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My book was just published in Turkish as Duvardakiler, or “People of the Wall.” My Turkish publicist scored me extensive interviews in three major Turkish newspapers. The first was with Aksam. You can read it online here, but of course it’s in Turkish. The English version is below.
I am from a small town in Oklahoma, a relatively conservative and isolated place in the middle of the US. I didn’t know much about the world growing up. The first time I met a foreign person (a German), I was in college.
But I read a lot of books, and by the time I got to college I really wanted to learn more. I studied mostly physics but also philosophy, history, anthropology, and the Russian and Chinese languages, and I traveled to Russia to study abroad. I realized I had a passion for travel, politics, and writing.
After ten years of traveling, learning, writing, and working various jobs in Palestine, Washington, DC, and New York City, I’m back in Oklahoma (at least for the next few years) living with my Turkish husband, Ahmed. We met while playing soccer in a park in New York City.
You lived 2 years in Ramallah. What were the emotions that brought you from America to Ramallah? Why did you leave the comfortable life in America and go to a land where death was everywhere?
My first trip abroad was to Russia. I had a nasty stereotypical view of Russians growing up because they were always the “bad guys” in our movies. But I found Russians themselves just as human as anyone else, fascinating and funny and mostly very kind. I realized if I was so wrong about Russia, I might also be wrong about other places and peoples.
In 2003, when I was saving money to travel again after college, the United States was getting ready to invade Iraq. I knew nothing about the Middle East, but I had a feeling my government was hiding things, because the propaganda sounded ridiculous. It didn’t seem logical that millions of human beings “hated us for our freedom.” I wanted to go to the Middle East to find out the truth for myself. It helped that I had Lebanese friends who talked about Lebanon like it was the most beautiful place on earth.
I went to Egypt first because another friend wanted to meet me there for his summer vacation. After he left, I was in Jordan on my way to Lebanon when I met some people who had been to Palestine and told me about the occupation. The things they told me sounded unbelievable—and they also said the United States government was paying Israel $3 billion per year—so I wanted to find out if they were true.
Of course, things were worse. It’s almost impossible to describe what Palestinians have to go through just in everyday life, not to mention during escalations of violence. But to be honest, even more surprising was how amazing Palestine was in so many ways. People were so open and kind and hospitable and funny and intelligent. More than half the people I met spoke English, even in small villages. Somehow I felt at home. I still think of it as a second home, and I miss it all the time.
It was a place where I could meet amazing people, live in a beautiful land, learn about fascinating things, and do meaningful work. What more could I ask for?
Can you tell us about the Pamela before and after Ramallah? What did this journey teach you about life? Because in the acknowledgements chapter you said: “You taught an egocentric and presumptuous American what is to be a good person.”
There is nothing more humbling than meeting people who live under bombs that your government pays for, expecting to find extremism and hatred, and instead finding some of the kindest and most interesting people you ever hope to meet.
Extremism does exist, of course, but after seeing and feeling what Palestinians go through every day, you honestly expect the whole population to have gone crazy. Yet the vast majority are doing everything they can not only to keep their humanity intact but also to welcome outsiders and strive toward life and freedom despite terrible odds. I have never felt more welcome anywhere else in the world, and I have never felt more humbled and inspired by people. Palestinians showed me there is more potential in human nature than I ever realized.
You have said that in this hectic world, you found a kind of peace in Palestine. How did you find peace among all that poverty, suppression and atrocity?
Palestinians may be poor in possessions, but many are rich in spirit, kindness, education (which is very important to Palestinians), family, love of land, and belief in justice — if not now, then in the time of their children or grandchildren. They call it sumoud — steadfastness.
If they can have this patience and endure these hardships and still maintain their humanity and believe a better world is possible (and work toward it, tirelessly, in a million ways that we mostly never hear about), I feel like I have no excuse not to at least try to follow their example.
Palestinians are also amazing in the ways they enjoy their time even in the most difficult days. There’s a picture, for example, of women in Gaza making special Ramadan Eid pastries at a UN shelter even as bombs were dropping around them. It touched me very deeply. It’s a lesson that if you’re not enjoying your time, if you’re not maintaining what brings joy to you and others, everything else is meaningless. And it’s a reminder that life strives to exist and thrive, even when outside forces try to destroy it.
But still, Palestinians shouldn’t be asked to endure so many hardships. We can’t abandon them to it. We have to do what we can.
What was your motivation to write “Fast Times in Palestine”? What made you write this book?
When I came back to the US after living in Palestine, I tried to tell people about my experiences, and no one wanted to listen. They said I had somehow been brainwashed by the Palestinians, even though I was talking about things I had experienced personally. Many people in the US have a certain vision of the Middle East based on the media, and when you imply that everything they believe is wrong, it tends to make them upset.
I moved to Washington, DC, to try to speak with think tanks and policymakers about what I had learned in Palestine and how supporting Israel’s policies, even when they are brutal or illegal, is bad for America’s standing in the world, bad for our security, and morally wrong.
While some individuals were willing to listen, institutions tended to be systematically pro-Israel, largely due to the Israel lobby. After a year of being constantly frustrated, I decided to stop trying to change things “from the top down.” Instead, I decided to try to change things “from the bottom up,” which meant educating Americans and urging them to put pressure on their elected representatives to change. Most humans are good people, and that includes Americans. We just need the correct information told to us in a way we can digest and relate to.
So that was the idea of writing a book about Palestine. But not in the usual depressing journalistic way. Instead, I wrote it as a suspenseful, funny, even romantic coming-of-age narrative that, along the way, shows and tells about the Palestinians I met and what their life is like under Israeli occupation. Palestinians aren’t saints, by any means, but they also aren’t devils. They are humans, just as interesting and funny and full of dreams as anyone else. I wanted to show that side. I hope it will change some people’s minds and inspire them to learn more and become active in the struggle for justice.
What does “Fast Times in Palestine” tell? What will readers find?
In essence, it is the story of an American woman — rather average, though maybe more curious than usual — going out into the world to see what it’s really like. I could have ended up in Iraq or Kashmir or Tibet—there is no shortage of struggles all over the world—but I ended up in Palestine, where I found so much beauty, so many questions, so much horror. In the book I call it a “university of human nature.” I wanted to learn as deeply as I could. And I found, of course, that it’s bottomless. But ultimately, in the end, still hopeful despite it all.
I think a quote by Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who unfortunately was killed in the Holocaust, sums it up nicely: “It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
I like to think if she were alive today, she would be working for peace and equal rights for all.
How are other Americans’ perceptions of the Middle East formed through the Palestine issue? Are these perceptions correct? How do Americans understand things that happen there? Do you think they are sensitive enough?
