Tikkun Magazine, July/August 1994
Troop Reversals in Gaza and Jericho
By Wendy Orange
Like the graffiti scrawled all over Gaza's walls, the criss-crossing narratives of what's to come after autonomy almost obliterate the actual moments of its arrival. Narratives and predictions, ominous premonitions vying with optimistic scenarios germinate not only locally, but come at us from all over the globe, superimposing themselves on the troop reversals finally happening on the ground.
Standing in the midst of the festivities in Gaza and Jericho, it's nearly impossible to isolate and grasp this historic moment itself, to freeze one clear frame. For many of us, the possibilities and impossibilities of what's to come war in our minds, even as these scenes unfolding in mid-May ostensibly signify the beginning of the end of occupation/intifada. Or do they? The uncertainty of what we are all moving toward here in the West Bank and ultimately in Jerusalem hangs like a giant question mark in the air above the tumultuous celebrations.
Yet all analyses, predictions, hopes, and fears come down to this: finally in the dead of night, under cover of the black sky, when most of the journalists and the Palestinian population, exhausted from waiting, are asleep: in both Jericho and now Gaza, Israeli troops have at last departed, along with the telecommunications, barbed wire, trucks, jeeps, the contents of the prisons, soldiers' and administrators' tents, beds, and desks, the vast network of computers and files: all the equipment that sustained occupation has exited out down the main roads, as the PLO fighters from Jordan and Egypt, in green uniforms oddly similar to the Israeli's (except for their rounded berets) have arrived: the new Palestinian police.
Until the very last daylit moment before the Israelis' departure, rocks are thrown, guns and tear gas go off in response. It is as if the mutually addictive fighting, the nouveau machismo of the Israel Defense Forces and the shebab (Palestinian street fighters) simply cannot resist each other's temptations (who's beat whom? who's the victor?), each side good to the last drop of hate, costing lives up to the end--or the beginning of the end--of occupation/intifada, which is what most present hope we're witnessing. The Israeli soldiers are clearly as happy to leave as the Palestinians are happy to be free of them.
Standing in the Gazan heat and sand, journalists conduct interviews through the shouting, chanting, and clapping as the crowds raucously greet the new police force in Dar El Bait, close to the very spot where the intifada began seven long years ago.
Guns are suddenly everywhere: Palestinian boys and men shoot in the air in celebration. Aging PLO fighters hug young kids they don't know, tears running down their faces. I ask one PLO veteran how old he is. He pauses. "Only three days old," he replies, choked with emotion. A few boys approach me as I write, asking with hostility: "Where you from?" Then they jeer: "America makes all our problems."
In Jericho, behind the scenes of celebrations and embraces, there's secretive talk of money, new cars, political ambitions. The recent Palestinian discourse, fueled by a collective vision and a common enemy, is now inevitably getting frayed, even corrupted, by the promise and the doubt of what's to come: Arafat and his men from Tunis, international funds, the possibilities of power and position.
As yet, nothing's in place except the initial units of the new police force, men without even beds to sleep on, symbols of autonomy, but no infrastructure on which to build.
Later, I'll wonder if this moment of troop reversals isn't surrounded by the lingering doubts and the niggardly spirit that infused the negotiations in Taba, Cairo, and Rafah since October. For these negotiations included no gestures of largesse, were rather a contest in telescopic wariness, a mood that now permeates the collective consciousness.
Unfortunately, the Oslo spirit of mutual recognition, full of the possibility for co-existence (well documented in Jane Corbin's book, Gaza First,) no longer prevails. The opportunity these last nine months offered for breaking through psychological barriers between the two peoples was not advanced. But there's plenty of excitement today, not to be confused with the euphoria (mixed with disappointment) that was so present in mid-September, a far more inclusive emotion.
