First published in Washington Post for Middle East Affairs
Laughing and Crying in Gaza
ALICE ROTHCHILD ISRAEL-PALESTINE POSTED ON OCTOBER 18, 2023
A cluster of older women sit in canvas beach chairs at the edge of the shore, their feet soaking in the water, at the Bianco Resort. Eight weeks later, Gazans were under attack. (PHOTO COURTESY ALICE ROTHCHILD)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2023, pp. 24-26
By Alice Rothchild
THE STUNNING ASSAULT by Hamas reminds us of the underlying realities that have made life unbearable and pushed people beyond their ability to endure what has been described as a slow death.
Despite its fully literate, highly educated population, skilled working class and strong business sector, the Gaza Strip is a manmade disaster, a predictable outcome of the 16-year aggressive siege and blockade imposed on it by Israel. The population of 2.3 million Palestinians are increasingly dependent on outside aid and abandoned by the Arab world. The poverty and ramshackle housing are striking; donkeys and horses pull carts, vying for space with cars in various states of disrepair. Fuel is in short supply; some cars run on pressurized natural gas because of the petrol shortage. In the eight densely populated refugee camps and severely crowded urban areas, poverty and death touch nearly everyone. Residents must contend with ever-present drones, repeated Israeli assaults, erratic electricity and salinated water.
Farmers talk about the impact of climate change (grapes burning on the vine), repeated bombings, the rising costs of agricultural inputs and lack of access to markets for their strawberries, eggplants, peppers and tomatoes. In some areas, crop yields are reduced because the soil is contaminated with salty water and leaking sewage. Restrictions on “dual use” items severely limit imports of needed materials. In the restricted zones along the Israeli separation barrier, farmers cannot reach their crops without the risk of getting shot; Israeli forces poison the soil with pesticides and flood the fields just before harvest. Since 2008, Palestinians have lost at least 35 percent of the agricultural land in the Gaza Strip to the separation barrier, according to a January 2023 Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor report. The same report estimated that the Israeli blockade cost the agricultural sector $1.3 billion between 2006 and February 2022.
Fisherfolk are repeatedly attacked at sea by Israeli gunships that destroy or confiscate their boats and shoot the men with live ammunition. Sometimes they are forced to strip and then pushed into the water and “rescued” by their attackers. The approved nautical miles allowed by Israel for fishing constantly change unannounced. Fisherfolk have drowned or been shot dead; others suffer from bullets still embedded in their arms and legs. Materials required to repair their damaged boats are often not allowed to be imported to the Strip.
In rural areas, particularly in the south, women tend to marry young, their husbands are often unemployed, sometimes addicted to tramadol (an opioid), and gender-based violence has risen with the tightening blockade, economic humiliation of men unable to provide for their families, and the isolation of the pandemic. Suicide is on the rise, particularly among the young; Middle East Eye reported in June 2022 that 55 percent of children had contemplated suicide and three out of five children had self-harmed. Fewer than 20 psychiatrists serve all of Gaza, and the social stigma against admitting to mental illness or accepting care is still strong.
Civil society organizations such as the Palestine Center for Human Rights and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, continue to document and mount legal challenges and advocate for and support farmers, fisherfolk and women. The Gaza Community Mental Health Program provides desperately needed care and training for therapists and social workers. Six civil society/human rights organizations faced severe challenges in 2021 when Israel criminalized and attacked the groups, impacting their international funding and ability to function. But somehow, without funding, they persist.
These were the realities I documented when I visited Gaza in August 2023. I learned that because 16 Israeli undercover special forces had infiltrated Gaza in November 2018, masquerading as a humanitarian aid organization, Hamas views all outside visitors with suspicion. I had to be careful and transparent about my activities and whereabouts.
Another heartbreaking new reality was the evidence of hunger I saw: crowds of skinny, hungry children aggressively begging in the streets, following me, pulling at my clothes, sometimes cursing when I did not respond. This level of outright food deprivation and economic desperation is higher than in the past. In December 2022 the Palestinian NGO Network reported that 68 percent of the population of the Gaza Strip was food insecure.
Despair and chronic trauma burden the lives of so many Gazans. I often heard comments like “Israel destroyed our citrus industry. Now they are destroying our fishing.” “They want us as a captive market. There is no future here.” “We are dying slowly and no one hears us.”