Most Americans have lived all their lives in a secure and powerful country, so it can be hard for them to imagine what other people’s lives are like. Our military-industrial complex is powerful, and it has an interest in promoting conflicts that give it more power and money. As a result, it’s easier for a war-maker to come to power in the US than a peace-maker. Sadly, our news media often supports the government line on foreign policy instead of challenging it.
The Israel/Palestine situation is one of the most distorted issues in the American media. When I was living in Palestine, I would often see something happen in Ramallah, then go watch a report about it on CNN, and it would be nothing like what I had just seen. It often missed the point entirely. And unlike Al Jazeera, the American media never shows the casualties of air strikes in Baghdad or Gaza. So most Americans don’t understand the true realities of the conflicts in the Middle East, especially the ones we are involved in. Most Americans are also told that Israel is a democracy like us, with a Western style of life, while Palestinians are impoverished extremists who are nothing like us. Which makes it sadly easy to dehumanize Palestinians. And when your media dehumanizes people, it’s hard to be as sensitive as you should be about their suffering.
As far as we understood from the book, you were impressed by the traditions, hospitality and life there aside from the war. Can you share some of your memories that affected you most?
My favorite times in Palestine were the olive harvests. It’s such a wonderful occasion, with the entire West Bank gathering their families and going out to the land to work and talk and laugh and climb trees and have picnics. I wrote about olive harvests extensively in the book. Every single fall, if I’m not in Palestine, I feel sad that I’m missing the olive harvest.
I also fondly remember the Taybeh Octoberfest, a beer festival in a small Christian village near Ramallah. They have a brewery and make a delicious beer that is enjoyed in all the major Palestinian cities and even in some places in Israel. The festival always gathers Palestinians from all walks of life (they have a non-alcoholic beer for observant Muslims) as well as thousands of foreign tourists to get a taste of Palestine when it parties.
There are very interesting, very real characters in your book. What have these encounters added to your life? Are you still in contact with any of them?
The people I met in Palestine changed my life profoundly. I could only write about a fraction of the people I met, because I preferred to have a few well-rounded characters rather than a hundred less substantial ones. (This is a problem with Palestine writing in general—there are so many incredible stories to tell, there’s a natural urge to tell a million stories weakly rather than a few stories strongly. As a result, stories and characters that deeply humanize Palestinians tend to be rare.)
More than anything, their kindness affected me. When I came to Palestine, I was no one, just another American tourist asking annoying questions. But people took me in, explained things to me, fed me, sang to me, invited me to barbecues, told me jokes (and explained them if I didn’t understand), smoked hookahs with me, shared their lives and work and hopes and dreams and sorrows. I still get overwhelmed when I try to talk about it. Thank God now I can just say, “Read the book!”
I am in touch with most of the people in the book. Qais, the young man I had a sweet relationship with, is happily married with two beautiful children. Rania also has two lovely children, and we Skype every couple of weeks. On a recent book tour in Canada, I visited the Canadians I was with when we were held at gunpoint by Israeli soldiers in Ramallah. I feel very lucky to know all these people.
What would you like to say about the role of the West, as a Westerner who lived in the region for 2 years?
The Sykes-Picot Agreement of World War I was a colonial power grab by the British and French, with much of the Middle East carved up in the interest of “dividing and conquering” rather than making life better for the people who lived there. Many sectarian conflicts today were born from that legacy, including the Palestine/Israel conflict, which arose when European Zionists interpreted Britain’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 as permission to begin building a state in Palestine that would be dominated by European Jews. I believe Jewish people deserve a home and safety as much as anyone else. But no people would accept to be kicked out of their own homes and land by outsiders to solve a problem they had nothing to do with. That’s the root cause of this conflict.
Unfortunately, the West has continued meddling since then, usually in destructive ways. In 1953, British and American forces overthrew the democratically elected Mossadegh government of Iran when he tried to nationalize Iran’s oil. This led eventually to the revolution in 1979. The US funded Iraq during its war with Iran, which prolonged a bloody conflict and cost tens of thousands of lives, then later sanctioned Iraq, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, an act of collective punishment. The 2003 war in Iraq was a brutal series of embarrassing blunders based on lies. It still shocks me to think my own people are capable of such barbarity and stupidity. Many Americans are very ashamed of that war. All Americans should be.
And for decades the United States has supported almost everything Israel has done, no matter how wrong, which caused Israel to become more belligerent, stealing more land and punishing innocent people, helping create more extremism in the region and beyond. This is not good for the Israeli or Palestinian people, in my opinion, or for Americans.
In short, I’m deeply embarrassed by the role Western governments have played in the region overall. But there are many good-hearted people in America and Europe, and I hope more Westerners will learn about the region in a truthful way and pressure their representatives to have a more productive role that treats all lives as equally valuable.
Do you have any message that you would like to give to common citizens in the West?
The world is, in general, so much nicer and less scary than we’ve been led to believe.
Funny story: When my husband Ahmed was in New York, his sister in Istanbul read a story about an anti-Muslim hate crime in New York and called her brother, worried. He told her not to worry—crimes happened, but they were very rare. When I went to Istanbul later, my mom heard about cross-border violence between Turkey and Syria and called me, worried. I told her not to worry—the Syrian border was hundreds of miles away and no threat to me at all.
There are people doing bad things in the world, but they are far less common than we would think if we only watched the news and its sensationalistic headlines. Most people simply want to educate their kids and live a nice life. We can help people do that, but not by bombing, conquering, and occupying nations we don’t understand, or by telling defenseless populations to vote and then punishing them for voting for the “wrong” party.
Instead, we should try to really understand each other, see the humanity in each other, and realize that at the end of the day, most of us want the same thing: a stable, peaceful world where everyone has a chance to maximize his or her potential to contribute to their community and culture, both locally and globally. Increasing numbers of people, including Palestinians, want nothing more than their rights under international law. The US should support international law instead of undermining it, in the interest of peace and security for everyone, including ourselves.
America and Europe have tremendous potential to do good in the world. Despite all they’ve done, few people actually hate them. People just want them to live up to their own ideals and laws. In the US, because of campaign finance laws, it’s very difficult for peacemakers to gain power in Washington. Changing those laws so that wealthy corporations and special interests have less power would be an excellent place to start.
How did you feel when you heard about the recent Israeli attacks on Palestine? What does it feel like that nothing has changed for the Palestinian people after all these years?
I thought I couldn’t be shocked anymore, but the assault on Gaza this summer was unbelievable. Gazans are mostly refugees, mostly children, mostly defenseless. And this latest escalation was deliberately provoked by Netanyahu to prevent a Palestinian unity government that might be more representative of Palestinians. Netanyahu has never had any intention of negotiating fairly with Palestinians, and he sees a unity government as a threat to his rejectionism.
