"The worst spot in Gaza": "You will not understand how hard it is here" until you see this checkpoint

A 30-minute trip could take 10 hours -- I wondered how people could accept the unendurable with such quiet patience

Published May 31, 2015 1:00PM (EDT)

Palestinians wait in line with their vehicles to pass through the Abu Holi checkpoint in the central Gaza Strip, July 3, 2004.      (AP/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinians wait in line with their vehicles to pass through the Abu Holi checkpoint in the central Gaza Strip, July 3, 2004. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

Excerpted from "Return: A Palestinian Memoir"

The next morning I awoke early, and decided to take a walk along the empty streets around the hotel while it was still relatively cool. Since arriving in Gaza I had seen little of the UNDP party I had come with. They were busy with their projects, and had picked up two more workers who had been in Jerusalem and would return with us. Looking at the scenes around me I might have been in a poor Indian city: cracked pavements, mounds of rubble and sand, overflowing rubbish bins. A young boy passed by me, barefoot, sooty black with dirt, his blue eyes and fairish hair suggesting his normal complexion underneath was also fair; a grubby T-shirt and short trousers clothed his angular frame. The beaches were deserted; no throngs of skinny boys like him splashing and running in and out of the waves.

The Israeli soldiers in their watchtower were awake like me, and I wondered how they felt as they watched the people below living in such dilapidation and poverty just a few miles from their own modern, prosperous towns. Did they think those people wanted to live like that? For one mad moment I wanted to shout up at them to come and talk to me, to drag them down from their watchtower by their bullet-proof vests and their guns and their walkie-talkies. I wanted to push my face up against theirs and shout, ‘Look around you! Properly! These are human beings here, not beasts, not vermin. They want to live decent lives like you. Understand?’

The power of the image I had conjured up made me so shake with agitation I had to walk on quickly to dissipate the feeling and after a while calm down. The deputy director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, whom I had met briefly the day before, had invited me for breakfast with his family and was due to pick me up at the hotel. He was a genial, happy-looking middle-aged man with an air of optimism and purpose, though the hard life he had led should have made him exactly the opposite. His home where we would join his family for breakfast was in Bureij refugee camp, to which the family had moved from the nearby Nusseirat camp, his birthplace. As with most refugees in Gaza, his parents had fled their village in 1948 and ended up in the Gaza camps where they had lived ever since. Like other refugee children, Jaber was educated by UNRWA, and later became a physics lecturer. With his peers he soon became involved in resistance activities against the Israeli occupation. There were no suicide bombers in those days and violence was unusual, but young men used every other tactic they could think of in their struggle. Inevitably, he was caught, and in 1985, two years before the outbreak of the First Intifada, the army came for him in the night and he was committed to an Israeli jail where he remained for the next fifteen years. He did not tell me what he was accused of, but such harsh punishments were not usual for relatively minor acts against Israel as a deterrent.

There he joined the many thousands of other ‘security prisoners’, Israel’s designation for those carrying out what the Palestinians would have called acts of resistance against its occupation, stone-throwing, distributing revolutionary leaflets, holding secret meetings of activists to plan possible operations. Israeli law had no category of prisoners of war or political prisoners as applied to Palestinians. Along with other inmates accused of planning hostile acts against Israel, Jaber was tortured and kept in handcuffs and leg shackles. It was a terrible, unspeakable time during which his daughter was born, never to set eyes on him until she was five. But it was in that dark and rotten cell, as he described it, where he was kept in solitary confinement, that something important happened to him.

‘A man from the International Red Cross finally got to see me. They kept moving us to different jails, so it was difficult for the Red Cross to find us. But he did and I thought what a marvellous man he was for devoting his life to human rights. And it was then that I decided I would do that too. Don’t get me wrong. I will always hate the Israelis for what they did to me and all the friends I met in prison. They ruined my career and my family life for years, but they didn’t win. I resolved to fight them, not with violence, but through the struggle for human rights and the rule of law. That is what I have done ever since, and inshallah, we will succeed.’

