MELBOURNE, FLORIDA (MARCH 2008)
Blame it on the Melbourne Beach Public Library. Had they not stocked a visually powerful documentary called Death in Gaza, I probably would have slept that night two months ago. Instead, shortly after midnight I pushed back the recliner in my sister’s living room and began to watch the film. My mind quickly leaned back as well, back to the hardest place I’ve ever been: Rafah, a town in Gaza.
The film follows the lives of three Palestinian boys growing up in Rafah and attempts to understand what motivates and perpetuates the hatred all too common (but by no means ubiquitous) here. It introduces the viewer to Arab hospitality, but also to violence and the cult of martyrdom. It takes us through classrooms and morgues, into homes and conversations, and shows us the faces of parents watching their children die. The film is anything but a comfortable experience. But at the end it becomes even more uncomfortable when James Miller — the award-winning cameraman whose work many of you have likely seen on CNN, including “Unholy War” and “Beneath the Veil” — is killed instantly by a bullet fired from an Israeli tank.
I’m writing this article because his death occurred five years ago this week (May 3, 2003). As we begin to approach Memorial Day in the U.S., I want to also remember those who have died in conflict zones who were not soldiers, especially those who took risks to bring us stories and images we otherwise wouldn’t have heard or seen. But I’m also writing in keeping with my conviction that travel is about more than cruises and holidays; it is also about the opportunity to see how others live, to reflect on what it means spend a few decades on this Earth, and to see how we are all parts of a whole.
A beautiful sunset in Gaza City, the evening before traveling to Rafah
RAFAH (MAY 2003)
There is a danger to writing about a place or event after much time has passed, particularly when writing from an environment of calm (I type now from a library nestled in the mountains of northeast Tennessee). This is especially true when the place you are writing about is a place of considerable violence and risk. The writing loses something, namely, I think, a kind of emotional accuracy. But that may be for the best.
I visited Rafah for only a few hours on May 5, 2003. Located right against the border with Egypt, Rafah, with its population of 140,000, was a place where militants used children as lookouts, where bulldozers tore into homes and bullets into people, where Israeli soldiers sometimes fired their weapons not because you were a threat but because you were unliked, where hatred was at times so free-flowing and deep that you had the sensation of drowning. The symbols and signs of hate were everywhere: in the guns, the bullet-scarred walls, the maimed, the sniper towers, the rubble. Rafah was a place where even broken chunks of concrete elicited a visceral reaction, because you associated those blocks — they were pieces of the hundreds of Palestinian homes which recently had been demolished — with broken lives.
But Rafah was a place where beauty happened, too. While controversial, there was beauty in the international activists such as Rachel Corrie who were there to put their bodies in front of bulldozers and sleep in the homes of frightened families. There was beauty in Billie Moskona-Lerman, an Israeli journalist writing for the popular paper Ma’ariv, who entered Gaza under the guise of a French journalist so that she could witness things firsthand. Her article, one of the most stunning I’ve read, illustrates the power of meeting your “enemy.” Here is the conclusion of her story:
It was at 7.30 that I went with Laura and Joe to stay the night in the house of Muhammad Jamil Kushta, the first house fronting the IDF position on the Egyptian border, an ill-fated house.
There, in Jamil’s house under the ceaseless shooting, guns, missiles, rockets and only the devil knows what else, for four consecutive hours, truly feeling that these might be my last moments, I gambled and revealed my identity as an Israeli from Tel-Aviv.
Then I said that my own sons might be among the soldiers shooting at us, not knowing that I was there in the house they were shooting at, or it might be one of my sons’ friends who had visited my home. And that was the moment we started to look at each other and laugh. Three babies, two Americans, a Palestinian couple and an Israeli woman all sitting around a big bowl of salad, with bullets whistling through the air, we started to laugh.
A laughter of despair, of apprehension, of relief at the human closeness which we suddenly found. I knew that with some luck I would get through the night and run for my life, but Jamil and Nora had no escape, that they were doomed to raise their three babies under live fire.