To besiege people for nearly a decade, then deliberately provoke rockets on a dishonest pretext, and “retaliate” by creating an apocalypse where nearly 2000 human beings were killed, including 400 children, and tens of thousands left with no homes, no jobs, nothing… It’s beyond words.
But it was interesting to watch the American coverage of this assault, which was quite different than usual. We actually heard from Palestinians on the news, and from journalists who saw for themselves the horrors Israel unleashed, which in some cases were even more shocking than scenes they had witnessed in Syria. On Twitter and Facebook, we saw pictures of destruction and carnage, and celebrities began to break the taboo and publicly condemn the slaughter. Israeli spokesmen were in the uncomfortable position of trying to defend blowing up hundreds of children, and commentators weren’t quite as willing to accept their dishonest talking points.
Our media is still very biased toward Israel’s overall narrative, and our Congress is nearly hopeless because Israel has such a powerful lobby and the Palestinians don’t. But ordinary Americans, especially young ones, are starting to change their minds, and increasing numbers of American Jews are disillusioned by Israel’s policies and joining groups like Jewish Voice for Peace that work for justice in Palestine. People all over the world are becoming active in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Turkey does a huge amount of trade with Israel, so there is of course potential for Turkish people to get involved, too.
So there is hope, and things are moving in the right direction. I just wish they would move faster.
Do you have anything to add?
I have friends in Israel, and I want their children to grow up knowing their neighbors instead of being forced to join an army that oppresses and provokes them. (Increasing numbers of Israelis are refusing to join the army, but it is still a small number overall.) And of course, I want the next generation of Palestinians to grow up with freedom and dignity. I hope some day soon all of the land will be a place where all are welcomed without fear or discrimination. It’s a beautiful land, and it deserves to be known by the world as itself, beyond the context of conflict. Inshallah.
Chapter 11 of my book recounts the heady days leading up to the 2005 Disengagement, Israel’s removal of 7,500 illegal settlers from the choice lands in Gaza they had occupied for years. (Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s advisor Dov Weisglass admitted that the point of the Disengagement was to put any chance of a real peace process “in formaldehyde” so that Israel could continue colonizing the West Bank with a freer hand.)
Below is the last section of the chapter, in which I visited Gaza for the first time just as the settlers were evacuated.
Drinking by the Sea in Gaza
Even after a year in the West Bank, it was difficult for me to imagine life in the Gaza Strip. It seemed less an actual place than a metaphor for human suffering, the modern world’s dirty little secret, a forbidden, forgotten, crowded, impoverished, dangerous, besieged penal colony. Over a million people squeezed into a 27-by-5-mile strip of land choked by settlements, ‘security zones,’ sniper towers, and military bases, like a super-concentrated version of the West Bank.
An Israeli officer had recently admitted the army’s raids into Gaza were characterized by chaos and the indiscriminate use of force. “Gaza was considered a playground for sharpshooters,” he explained.
I remembered many of the names and faces of the hundreds of Gazans I had reported on who’d been gunned down. Schools and homes, roads and restaurants—nowhere was safe. The Gazans’ framework had become so warped, most truly couldn’t fathom why Israelis were so scared of Qassam rockets. They could only dream of their only torment being an occasional barrage of unguided missiles with a half-percent kill rate.
I arrived at the Erez crossing on Thursday, September 8, not entirely sure whether I hoped I’d be allowed in or turned back. I walked nervously toward a huge parking lot. It had been teeming with trucks and commerce before the near-hermetic sealing of this crossing, but it was deserted now. Two guards called to me and asked to see my passport. I gave it to them. They nodded at each other and directed me to a building further on.
Inside the building, a friendly Israeli guard took my passport and luggage. I waited in a small room with other aid workers and journalists, many of whom had probably been forced to misrepresent themselves in order to have any hope of access. I certainly hadn’t mentioned anything about my job in my application. We all avoided eye contact, fearful that anything we said might be used against us.
Half an hour later I was called up, given my passport back, and directed to the entrance to the Gaza Strip. I gathered my bags and made my way to the rather intimidating portal, a shabby affair of chipped concrete and metal bars. It led to a passage between concrete walls, a dark tunnel-like path that stretched on for nearly a mile. My feeling of fear and desolation intensified the further I walked down that Kafkaesque lane into God knew what.
Presently I came upon a closed metal gate. An unseen Israeli soldier was making blowing noises over a microphone. The blowing noises stopped as I approached. I tried the gate. It was shut tight. I looked around the empty hall.
“Hello?” I ventured. Nothing. Feeling silly, I knocked on the gate. Still nothing. “Hello?” I banged on the gate. I knew they could see me. It was unnerving to be trapped, watched, ignored. I felt very much like a gerbil in a cage. Were they waiting for me to do something? Entertain them? Hop on one foot? Say the magic word? I suppressed an almost irresistible urge to intone, “OPEN SESAME.”
Finally I gave up and sat on a concrete block and started playing with my cell phone to pass the time. Twenty minutes later several Palestinian workers approached from behind me.
“Salaam alaykum,” I greeted one of them, and he returned the greeting. “I’ve been waiting here twenty minutes,” I complained in Arabic.
He was unimpressed. “Sometimes we wait half an hour, one hour.” He shrugged.
Five minutes later the gate creaked opened. A soldier barked unintelligible orders over the loudspeaker. I grabbed my bags, and we all made our way through.
At last I neared the end of the tunnel. Two Palestinian women in hijab greeted me with shy smiles and warm Arabic pleasantries. As they carefully recorded my passport information in a tattered green volume, my fear began to ease. A familiar feeling of calm and safety settled over me. It was unmistakable: I was back in Palestine.
When I emerged, I got my first view of the Gaza Strip. It looked deceptively normal. Agricultural fields spread toward two villages on lows hills. The towns, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, had once been famous for their oranges, but the Israeli army had razed most of their groves. Beit Lahiya was where seven kids had been killed by Israeli tank fire in a strawberry field in January.
I caught a cab into Gaza City. It looked similar to Ramallah but more flat and dense, larger and more overwhelming. A banner across a main intersection declared in dark green letters, “Palestinian Unity is a Must.” It was signed in red, “HAMAS.”
I made my way to a hotel on the beach, the Grand Palace, one of many swank venues built after Arafat returned in 1994. It was airy and elegant with white arches, and its verandas had fantastic sea views. With its air conditioning, satellite TV, hot showers and soft beds, it was easy to forget I was in a conflict zone on the verge of historic upheaval.
Gaza’s economy had been valued at $1 billion before the second Intifada, and the service sector was its largest segment. This hotel was a symbol of what could have been—an entire service industry, an international vacation destination, lost.
I went for a walk on the beach the next morning and said hello to a family sitting in a circle of lawn chairs enjoying coffee and cakes. They invited me to join them. A plump, friendly woman fished a pan of crumb cake out of her beach bag and insisted I sample it. I happily obliged, and we chatted and laughed for nearly an hour.
