Normally, I don’t write about politics or current events, but today I am going to make an exception.
A long time ago, when I was 21, I went to Israel. Following the ususal American Jew goes to Israel itinerary, I did the rounds of Tel Aviv, the kibbutz work, Jerusalem and Masada. In those days, the Israelis still held Sinai, so like many others, I washed up on the beach in Dahab, halfway down the Sinai, on the Red Sea.
Dahab was a hippie crashpad, like Goa in India. Sun, sand, drugs and sex. It was lots of fun. I stayed for a month.
Then, one evening, I got into a debate with a guy from the Peace Corps who was on R&R from Malawi. We had one of those heated college dorm discussions about Palestinians. Having grown up on Long Island where everyone I met was Jewish, I gave the standard holocaust laden response ‘Israel must live!’
He stared at me and then he said, “your problem is you never met a Palestinian in your life. You should go to Gaza”. (This was 1977).
So I went.
It was not easy to get to Gaza, even in 1977. The woman at the Israeli Tourist Board in Tel Aviv wanted to send me to a kibbutz instead. I told her I wanted to go to Gaza. She said it just was not possible.
So I went to the Israeli city of Ashkelon and outside a cement factory found a group of Palestinian workers who commuted from Gaza to Israel daily. They offered me a ride into Gaza, so I went.
Deposited on the streets of Gaza City, I must have appeared lost and out of place, so someone took me to the home of Alia Shawwa, the Grande Dame of Gaza. She asked me what I was doing there, and I explained that I wanted to see what life was like in Gaza. I spent three days as a guest in her home and then she placed me with a family in Gaza Beach Camp, one of the refugee camps in the strip. I stayed there for a month, living with a family.
Years later, when I quit my job at CBS News and took off with a small video camera to make my own stuff, I went back to Gaza to see Alia Shawwa. Conditions had gotten far worse. It was 1988, and the height of the Second Intifada. Again, she placed me with a family, and I spent a month in Jabalya Refugee Camp, living with a family again. This story I shot and sold to MacNeil/Lehrer.
The conditions in Gaza even then, even in 1977, were brutal.
Whole families crowded into one or two tiny rooms. Open sewers everywhere. Garbage in the streets. Children playing in trash heaps. With 80% unemployment, you can imagine the poverty. In those days, the Israelis still held Gaza, and there were a number of ‘settlements’ on the strip. A tiny handful of Israelis held 25% of the best land. I went to see them. They had built resorts no one came to on the beach. Swimming pools, tennis courts, restaurants that sat empty. All surrounded by razor wire and the Israeli army on patrol. It was beyond surreal. It was revolting.
It was not easy to get to the Israeli settlements from Gaza City. No Palestinian taxi driver wanted to take me, no matter how much I paid.
Finally, I cajoled one driver to make the trip. When we arrived at the ‘settlement’, armed guards swooped down on us. I flashed my American passport and my Jewish name got me a big welcome. They opened the gates. When I glanced back, the settlement guards were beating the crap out of my driver.
“What are you doing?” I said. “He’s my driver”.
“You don’t understand”, they explained to me, and led me inside.
Now the Israelis have invaded Gaza in response to Hamas’ firing missiles into Israel.
Nothing has changed. Things have only gotten worse.
There are now 1.2 million Palestinians crowded into this tiny cesspool that is called Gaza. They live hopeless lives. They live in conditions that are appalling. Were I born in Gaza, were my children growing up in Gaza, with no hope at all, I too would support Hamas, or worse. Why not? So would you. So would anyone.
The Palestinians are not going away.
And the Israelis are not going away.
There is a wonderful poem by WH Auden called September, 1939
While it was not written about the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, it captures it so well:
Now I and the public know
what all schoolchildren learn.
Those to whom evil is done
do evil in return.