I looked at him as he recounted his harrowing story; despite his ordeal, he had an air of inner peace as if he had indeed found his way. He chatted amiably as he drove me to the camp, telling me about Gaza, his work and his family, and stopping briefly to pick up fresh-baked mana’ish, flatbread covered in olive oil and za’tar (thyme), a typical breakfast dish in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Bureij camp was situated in the centre of Gaza and had about 35,000 inhabitants. In 1949 it had been nothing but an emergency collection of hastily erected tents and abandoned British army barracks to house the flood of refugees pouring in from the east of Gaza. But UNRWA later replaced the tents with concrete houses, and the camp became more firmly established. It looked more like a crowded small village than a refugee camp when I saw it, its dwellings set close together, trees and bushes growing amongst them.

I was struck by its peaceful, friendly air on that quiet Friday morning, and as we made our way through the narrow alleyways everyone we passed knew Jaber and greeted him warmly. No one would have guessed at Bureij’s turbulent history, how in 1953, when it had barely come into existence, an Israeli army unit under the command of Ariel Sharon – the same ‘man of peace’ being lauded by President George Bush – opened fire on the camp as people slept, and killed forty-three of them; how when Sharon became Israel’s prime minister in 2002, his army raided the camp again, killing ten people, two of them UN employees; and how it attacked again in 2003, demolishing the camp’s mosques and fourteen of its homes.

‘Yes,’ said Jaber when I mentioned this. ‘Bureij has had many a blow. But we never took it lying down. We fought back. That’s why they hate us, why they keep coming back.’

His house was larger than most I had seen in the camp. It was spotlessly clean and welcoming, full of family members, including his old mother. She was waiting for us in their best room in her embroidered thobe, the full-length caftan typically worn by Palestinian peasants, a white scarf loosely covering her hair. She was slight and had a warm, smiling face rather like her son’s. He introduced me, raising his voice for her to hear, and said I was interested in her memories of the past. He had earlier told me something about her, and I was eager to hear her story first-hand.

A young girl came in with a tray of coffee, and Um Jaber settled herself in her chair and looked at me expectantly. It turned out that she was used to telling the story of her family’s expulsion from their village near Asdud (renamed Ashdodby the Israelis) to journalists and foreign visitors who were curious to hear it. The memory of 1948 was still fresh in her mind, she said, and as she started her account without prompting from me, she spoke fluently and without hesitation. I could not help wondering how much her story had been shaped by hindsight and in response to what she sensed different questioners wanted to hear. I could understand that, for I had felt something of the same myself when faced with Western sympathisers eager to hear the Palestinian narrative.

But I was more than happy to listen to her. The events surrounding the Nakba had fascinated me for years, not least because they were never fully documented. The Nakba was a seminal event in every Palestinian’s life, the root of all the sufferings that followed, and I hungered to reach back for its elusive history through firsthand accounts of that time; how else to unseal its memory, so dim and unattainable, and draw it back into a communal space that could be shared, examined and compared? So I listened to Um Jaber recounting how she and her husband and small children had been forced out at gunpoint by Jewish fighters who invaded their village in the night. All the neighbours were driven out with them and all fled. They walked, half carrying the children, half dragging them, through fields and orchards until exhaustion forced them to stop. They found concealment among the trees and survived on what fruit they could pick. Everyone was afraid the fighters would find them and so kept on moving, until finally they reached Gaza where there was no fighting. Abu Jaber wanted to return to the village with the other men once she and the children were safe, but they heard that the Jewish militias fired on anyone trying to come back, and so they resigned themselves to waiting for the time they could return.

That time never came, and every day brought greater numbers of fleeing villagers like themselves to be housed intents and army barracks. Um Jaber did not look unhappy telling this story, and I doubted that it connected with her emotions any longer, the blind panic and terror she must have felt at the time. Whatever spontaneity there had once been in the telling of it had long gone, and robbed that terrible experience of its power.

