Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Flying Higher than the Warplanes: the Kites of Gaza


photo: Mohammed Omer

An article Mohammed did for Morgenbladet (where it appears in Norwegian.) As you'll see, living under occupation changes even the simplest things:

These days around the summer solstice, the sun rises over the Negev a few minutes earlier every day, brightening the cloudless sky. Before it finishes its long arc to set over the Mediterranean, hidden from Rafah's refugee camps by barbed wire, walls, settlements and Israeli sniper towers, the noon heat will bake the sky almost white. Throughout the day, Apache gunships occasionally hover, unmanned drones come by now and then, but there are new squadrons of manmade objects in the sky as well—sometimes one or two, sometimes dozens of colorful kites soaring above the tents, the rubble, the tiny houses and narrow streets of the camps. Seen from a distance, they are diving, swooping, soaring shapes of brilliant red, blue, green, and white. You have to get closer to hear the delighted laughter of the children flying them, closer still to see their smiles.

Like children everywhere, the kite-flyers are fascinated by birds, planes, cartoon characters like Superman and Batman—anything and everything that flies. Palestinian children have seen skies full of American-made Apache warships for years, but most of the children now flying kites in Rafah are too young to remember clearly that short time before the Intifada when Palestine's national airline, with its tiny fleet of jets, was the pride and hope of the nation. Gaza International Airport is just a few miles east of Rafah, its runways destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Army, but its terminal crew still reports to work daily and maintains the building as best they can. With all the plans for Israeli disengagement from Gaza this summer, repairing and re-opening the Gaza International Airport is a key item in Palestinan-Israeli negotiations about post-disengagement Gaza.

While the politicians do what politicians do best—namely, talk, and talk some more—Rafah's children have mastered flight that requires no salaries for pilots, air hostesses, or ground crews, no jet fuel, planes, or airports. With paper, string, a bit of glue and lots of ingenuity, their kites soar aloft every summer day in Rafah. Instead of carrying passengers and cargo, these flimsy constructions are still strong enough to carry the dreams, questions, hopes, and demands of the children who send them into the sky.

"My kite carries a message," 13-year-old Hussni Hamad explained. "My dream is that the Israeli Apache pilots will see the question written plainly on it, namely, 'Why are you shelling us?'" Almost every Palestinian could ask that question, as it is rare for a day to go by even now without at least one person in Gaza being killed or injured by Israeli aerial attack. Even now, during a supposed cease-fire, shelling is a near-daily occurrence.

A few meters away from Hussni, Imad was hot and exhausted, but determined to finish his kite that day. The frame was made of dried ditch reeds; the paper covering it was designed with the colors of the Palestinian flag, black, green, white, and red. But this kite is far more than a pleasant toy for Imad, for in the center he has pasted a photograph of a young man. When asked who it is, Imad pauses, seems to go deep inside himself before explaining the man in the photo is his beloved older brother, dead nearly two years now, murdered by the Israeli Occupation forces in the winter of 2003. He has a dream, he says shyly. A simple one. Maybe he can make his kite, the marvelous kite honoring his brother, fly higher than the Israeli warplanes and Apaches. "I feel freedom; I feel like I'm flying through my kite," he says. "Though someday," he adds, "I hope to travel by airplane."

Imad probably doesn't realize that people have been flying kites at least 3000 years, or that in sending his dead brother's photo soaring into the heavens, he is creating his own version of symbols found in many cultures. In Chinese folklore, colorful kites symbolize the souls of honored ancestors rising to eternity. Very likely, the more enterprising Rafah kite-makers who turn out an extra or two to sell to the other kids, also don't realize that in many countries, elaborate kites have been prized and valuable art works for centuries.

The children of Gaza have also used their kites to send messages to one another. Last autumn, when the villages of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya were under prolonged siege, children in nearby areas flew kites daily to show their solitaridy with their neighbors under attack. Their hope was that when people looked up, they would see not just drones and gunships, but those bright kites saying, "We know what's happening. We care. We support you. Don't give up hope."

Growing up under Occupation has made the physical world tiny for the children of Gaza. There are the beautiful beaches they cannot visit, the warm nights when it's too dangerous to venture out, the sniper towers that make it dangerous to play, the friends and relatives in the next village they cannot visit. But the extent of their resilience is limitless, as they send their vivid messages of hope, their demand for peace, soaring into the sky day after brilliant summer day.

read entire article. . .

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Operation Rainbow, One Year Later

Mohammed revisited some of the Rafah residents still trying to recover from the deadly incursion of May 2004.
His article was published in Morgenbladet (a Norwegian weekly) and online in the Vermont Guardian. Here it is in full:

The Israelis called it "Operation Rainbow" and insisted the name was generated at random by a computer. To the men, women, and children of Rafah who endured the slaughter, it was a bitter footnote to a week of horror. In Greek mythology, the rainbow was a bridge between earth and Olympus, between men and gods. In the Old Testament, after sending a flood that destroyed the world, God set a rainbow in the sky as a sign of peace and renewal. But in May of 2004, the shells and bombs in the night sky over Rafah brought only death. "Operation Rainbow" is an appropriate name in only one way: a year later, the images are still vivid, their evidence of Israeli terrorism against a civilian population undimmed.

