In Gaza


Gaza bound…

Normally, I don’t write about politics or current events, but today I am going to make an exception.

For Gaza.

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.


11 responses to “In Gaza

  1. Michael, I wont pretend to have any insight on the Israeli/Palestine situation, I’ve never been in that part of the world but hope to find a good excuse to go sometime soon.

    I will say that a basic principal that has served me well in life might apply:

    Never start a fight you cant finish.

    If Mexico started lobbing missiles across our Southern border we wouldn’t allow very many to impact US soil before military action was taken. Americans would not put up with that and end the conflict quickly (I hope).

    I understand that in 2008 Israel had over 3000 missile hits that killed and maimed a number of their people.

    If you are going to take on a 6‘ 6” line backer don’t use a feeble little stick and annoy him, at the very least use a 2×4 and get him when he isn’t looking. If you cant find a 2×4 and are not very sneaky then you better learn to get along.

    By the way, I didn’t notice any unusual bulge in your britches when you were speaking at the TC Academy. Never the less, you must have some enormous cajones given your last name and where you spent time durning your youth. : )


  2. Facinating read.

    Once again I find myself in agreement with you.

    I too have spent some time, briefly, on both sides of that conflict and came to the same conclusions as you did in your post above.

  3. Michael:

    A very interesting explanation, but not a justification. In the face of the poverty you describe, Hamas chose to buy rockets to launch at civilians rather than improve the lot of the residents of Gaza.

  4. David
    I am not trying to make a case for Hamas. They have not done a particularly brilliant job of solving the problem, but then again, neither did Arafat. What I am saying is that 1.2 million people are living an existence that would drive any of us to violence, were it inflicted on us. The solution, I think, is not more violence, but rather to offer these people, the vast vast majority of whom are completely blameless; whose only crime is to have been born into this mess, some kind of future. As of now, they have none. And this responsibility, I think, lies clearly with both Hamas and the Israelis. Walling them off is no solution.

  5. Those that pick a side in this issue are the same people who think there always has to be a “good guy” to support.

    There is no good guy here.

    No innocent victim.

    Both sides are equal.

    What we are seeing is the result of generations who are brought up to hate each other and both think they have the justification to do whatever they want, then try and play victim to the world.

    Neither side is a victim.

    They both brought this upon themselves and it’s time they acted like adults and solved it themselves.

  6. Great post, Michael.

    And to follow Auden’s sentiment that violence leads to violence,

    Those to whom peace is given,
    give peace in return.

  7. Very insightful, Michael.

  8. I’m reading this months after the last post and have to give my opinion here.

    Both sides are NOT equally to blame. When Israel was created 700,000 Palestinians who deserved NO blame for the holocaust or European anti-semitism/pogroms lost their homes and were forced either into exile or into camps such as the ones you lived in Michael. Then in 1967 Israel seized more land, built settlements to create “eretz Israel”, settlements which they continue to build, separating themselves from the “lowly” Arabs, taking most of the water (that is not theirs to take), forcing the residents to live in squalid conditions. Squalid conditions, with no hope, lead to violence. Please don’t act as if the rockets sent to Sderot (which used to be a city filled with Palestinians who were forced into Gaza) are random and without cause. Another thing, nearly, if not all, every single Israeli prime minister that ever existed has blood on his/her hands, was a terrorist him/herself (Menahem Begin of Irgun, for example, blowing up the King David Hotel where innocent people died, or the ethnic cleansing of Lydd (Lod) by none other than the so-called”peacenik” Yitzak Rabin, who continued building settlements and stealing water after the Oslo “peace” accords, Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the murder of thousands of Palestinians and Arabs (Sabra and Shatila, Qana), even David Ben Gurion, who flying over the Galilee once, said he had to rid it of the Arab population, and did so by creating camps for residents there in the 1950s while he destroyed their villages, forcing them to move to other villages.

  9. Pingback: Assignment #3 Starting to Read blogs… Examining Perspectives and Contexts « Mr.Carlyle's Social Justice Blog

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