‘Would you like to know anything else, Doctora?’ Jaber asked. I shook my head and thanked them. He helped his mother out of the chair and we all went in to breakfast in the kitchen. The table was laid with a generous spread of typical Palestinian food: falafel, fatta, (made with pieces of bread and topped with hummus and pine nuts), cracked, bitter olives,zeit and za’tar (olive oil and dried thyme, eaten by dipping bread in the oil and then coating it with the thyme), and freshly baked flatbread, added to the still warm mana’ish we had brought. As we ate I could see the family was close and harmonious; clearly, Jaber, whatever the hardships in his life, had managed to create a happy home.

After breakfast he suggested we drive to what he called the worst spot in Gaza, the Abu Holy checkpoint. ‘You must see this,’ he said and the others all nodded. ‘You will not understand how hard it is here until you do.’ I wanted to say that I did understand already, but I could see he was anxious to show me these horrors in the hope I would spread the word about them abroad, where he thought it mattered. The checkpoint stood on the main north-south highway running thorough Gaza, and an essential thoroughfare for people and goods. Each time the Israeli army closed it, Gaza was split in two and all through traffic was paralysed. It had been erected to enable the Jewish settlements nearby to connect directly with Israel; the settlers used an overpass to drive there, and whenever they did so, the Gaza traffic below was closed off to prevent contact between them and the Palestinians. By such devices the settlers were enabled to live entirely separate lives from those around them. As with all checkpoints, Abu Holy (cruelly named after the farmer on whose land it stood) was built on confiscated farmland, a cause of much bitterness to him and the other dispossessed farmers. Ever since it was erected in 2001 as a punishment for the Second Intifada, journeys that used to take thirty minutes could take ten hours or more.

When we approached I could see why. A queue of cars stretching for as far as the eye could see was ahead of us as we joined the highway. By order of the army, only cars could pass through the checkpoint; no pedestrians were allowed, not even animals, and as I looked about me I saw a car in front with a donkey on the back seat, its head hanging dolefully out of the window. ‘What else could the poor man do?’ commented Jaber, seeing my stare. ‘It’s either that or leave the animal behind.’ There were three of us in Jaber’s car, to comply with another army rule: that all cars must have no less than three occupants, on the grounds that terrorists usually travelled alone or in pairs at most. If it happened that the requisite number of people was not available, one or two of the boys hanging around amongst the trees by the roadside would oblige for a few coins. A small trade in hiring out such children as companions for the ride had grown up, as had also a soft drinks and food business selling provisions for the journey. Many people brought their own sandwiches and coffee in thermos flasks, and even blankets and towels, expecting a long wait in their cars.

The heat was stifling as we crawled along; not a whiff of air passed through the open windows to cool us down, and I started to feel faint. Jaber gave me a bottle of water which had been cold when we set out, but was now warm. The road seemed endless and the ordeal of waiting to reach the checkpoint almost unendurable. Yet people took it stoically enough, leaning out of their car windows to chat to those in front; some joked and laughed or shouted out some piece of news, and everyone seemed to take the whole thing philosophically. It reminded me of the approach to the checkpoint on the way to Nablus. The hold-up on that road was nowhere near as bad as this, but there also people seemed to accept their situation with quiet patience. They got out of their vehicles as they waited and stood around talking to each other, or strolled about to buy drinks from the roadside vendors.

‘This wait is dreadful. How can people take it so passively?’ I asked Jaber.

‘Passively? We’re not passive. But you don’t argue with a machine gun in your face. And believe me, we’re counting the hours and the minutes until they leave and take their hellish checkpoints with them.’

It was certainly true that the soldiers at both these checkpoints were particularly aggressive, and it struck me that it was perhaps the very patience and stoicism of the people waiting to cross which maddened them. Far better if the crowd had turned violent and tried to attack them: their assault rifles and armed patrols were always at the ready for such a thing, and could act at a moment’s notice. But against this submissiveness they had no weaponry. Looking at the two sides, as I had done at the Nablus checkpoint – the nervy, helmeted soldiers shouting at the queue of cars, and the docile drivers obeying them – I had no doubt which would last the longer in this land.

Excerpted from "Return: A Palestinian Memoir" by Ghada Karmi. (Verso Books, May 2015) Get 30 percent off "Return" plus a free e-book for a limited time at www.versobooks.com

By Ghada Karmi

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