The Common Good
September-October 2013

Gaza: The Persistent Paradox

by Ryan Rodrick Beiler | September-October 2013

Gaza, a land at once ugly and impoverished—and beautiful and rich.

IN "SILENCE FOR GAZA,” Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish captures the contradictions of the coastal enclave, describing it alternately as “ugly, impoverished, miserable,” and “the most beautiful, the purest and richest among us.” Darwish’s antonyms evoke Gaza’s crushing conditions and resilient residents, exemplars of sumud, an Arabic word roughly translated as “steadfast perseverance”—a fundamental form of Palestinian resistance. Darwish’s poem also states that Gaza “did not believe that it was material for media. It did not prepare for cameras and did not put smiling paste on its face.” And yet every person, every story, every image of Gaza illustrates this persistent paradox of a land at once ugly and beautiful.

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“I DON’T KNOW why they targeted us. No rockets were fired from our neighborhood,” says citrus farmer Yusuf Jilal Arafat, whose 5-year-old daughter Runan was killed when Israeli warplanes bombed their home. Arafat’s wife, four months pregnant, and their 8-year-old son were found alive in the rubble. His surviving children now suffer from frequent panic attacks at night. Many of Arafat’s trees were destroyed by the bombs, and the ground is covered with oranges now in various stages of decay. Rumors of contamination by Israeli weapons may hurt the sales of his crop, but he will still harvest. The family is living with Arafat’s father-in-law until they can rebuild.

Rebuilding under Israeli import restrictions is no simple task, so salvaging existing materials remains a vital practice—albeit risky, according to structural engineers. But ingenuity-by-necessity is constantly on display in Gaza, whether it’s recovering crushed stone from beneath ruined highways, straightening steel rebar from bombed-out buildings, or pulverizing concrete for reuse in new (but weaker) blocks.

JAMAL AL-DALU was at the mosque praying when Israeli air strikes leveled his home, killing his sister, his wife, their two daughters, and a son along with his wife and four children. “This is the occupation doing injustice to the Palestinians,” Al-Dalu lamented. “They didn’t give us a warning. They just hit the house with the children in it. My daughters were in their youth. What did they do to them?”

The Israeli military first claimed that Al-Dalu’s son was a Hamas “terror operative,” but after Human Rights Watch debunked that and subsequent justifications, no further explanation was offered. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reports that many similar incidents belie the rationale that such deaths result solely because militants operate in civilian areas, asserting that even if that were true in all cases, one war crime would not justify another.

In spite of such devastating losses, many Gazans still seek peace. “People from outside only see all Palestinians as terrorists,” says Mohammad Abu Jayab, a Gaza City lifeguard. “We’re not against religions—Jews, Christians, Muslims—we’re all human beings.”

“The Hamas government is bad, but we are people. What have we done? This is a problem between governments,” says Abu Jayab, who helped start the Gaza Surf Club, which has partnered with the Israeli group Surfing 4 Peace to bring surfboards to Gaza and broader perspectives to youth from both sides. But such exchanges are rare given tight controls on access in and out of Gaza.

“GOD GIVES YOU strength,” says Araxi Waheed, recalling the terror she felt alone on a night when a dozen Israeli missiles pounded her neighborhood. Waheed, a widow and one of about 3,000 Christians among Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, is a board member of the Near East Council of Churches Committee for Refugee Work (NECCCRW). In the weeks following the attacks, she and her Muslim neighbors helped each other endure shortages of food, water, and electricity resulting from Israel’s targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Like Waheed, the committee answers Christ’s call to love one’s neighbors, offering medical clinics and vocational schools to meet the needs of Gaza’s most vulnerable. By serving their neighbors without discrimination, the committee enjoys the respect of the Muslim majority, though in rare cases Islamist extremists have targeted other Christians. One of their clinics was destroyed by Israeli bombs, but it has since been rebuilt and continues to serve the community.

THESE STORIES OF struggle and strength occur between the rock of Israel’s six-year blockade and the hard place of Hamas rule. According to a U.S. State Department cable released by WikiLeaks: “As part of their overall embargo plan against Gaza, Israeli officials have confirmed on multiple occasions that they intend to keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse without quite pushing it over the edge.” But Israel’s stated policy of “economic warfare” against Hamas has only allowed the regime to grow stronger by its taxation of the robust smuggling through tunnels to Egypt.

Meanwhile, Israel engages in chicken-egg exchanges of violence with armed factions that launch rockets across the border. The militants’ crude, short-range Qassams typically fall outside of populated areas. But, periodically, more advanced long-range missiles have struck as far as Tel Aviv. B’Tselem reports that since June 2004, rockets have killed 32 Israelis, mostly civilians, while Israeli forces have killed 3,569 Palestinians in Gaza, nearly half of them civilians.

AND SO GAZA’S volatile spiral winds on. After a ceasefire last November, Gaza’s fishermen were told they could fish up to six nautical miles from the coast instead of the previous three-mile limit enforced by Israel. According to Fuad Al Amouri, president of the fishermen’s union in the city of Khan Younis, the change means little, as the good fishing is from nine to 12 miles out. (The Oslo Accords promised a 20-mile zone.) Even this modest change was suspended for two months this spring. “The designated fishing zone was limited due to rocket fire,” declared an Israeli military statement, admitting that fishermen were being collectively punished for the actions of militant groups. Moreover, the Israeli navy continues to attack fishing boats venturing into the expanded limits, destroying motors and arresting fishermen. Yet Al Amouri and his companions continue to cast their nets.

The poet Darwish warns against idealizing Gaza’s suffering: “We do injustice to Gaza when we turn it into a myth, because we will hate it when we discover that it is no more than a small poor city that resists.”

Today, “Palestinians in Gaza live in one big prison,” laments the lifeguard Abu Jayab. But against all evidence to the contrary, he declares, “I hope tomorrow there will be peace between Palestine and Israel.” Though Gaza’s rockets may make headlines, the enduring hopes of its people display its truest resistance, its sumud.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler (mccpalestine.wordpress.com) is a service worker in Palestine and Israel with Mennonite Central Committee, a partner with Al Najd Developmental Forum and NECCCRW.

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