A Photojournalist Sees a New Gaza
Rina Castelnuovo, a New York Times photographer who's covered every aspect of Gazan life since the beginning of the intifada, observes:
"It's amazing. I've been covering Gaza for years and I never saw the people of Gaza smile. You don't even associate the two words: 'Gaza' and 'smiling'; I thought they were mutually exclusive. Now," she goes on, "everyone is smiling. I went down to the ocean in Gaza and there were thousands swimming in the Mediterranean, barbecuing on the beaches, this stretch of sea that has always been so desolate, even ominous. If it weren't for their long dresses and veils in the water, you might think this was Tel Aviv, it's so cheerful and relaxed. This really is an overnight change: new coffee shops spring up every night. Music, theater groups, and poetry reading fill the streets at night. A purely happy feeling among the people.
"For example, there's a tiny park, not what anyone would call a park anywhere else in the world: a patch of yellowish green grass that has six trees, five flowers, two swings. The shebab kept it closed all through the intifada to protect it. Now hundreds of Palestinians dress to the nines to line up and come and see it, even though by anyone's standards it's not a park, not even a playground, it's nothing, you simply would not notice it anywhere else in the world. But people are coming from all over Gaza to gaze at it, ecstatic with their tiny plot of land."
Listening to her, I see that the story right now isn't the West Bank or even sleepy over-journalized Jericho; the story isn't in the Israeli street, or the Palestinians under occupation in Hebron and Nablus. None of these stories is going away, and none is central to this moment. The focus now is the sudden freedom in Gaza, this moment when autonomy is just beginning, which, as we say of God, lives in the details.
I return to Gaza days later to visit Mohammad Dawwas, a Palestinian journalist with whom I've shared long afternoons during the snail-paced Washington negotiations. I've heard in minute detail about his depression, particularly his constant sense of Gaza as a giant prison. Born and raised here, Mohammad is a small man who usually looks serious, almost sullen, but today Mohammad's joy is written all over his face:
"Because I'm a journalist I was the first Gazan to see the returning Palestinian troops at four a.m. coming in from Rafah (Egypt);" Mohammad begins proudly. "And what I saw was not a sign of freedom, but was real freedom. For these are our fighters from abroad, and when all 7,000 arrive, they will bring their families back; that means 20,000 of our people returning. This is important."
"What is the biggest change?" I ask. "The most amazing moments I have are walking after dark," Mohammad replies. "For the first time in seven years, we do not have curfew in Gaza at nine p.m. All these years, walking only meant hurrying home in fear. Now we are walking and walking every night until 3:00 or 4:00 a.m.: This is freedom, it's joyful, just walking without fear, without Israeli troops anywhere around. This is the first time in my life I've felt relaxed.
"Before we were all in prison here. Now you could say it's still a prison because we are cut off from the rest of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But walking at night, standing on our roof-tops at night with no Israeli soldiers, believe me we are not thinking 'prison,' we are thinking 'freedom,' and that is joy, that is reason for celebration.
"In two weeks, everyone will look around, look for work, look for our country to really begin, the celebrations will wind down, but for now you must know this walking all night is a great sweetness. When I look ahead, I worry, of course. Soon we will need work, infrastructure, international money, so that we can build our country--that's the key."
I notice so many guns, I tell him, and that seems dangerous, doesn't it? "In truth I don't like the sounds of gunshots; I will be happy when the police really take over, get down to security and take away these guns. I understand the need to celebrate, but I wish for a celebration without guns.
"The press always says: Gaza is hell. We who live here don't like that phrase at all. For we feel that Gaza is our land, the land we need to build. Hamas and PLO: There will be no bloodbath, you'll see. Every night the factions meet and we agree: No more Palestinian blood must be shed."
"What about the killing of the two Israeli soldiers in Gaza immediately after the Palestinian police arrived?" I ask. "The killing of the two Israeli soldiers was not popular at all, not even among the extremists. We all know the time for violence against Israelis has passed, this is a time for organizing ourselves. Getting to work on our own country.
"Look, we Palestinians are the ones who built all these other countries: We built Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, even Israel, So why do they say we cannot build our own country? We must and we will."
