Gila Svirsky: A Personal Website

Activism 1988-1996

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Fall 1988

 

Background:  It was almost a year after the first Intifada had begun, and tension was high between Palestinians and settlers.  To assert their fearlessness and right to the land, some settlers sent their teenage children on a hike in the hills, despite warnings from the Israeli army.

 

The route of the Israeli teenagers took them past the Palestinian village of Beita, and villagers gathered on a hillside to watch.  Suddenly gunshots rang out and three people lay dead – a 15‑year old Jewish girl and two Palestinians.  Believing that the girl had been killed by one of the Palestinians, the Israeli army entered the village and demolished 14 homes.  Weeks later, Israeli ballistics tests revealed that all three had been killed by the Israeli guard of the group, a young man with a history of mental illness and violence, who had opened fire.  The Israeli was never brought to trial, and the homes remained demolished.

 

An Israeli peace group paid a solidarity visit to Beita soon after.  This was just months after I began more serious peace activism, and the very first time I had ever entered a Palestinian village.  I was quite nervous about it.

 

A Visit to Beita

 

The closer we get to the turnoff to Beita, the more excited we become.  Will they let us through? We are 100 meters from the junction, piled up with Arab cars being stopped and searched.  Suddenly someone on the bus starts to sing an old Zionist foot‑stomper and we vigorously take up the song.  The soldiers take one look at our group – patriotic singers on an outing – and let us through without questions.  We burst out laughing as soon as we are out of earshot.

 

But we cannot reach Beita, set into the hills, in this cumbersome old bus.  We stop at a neighboring village and begin the climb on foot.  It is near midday and the sun is ferociously hot.  Men and boys lean out of their balconies to watch us walk by.  Women and girls peer out of doorways.  The silence is eerie.  What if they don’t know that we’re friendly?  What if they know we’re friendly, but they also happen to recall their 2 neighbors from Beita who were killed, the 3 who were deported, the 14 homes that were demolished, and the 10 that were damaged beyond habitation?  What if all this suddenly comes to mind?

 

We walk past the eyes and I try to smile.  I feel it coming out very tight on my face.  I say “Ahalan,” “Hello” in Arabic, to a few, and they say “Ahalan” back.  We pass small groups of men.  “Ahalan,” I say as casually as I can, and I try a wave with my tight smile.  “Ahalan,” they respond, and wave back.  The woman next to me waves at the distant women, standing inside their doorways.  They do not wave back.

 

We are now in the tiny heart of Beita, the homes leaning out over the narrow and winding road.  The group stops for some reason, and I view that as a very bad idea.  The young men of the village collect around us, and Maya explains to them in Arabic that we are not settlers.  I am not sure that the distinction is understood.  Mikado reminds us not to eat, drink or smoke, as this is the fast of Ramadan.  Then we continue walking.  A group of village men falls into pace beside us.  No one talks much.

 

We pass out of the village and are on the path to the wadi.  The land is beautiful, hilly and pastoral. Suddenly the silence is bombarded by a helicopter overhead.  The army has found us, a mass gathering at Beita village.  The helicopter dips and swoops, flying back and forth across our route.  My heart is in my throat.  I had not expected danger from this angle.  Does the army believe we are Beita residents massing against them?  Will they barrage us with tear gas to end our illegal gathering?  One of the villagers gives orders to the others, and they fall away from us as if we were diseased, and return to the village.

 

We continue walking alone.  The shadow of the helicopter frightens me every time it crosses my head.  I try not to look up, but wonder where to run if things start to drop.  Suddenly the helicopter is joined by a second, and they both swoop in to examine us.  Then they land on the distant hill, and we can see soldiers emerge fully armed.  We head toward them.

 

Some of our explanations work and others do not.  Yes, we may stand on the hill opposite the settlers who are holding a re-enactment of their march.  No, we may not hold placards or banners.  I recognize the soldier who is negotiating from his pictures and the crossed swords on his shoulders.  It is General Mitzna, commander of the area.  He laughs with us and appears good humored.  Now I am no longer worried about the soldiers.

 

A group of soldiers takes up positions at the crest of the hill.  Are they here to protect or restrain us?  We scan the opposite hill for settlers.  Some say they can make them out in the distance.

