Charles E. Carlson
This writer left the Gaza Strip on March 10th. During the preceding week over 100 Palestinians were killed and hundreds were wounded and a number of Israelis died. I interviewed Muslims and Christians Arabs, including evangelicals; a co-ed college English class; a PLO officer and a United Nation aid worker--both off the record; the chairman of a mental health organization treating traumatized children; a businessman resident of a refugee camp; a young Muslim woman named Shireen who wanted to talk to America on the record; a number of workers and numerous youths in several Internet cafés and several Israeli travelers and businessmen. I also witnessed and photographed from my rooftop an Apache helicopter raid that killed four Palestinians and wounded 30 more. The edition(s) to come will lay the blame for the 52-year slaughter and suggest a low-cost, no-lives-lost solution to the problem and a humane course for Americans to follow.
Two friends accompanied me when I walked out of Gaza, the same way I had walked in --through a 600-meter barricaded gauntlet at Ares gate. As before, no one but me entered or left this crowded non-country of more than a million persons during the half hour that it took to process out. Consider this one incredible fact there is virtually no human traffic in or out of Palestine. At the only border crossing where people are allowed to pass through not one human soul went in or came out.
Imagine, if you can a million persons or more with only one highway running in and out, and no one uses the road for 30 minutes; more than likely, this was not at all unusual. Gaza is a place of continuously enforced isolation. How can such a city exist? What kind of culture can exist in an enforced prison?
Gaza is, in every sense, a jail. The renowned Russian reformer, Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, might have called it a gulag of political prisoners. Its entire population is captive. The Israeli Defense Force can and does cork this jug at will. It pulled that plug for just a moment and allowed me to pass because I have an American passport, and it jammed the cork backs in behind me to let no one else pass.
Where but in a prison do you find prisoners? Consider it, a society has been completely deprived of its right to come and go, and yet it has survived. Not only has Palestine survived for 52 years, but also much of what goes on among its people is not only normal, but healthy. In most respects, I found the lives of the captives more healthy and moral than the lives of the captors.
My hosts, Americans citizens who are engaged in relief work and education in Gaza, shared their several years of experiences living with the Palestinians. I am not free to give their names, but I will share their thoughts.
If a resident leaves Gaza, his property, including his car, must stay behind. Palestinians are usually denied passes to visit family in other gulags, such as in Bethlehem, Nazareth or Ramallah in the West Bank--even for wedding and funerals. Men and women who are allowed to leave even temporarily, often undergo strip searches that include body cavity examinations, just as inmates in American prisons often do when they go into the streets to work.
As an American citizen, I was spared all of this indignity and insult. It is my country that supports Israel’s war effort, and that makes me a special, though suspected, person at the crossing. I walked out with scarcely a look and only a cursory x-ray of my belongings. No one asked what I had photographed or what I will write. I felt shame at being American. It weighed on me that I was not abused and strip-searched like the Palestinian men and their women and children. I did not like being treated as an ally by these captors.
The Palestinian culture sustains life in the Israeli Gulag; it is a culture of family, prayer, and more family. Families are large in Palestine, and the extended family is huge and never forgotten. Unemployment is incalculable--maybe 20-25% or more. Survival seems to depend upon a low-cost food supply and the extended family. Donkey carts are prevalent. Aid workers tell me they know of families of ten that have been without work for several years, yet continue to survive and raise their children. The only explanation is the extended family; Palestinians worship the family, and every child is a blessing.
This was brought to light in a discussion with two Palestinian workmen, both fathers of large families. I stopped to chat, and they made Turkish coffee. We talked about the family, and one man, who spoke fair English, told me he had seven children and asked me if childbearing was restricted in the USA. If so, he said, he could not live there, for he desired a large family.
I assured him birth is not restricted, but I admitted that the practice of abortion is widespread. Though both knew an Arabic word for abortion, they lack any concept of abortion as it is practiced on humans. It is apparent that abortion, as we Americans have come to know it, does not exist in Palestine and had probably never been discussed before by these two adult men. They may not even believe what I told them, and I regretted mentioning it. Abortion is as alien to their way of life as is stealing their children’s food.