When I got up to leave, they expressed the usual mock-outrage that a guest should think of doing anything other than sitting with them and accepting their hospitality until the end of time. I thanked them over and over, and they made me promise to find them if I ever came back to the beach, or to Gaza, again.
Gaza’s seaport came into view as I continued walking, a small harbor surrounded by a stone breakwater. Ramshackle fishing vessels bobbed on the wavelets. It was another deceptively idyllic scene. Gaza fishermen were routinely fired on by the Israeli navy if they ventured past the limit of 12 nautical miles imposed in 2002—far less than the 20-mile limit agreed to under the Oslo Accords. [The limit is now down to 3 nautical miles.] Old photographs showed Gaza’s fish markets overflowing with red mullet, bream, flounder, tuna, sea bass, sardines, squids, shrimps, and crabs. The market today was a sad, scrawny shadow of those days. Everyone hoped Israel would remove the restrictions after the Disengagement, which forced Gaza’s fishermen to over-fish young populations near shore, and allow the construction of a deep water port to serve larger fishing and cargo vessels.
My primary concern on this aimless day was whether and when the Abu Holi checkpoint would open. It was the main barrier between the northern and southern Gaza Strip. I’d have to cross it to get to Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, by most accounts one of the friendliest and most brutalized towns in the Palestinian territories. I had a contact named Nader, a friend of an American Jewish journalist friend, waiting to meet me there.
Located on the Egyptian border, Rafah had seen the worst of the violence, home demolitions, and restrictions. Even though the city was only two miles from the Mediterranean, security for settlements dictated that the residents of Rafah were forbidden from accessing the beach. When the last soldiers left in a couple of days, Rafah’s residents would flood into the settlements and run to the long-lost sea. If the checkpoint stayed closed, I would miss this extraordinary moment.
Abu Holi had been closed almost continuously for the past several days, open only at midnight on weekdays and all day Fridays. But on this Friday it was shut tight. No reason was given, no timetable made public for when it might open. Everyone was left to hope and wonder. Rumors were flying, and the most widespread and persistent was that it would open at 11:00pm.
As eleven o’clock approached, I found a service taxi that was heading south. I and a few other hopefuls crowded in and took off.
The landscape around the Abu Holi checkpoint was monitored by a monolithic sniper tower. Acres around it had been bulldozed bereft of homes and trees and fields. The checkpoint was a prime target for suicide bombers, which meant security was on a hair trigger. A bad read of a soldier’s hand could mean a quick and pointless death. I held my breath as our service taxi inched toward it. We made it through in a little over an hour.
Nader met my taxi in Rafah and introduced himself briefly as we walked toward his house. He was a lanky young man with a crooked nose and a wary, almost manic friendliness.
“We will probably meet some militants before we get to my house,” he informed me. “But don’t worry, you are with me.”
Before I had a chance to respond, we turned a corner and came face to face with half a dozen masked gunmen, probably from Hamas. All of us froze like deer in headlights. Nader said something in Arabic that sounded sarcastic. The militants looked at each other. If it was possible for a gang of masked men sporting assault rifles to look sheepish, they did. We continued on to his house without another word.
He insisted I have some tea before we turn in, then he offered me a foam mattress on the floor to sleep on. I fell asleep gratefully, exhausted but euphoric. Somehow I had made it to the least accessible of the least accessible places in Palestine in one of its most historic times.
Nader’s mother fixed us a breakfast of falafel, hummus, yogurt, and fried potatoes, then Nader and I ventured outside and I got my first heart-stopping glimpse of the destroyed neighborhoods of southern Rafah. The area is famous for the huge number of homes obliterated in the hundred-meter-wide ‘buffer zone’ along the border with Egypt in order to deter smuggling tunnels. The former swath of neighborhoods is now a rocky, uneven field covered in scrub brush.
More than 4,500 Palestinian homes had been demolished in the Gaza Strip since September 2000, most of them in Rafah, and 22,000 homes had been partially destroyed or damaged. Nader’s house was in the last row of homes that hadn’t yet been totally destroyed, though one of the back walls of his house had been blown out by tank shells.
The roof of the house to our left was caved in, but a black water tank, a salvaged satellite dish, and clothes lines hung with laundry indicated that someone lived there anyway. A house further to our left leaned at a forty-five-degree angle, and kids were climbing on it like it was a colossal jungle gym. Every exposed wall was riddled with bullet holes. Across the street a man and his two young kids were starting a fire with dry brush, perhaps to cook or make tea. Their house had one wall busted out so that you could see into the bathroom. When I held my camera up to ask if I could take their picture, the father smiled as if he was standing in front of a proud home instead of squatting over a makeshift fire in a dusty street next to wreckage.
[In May 2004 the head of Israel’s secular-liberal Shinui Party, Tommy Lapid, said to the Israeli cabinet, “The demolition of houses in Rafah must stop. It is not humane, not Jewish, and causes us grave damage in the world… At the end of the day, they’ll kick us out of the United Nations, try those responsible in the international court in The Hague, and no one will want to speak with us.” He said seeing a picture of an elderly woman searching in the debris of her bulldozed home for her medication reminded him of his own grandmother, who had perished in the Holocaust. His comments were met with outrage by other Israeli politicians, and the demolitions continued. See: Gideon Alon, “Prominent Israeli denounces home demolitions in Gaza,” Haaretz, May 24, 2004.]
Nader said, “Come, I will show you a place they really destroyed.”
He directed me to some quarters of Rafah that had been bulldozed in the course of a recent military incursion. If the ethnically cleansed neighborhoods of Hebron looked post-Apocalyptic, this looked like ground zero of the Apocalypse itself. A few wire-reinforced concrete support beams stood crookedly, but everything else had been pulverized into thick, grey, ashy dust. My brain clicked off, as if some outer layer of judgment had been blown away in self-defense. All that was left was a childlike observation and acceptance of what I was seeing with no pass through the limbic system to attach emotions to it. I found a child’s marble and a small blue bathroom tile half-buried in the dust. I pocketed them as mementos of this scene and the feeling of horrible numbness it evoked.
When we emerged from this netherworld, we walked to the Rachel Corrie Center, which hosted art classes, after school programs, an internet café, and summer camps for local youths. The community center was named in honor of a 23-year-old American college student who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer on March 16, 2003 while trying to prevent the demolition of the home of a Palestinian pharmacist in Rafah. The Israeli army claimed there was a smuggling tunnel inside the home. A few months after they crushed Rachel, they destroyed the house. No evidence of tunnels was found.
After walking through the center and checking our emails, Nader seemed at a loss for what to do next.
“Why don’t we check out the zoo?” I suggested. I’d heard there was a zoo in Gaza, but I didn’t think I would fully believe it until I saw it for myself.
