Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In the Days of Dark Circles

"The children are frightened. No one can sleep."

Mohammed and I spoke for less than a minute today, but there was a note in his voice, bone-weary but too on-edge to sleep, I had come to expect during the Intifada, that constant wariness of people determined to preserve normalcy with a tough stoicism laced with humor. The nights are broken with bombs, the days are weary, lived in fear of the next night.

We rang off quickly, but his Rafah neighbor's words haunted me: "The children are frightened. No one can sleep."

Dark circles. Bloody nights, broken sleep, dreams, hopes, loves, lives, and during the day, dark circles under everyone's eyes. The days of dark circles are with us again.

We had been talking just a few weeks ago about dark circles. He had visited our friends in Rafah and emailed me a family portrait, plus an amazing drawing for me, a piece of Arabic calligraphy saying, Mohammed told me, "I love you, my mother Erika!"
Well, that's the Arabic way--once someone considers you a loyal friend, you find yourself "adopted"--a "second mother" or sister, daughter, brother, grandparent. So for a few years now, I have grown accustomed to a new raft of sisters, brothers, sons, and daughters. There's a cousin or two in there who always say hi to Ya Ma Erika. And the cousin's mom. And probably a few others I can't remember at the moment. Mohammed was delighted when I called to thank him for packing up and mailing off these gifts. But, I told him, the best part of the family portrait taken in June was there were no dark circles.

"Dark circles?" He was puzzled.

Sure, I explained. Dark circles. He'd been sending me family pictures several times a year for two years now. The children are gorgeous, the adults have wonderful faces, full of strength and character. The mother is classically beautiful; the grandparents are distinguished. Over two years, the children have gotten taller. They're well-nourished, healthy. And everybody, in every picture, always has dark circles around beautiful, intelligent, open, hopeful, wise dark eyes. Because nobody in Rafah ever gets an unbroken night's sleep. Dark circles. Dark fears. Dark times.

But, I went on, the most thrilling thing about this picture, taken in June, is that no one has dark circles. The children are amazing; the girls almost young women, the boys almost young men; they did wonderfully well in school, but there has been a cease-fire since February; no Apaches over Rafah; people can sleep. No dark circles.

Mohammed laughs. Yes, yes, you are clever to notice this, he says. This was last week and Mohammed is uncharacteristically lighthearted, on that amazing Friday when so many in Rafah slipped through the wall on shopping expeditions to Egypt. He was even happier when I told him I was laboring mightily over some Arabic calligrahy of my own--with a dictionary and a long-sufering Palestinian-American friend, I was making a drawing that said--in Arabic, "Habibi be hedbak, ya abinti"--"I love you, my daughter"--Insha'allah, I would mail him the drawing, some photos and some gifts in good time for Ramadan. Mohammed was delighted--he could deliver the package and take new pictures for me. The perfect time to say Ramadan Mubarak.

But this time there will be dark circles. "The children are frightened. No one can sleep." The Apaches rape the night; the bombs shatter the silence of the holy month; the days of dark circles have fallen over Palestine again.

Dark circles. Dark times. Dark deeds. But no darkness can last forever.

Pray heaven the dawn comes soon.

"The children are frightened. No one can sleep."

read entire article. . .

The Dream Deferred--or Destroyed?

The wreckage of the assassinated Hamas leader's car still flames in the background while bystanders try to gather the charred body parts. At least 20 bystanders were wounded, while eyewitnesses at a safer distance saw the American-made Apache helicopter fire a missile at the car.

AP: Wednesday, 28 September , 2005, 04:44
Jerusalem: Israel pressed ahead with its offensive against Palestinian militants, unleashing a barrage of missiles against targets throughout Gaza City early Wednesday, knocking out power and plunging the city into darkness. No injuries were immediately reported.
Missiles from Israeli aircraft landed in at least three locations, including the impoverished Tufah neighborhood and the Bureij refugee camp, just south of the city. One airstrike hit a two-story building used by the ruling Fatah party. The offices provide tutoring lessons to school children, and cash and food assistance to families in Tufah.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said the army would attack militants relentlessly to force them to stop firing rockets at Israeli towns.

Mohammed sent this report shortly before the above AP alert appeared on the internet.

Apaches. Explosions. Denunciations. Broken bodies. Blood. Shrieks. Again. This is what Israel's "disengagement" means—Gaza's men, women, and children are locked up in the world's largest prison camp while the Israeli Army slaughters them. Americans call it "shooting fish in a barrel." America's Ambassador to Israel "understands Israel's position," and adds: "Israel has a right to defend itself." Now attacking civilians is defense.