WE ARE NOT NUMBERS
Some of the writers from We Are Not Numbers enjoying a room in the restored Arab house Samra Hamam in Gaza City. Today Gazan WAAN writers and other civilians are enduring another round of trauma and tragedy. (PHOTO COURTESY A. ROTHCHILD)
DURING THAT VISIT, I scheduled a meeting with people working with the Palestinian youth-led mentoring program, We Are Not Numbers (WANN), with serious plans to maximize my educational contribution as a mentor, teacher and published author. The organization was founded in 2015 by the American journalist Pam Bailey, working with a young Gazan, Ahmed Alnaouq, to support writers between the ages of 18 to 30 years learning to tell their own stories. [The Washington Report and other publications are publishing WANN articles. See p. 27.] I was acutely aware that every one of these writers had survived multiple Israeli assaults and lived with a level of fear and uncertainty about the future that is difficult for people living in the United States to conceive.
Imagine my astonishment when my ride pulled up and it was a big bus filled with boisterous, eager, sincere WANNers who intended to show me the beauty and history of Gaza City. Forget the writing workshop! Loud Arabic music blasted from the radio, folks sang along, and there was an infectious enthusiasm that immediately altered my mood and my understanding.
The first stop was breakfast at Abu Zuhair’s restaurant, a beautiful building next to a mosque where pilgrims once sojourned. The next stop was a tour of the Omari Mosque, a famous Islamic site. Because it is in Gaza, it does not get the same amount of attention and visitors as mosques in Jerusalem, Mecca or Medina.
The writers had never visited our next location, the 1,160-year-old Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius, an ornate building with immense decorative gold artwork, paintings of various saints and lushly drawn walls and ceiling. An elaborate dark wooden case held the forearm bone of Saint Porphyrius, and the church also contained his grave.
We walked through the shimmery gold jewelry district, explored a very old bathhouse with a stone sauna and headed to the Samra Hamam, a charming, two-story classic Arab house, preserved in its original state. Then we wandered around an English cemetery with graves from World War I and II. The same family has taken care of the cemetery for generations, and the current caretaker was happy to engage in a deep conversation about British colonialism (as evidenced by the gravesites) and the current siege.
The day ended at a seaside restaurant with views of the Mediterranean, plates piled with shawarma and fries, and a tsunami of selfies and group pictures. All through the day, the writers and I talked about Gaza, about their essays and their lives. I was repeatedly struck that in the midst of all of this enthusiastic joy, music and song, another track was playing. Conversations began with how thrilled writers were to have a visitor who was deeply involved in the program. I was reminded of an earlier comment when a psychiatrist said that in Gaza, they all live in a prison and celebrate and treasure anyone who enters the prison to see and hear them. Writers wanted to share their stories and poetry, but underlying trauma lurked in our exchanges. “My story is about how I faced death three times…” One young man talked about his flashbacks, the horror of an earlier Israeli aggression, his difficulties sleeping.
I was struck by this combination of vibrant youthful enthusiasm mixed with an undercurrent of frustration, pain and yearning for a more hopeful future. I left Gaza understanding that the secret to survival in such a difficult, hopeless place is this commitment to joy, celebration and connection.
On my last night on the Strip I was invited to join newly made friends on the beach at the Bianco Resort, a family-friendly private club with gardens of cactus and succulents, a pool, and ice cream and popcorn shops. As the sky darkened, we joined hundreds of families sitting under cream-colored beach umbrellas in the warm, humid air, a light breeze blowing. Kids were running and playing everywhere; adults relaxed, smoked hookah, nibbled on snacks. A cluster of older women sat in canvas beach chairs at the edge of the shore, their feet soaking in the water. Hundreds of children and young men splashed and dove into the waves, even after the sky went black. It was an ordinary evening, families cooling off and enjoying the pleasures of the seashore. It felt almost normal, except for the row of Israeli warships visible at the horizon and the bright search light reflected across the water from an Israeli town just north of the Strip.
Eight weeks later the aggressive Israeli bombing began and once again, Gazan WAAN writers and other civilians faced another round of trauma and tragedy.
Alice Rothchild, author, filmmaker and physician, is focused on human rights and social justice. Her most recent book, Finding Melody Sullivan, is a young adult novel. She writes and lectures widely, authored three books on health and human rights in Israel/Palestine, contributed to a number of anthologies and poetry journals, and directed a documentary, “Voices Across the Divide.” She is the mentor liaison for We Are Not Numbers. Her website is <www.alicerothchild.com>.