Nader said apologetically, “We can go, but the old zoo was much nicer.”
“Yeah. Before the Israelis bulldozed it.”
My mouth fell open. “They bulldozed a zoo?”
“What happened to the animals?”
“They killed some of them, and others escaped and we had to try to find them. The fountain was destroyed, and the pool, and the games and slides for kids.” He shrugged. “We built it again, but it’s not as nice.”
When we got there, he insisted on paying my three-shekel (seventy-cent) zoo entry fee, and we walked into a courtyard surrounded by cages. A boy about eight years old was riding around on a Shetland pony trailed by two friends. Among the exhibits was a twelve-foot boa constrictor, dozens of colorful birds, rabbits, puppies, house cats, and a young mountain lion, which the owner proudly said came all the way from America. A monkey lived alone in a cage in the center of the courtyard. He’d taken to an endless routine of jumping up on one wall, jumping back to the ground, spinning around twice, then climbing to the ceiling and screaming. Nader and I watched him in silence. The parallel was almost too obvious, but Nader said it anyway.
“You know, I call the whole Gaza Strip the Gaza Zoo,” he said. “We are like this monkey. We can’t go left or right, we have nowhere to play. We are trapped here, and the world looks down at us like we are insects.”
“At least the monkey doesn’t have to worry about invasions or home demolitions,” I started to say, but I stopped myself. This monkey may have been here when Israeli bulldozers demolished his previous home. He certainly heard the F-16s and Apache helicopters screaming overhead, the gunfire, the explosions, the tanks rumbling by, and the omnipresent unmanned Israeli drones with their psyche-destroying buzz, like mosquitoes the size of elephants. Maybe these terrifying events as much as the cage itself had driven the monkey mad.
Nader sighed. “OK, what next?”
“I’d love to see the airport.”
Gaza’s international airport had opened with much fanfare in 1998 only to be shut down three years later when the second Intifada started and the Israeli army bombed the control tower and destroyed the runways. Only the passenger terminal was left standing. It was an elegant edifice with modern check-in desks, handsome decorative arches, and marble walls and floors inset with mosaic tile designs. It was the prettiest little airport I had ever seen. Nader and I took pictures of each other as if we were tourists. But we were the only people wandering its ghostly interior.
We awoke the next morning — Sunday, September 11 — to an explosion. Nader snapped awake, and we walked blinking into the sunlight. A crowd had gathered a few houses north of us. A white car emerged from the crowd. Three young men were in the back, but I could only see one clearly as the car sped past us. His face and arm were covered with blood.
Nader looked at me and grinned disconcertingly. “The Israelis must have shelled us one last time.”
I nodded, though the whole scene seemed psychotic, as if bleeding kids were just one of the Gaza Strip’s quintessential experiences, like how Wisconsin has cheese.
“What is the matter, ya Bamila?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just… they’re everywhere, they might—”
“Don’t worry,” he interrupted with apparently total confidence. “If they try to shoot any one bullet at you, you won’t even see what I will do.”
I smiled wryly. Was that supposed to be comforting? Oddly enough it was in a giddy, dangerous way. There was a constant background sense of my life hanging by a slightly thinner thread than usual. Nader’s conviction that he could stop bullets was better than no reassurance at all.
In the evening we sat on Nader’s roof watching the sun set over what we hoped would be the last day of Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip. Nader’s nephew Mohammad joined us on the roof. He was a handsome boy of about eleven with a haunted innocence in his eyes that seemed disconnected from his calm words and shy smile. I asked him what it was like when Israel invaded. Nader translated when I didn’t understand.
He said, “The house always shakes when the F-16s and helicopters bomb the area.”
“Does it scare you?”
“Of course. I peed myself five times.” He shrugged. “But after a while it’s normal. I mean, not normal…” He trailed off and looked away, unsure how to put it into words. He was disconcertingly unashamed and unemotional talking about such things.
“You know, you look a little like Ronaldo,” I said in Arabic, trying to change the subject.
“Ronaldo?” The way he tasted the word in his mouth, it was clear he had no idea who I was talking about.
“You know, Ronaldo,” I said. “The soccer player from Brazil.”
“Brazil?” He looked even more confused now.
Nader cuffed his neck. “The country, not the camp, you idiot.”
I had forgotten there was a refugee camp nearby called Brazil Camp. He had thought I was referring to someone from Gaza.
“Is it nice?” he asked, referring to the country Brazil. “Better than here?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never been there,” I said, feeling depressed. “But I hear it’s beautiful.” He blinked and nodded, considering this.
After the sun went down, we went back inside for dinner. Just as we were finishing, another deafening explosion rocked the air about three hundred yards away. We all instinctively ducked, but no one was willing to go outside and find out what had blown up this time.
We later found out that it had been the Israelis demolishing one of their own sniper towers. Gaza’s neighborhoods had been watched and controlled by these towers for years, plagued by the horror of being surrounded by faceless soldiers who had the power to end your life with no repercussions and little oversight.
Never again, we hoped, after tomorrow.
It was scorching hot the next morning when we stepped outside and looked hopefully toward the border with Egypt. The buffer zone between Nader’s house and the border had been a closed, forbidden, deadly military zone for as long as anyone could remember. Two Palestinian policemen walked gingerly into it and planted a small Palestinian flag on a mound of earth halfway between the last row of houses and the rusty metal border wall.
Young boys, heedless of the danger, ran around gathering the millions of spent cartridge shells that blanketed the field to sell for scrap metal. A juice vendor set up shop for the spectacle. I bought an ice cold cup of carob juice, and its refreshing sweetness sang through my body. A few more people began cautiously walking toward the border, gaining momentum as they became more confident no one would shoot them. Soon a steady stream was walking toward the wall, and Nader and I joined the strange pilgrimage. I wore a headscarf to blend in. It was still obvious that I was a foreigner, but no one paid me any mind.
A section of the border wall had been pulled apart, and we walked through it into the no-man’s-land between the Palestinian and Egyptian border walls. The space between was as wide as a football field, a featureless stretch of land rutted with tank tracks. Men in black from both Fatah and Hamas scaled the walls to plant their flags. Several vans and pick-up trucks rolled by loaded down with masked militants sporting rocket-propelled grenades as a show of power. It was probably also an attempt by Hamas to claim credit for the Disengagement.
We walked down the barren thoroughfare until we saw a section of wall on the Egyptian side that was only five feet high and topped by a chain-link fence. Palestinians and Egyptians who hadn’t interacted in years were saying hello and clutching each other’s fingers. Many of the kids looked in astonishment at seeing Egyptian people for the first time. Everyone was cheerful and excited. It was a day of rare freedom.