No electricity through of Gaza City, explosions in the distance, media reports of aerial attacks throughout the Gaza Strip. Time to work the phones. A friend in Khan Younis says he can hear explosions. Not sure where. Loud. He's waiting to hear ambulances-- nothing yet. Sharon promises more retaliation.

Last Friday. The last Israeli soldiers roll out—celebration! True joy! Israeli Army kills several Hamas militants. The world press applauds Sharon's peacemaking. Hamas fires off 35 Kassam rockets across the border in retaliation. Hit nothing. Hours later, the Israelis destroy a Hamas truck filled with live Qassam rockets at a rally in Jebalya. 20 killed. 80 maimed. Sharon smiles for the press, Hamas produces American-made bomb fragments. Palestinian President Abbas denounces the cease-fire violations. Sharon instructs Abbas to "crack down" on militants. Abbas tells him to expletive-deleted off (not in quite those words.) UN Monitor John Dugard reports to the UN Human Rights Commission: "This focus of attention on Gaza has allowed Israel to continue with the construction of the wall in Palestinian territory, the expansion of settlements and the de-Palestinization of Jerusalem with virtually no criticism." Israel's UN Ambassador calls it "Israel-bashing."

Saturday: Hamas declares complete ceasefire—too late to prevent the Israeli bombing of a Hamas-run elementary school—20 children wounded, including a 40-day-old infant. The media reports Israel fired 3 missiles at Khan Younis..

Sunday 5am: Half of Gaza City jolted awake by the explosion as Hamas's Mohammed Sheik Khalil and his assistant are murdered by an Apache-fired missile. 20 or more bystanders wounded. On the coast road near Gaza City, flames turn the sky blood-red as bystanders try to gather scattered body parts for the ambulances. Israel claims responsibility. Sharon storms out of a Likud meeting, diverts attention with the assassination to rally his base. Sharon builds settlements with one hand in the West Bank while slaughtering civilians with the other.

Last week, medical patients were lined up to cross into Egypt before the borders were sealed. Fatma Al Almi, 42, said that day: "We were thinking the Israeli withdrawal would end the bloodshed and black days, but it's just a new stage of Sharon's war plans."

Reports of shelling every night now in Rafah. Nabil, 24, from Yebna Camp says: "It's horrible, sad, what's happening. The Apaches shelling Rafah Camp constantly. All our windows broken. The children are frightened. No one can sleep."

"The situation is horrible. Twenty killed in Jebalya today." My colleague has seen plenty of conflict in the last five years, there is panic in his voice over a mobile-phone connection. "They're shelling now—can you hear it? I'm not sure where they're hitting." He holds his phone so the directional mike can pick up the ambient noise—though the whup-whup of approaching Apaches, the thud of explosions, the roar of Israeli F-16s, are sounds engraved on every Palestinian's memory.

Welcome to disengagement, Sharon style. How many lives, broken bodies, hopes, dreams, yearnings have to die this time before decent people outside demand peace and justice for Palestine? Is our dream going to be destroyed, or just deferred? Israel is waging war on the civilian population of Gaza. The UN calls it "collective punishment." International law calls it illegal. Palestinians call it everyday life.

Mohammed Omer

I phoned Mohammed when I saw the above AP bulletin to be sure he was still OK. So far, so good, he said. Same for his family and all my friends in Rafah. Everyone is tired and frightened. We kept the call short to conserve his mobile-phone battery—no electricity in Gaza City; no way to recharge. No computers either. He said he was going to try to reach his family in Rafah, then try to sleep. I said I'd check in tomorrow morning. I forgot to ask if the windows in his office are broken. I'll post an update after we speak tomorrow.

read entire article. . .

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Abu Holi by Day I

photo: Mohammed Omer
Travelers stuck at the Abu Holi checkpoint on Thursday find whatever escape they can from the blazing sun.

photo: Mohammed Omer
These men take advantage of the shade under and in the shadow of the truck.

read entire article. . .

Abu Holi by Day II

photo: Mohammed Omer
These little girls and their mother try to relax and sleep beside the road at the checkpoint. One child uses their striped carry-all as a pillow.

photo: Mohammed Omer
These men take advantage of the shadow cast by the truck as they wait. . .and wait. . . at Abu Holi.

read entire article. . .

Two Rafah Children Injured; 20-year-old Killed in Rafah Thursday

Mohammed just emailed that he spent several hours waiting fruitlessly at the Abu Holi checkpoint last night, hoping to get to his family in Rafah, but finally realized it was a wasted effort and went back to his office (and email) in Gaza City. "It's horrible here," he wrote.