I am often asked if Palestinians train children to be suicide bombers. We asked many Palestinians this question, including Shireen, who wanted to be recorded. Not one could even conceive of throwing away a child, which is how they viewed it. Muslims, Christians and Muslim converts to Christianity--men and women--all gave the same answer.
We asked students about the schools and whether hatred for Christians or for Americans was taught there, and I talked to a number of youths in the Internet cafes. No one had any experience or knowledge of hate being taught in any school. One woman said in a taped interview, "Why would we want to scare our little children by training them for war before they have to know? They are already frightened that they will be killed in their beds." "We try to make our children happy, not fearful." I saw the children, and I believe her, rather than CBS news.
Palestinian children suffer psychosocially from being on the receiving end of extended, explosive terror. The ordeal of constant bombing threats and reminders weighs on them. Even a visitor for a week cannot hear a jet go overhead without wondering if a bomb is on its way.
According to Eyad Es Sarroj, Chairman of the Palestinian Mental Health Program, every child who has committed a suicide raid during the intifada has a history of seeing his family abused and humiliated, particularly the father. Children grow up with a sort of death wish to avenge the degradation of the father in the Gulag. Mr. El Sarroj told of an epidemic of Palestinian children in the bombed refugee camps suffer from bed-wetting, a classic symptom of fear syndrome. This turns to hatred fired by a death wish, he said. The child needs no training.
A United Nations employee, whom I will call Imad, confirmed what Mr. Sarroj told us in a taped interview. Imad was born in Beach refugee camp, and his children were born there also--a third generation family of refugees. He told me his four-year-old son has now asked for the "real news." He wants to know "who is killing the people." Imad’s eyes brim with tears when he talks of his frightened child; he has done his best to isolate him from the reality of the gulag, to no avail.
Later I visited the Beach Camp and interviewed a businessman there. I can understand Imad’s closing words to me "My children live in a place not fit for animals." He knows the Israelis consider him and his family "animals." Imad is bitter.
We Hold These Truths published the story and photo of Kamal Ali Asidah--the Captive Boy--a 10-year-old photographed drenching his blue jeans in terror while being arrested by seven grim-faced Israeli Defense Force soldiers. He knew who to fear… they later tortured him and broke his arm.
Prayer is also a way of life in Islamic Palestine. Five times a day, everyone in Gaza City hears a rhythmic Islamic chant, starting a half hour before sunup. Some Christians complain that it wakes up the roosters. Prayer is as much a way of life as is the extended family. My hosts attend the lone Baptist Church in Gaza. Christians openly attend their churches in Gaza; some are very old orthodox churches. No Christian I met complained of personal persecution, though all know they are a minority and majority favors exist. It seems to be a fact that some Muslim families have ostracized and abandoned members who became Christians, --a great embarrassment to the family, especially when "Christian America" is talking about war on Islam.
In rare instances, some converts are thought to have been executed by members of their own families for converting to Christianity, but no one could remember an incident to this happening. Two Baptists who are former Muslims both said it was not easy to leave Islam in Palestine, because to do so cuts off much of the extended family that each Palestinian comes to depend upon.
One possible explanation for the shrinking Christian population is that it lacks the incentive to stay at any cost, which Muslims have. Christians often lack the large extended family influence. It should also be pointed out that Muslims can be and are ostracized by their families for brutality or criminal acts, infidelity, drinking and, worst of all, corroborating with the Israeli enemy, which is a capital crime. The stigma of these crimes carries through to the entire family. The acts of one member reflect on all.
Christians are associated with America, and America is in turn associated with Apache gun-ships, F-16s, "smart bombs" and sniper rifles. It is not easy to be an American in Gaza with people being killed every day by American ordinance. When I told people in the Internet cafes and businesses I was an American, I usually prefaced my statement by telling them I have always opposed the massive military aid given to Israel, as do many other Americans, and I have come to hear their side. Some still asked me, "Why do you let your government get away with killing Palestinians; are you not the big democracy?" It is a hard question to answer.