The next day they would tear down this wall and cross at will. Hundreds of stranded students, travelers, and medical patients streamed over the wall to get out or get back home. Egyptian customers went all the way to Gaza City to shop for apples and blankets while Gazans came back from Egypt with goats and sheep and cigarettes they had bought for a fraction of the usual cost. Shops on both sides sold out of their goods in a matter of hours, indicating how badly both economies had been distorted by this hermetic separation enforced by Israel and the widely despised Mubarak regime in Cairo.
We continued walking until our view opened up to a white sand beach and an aquamarine sea fading to deep blue at the horizon. We joined hundreds of Palestinians, children bobbing in the shallows and young men splashing and laughing in the waves or seining for minnows. It was the first time many of them had ever seen the sea, and the younger ones were especially ecstatic.
After taking in this scene for several happy minutes, we hired a cab to take us to one of the destroyed settlements. Caravans of trucks and donkey carts met us on the road carrying anything of even marginal value that had been left behind in the settlements, including roof tiles, sections of chain-link fence, pipes, wiring, rebar, doors, insulation, siding, and chains. Israeli garbage was apparently rich pickings. Some of the children on the donkey carts bore traces of deep poverty, the kind that stunts growth. They had probably come from the nearby refugee camps, where raw sewage runs down the middle of alleys and the brackish drinking water cause major health problems. Or from Mawasi, a formerly productive (and now deeply impoverished) strip of land near the beach that for many years had been locked away behind a ruinous checkpoint and a string of Israeli settlements.
The settlements had until recently featured horse riding trails, a tourist hotel, and a golf course. Now they looked like an upscale version of the pulverized neighborhoods of Rafah. Bushes, trees, and flower beds surrounded rubble-strewn wastes. A half-destroyed school still had kids’ paintings tacked up on the crumbling walls. Palestinian policemen in blue camouflage uniforms watched as people had a curious look or hunted for anything of value. There wasn’t much they could do to prevent the looting. Turning arms against their own desperate people for stripping illegal buildings on their own land would have been bad for their fragile popularity.
A feeling of hope and wonder hung in the air along with a faint, alarming stench of toxic burning. It was hard to believe the occupation might really be over, that people could roam their Gaza prison without fear of Israeli snipers, that they could finally repair their broken and bullet-scarred houses without fear that the next wave of violence would destroy everything again.
The next day, astoundingly, Nader and I were able to catch a taxi directly to Gaza City in broad daylight. The trip only took half an hour. The Abu Holi checkpoint had ceased to exist, as if that all-powerful obstruction had merely been a bad dream.
I found a gift shop in downtown Gaza City and bought a commemorative mug with a picture of a dove and a Palestinian flag on it. The mug said, “Congratulations for the evacuation of Gaza… and hopefully for the West Bank…” It was a lukewarm victory cheer, but I supposed Palestinians were used to taking what they could get.
Triumphant Palestinian flags flew everywhere, and Nader and I soaked it all in, a feeling of pressure being released, of hamsters being given a slightly bigger cage with fewer daily cruelties and a hope, however slim, that things would continue to improve.
It’s heartbreaking now to remember how we felt standing there, holding our breath and hoping.
To understand what happened next in Gaza, the best summary I’ve seen is a brilliant article by Peter Beinart, a liberal Zionist writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, called “What American Jews Haven’t Been Told about Gaza.” It demolishes a lot of talking points about Gaza that have come to be accepted truth in the US media, namely: Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, hoping it would lead to peace. Instead, Hamas seized power, ransacked greenhouses, threw its opponents off rooftops and began launching thousands of rockets at Israel.
This narrative bears little resemblance to reality on the ground and its true dynamics. The truth is much more grim, and important for all Americans to know, since our tax dollars and government give Israel virtually 100% support for whatever it does.
For more colorful, suspenseful, funny, tragic, and sometimes romantic stories (Palestine is kinda like that) about life under occupation, check out my book Fast Times in Palestine, published in March 2013.
You can view the book’s Amazon page here.
You can read Chapter One here.
THE REST OF THE STORY (which was cut from the book for reasons of length)
Nader, of course, insisted on going all the way to the Erez Crossing to drop me off. He waited while I got permission from the Palestinian Authority to pass. A Palestinian policeman chatted with me for a while, then took my documents and frowned at them for a long while. He asked me to wait and walked into an office. When he came back a few minutes later, he said, “Assif, mamnou.” (I’m sorry, it’s forbidden.)
My mind struggled with cognitive dissonance mixed with the beginnings of panic. I knew the Israelis could trap me here, but I didn’t think the Palestinians had that power, and even if they did, why would they—
Then I noticed the guard’s lip twitch slightly, and I laughed with relief. He’d only been joking. Nader had probably put him up to it. I punched Nader’s arm lightly. The soldier smiled and handed me my passport back and motioned for me to pass toward the gate.
Nader and I said our good-byes. Palestinians have a way of making guests feel like they’re the greatest people who ever lived, and that the community simply won’t survive if they leave. This was no exception. I exchanged untranslatable pleasantries with the guard who had joked with me, then another guard quickly checked my luggage. Two women took down my passport information, and after a final wave, I set out down the long, dark tunnel to Israel.
Soon I reached the electronic gate in the center. It was shut tight. I looked around the empty hall and wondered what to do. I knew the soldiers could see me with their camera, but no one said anything.
After ten minutes, two more Palestinian men approached from behind me. I asked them in Arabic, “How can I open the gate? It’s closed.”
One answered in English, “Try to say something. He can see you. You just have to wait until he wants to open it.” I didn’t feel like playing this game, so I sat down on a concrete block to wait.
After several more minutes, the gate opened and the Palestinians started walking through. I grabbed my bags and followed them until a voice said, “Stop.” It said something else, but I couldn’t understand through the bad sound system. Nonetheless, when his orders to “Stop, go back, stop, go back,” reached an almost fevered pitch, I found it impossible to ignore them. I stopped. “Go back,” the voice said. I stayed put. “Go back!”
“Why?” I asked. “Is there a problem?”
“What is the problem?” I started to retreat back to the Gaza side of the gate. What else could I do?
The voice relaxed. “Just go back. You can go in a few minutes. Just a few minutes.”
The gate clanged shut again. I sat down for another ten minutes until a few more workers came through. This time when the gate opened, the voice said, “You can go through gate number four.”
I walked down the tunnel until I saw an electric turnstile labeled ‘4,’ which let me pass. The next section had metal fences that wrapped around like lines at Disneyland rides. People were hopping the gates since the lines were empty and there was no point doubling back.
As soon as I’d jumped a gate, another voice said, “Stop. Go back!” I looked nowhere in particular in surprise. There wasn’t anything to focus on or look at like it was stupid. I was talking to thin air.
“Go back?” I asked.
I started walking back toward the electric turnstile, bewildered and amused and uneasy.
“Stop!” the voice said again. I stopped. “Put your bag down.” I put my bag down. Then he said something garbled that made no sense.