Our talk turns to Arafat, how inept he seems to many, how out of touch not only with his own people but with shifting from the role of revolutionary into statesman. "I cannot speak without emotion about Arafat," Mohammad begins. "I was born in 1960. As soon as I could see: there was Arafat on everyone's wall, large pictures. He makes many mistakes, no question, but he remains my hero. Though I doubt he will come to Gaza anytime soon. Many are against him and it will not be safe for him. But this is not the time when people are thinking about the future, because of the freedom and the walking and the absence of fear.
"I've told you many times how I'd leave my children and my wife in the morning and each time I'd look at them I was never sure I'd be alive to see them that night. That is gone, that fear, that dread. Many times, with Israeli guns pointed at me, I thought I was dead. Once a tear gas canister landed directly on me; as I was taken to the hospital I was sure I was dying. This will not happen now."
We're talking now of the legacy of hatred here toward Israelis and all Jews, of the many Palestinians (Mohammad estimates more than 50,000 in Gaza alone) who are mentally disturbed by the conditions they've lived under, used to a life of hatred: "Let me tell you," Mohammad says emphatically. "Like many here I can separate Jews from soldiers, Jews who support our independence from soldiers who did not. Once, right after the Gulf War ended I saw a scene I will never forget. The people of Gaza had been shut up under curfew for forty-five days and nights. All we did was play cards. Terribly boring, horrible. Then the war ended and I went to the Erez checkpoint. There I saw all these Israeli employers hugging and kissing and crying with their Palestinian laborers. It wasn't about business; it was human. There is love between Jews and Gazans, what you never hear about in the press. The press loves blood and death and hate. But I know we will practice co-existence someday. Even now there is plenty of business going on behind the scenes even though this is a time of great separation from the Israelis. It cannot last.
"As for the returning big shots from Tunis. The really powerful guys, how many are there? Maybe about 200 who will live here; there are so many more of us. We who have suffered, fought all through the occupation, intifada. It's they who must adjust to us, not the other way around. There is no way they can take charge without giving us our voice. No way."
As Mohammad walks me out of his house, he introduces me to two guys; he whispers to me that they belong to Hamas. I freeze but they are smiling. "What do you think?" I ask them. "We were not for this peace accord," one says, "but who can deny, it feels wonderful right now."
A week later, the stretch between the Erez checkpoint and Gush Katif (where Jewish settlers live) is noticeably different than before. In the past there were four or five Israeli checkpoints at most; today there are eighteen checkpoints on this same road. The first is manned by Palestinians, the second controlled by Israelis, the third is a joint patrol; this sequence keeps repeating itself throughout Gaza. Traveling this road, Israeli journalists get a taste of the demeaning inconvenience of being checked out and checked over. The wasted time and the fear involved are wearyingly familiar to every Palestinian in the territories.
For Amog, a Gazan taxi driver, this is a strange turn of events. While taking journalists today to interview settlers, Amog is repeatedly stopped and searched--his truck, his tires, his person, his passengers, everyone's identity card scrutinized at each roadblock. He turns to the journalists in the back of his car and says: "I spit on Arafat; now we have two armies opening our trunks, wasting our time."
What's astonishing throughout these ordeals is the extent to which, after only one week of autonomy, the Israeli and the Palestinian officials resemble one another in appearance and behavior, using the same harsh interrogations while joking in comraderie with each other. Witnessing the easy fraternity between former enemies, Amog becomes enraged. "Why are you being so friendly?" he shouts at the Palestinians. Stone-faced, they pay Amog no mind; he passes through one search, only to face the next a few feet down the dirt road.
As his car screeches out past a search patrol, Amog can't contain himself, sticks his head out the window, and yells in Arabic: "I had to go through this humiliation for twenty-two years. And now you, our own people, are doing this. Go back to Tunis!"