He learned on the phone from his family that one their close neighbors, Basheer Soufi, 20, was killed on Thursday, while in an unrelated incident on the Salah-ah-Deen road, two children were injured by gunshots while playing.

The link below from the International Middle East Media Center gives more details.


Mohammed emailed that contrary to the Israeli account, his family told him Soufi was putting a Palestinian flag on the roof of the family home (3 doors down from Mohammed's family) when he was shot and killed. Mohammed ended his short note with: "I'm very sad to see all these things happening to us. I don’t know what to say more... but God rest him in peace."

Boring technical note: The software is sloooooowwwww now (as every Blogger in N. America is posting, I guess... got error messages when I tried to respond to some comments just now...) Mohammed also sent pictures from his stay last night at Abu Holi, which I'll get posted late tonight (when things always go faster and smoother

read entire article. . .

Monday, September 05, 2005

Possible Assassination in Gaza City

A house was destroyed by an explosion in Gaza City (the Shajiya neighborhood) tonight. Mohammed just telephoned me from Gaza City a little after 4pm Eastern US time (1am Tuesday in Gaza) with more information from as close as he can get to the scene of the explosion.

We had to repeat ourselves several times while our connection faded in and out. Finally, we got a clear line long enough for Mohammed to tell me that some residents are telling him about Apache helicopters. "The Israelis will try to deny that," he said. "Frankly, it is not certain how exactly the people inside and possibly some neighbors were killed." He did know that the house belonged to Umm-Mohammed Farahat, and yes, they were outspoken supporters of Hamas. Her youngest son at 17 was the youngest to join the armed wing of Hamas and died in an attack on the now-empty Atsmona settlement in August 2002—somehow eluding all the security and killing 11 Israeli soldiers and wounding 17 before being killed by return fire. [CORRECTION: a reader pointed out, correctly as far as I can determine, that the 2002 attack took place in March. See "comments" below for details.] Her oldest son, a Qassam bomb-maker, was assassinated by the Israelis years ago. Another son was captured in an attempted bombing in 1993 and is still in an Israeli prison. The Israeli army has attacked their house before, severely wounding another of her sons.

Ironically, Mohammed spoke to Umm-Mohammed Farahat by phone just a few weeks ago, but set the article aside.

That week Morgenbladet insisted they could only print a short piece, 700, preferably 600, words. Just how, Mohammed asked me in an email, could a writer explore this woman's militant attitudes and ask the really tough questions and boil it all down to 700 words? AND maintain fairness and objectivity? "I don't think you would like this woman," he said, as we discussed the problem by email, but, of course, knew very well journalists don't limit themselves to talking to people whose views mirror their own. Probably the only way to be a good journalist in this situation was to talk to her a number of times, really dig into her history, ask ALL the questions that might make her angry, and write up neither a hatchet-job nor a puff-piece but the most accurate, in-depth portrait possible—which would inevitably be longer than 700 words. Of course, any chance to take that work out of the "hold" file and do something longer has vanished forever now.

Meantime, Mohammed said he was told 5 people were killed and the scene is a madhouse of ambulances, while a number of nearby houses are on fire. The AP has already gotten out a story, excerpt below and URL of the entire piece:

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - An explosion destroyed a house after nightfall Monday in Gaza City, killing four people and injuring at least 30, residents and officials said. Three nearby buildings were reported on fire. Residents said the wrecked home in the Shajaiyeh neighborhood near the border with Israel belonged to a well-known family of supporters of the Islamic militant group Hamas, but the Israeli military denied having anything to do with the blast. During more than four years of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Israel often attacked suspected militants in the neighborhood, but such raids have been rare since a truce took effect in February. Bombs being constructed by extremists have sometimes exploded prematurely. Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said security officers were investigating.

If Mohammed can get close enough to get some pictures, he will, but he'll be up most of the night and probably won't get back to his email to send them till tomorrow.

read entire article. . .

Friday, September 02, 2005

Final Weeks of Abu Holi Checkpoint

photo: Mohammed Omer
Taken without a flash during the long, long night waiting for the Abu Holi checkpoint to open. In these last weeks of the Israeli Army presence in Gaza, the situation is as tense as it has ever been, and a camera flash could easily draw sniper fire from the soldiers manning the checkpoint.

