Rana El-Khatib, Arizona Republic, January 25, 2004
“Israel good!” were the last words my husband and I heard as we left the final checkpoint within Erez, the border crossing maintained by Israel to control all entries and exits to and from Gaza.
I turned back to get a closer look at the soldier. I saw a petite, attractive blond, her face almost smiling. Her arms rested comfortably on a large-against-her-frame M-16. Her words echoed chillingly in my head – not because I did not want to believe her, but because I had just seen the other side of Israel: the “not-so-good” Israel.
We traveled to Gaza to return 6-year-old twin sisters, Asma and Hiba, to their refugee camp existence. The girls had spent the last five months in our Phoenix home recovering from major surgery. They had grown very fond of their doctors and the dozens of families they met here.
They also grew accustomed to the creature comforts of American life. Here, they had a soft bed. They could sleep the night through without the earsplitting sounds of artillery all around them. They had a television. They showered every day and enjoyed a tub filled with warm suds. They did not have to fear a helicopter. They had electricity all the time. They could be children.
In Gaza, they sleep on mats on the floor. They shower only when they have water. A helicopter sends them into a panic. Their father is not always able to travel to his nursing job. Electricity cuts off regularly. A soldier represents terror and hate. They are denied a childhood as we know it.
Our four disturbing days and three sleepless nights in Gaza were filled with the images and sounds of a society in turmoil. Atrophy infested every aspect of life, and a real sense of isolation hung in the air.
During the daylight, in the company of friends, we tried to overlook the dilapidated conditions. During the nights, it was a different story. Trying to sleep amid the raucous sounds of state-of-the-art Israeli weapons against the pathetic pap, pap, pap of Palestinian Kalashnikov guns was difficult.
At times, only a few rounds could be heard echoing above the city. At other times, my husband and I cringed helplessly at the thought of who was at the receiving end of the hail of bullets. When the shooting began, it silenced the cacophony of roosters crowing out of sync and the sporadic, spine-chilling shrill of hawks that pierced the dark.
And at least once each night, there remained one sound that jolted me back to consciousness – the vociferous brays of one anguished donkey. Every species seemed troubled.
Our ninth-floor room in our empty hotel offered a panoramic view of two very disparate worlds. Immediately below us, we could see the decrepit Palestinian world. In the distance, a settlement that might as well be labeled “Jews Only” nestled up neatly against the seashore, enclosed behind lush greenery and protected by armed soldiers in watchtowers.
When I asked if I could take photos, I was told simply, “The Israelis will see you and you could get shot.” The bullet hole in our hotel window and rear wall facing it reinforced the wisdom of their recommendation.
Bullets also occasionally rain down from dreaded Israeli observation towers. These blots on the landscape protrude menacingly over the densely populated towns. And when the volleys of bullets hail down, for whatever given reason, they often kill or injure innocent people going about their daily lives, such as the life of 9-year old Hani.
We saw his lifeless and bloodied body at a hospital morgue. He had been shot in the head by one such bullet while playing soccer.
Israeli soldiers interfere with the most basic of freedoms, like the choice to leave one’s home. When Palestinians are not jailed in their homes under curfew, their freedom is restricted by notorious checkpoints that can take anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours to cross.
At these checkpoints, soldiers peer out through small, darkened, rectangular windows from inside unsightly steel structures that overlook pothole-filled roads. Decisions as to who goes in and out of particular areas are often arbitrary and baseless.
Merkava tanks also dominate the society. Concealed inside 3-inch walls of steel, Israeli soldiers barrel forebodingly down small, densely populated streets. The tanks deliberately damage streets, churning the asphalt into crater-filled, sewage-seeping obstacle courses for emaciated donkeys and the relatively few cars to maneuver precariously around.
Soldiers will sometimes park the steel behemoths in one spot, shifting their cannons from side to side, provoking the young and the fearless to throw rocks at them. Consequently, the soldiers open fire into the crowds, leaving both destruction and death in their wake.
F-16 fighter planes serve as yet another notch in the belt of Israeli domination, reinforcing their total control over the Palestinians they rule. They streak sinisterly across the Gazan sky – day and night. Heaps of mangled concrete buildings lay in their wake.
The most spine-chilling face of Israel’s occupation comes in the form of Apache helicopters. The mere sight of one causes pandemonium in the streets. People scramble to take cover. No one feels safe. Apache missions almost always set out to murder individuals who are unilaterally declared to be “threats to Israel’s security.”
In the process of executing people without any due process, innocent bystanders are killed as well. They were either unfortunate enough to be in the area when the assault took place, or were administering aid to the victims of the initial onslaught. These innocent human beings get tacked onto the mounting “collateral damage” pile.
Among Israel’s most provocative actions is its ongoing expansion and development of new government-subsidized Jews-only housing for illegal settlers to live on stolen Palestinian land. These settlers drive on Jews-only roads that lead into lavish Jews-only colonies with manicured lawns and swimming pools. Palestinians, less than one mile away, do not even have enough clean water to drink.
Perhaps the most egregious act of Israel’s occupation that we saw firsthand is its home demolitions and collective punishment policies. Thousands of homes and apartment buildings have been demolished. Entire families are forced into tents set up by the United Nations, making refugees of refugees for a second, third and even fourth time. It is estimated that some 40,000 Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have been left homeless since September 2000.
We returned precious Asma and Hiba to a giant prison cell. Their crime is that they refuse to disappear silently into someone else’s version of history and fact. Palestine may have been erased off the world’s maps, but Palestinians have not. Asma and Hiba have not. At least not yet.
El-Khatib is a Palestinian-American poet and activist living in Phoenix. She is the author of BRANDED, The Poetry of a So-Called “Terrorist,” a collection of poems available from online booksellers beginning in March 2004. She can be contacted at email@example.com.