Report from Rafah, Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestine
By Carla Curio
December 21, 2002
Mawasi is a village on the coast side of Rafah (in the Gaza Strip) that is surrounded by settlements and guarded by a checkpoint that has not allowed a Palestinian through in two years. The villagers survive on whatever they themselves grow. No food or medicine has been allowed though for these two years. People who leave have not been allowed back. The action that is happening tomorrow has been organized by Palestinians who are going to try and get back to their homes. There are 16 internationals here with the International Solidarity Movement that have been asked by the Palestinians to accompany them past the checkpoint. The Palestinians are very excited about doing this.
Yesterday a group of us went up to a tank to communicate that we have been getting shot at in homes and our countries would be very upset if anyone were to be hurt. I was so outraged after the experience. To quote Barbara Kingsolver, I "have the privilege of a safe life," even here. I can walk up to the tank and know they would not directly shoot me. (Well, it did shoot over our heads and at our feet.) However, any Palestinian is fair game. The soldiers shoot into occupied houses, down alleys and streets. They just blanket an area with bullets. Civilians are killed, children in classrooms, children playing outside of their houses, women cooking dinner ... all unarmed, all innocent of doing anything other than existing. How this helps Israeli security baffles me.
Few of these people have ever seen a soldier, much less spoken to one - Gaza is so different from what I have heard of the West Bank, where soldiers and civilian Palestinians see each other face to face regularly. Here the soldiers are up in guard towers, at checkpoints, or inside of tanks, APCs, and bulldozers. They just shoot. There's no talking, no negotiating. Yesterday was not a planned action - we were just going to look at the wall being built to better keep Palestinians in, and the tank started firing above our heads. We then started to walk towards it to speak with the soldiers that we are indeed here to stay. (ISM has not had a presence in Gaza until this summer, unlike the West Bank, where there have been ISM involvement for two years.) The group of Palestinians that hung behind had never been that close to a tank. Ahmed, a young man who is one of our escorts, told me he had never seen the face of an Israeli until then. They are always too far away.
I've been calling media in Jerusalem to try to get coverage of tomorrow. This has never been done before at the Mawasi checkpoint - families trying to get back to their village, walking past the checkpoint. They would just get shot. The determination, the strength of these people is humbling. After all they live through, all their losses, they laugh and joke and love their children. Ahmed is a young man who accompanied me and Molly (a friend of mine from Seattle who is also here working with the ISM) to see the demolished home of the family she had been staying with. He told me, when he saw me in tears as we walked away, that this is why they laugh so much - this is their life. A person simply cannot contain that much grief forever - they see no future different than what they are experiencing right now. And they go on, setting the latest atrocity behind them. Amazing people, no whining, no complaints, but this steady, determined day-by-day perseverance.
December 22, 2002
The next day we did accompany Palestinians down the road that used to lead into Mawasi (that now stops at a checkpoint guarding the new settlements), carrying medical supplies. At least one hundred rounds of warning shots hit the ground around us as we slowly made our way forward. A very long walk of only a quarter mile. One reporter, a Palestinian, was shot in the head (he was taken to the hospital and survived, as the wound was superficial), but the group decided to continue forward. The task of those of us who were internationals was to protect the Palestinians. (The reporter had been taking pictures to the side - very exposed.) We walked in front and on the outer edge of their group, with them in the center, using the privilege of our international status (we hoped) to shield them. I had moved to the back of the group on the same side as the gun tower in order to shield the women, and I have not ever paid so much attention to absolutely every step I took. I was hearing sharp cracks of bullets on the ground next to me. A lot of them. Sprays of dirt kicked up by the bullets hit my cheeks. Each step became a sheer act of will. The Palestinian women next to me must have been living the same struggle, but they were here to try to go home after two years, and I was here to accompany them as far as they were willing to go. Carrying a cardboard box of medical supplies (everyone else had see-through plastic bags) I was acutely aware of how they would have the excuse of saying they couldn't see what was in the box - there could have been a bomb - if I were to be hit. I opened the top, carrying it at an angle to demonstrate there was nothing to hide. Palestinians from Mawasi had not walked this road in two years without being shot at. This obviously was no different; however, we made it close enough to the gun tower to be able to negotiate with the soldiers, closer than anyone had done previously. Encouraged by the negotiations, we took a few more steps forward, eliciting more bullets, this time silent bullets. That was truly eerie - the only sign we had that we were still being fired on was seeing (and feeling) dirt kicked up by the impact of the bullets. Unheard bullets were more terrifying - and luckily only a few were fired - those who had more experience with soldiers in Gaza announced that it was time to retreat, as the use of silent bullets meant serious business. We did not make it past the checkpoint that day, but two days later a group of Palestinians and internationals did go those last few feet to the checkpoint and negotiated getting the medical supplies into Mawasi. A small victory.
Amazing to me was how quickly I got used to gunfire. The first day I was in Rafah I went with Molly to see the family she had been staying with. Their home had been demolished that morning and the family was gathering what it could salvage. We had to run for cover as a tank fired on what was left of the house. By the time I went to the Mawasi checkpoint, I had been staying in Gaza in Palestinian homes for a week. Every day and almost every night I experienced shooting from the tanks that rolled by the edge of town, into the neighborhoods where the houses were located. Gunfire was (is) a daily reality on the southern perimeter of town bordering Egypt. Here Israel has plans for a "security" wall designed to keep Palestinians from leaving Gaza. The goal was (is) to wear down the resolve of families to stay in their homes that are on the periphery of town near the future wall. Neighborhoods are repeatedly assaulted by gunfire from tanks until families leave. Sometimes a tank will target a house with mortar fire, as was the inhabited house next to where my friend Molly was staying. (Let me make it clear these are unarmed civilians, families, non-combatants.) Once homes are abandoned, Israeli soldiers will first dynamite, then bulldoze the houses, and begin to assault the homes of families that are newly exposed, homes that had laid behind the now demolished ones. Slowly they are eating away at the edges of Rafah.
That is all I have to share for now, except to add that my experience of Palestinians is of a people to whom family and land mean everything. I will hold in my heart forever the smiles, the eyes full of kindness, the humor, and the generosity of each person who has contributed to my first memories of Palestine.
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