By the time he finally reaches the entrance to the Gush Katif settlement, Amog is confounded: "I drive this every day for years, taking journalists. What always took one hour, now it's almost two hours:
For Amog, "liberation" means this heightened inconvenience. But speaking more softly, he acknowledges: "The Palestinians are imitating the Israelis, some are even more hard-nosed with us already. But just the same, when it comes from your own people, yes, I get mad, but I know they don't want to kill me. With the Israelis I was never sure about that:"
For the Israeli journalists in the back seat, though, it's another matter, a foreboding of what might be to come. "The kids of Gaza never really scared me," one journalist insists. "They don't scare me now. I appreciate what autonomy means for them, what they've been through and I'm glad for their freedoms. But this is a new atmosphere for us, because Gazans have always appreciated the press. We saved them from being a forgotten third-world refugee population, kept their story alive, gave them what they needed: publicity. We are used to being welcomed by them.
"Now I worry, because these Palestinians trained abroad are not used to democracy or a free press. I notice on the Palestinian press passes issued us, we must write 'country of origin.' This national identity is not the way the press is defined in any democracy, not Israel, not anywhere. It smells of totalitarianism. I'm not comfortable showing these Palestinian border patrols my card with Israel written on it. It makes us more vulnerable as Jews; these guys seems fiercer and harsher than the Israelis did. Many times I was driving in Palestinian cars and saw how the Israeli soldiers treated the people at checkpoints. Because I was with them, I thought I knew how it felt. But now they are Palestinians checking us out, and as an Israeli I really know how it feels: It feels scary."
The Personal and the Political
Back in Jerusalem, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has just returned from a day with Palestinian leaders in Jericho after shuttling back and forth between Damascus and Jerusalem. We few journalists not covering the final troop withdrawals in Gaza tonight are waiting in the early evening sun outside Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's office for a press conference with Christopher to begin. The light in Israel at this time of day, this time of year seems wider, sweeter, more redolent of mystery and hope than light anywhere else I've ever lived. As I walk to the press conference, there's a fragrance of roses blossoming all around us in the parks and lawns that surround the Supreme Court, the Knesset, Rabin's office.
Twenty journalists are standing outside as Christopher, Rabin, Shimon Peres, and others emerge from their meeting. Rabin's face is beet red from the Mediterranean sun; Christopher looks even paler and more lifeless than his predecessor, James Baker, who in the flesh looked plastic and cold to me years ago when the Madrid process was just beginning. Christopher looks even more contained than Baker, and I feel grateful to be living in Israel, where politicians, whatever else you may say about them, are passionately engaged.
I have heard moderate, educated Palestinians call Rabin a "war criminal," and seeing what they have suffered at the hands of the Israelis, I have had moments of understanding that point of view. But as I observe Rabin at dose range, it occurs to me that his work these past two years has given him a moral stature few on the Left in Israel acknowledge.
Rabin is not a visionary, not a dove at heart, yet somehow on this day of ever closer negotiations between Israel and Syria, on this day of final Gazan troop withdrawals, on this week after we've left Jericho, especially at this moment when his recent speeches are growing stronger in support of "not ruling over another people, not denying them what we ourselves have achieved," I look at Rabin with new eyes. He has worked hard, and something in his dogged persistence, in his contradictions, in his cruelty and courage move me to admiration, something Peres, with his visionary flights and vanity, does not inspire at dose range.
The initial subject of the press conference is Syria; the subtext is cautious optimism. Then the subject is Arafat, and his latest foray into the politics of personality--his startling speech to South African Muslims about the need for a Jihad against Jewish Jerusalem, for an Islamic Jerusalem. It was a speech dearly aimed at Hamas, not at the Israeli street, and this on the very day he'd inherited what he bargained for.
On the subject of Arafat, Rabin is especially forceful: Arafat's speech violates the Declaration of Principles and can put the future of the West Bank and the whole peace process into jeopardy, Rabin says. As Rabin speaks, I recall that officials in the government press office had confirmed rumors that Arafat makes the Israeli leaders sick.
They have a lot of company. Arafat's timing enrages the Israeli street, giving the right wing in Israel "proof" that he is dangerous, putting the Israeli peace camp in the hard position of defending a man everyone finds disturbing. His speech for Jihad has reawakened in every Israeli the doubts and fears he has long elicited.
But then there's something else that rises in me and hovers about me in this fading sunlight, in this summer season, in the midst of politics and roses, in the midst of the latest outrage, the latest breakthrough.