After nearly three years of Intifada, the residents of Rafah were familiar enough with incursions—the Apaches overhead, the tanks and the shelling, followed by the bulldozers that would destroy homes, infrastructure, lives. Operation Rainbow, like all the others, was undertaken "for security reasons," ostensibly to find and destroy alleged smuggling tunnels running from Rafah under the border into Egypt. But last May, the Israeli Army began its onslaught far from the border in Tal Al Sultan and El Barazil in the northern part of Rafah, tearing up streets completely, destroying electric, water, and sewer lines, flattening whole blocks of houses, even bulldozing Rafah's small zoo. Israeli snipers commandeered taller houses and took up position on the rooftops, shooting anything and anyone who moved, even killing two teenagers whose "hostile activity" was taking down laundry from a clothesline and feeding pet doves. All the while, the shells from the Apache helicopters turned their victims into scattered body parts. As the week wore on, people ran out of food, water and medicine, ambulances were pinned down by Israeli fire and could not reach the injured, the morgue in Al Najjar hospital was overflowing and a commercial refrigerator that usually stored vegetables was pressed into service to hold corpses when no one could venture outdoors to bury their dead.

The ceaseless din of explosions and gunfire couldn't drown out the human chorus of despair—children crying for a piece of bread, for a cup of milk, for a drop of water, the laments of parents who had nothing to give them, the wails of the newly widowed and orphaned, the screams of the dying and dismembered. But sometimes there was only stunned, disbelieving silence, as friends and relatives tried to identify their loved ones from scattered body parts—a leg, an arm, a piece of a torso—that was all the ambulance drivers could gather. A year later, the pictures from that time—mere pixels on a computer screen, after all—are still sickening. For the first time, I was writing warnings and apologies for the overwhelming gore of my photos. But the images are still easier to bear than the flesh and blood reality of standing next to a hospital gurney full of bits and pieces of what were recently living people.

The international outcry seemed slow and muted. Before Operation Rainbow ended, 60 Palestinians had been killed, hundreds injured, many of them permanently maimed, hundreds of houses destroyed and thousands made homeless. On May 16, the Israeli Apaches shelled a peaceful demonstration of hundreds of unarmed men and boys, killing several and injuring scores. They were asking for food and water, asking the international community to intervene. The Israeli Army tried to say the Palestinians fired first, but dozens of journalists—many of whom came under fire themselves—had photos and videos to prove the demonstrators were unarmed. At that point, even the Bush administration, usually a reliable yea-sayer to all of Sharon's policies, couldn't avoid voicing an official protest. Slowly, the Israeli Army withdrew, though a few days later as Peter Hansen, then commissioner of UNRWA, toured one of the destroyed neighborhoods, Israeli snipers killed a three-year-old girl just a block away from the United Nations party.

A year later, Abu Sophi Adjarewaan, 53, spends much of every day at the mound of rubble that was once his home. Normally, this patriarch of a large extended family is a fish-seller in the outdoor market, but the few local fisherman who can still work can rarely get their catch past the Israeli checkpoints now. Nothing has been remotely normal for Abu Sophi and his family since their home was destroyed in Operation Rainbow. Every day for a year now, the old man sits on a small black sofa outside what was once, he will tell you, a sprawling family compound. Even after a year, even after his married children and their children salvaged what they could, Abu Sophi seems in shock, unable to make sense of the unthinkable. He inherited the house from his parents, he will tell you, and like many family homes, it grew as his sons married and had children, as hoarded shekels became an extra room here, perhaps an extra storey there. This was the house where Abu Sophi was born; it held everything he ever accomplished in life; it was to have been his legacy to his children.

Now, with money, work, and hope in short supply—indeed, 80% of the families in Rafah are below the poverty line even by the modest local standards—Abu Sophi sits in the rubble every day. His little granddaughter, perhaps 3, stands at his knee, four or five of her friends listen intently as he says, "We should be back here. We will be back rebuilding here some day. The Occupation will end. There should be an end to this injustice." His voice, usually quiet, rises on the last words. But this hopeful moment quickly dissolves into questions without answers. "I hope, I hope, I hope," he goes on in a whisper, "I can find someone who will ask the Israeli Prime Minister, 'Sharon, why did you destroy my house? How did it make your country better, or safer, or happier to destroy our lives?'" Tears are streaming down his wrinkled face into his white beard as he asks, "Why, Sharon, why?"

Like everyone in Rafah, I have my own unanswered questions. Some, of course, look to the future: Can a just peace be negotiated? Will the cease-fire hold despite all provocation? But in Rafah, one never escapes the past, so I often ask: Who is truly responsible for Operation Rainbow, for Abu Sophi's despair? Was it just the Israeli bulldozer drivers, the Apache pilots, the snipers, the generals who gave the orders, the Israeli politicians who set policies, and the international leaders who condone them with their silence? Does responsibility extend to everyone whose taxes support Sharon and his government? To the commercial media in the West who day after day ignore the reality of the Occupation or bury it in the back pages? And why, I wonder even more often, are good people so indifferent, so comfortable, so complacent, as the bodies and souls of the innocent are ground into the dust as surely as the demolished houses? The same decent people who would never, could never, dismember a living child with their own hands, are still somehow too busy to write a letter, sign a petition, march in a protest. Don't they understand that silence kills as surely as bombs and bullets?

read entire article. . .