they photographed it several times. As I learned later, they transferred it to the police with a note indicating that they suspected that it was a falsified document. For the ISA people at the Erez checkpoint a world citizen is a suspicious thing, for in their world-view, which is as small as an ant, whoever wants to live in a world without borders is at least a forger if not worse.
I was asked to wait in the departure lounge where I sat for about an hour. Suddenly I hear a policeman shouting from the other end of the hall “Sapiro (mispronouncing my name), come here”. I rebuked him for the way he addressed me. The last time anybody talked to me like that was when I was an army recruit 55 years ago. I was transferred to another policeman, who informed me that I would now be transferred to the Sderot police station for questioning. My passports were in his hand. Bravo for the police, which sent a special vehicle to transport a perpetrator from a well-known crime family directly to the police questioners.
I arrived at the Sderot station at nine in the evening in full police glory, and I was led to the investigator on duty. The policeman who transported me gave the investigator the passports as well as the ISA note according to which the world citizen passport was suspected to be fake.
The investigator, Command Sergeant Meir Abergil, read me the accusation, the main point of which was that I had violated a military order that bars Israeli citizens from entering the Gaza Strip. I am not obliged to say anything, but anything I say may be used against me. If I say nothing, that too will be considered against me. I am entitled to consult with a lawyer before the interrogation begins. The investigator strikes me as businesslike, and he does not make a fuss, which is a pleasant surprise.
I waived my right to consult with a lawyer. Even though I face what is formally a criminal offence, in reality it is a political investigation, and I have lots of experience with those. My policy is always to talk and to elaborate so much that sometimes my testimony turns into a political speech; and who knows, maybe it will even influence the investigator.
I do not intend to report on all my testimony, which lasted more than an hour. It is already late and besides, this report has stretched out longer than planned. In essence, I focused on the fact that I had been invited to participate in a delegation as a journalist and also as a person who is known as an activist and opponent of the Occupation and the closure. It is the duty of a journalist to be in places where other citizens have difficulty going.
Regarding the military order: it is not clear to me that it applies universally, and certainly there are situations in which it does not apply. If I were returning after having met Gilad Shalit I certainly would not be investigated but rather welcomed very warmly. Therefore the application of the order derives from political considerations which are necessarily arbitrary. I explained to my questioner that for the purposes of the investigation I declare that I visited Gaza, not just as an Israeli but as a citizen of the world who opposes collective punishment of the kind that Israel is imposing on Gaza.
I elaborated on my explanations, that not only is my world citizen passport not fake but it expresses a humanistic and democratic world view. I got the impression that that point persuaded the investigator to agree that it was not a falsified document, but the edict of the ISA is stronger than any logical explanation, so the passport remained with the police for “verification”. (On 12 November the Sderot police informed me that there was no reason the passport could not be returned to me. I asked them to send it to me, but the investigator insisted that I go to pick it up personally, and so I was bullied into going once again from Tel Aviv to Sderot).
At the end of the interrogation I was released on personal bond, with a commitment not to visit Gaza in the next 30 days. I got home near midnight. The second part of my return to Israel was over.
The next day, according to plan, I participated in the symposium at Artists’ House in Tel Aviv.
I am full of satisfaction that I had the honour of being part of the humanitarian delegation that set out on the second voyage to break the Israeli closure of Gaza. (My friend Jeff Halper, chairman of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, participated in the first voyage). Aid for a million and a half besieged human beings outweighs any military order. And besides: in a democratic state, generals do not give orders to civilians. Another example of how Israel is not a normal democracy.
In Gaza I found people who yearn for peace. If I may be permitted to use a somewhat flowery expression: they thirstily drank my messages of peace, which of course were not just mine but spoke for a large constituency in Israel, even if it is not a majority, it is still a great many people.
The closure affects everything. There is no aspect of civil life in Gaza that is not affected by it, and of course those who suffer worst are the sick, especially babies and children.
In the Gaza Strip there is no hunger of the type that is seen in parts of Africa, but there is great hardship, and we do not have to wait until the situation gets to such a low point.
The Hamas regime is a concrete political fact, at least at this stage. The refusal to talk to it is reminiscent of the old refusal to talk to the PLO. It was not wise then and it is not wise today. The impression that I got was that there are people to talk to and there is something to talk about. I have no doubt that Israeli gestures such as lifting the closure would be more fruitful – including on the Gilad Shalit issue – than a continuation of Israel’s policy of force would be.
These days it is becoming clear that the Defence Minister has gotten tired of the calm that has been respected by the Hamas regime, and has decided on baseless grounds to return to the language of missiles, bombs and raids. As usual, the military correspondents have acted as an extension of the IDF Spokesperson’s office and they have justified the violation of the calm by the Israeli invasion army.
During the two very full days I spent in Gaza, I also succeeded in making several acquaintances with impressive people, and I hope to strengthen my ties with them.
My sojourn in Gaza did not turn me into a Hamas supporter, for as a secular person I oppose all religious fundamentalism, whatever form it takes. There are many Israelis who believe that the internal Palestinian rift that the Israeli Occupation encourages and to a great extent creates is good for Israel. That is the short-term wisdom of fools.
The Palestinian people must be permitted to choose their own path free of the shackles of the Occupation.
I call on peace-loving Israelis who oppose the closure to implement Nobel Peace Prize laureate Reverend Martin Luther King’s principles of civil disobedience. The appeal is directed mainly to retirees in their 60s and 70s whose health permits them to sail from Cyprus to Gaza.
The youth among us, like the brave Occupation refusers who are sitting in military prisons, are implementing civil disobedience with their refusal to enlist in the Occupation army. We retirees can fulfill a similar role by breaking the closure of Gaza. The Gazans warmly welcomed those who went. The greater the number of people who refuse to obey the military order, the harder it will be to put them on trial. It will be difficult for the State to jail scores and maybe hundreds of old people who tell the regime: any law that forbids us to express solidarity with suffering people through non-violent action is patently illegal.
Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent
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