And then Laura opened her mouth to reveal that she was Jewish too, and rather an observant Jewess too. And it turned out that the fiery Alice, the group’s “Jeanne d’Arc”, the Israel-hater, was Jewish too.
“And the soldiers” said Jamil “they too are just 20-year old children who have to stand out there, alone in the dark, shaking, within the cold steel”.
We all agreed: life is short and human beings are silly creatures.
I traveled to Rafah with two Swedish friends who worked in Gaza City. Traveling from Gaza City by taxi, we were dropped off in Rafah at an apartment rented by several international activists. As far as we knew they were the only Westerners living in Rafah, and we hoped they could show us the town. In the apartment I took a seat on the floor and found myself staring at the walls, knowing that people who were now gone had so recently lived in this very room. Rachel Corrie, from Washington State, had been run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer less than two months earlier on March 16. On April 11, Tom Hurndall, from England, was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper (he would die of his injury by year’s end). Both these events happened while I was working with the World Council of Churches in the West Bank, and now as I sat in this Gaza apartment I felt Rachel and Tom’s presence — or their absence? — in a profound way.
After sharing a customary tea in the apartment, a local Palestinian who was a friend of the activists took us on a tour of town. We were also joined by one of the activists, an American in his late 30s who had fought in the first Gulf War and was now taking several weeks off work back in the States to do what humanitarian things he could to help the people of Rafah. In only a few minutes we reached the “end” of town — at least the part of town where houses still stood. Beyond this point was a sea of rubble, as if some giant finger had run over the edge of Rafah and broken it to bits. (Between September 2000 and March 2005, the UN recorded 1,728 homes in Rafah demolished by Israeli actions along the border with Egypt. Israel said this was necessary to widen the border zone between Rafah and Egypt. The difficulty was that these were the homes — i.e., the life savings — of ordinary people who received no compensation for their loss.)
Our walking soon brought us to the scene of James Miller’s death. A flak-jacket clad team from the British Embassy in Tel Aviv had returned with Saira Shah, Miller’s coworker and the film’s narrator, and were videoing her as she reenacted the events of that night. She had been standing beside him when the bullet ripped through his neck three days earlier; now she was on her knees in the dirt, her voice straining slightly as she told what happened. Everyone around her was silent. It was a silence born of respect and sadness, but also of acute awareness at how randomly death happens in a place like Rafah. One moment drinking tea, cooking dinner, or gripping a camera; the next moment mangled and irrevocably gone.
Saira Shah is on the right
We continued walking and were soon drawn toward the sound of a bulldozer, demolishing yet another home at the end of a street. As we drew within a block of the scene, we walked so that we were flush against the buildings on the right side of the road, well aware of an Israeli sniper tower’s clear view of the other side. As I took in the sound of the diesel engine, metal treads, and crumbling concrete, I also took in the children who were playing smack in the middle of this surreal setting. Not even 100 yards from where the bulldozer was at work destroying a neighbor’s home — and in clear view of the sniper tower — the children played.
About 200 yards further down the street (out of view) is the Egyptian border. The last home on the left is where I was invited in.
A family stood inside the home adjacent to the one being demolished. When they saw my camera they invited me inside to take a picture of the bulldozer from their kitchen window. (I could hear but not see the bulldozer from where I stood.) The problem was that I would have to cross the street — i.e., come into view of the sniper tower — for a couple seconds as I did that. A bigger problem, however, was that after taking the picture I would then have to exit the house in full view of the sniper tower.
And so the debate began, a score of neighbors passionately hollering at one other from their open windows. Some said I would be fine; others were convinced the soldier in the tower would kill me as soon as he saw my camera, or even my white skin. “This month,” one woman exclaimed, “it is even more dangerous being a foreigner than a Palestinian!” I wanted in that house so badly but was acutely aware of the risks in entering and exiting it. As the neighbors continued their audible debate and I conducted one of my own in silence, my Swedish friend Joanna, probably noticing the tension on my face, looked at me with a razor sharp expression of her own. It was a look that said, “We’re talking about death. You don’t die for a picture. You don’t take a picture in a place where three people have already been gunned down or shoved into the dirt, where their deaths are still so fresh, so covered up, so unaccounted for. You don’t die because death, particularly the sort that might be waiting across the street, is horrific and does violence to those who survive as well.” Then she turned away.