“What?” I asked.
“Put all of them!”
What does that mean? Oh, maybe he wants me to put my purse down, too. I did. The voice relaxed again.
“Turn around.” I blinked. Then I turned my back to… where my front had been before. I felt helpless and exposed. Were they hitting me with X-rays or just jerking me around? Would they ask me to pull my shirt up in public?
“Turn around again.” I turned back around, rolling my eyes with my whole body.
Another pause. “OK, you can go.”
And off I went. The guards at the VIP terminal were friendly and didn’t keep me long. One said in surprise, “You just came back from Gaza?”
“Yes,” I said, though I was tempted to say, No, I just teleported in from Nepal. Where the hell do you think I just came back from?
“Really?” He hesitated a moment, as if he wanted to ask further questions. As if he was genuinely curious about the place I had just come from, a place that in Israeli discourse was synonymous with hell — not a place any sane, normal person would ever live or visit. But he couldn’t seem to formulate any coherent questions, and I knew it would be months or years before I could formulate any coherent answers.
“Yes,” I said again with finality, and grabbed my bags and left.
Though about 8,000 settlers were pulled out of Gaza and a few small West Bank outposts in 2005, the settler population in the West Bank increased by more than 12,000 that year. And it has continued growing ever since.
The Disengagement was also unilateral, which meant there was no coordination with the Palestinians. No core Palestinian requests were met, such as allowing free commerce, free sea access, and the reopening of the Gaza International Airport. Palestinians were effectively blockaded even before Hamas won elections in 2006 with a 45% plurality of the vote.
What followed was, among other things, an increasingly brutal siege that turned Gaza into the world’s largest open-air prison (collective punishment is a war crime) and three massive bombing campaigns in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 — attempts to force Palestinians to accept their subjugated and imprisoned status indefinitely without protest or resistance.
It is not clear what will happen next.
I was thinking of writing an op-ed on this very subject, but Peter Beinart beat me to it and did a brilliant job. A very important set of realities to understand, and a prime example of the utter mendacity of many oft-repeated Israeli talking point truisms.
What American Jews Haven’t Been Told about Gaza
July 30, 2014
If you’ve been anywhere near the American Jewish community over the past few weeks, you’ve heard the following morality tale: Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, hoping the newly independent country would become the Singapore of the Middle East. Instead, Hamas seized power, ransacked greenhouses, threw its opponents off rooftops and began launching thousands of rockets at Israel.
American Jewish leaders use this narrative to justify their skepticism of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. But in crucial ways, it’s wrong. And without understanding why it’s wrong, you can’t understand why this war is wrong too.
Let’s take the claims in turn.
Israel Left Gaza
It’s true that in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israel’s more than 8,000 settlers from Gaza. (At America’s urging, he also dismantled four small settlements in the West Bank). But at no point did Gaza become its own country. Had Gaza become its own country, it would have gained control over its borders. It never did. As the Israeli human rights group Gisha has detailed, even before the election of Hamas, Israel controlled whether Gazans could enter or exit the Strip (In conjunction with Egypt, which controlled the Rafah checkpoint in Gaza’s south). Israel controlled the population registry through which Gazans were issued identification cards. Upon evacuating its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, Israel even created a security perimeter inside the Strip from which Gazans were barred from entry. (Unfortunately for Gazans, this perimeter included some of the Strip’s best farmland).
“Pro-Israel” commentators claim Israel had legitimate security reasons for all this. But that concedes the point. A necessary occupation is still an occupation. That’s why it’s silly to analogize Hamas’ rockets—repugnant as they are—to Mexico or Canada attacking the United States. The United States is not occupying Mexico or Canada. Israel — according to the United States government — has been occupying Gaza without interruption since 1967.
To grasp the perversity of using Gaza as an explanation for why Israel can’t risk a Palestinian state, it helps to realize that Sharon withdrew Gaza’s settlers in large measure because he didn’t want a Palestinian state. By 2004, when Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal, the Road Map for Peace that he had signed with Mahmoud Abbas was going nowhere. Into the void came two international proposals for a two state solution. The first was the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in which every member of the Arab League offered to recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. The second was the 2003 Geneva Initiative, in which former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators publicly agreed upon the details of a two state plan. As the political scientists Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman have detailed, Sharon feared the United States would get behind one or both plans, and pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. “Only an Israeli initiative,” Sharon argued, “will keep us from being dragged into dangerous initiatives like the Geneva and Saudi initiatives.”
Sharon saw several advantages to withdrawing settlers from Gaza. First, it would save money, since in Gaza Israel was deploying a disproportionately high number of soldiers to protect a relatively small number of settlers. Second, by (supposedly) ridding Israel of its responsibility for millions of Palestinians, the withdrawal would leave Israel and the West Bank with a larger Jewish majority. Third, the withdrawal would prevent the administration of George W. Bush from embracing the Saudi or Geneva plans, and pushing hard—as Bill Clinton had done—for a Palestinian state. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, put it bluntly: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Gaza withdrawal did not meet minimal Palestinian demands. Not even the most moderate Palestinian leader would have accepted a long-term arrangement in which Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza while maintaining control of the Strip’s borders and deepening Israeli control of the West Bank. (Even in the 2005, the year Sharon withdrew from Gaza, the overall settler population rose, in part because some Gazan settlers relocated to the West Bank).
In fact, Sharon’s advisors did not expect withdrawing Gaza’s settlers to satisfy the Palestinians. Nor did not they expect it to end Palestinian terrorism. Ehud Olmert, a key figure in the disengagement plan (and someone who himself later embraced Palestinian statehood), acknowledged that “terror will continue” after the removal of Gaza’s settlers. The key word is “continue.” Contrary to the American Jewish narrative, militants in Gaza didn’t start launching rockets at Israel after the settlers left. They began a half-decade earlier, at the start of the second intifada. The Gaza disengagement did not stop this rocket fire. But it did not cause it either.
Hamas Seized Power
I can already hear the objections. Even if withdrawing settlers from Gaza didn’t give the Palestinians a state, it might have made Israelis more willing to support one in the future – if only Hamas had not seized power and turned Gaza into a citadel of terror.
But Hamas didn’t seize power. It won an election. In January 2006, four months after the last settlers left, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem chose representatives to the Palestinian Authority’s parliament. (The previous year, they had separately elected Abbas to be the Palestinian Authority’s President). Hamas won a plurality of the vote – forty-five percent – but because of the PA’s voting system, and Fatah’s idiotic decision to run more than one candidate in several districts, Hamas garnered 58 percent of the seats in parliament.