Mohammed spent long hours waiting at Abu Holi checkpoint last weekend to travel from Gaza City to see his family in Rafah, and return. Here's his report (published today in Norwegian in Morgenbladet)

One Last Chance to Torment the Occupied
It was half an hour past midnight; the sky was pitch-black, but the concrete-walled roadways leading to the Abu Holi checkpoint were bumper-to-bumper with cars and taxis holding thousands of passengers. For nearly five years of the Intifada, this checkpoint would be closed whenever the Israeli settlers wanted to use the nearby "settlers only" road. Or as a punitive measure. Or—as the Israeli Army always put it—for "security reasons." Now, though, the settlers had all been evacuated. Soon, the Israeli Army is going to leave Gaza—but the checkpoint still had been closed all day. And hundreds of vehicles lined up in the hope that sometime during the night, the checkpoint would open.

Some of the travelers got what sleep they could inside their cars; some in crowded taxis stretched out on the road beneath the rear bumpers, while others made the ground their mattress and the sky their blanket. Then the light-signal changed—the Israeli soldiers were opening the checkpoint. One man who'd been waiting all day to deal with business in Gaza City could only sigh "Finally!" Another more energetic driver yelled, "When will this shit disengagement actually end? When will they leave us?" while a man stretched out near him slept on, oblivious.

Many of Gaza's citizens have spent as much time in the last five years sitting at checkpoints with taxi drivers as they have in their own homes or workplaces. That night my own taxi was fairly far back in the line; we wouldn't be moving for a while. One driver told me, "For five years we've been patient, given a lot but gotten little in return. All of us drivers were determined to do our jobs, even when we acted as ambulances, or lost more money than we made. We saw it all, all the suffering of this occupation. I'm afraid it's been engraved on the minds of the children even more than on us adults." Another driver, Samir Al Kurd, said he hoped for the day when he could drive from Rafah in south Gaza straight through to Jenin in the West Bank—no obstacles, no checkpoints. Then, he said, disengagement would be "real, not just a lot of political talk."

Ala Hanuka, a member of the Gaza Taxi Owners' Association, said the drivers by law have kept their fares reasonable, even as the price of gasoline skyrocketed and spare parts became harder and harder to find. Many vehicles were damaged trying to navigate roads ripped up by Israeli bulldozers. Still, the drivers have all tried to stay on the road to serve the people and offer their own small defiance of the Occupation.

Through the whole disengagement,the Abu Holi checkpoint was closed all day, every day, and occasionally opened for half an hour or so in the dead of night. This created a nightmare for university students, NGO workers, government workers and most especially for medical patients needing treatment at Gaza City's hospitals. Arej, like many other students at Al Azhar University, was forced to rent an apartment in Gaza City with several other young women. On Friday, she waited all night in a taxi at Abu Holi to get to her family in Rafah for the weekend. It was dangerous because while the Israeli soldiers manning the checkpoint often seem to ignore the waiting cars, sometimes they open fire on them—usually for no reason anyone can determine. Now, she was waiting again, to get back to Gaza City in time for the next week's classes. Her family, she says, is already sacrificing to pay her tuition. Add to it the cost of living away from home and the situation is an economic nightmare.

Arej was luckier than Umm-Ahmed Salaman who was holding her sick five-year-old. The little boy was actually supposed to be resting in a Gaza City hospital, not trying to sleep in a sweltering taxi. Life-saving surgery is scheduled for him at 9am—not even 8 hours away—but there is no guarantee the checkpoint will stay open long enough for her taxi to make it through. "I'm fed up complaining," she said, "I try to complain only to God. But my child urgently needs surgery our doctors can't do. We've been waiting since last fall for a foreign specialist to get to Gaza, and now when we finally have the chance, we may not be able to get to the hospital. Eventually, my son will die without this surgery." She had been talking quietly, but her grief broke through. "God help us!" she half-sobbed, half-screamed.

Entering a checkpoint is like finding yourself trapped in an Absurdist farce that could turn deadly at any moment. There is no shelter, you are worn out, hungry, thirsty, trying to offer a kind word to the exhausted old man or the mother with a crying child, but too often feeling useless to yourself as well as to the people around you. Around the time self-pity mixes with frustration, you notice an ambulance far back in the line and shudder—patients have died waiting in those ambulances. Arranging any kind of schedule becomes a humorless joke if either party has to make it through a checkpoint to reach the meeting place. Worst of all now is that just when the Israeli Army might relax its strictures—they are, we are told, supposed to be leaving these checkpoints in mere weeks—the situation is more tense than ever. Those faceless soldiers with their stranglehold on all our normal activities, can provoke us, control us, humiliate us and even kill us for revenge or even for amusement. Very possibly, many of the Israeli troops wish to be gone as much as we Palestinians will be glad to see them go. But a few, we fear, relish this last chance to torment us.

read entire article. . .