We are, in our own middle eastern way, creating conditions for peace, and no one knows how it will look, no one knows what lies ahead. Yet we have left Gaza, we have left Jericho, we are legally committed to leaving the West Bank. We are coming back to the best in our ethical roots and this Jewish renewal in Israel, however nascent and fragile, is touching all of us. Against great odds and terribly late, after so many unnecessary deaths on both sides, healing has begun, work is being done. Israelis and Palestinians are moving forward into we don't know what future, and despite everything that's unfair and doubtful and ambiguous, for the first moment all month I have a pure feeling of hope.
Later that night I go with a group of friends to a concert, sponsored every May by the Israel Festival, a month-long assortment of music, art, sculpture, circus, theater. Every night all around Jerusalem the festival draws crowds. Tonight I'm with a diverse group of friends and acquaintances: several Moroccan Arab painters--the first Arabs to display their work at the festival--join with Jewish painters, writers, and one Moroccan Arab woman who, before we head out in our caravan of cars, after sitting awkwardly in a corner of a friend's apartment for an hour, stands up unannounced and breaks into an impassioned song, twenty unforgettable minutes of an intricate Arabic melody in praise of peace.
Now we join the crowds listening to jazz outside the Jerusalem Theater. It's after midnight when an African-American woman takes the stage and begins to sing the blues in a powerful voice. The crowds of Israelis all about us are casually dressed, full of animation and conversation. In a corner of the large, outdoor cafe, a few young girls are dancing by themselves, eyes shut and unself-conscious. I, too, shut my eyes, listening to the music, sensing the open feeling unique to this country of sandals and jeans, these typical Israelis so sexy and embodied, direct and natural, loud, harsh, vital, bohemian, yet most in this outdoor care, or so I imagine, indifferent to or ignorant of what's going on in the territories near-by.
Listening to the blues, I'm transported in my mind to Gaza, vividly remembering all Mohammad and Rina have detailed for me; the sweet freedom of walking there all night, of coffee houses open till four a.m., of days spent swimming in the sea. And for the first time since I moved to Israel in 1991, the visceral connection I've always felt around Israelis, the sheer happiness of belonging here, which brought me here and keeps me here, is, despite all the continuing problems, now loosed--however prematurely--from the shadows of Palestinian suffering.
I have never defined myself primarily by politics, wherever I live. Like most of us, I'm too narcissistic or merely human to be thinking of other's suffering when pleasure comes my way. Yet somehow in Israel the Palestinian plight has lived in me as a direct affliction, as a great shadow, especially when surrounded by the distinctly Israeli talent for uninhibited abandon to music, dance, comraderie.
For years now I've felt cursed with double vision. I'd sit at a party in Tel Aviv and imagine what the people in Nablus were or weren't doing. I'd hang at night on Ben Yehuda in Jewish Jerusalem and suddenly be overcome by the vision of the eerily quiet streets of East Jerusalem. The joy in one society always, sooner or later, stood in contrast with the suffering so dose yet invisible, inflicted by our troops in the Jewish name, so that my love for life in Israel was always dogged by these "flashbacks," images or memories of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This split-screen in my mind would occur unbeckoned; the suffering faces and harsh situations of those living in such contrary circumstances played out organically and contrapuntally in my mind.
Tonight I notice with surprise that those shadows have lifted. No matter how lop-sided or unfair the Declaration of Principles, no matter how many issues have yet to be addressed or resolved--autonomy has begun and that makes this wide--open courtyard with its music and easiness feel earned, not sinister.
The fact that tonight my friends in Gaza--and many who would never be my friends--are walking freely in their own place, at their own pace, liberates this crowd of Israelis and adds to the joyfulness surrounding me. That the people in Gaza are freer tonight in the most elemental ways reverberates here as immense relief.
Wendy Orange Ph.D., is a journalist. She is TIKKUN's correspondent in Israel and the West Bank.
Orange, Wendy. 1994. Troop Reversals in Gaza and Jericho. Tikkun 9(4): 19.