All over Palestine, everyone I met talked politics, including Muslim women. It is politically incorrect NOT to talk about it, just the opposite of the U.S. where you can get shunned at most polite dinner parties for simply mentioning some issues. Many in Gaza told me they loved Americans and want to visit us. Then they would politely state they did not like the American Government and explain why.
Another question we asked was about oppression of women in Palestine. I interviewed several younger Islamic women and found them quite comfortable with their role. If they were oppressed by men, they did not seem to know it. One told us she was not afraid to lose her life, but she did not want to lose her dreams. These centered on her hopes for a family.
Several amenities we are used to in the West and Israel are completely absent in Gaza, starting with abortion clinics. I did not see a bar, pub, saloon or disco, though there are bound to be some underground. I did not hear of a single case of wife beating or child abuse, in fact, there was not a single mention of any crime in those five days. No drunk driving, drug abuse, car thefts or murders of other Palestinians came to my attention, though I am sure there is some minimum level of crime. Family structure in Gaza discourages these acts, and I felt safe walking any street at any time of the day or night. I only feared the possibility of being bombed by the Israelis, or being lost in the pitch black if they suddenly decided to kill the electricity, as they do.
When I passed out of Gaza to Israel, the cork was slammed back in the bottle behind me. All the Western practices I have mentioned were immediately available in Israel. For example, abortion is common and accepted. Most abortions are publicly financed, and in the military, where men and women serve together, abortion appears to be a daily solution to over-familiarity.
Unemployment is high in Israel--10% plus--and hotel attendance is down 83% from 1999, when it peaked. Business statistics are the worst since 1953. Israel stands in great contrast to Palestine in terms of wealth and abundance, yet is sinking into deep recession itself. No donkey carts are found on Israelis streets. It is also a land of cheap booze, small families, few marriages, secularism, abundant divorce, a big army and public welfare. Is Israel is on the dole from the USA. Israelis are on the dole from the government.
All the Israeli businessmen I asked told me the war must be stopped, but how? To the question, "Why does Israel have a right to the Arab’s land?" every Israeli I spoke to answered, "God gave it to us." But not one of these people claimed to attend Synagogue or considers himself "religious" or "Orthodox." Israelis tend to use God as a convenient Clerk and Recorder who gives them title to the land they occupy.
The war with the Palestinians has brought Israel to the brink of economic ruin, in spite of receiving billions from the USA each year. In 1987 Andrew Hurly wrote a book entitled Saving Israel From Suicide. Mr. Hurley forecast this exact situation and described Israel as a nation of the brink of self-destruction, resulting from its inability to recognize the Palestinians as fellow humans. The book is sold today as One Nation Under Israel.
Even Israeli businessmen admitted to me that no peace could be achieved without total removal of the "settlers" (squatters), but this is not the American plan, which leaves the squatters in place and the Israelis in charge of the bottleneck entrances. This means the Palestinians will continue to be tenants of the gulag, prisoners of the Israelis. The plan allows Israel time to recover its lost trade and failing economy while reemploying Palestinian day labor. Meantime the Palestinians continue to be worn down by the grinding poverty of the ghetto. The youth know it; they have seen it all before.
The peace process proposed by the U.S. is well understood by the Palestine youths who grew up in the Gulag. They know it is not intended to give them freedom or self-government. It does not remove the gulags, and it leaves Gaza a Swiss cheese country surrounded by a controlling enemy and perforated with settlements that control all of the strategic ground. It does not remove the so-called "settlements" which should be better described as armed squatter villages on Palestinian land supported and protected by army units.
The younger generation of Palestinians--those who have grown up in fear of night raids and sudden death and who have seen their friends shot in the eyes while throwing rocks --will not easily settle for more stalling. By killing their hopes an stealing their childhood, the Israelis have made warriors of them. They have nowhere to go and nothing to hope for, so they are fierce fighters. They do not fear death as their opponents do. That is why the Israeli boy soldiers clearly fear them; it is in their eyes and their silent stares when one asks them about their job. For the Palestinian who has already conceded their future to hopelessness, death is not a great threat. Over 1,000 Israeli Defense Force reserve officers have signed a public oath that they will no longer enter the Occupied territories. The Israelis call the Palestinians "animals," but they fear them.