To the extent American Jewish leaders acknowledge that Hamas won an election (as opposed to taking power by force), they usually chalk its victory up to Palestinian enthusiasm for the organization’s 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction (The president of the New York board of rabbis said recently that anyone who voted for Hamas should be considered a combatant, not a civilian). But that’s almost certainly not the reason Hamas won. For starters, Hamas didn’t make Israel’s destruction a major theme of its election campaign. In its 2006 campaign manifesto, the group actually fudged the question by saying only that it wanted an “independent state whose capital is Jerusalem” plus fulfillment of the right of return.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that by 2006 Hamas had embraced the two state solution. Only that Hamas recognized that running against the two state solution was not the best way to win Palestinian votes. The polling bears this out. According to exit polls conducted by the prominent Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, 75 percent of Palestinian voters—and a remarkable 60 percent of Hamas voters—said they supported a Palestinian unity government dedicated to achieving a two state solution.
So why did Hamas win? Because, according to Shikaki, only fifteen percent of voters called the peace process their most important issue. A full two-thirds cited either corruption or law and order. It’s vital to remember that 2006 was the first Palestinian election in more than ten years. During the previous decade, Palestinians had grown increasingly frustrated by Fatah’s unaccountable, lawless and incompetent rule. According to exit polls, 85 percent of voters called Fatah corrupt. Hamas, by contrast, because it had never wielded power and because its charitable arm effectively delivered social services, enjoyed a reputation for competence and honesty.
Hamas won, in other words, for the same reason voters all across the world boot out parties that have grown unresponsive and self-interested after years in power. That’s not just Shikaki’s judgment. It’s also Bill Clinton’s. As Clinton explained in 2009, “a lot of Palestinians were upset that they [Fatah] were not delivering the services. They didn’t think it [Fatah] was an entirely honest operation and a lot of people were going to vote for Hamas not because they wanted terrorist tactics…but because they thought they might get better service, better government…They [also] won because Fatah carelessly and foolishly ran both its slates in too many parliamentary seats.”
This doesn’t change the fact that Hamas’ election confronted Israel and the United States with a serious problem. After its victory, Hamas called for a national unity government with Fatah “for the purpose of ending the occupation and settlements and achieving a complete withdrawal from the lands occupied [by Israel] in 1967, including Jerusalem, so that the region enjoys calm and stability during this phase.” But those final words—“this phase”—made Israelis understandably skeptical that Hamas had changed its long-term goals. The organization still refused to recognize Israel, and given that Israel had refused to talk to the PLO until it formally accepted Israel’s right to exist in 1993, it’s not surprising that Israel demanded Hamas meet the same standard.
Still, Israel and the U.S. would have been wiser to follow the counsel of former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who called for Sharon to try to forge a long-term truce with Hamas. Israel could also have pushed Hamas to pledge that if Abbas—who remained PA president—negotiated a deal with Israel, Hamas would accept the will of the Palestinian people as expressed in a referendum, something the group’s leaders have subsequently promised to do.
Instead, the Bush administration—suddenly less enamored of Middle Eastern democracy–pressured Abbas to dissolve the Palestinian parliament and rule by emergency decree. Israel, which also wanted Abbas to defy the election results, withheld the tax and customs revenue it had collected on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf. Knowing Hamas would resist Abbas’ efforts to annul the election, especially in Gaza, where it was strong on the ground, the Bushies also began urging Abbas’ former national security advisor, a Gazan named Mohammed Dahlan, to seize power in the Strip by force. As David Rose later detailed in an extraordinary article in Vanity Fair, Condoleezza Rice pushed Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to buy weapons for Dahlan, and for Israel to allow them to enter Gaza. As General Mark Dayton, US security coordinator for the Palestinians, told Dahlan in November 2006, “We also need you to build up your forces in order to take on Hamas.”
Unfortunately for the Bush administration, Dahlan’s forces were weaker than they looked. And when the battle for Gaza began, Hamas won it easily, and brutally. In response, Abbas declared emergency rule in the West Bank.
So yes, members of Hamas did throw their Fatah opponents off rooftops. Some of that may have been payback because Dahlan was widely believed to have overseen the torture of Hamas members in the 1990s. Regardless, in winning the battle for Gaza, Hamas—which had already shed much Israeli blood – shed Palestinian blood too.
But to suggest that Hamas “seized power” – as American Jewish leaders often do – ignores the fact that Hamas’ brutal takeover occurred in response to an attempted Fatah coup backed by the United States and Israel. In the words of David Wurmser, who resigned as Dick Cheney’s Middle East advisor a month after Hamas’ takeover, “what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”
Israel responded to Hamas’ election victory by further restricting access in and out of Gaza. As it happens, these restrictions played a key role in explaining why Gaza’s greenhouses did not help it become Singapore. American Jewish leaders usually tell the story this way: When the settlers left, Israel handed over their greenhouses to the Palestinians, hoping they would use them to create jobs. Instead, Palestinians tore them down in an anti-Jewish rage.
But one person who does not endorse that narrative is the prime mover behind the greenhouse deal, Australian-Jewish businessman James Wolfensohn, who served as the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement. In his memoir, Wolfensohn notes that “some damage was done to the greenhouses [as the result of post-disengagement looting] but they came through essentially intact” and were subsequently guarded by Palestinian Authority police. What really doomed the greenhouse initiative, Wolfensohn argues, were Israeli restrictions on Gazan exports. “In early December , he writes, “the much-awaited first harvest of quality cash crops—strawberries, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and flowers—began. These crops were intended for export via Israel for Europe. But their success relied upon the Karni crossing [between Gaza and Israel], which, beginning in mid-January 2006, was closed more than not. The Palestine Economic Development Corporation, which was managing the greenhouses taken over from the settlers, said that it was experiencing losses in excess of $120,000 per day…It was excruciating. This lost harvest was the most recognizable sign of Gaza’s declining fortunes and the biggest personal disappointment during my mandate.”
The point of dredging up this history is not to suggest that Israel deserves all the blame for its long and bitter conflict with Hamas. It does not. Hamas bears the blame for every rocket it fires, and those rockets have not only left Israelis scarred and disillusioned. They have also badly undermined the Palestinian cause.
The point is to show—contrary to the establishment American Jewish narrative—that Israel has repeatedly played into Hamas’ hands by not strengthening those Palestinians willing to pursue statehood through nonviolence and mutual recognition. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when Sharon refused to seriously entertain the Arab and Geneva peace plans. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it refused to support a Palestinian unity government that could have given Abbas the democratic legitimacy that would have strengthened his ability to cut a two state deal. And Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it responded to the group’s takeover of Gaza with a blockade that—although it has some legitimate security features—has destroyed Gaza’s economy, breeding the hatred and despair on which Hamas thrives.
In the ten years since Jewish settlers left, Israeli policy toward Gaza has been as militarily resourceful as it has been politically blind. Tragically, that remains the case during this war. Yet tragically, the American Jewish establishment keeps cheering Israel on.