In the end, I decided not to make the uncertain five-second journey to the house. While I thought I probably could have gone in and out just fine, I also knew this was Rafah, particularly Rafah in the Spring of ’03, and that death flew through the air for the silliest of reasons. As I looked into the dirt between where I stood and the house only a few feet away, the image of my body lying in the dirt was too real. So was Joanna’s face, which had the frozen look of one braced for the possibility of seeing the dead.
On the way back to Rafah we had one other scare, but it lasted only a moment: In 2003, the road between Rafah and Gaza City was dissected by an Israeli checkpoint — the most heavily fortified checkpoint in the Occupied Territories. The soldiers were invisible inside their concrete pillbox, which had a bulletproof slit of glass in the middle for them to see through. To reduce the risk of suicide bombers detonating cars at the checkpoint, no single-occupant vehicle was allowed to approach the pillbox (for a shekel or two, children offered their services to fill up a car needing to get through), and each car had to stop some 50 yards away from the pillbox until an order was shouted over a loudspeaker granting permission to proceed through. The scare came when an order was shouted: the loudspeaker was so garbled that we couldn’t tell if the soldier was telling us to go or stay stopped. Our driver thought go; another Palestinian in the car thought stop. The order was yelled again over the loudspeaker, and our driver inched forward to the frightened protest of the other Palestinian. Then the order — whatever it was — was yelled again, even louder! None of us could be sure if the soldier was mad that we were moving slowly, that we were disobeying an order to stop, or what. The driver said we could be shot if we didn’t continue forward, the other Palestinian said we could be shot if we didn’t stop. Aware of the ease with which machine gun fire could pour through our windshield, I shook my head and smiled at this absurd environment in which some people must actually live day in and day out.
As a wise reporter once said, life is short and human beings are silly creatures.
We were back in Gaza City shortly before sunset. While Gaza City is no Club Med, it almost feels like it after an afternoon in Rafah.
MELBOURNE, FLORIDA (MARCH 2008)
When Death in Gaza ended — the film is 77 minutes long — I put the recliner back in the upright position and went to the kitchen to pour a glass of water. Back in the living room I petted my sister’s two cats, the one snuggled on the couch and the other curled into a ball on the floor. Then I sat back down and looked through the DVD’s special features, which included an interview with Miller’s wife and his film crew. I didn’t like everything about the film. For example, I think they failed to put the emotions and history of Rafah in its broader context, which includes the fact that much of the town’s population traces its origin to villages in Israel from which they fled or were expelled in the late 1940s. That experience, an unaddressed wrong seared into the narrative of the community, doesn’t justify terrorism. But it is central if one wants to begin to grasp the worldview of Palestinians in places like Rafah. The film did show us a human face though, even if it was often a troubling and troubled face, and for this I applaud it.
I didn’t sleep that night because the memories were fresh. I didn’t sleep because I was now in Florida, while more than 140,000 were still in Rafah — still being shaped and mangled and beaten by a place I sometimes felt was hell on earth. I didn’t sleep because I so vehemently disagree both with adults who cultivate for children a vision of violent martyrdom and with soldiers who use their weapons to needlessly kill and terrorize. I didn’t sleep because James Miller was dead, and I had just met his wonderful wife and child on my television set. I didn’t sleep because I regretted not crossing the street five years earlier, not only to take a photograph but also to visit those whose house I imagined would soon be demolished too. I didn’t sleep because Rachel Corrie should have been 28 and Tom Hurndall 26.
Some places are harder to visit than others.
Looking for helpful reads to understand this region better? Here are two of my recommendations: The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan, and We Belong to the Land, by Elias Chacour