 

Mikado tells us that we will be here for 15 minutes to make our point.  We relax on the hot, exposed hillside.  I sit on a rock and scan the horizon for settlers.  If I cannot see the hundreds of them, how can they possibly see the 50 of us?  And if they cannot see us, then what is this demonstration all about anyway?  The entire gesture appears fruitless and futile, just like all these anti‑occupation activities.  Frivolous and ineffectual.

 

We are there at least an hour, lazing in the sun, trying to make some sense of what we are doing.  The soldiers also relax, sitting on the stones at some distance.  Then someone says it’s over, but we must not go through the village to return – to avoid giving any pretext to the army to vent anger at the villagers.  We start walking through the wadi, sun beating down.

 

A few villagers come out to meet us.  They exchange some words with the lead walkers, and suddenly we change direction to walk through the village.  They encourage us that it is alright. When we reach the entrance to Beita, I am shocked to see that the entire path is lined on both sides with young men staring at us.  Their look is serious, but not angry, it seems to me.  As we walk through this gauntlet, I begin to relax.  “Ahalan,” I say.  “Marhaba,” they respond, “Welcome.”

 

We continue walking, and they fall in with us.  We unfurl the banners that the soldiers had not let us show on the hill.  “End the Occupation” and “Israeli‑Palestinian Peace”, they shout.  Some young boys grab them and wave them high over our heads.  The air becomes festive.  We reach the village square.  Maya gives a little speech in Hebrew and in Arabic. “We have come to tell you that we do not agree with the terrible things that have happened to you. Today we give you words; soon we shall return and join you in rebuilding this destruction.  Peace to us all.”  Her words ring simple and sincere.  When she finishes, everyone bursts into applause.  The parade now begins earnest, with all the young men joining us in our walk, the boys carrying the big banners.

 

We walk happily now, smiling, looking for people to talk to.  I try the young man next to me and he is eager to talk.  We communicate in English.  He tells me that he has a wife and two children, that a third child has just died of illness.  He says he worked in Abu Dhabi as a welder for 10 years, but the Gulf War chased him away.  Back home he found a job in Netanya [in Israel], but since the Intifada, he has been out of work.  He will return to one of the Emirates with his wife “when they open the gates,” he says.

 

We exchange names.  Mazuz, he tells me.  We talk about the horrible day when the villagers and the Israeli were killed.  We agree that terrible things have happened.  We talk about it easily.  I am surprised by how little anger he shows me.

 

The heat is oppressive, stifling.  I ask him how he holds up under Ramadan.  No problem, he says.  I have finished my canteen and long for another drink, but do not say so.  He talks about life in Abu Dhabi – the hotels, the swimming pools.  I tell him about my daughters.  We laugh about the mix‑ups in understanding each other.  It feels good to laugh with him.  When we get back to the bus, we find a surprise.  The villagers have brought us all cans of soft drinks.  None of the Palestinians breaks the Ramadan fast.  But they smile as we drink greedily in the heat and pounding sun.  We stand around and talk some more.

 

By the time we move to the bus, I am sorry to have to lose touch with Mazuz.  I don’t want to lose the warmth of this meeting from my heart.  We stand facing each other.  I take off my “End the Occupation” button and pin it on him.  He does not hesitate.  He takes the white kafeeya off his neck and places it on me.  It is like a coronation.  He puts it over my head, then wraps each end around my neck.  I take his hand in both my hands and we kiss each other, alternating cheeks 3 times.  I get on the bus with the warm kafeeya around me.

 

The ride back is full of political talk.  The kafeeya is hot and I put it into my backpack.  By the time I arrive home, I can feel the dust and sweat settled on me.  I peel everything off and take a shower. Then I make myself a cold drink and take my things apart.  Inside my pack – the kafeeya.  It takes me by surprise.  It looks like an artifact that I have brought back from another world.

 

*

 

Background:  Years later, I was asked to translate a poem about the Beita incident written by Samir al-Rantisi, a prominent Arab-Israeli poet.  The poem, called “Season of the Camomile”, is written from the perspective of one of the two Palestinians who was killed, and his horror at having been plucked out of anonymity and thrust into the national struggle.  The man had been a garbage collector in the Israeli town of Beit Shean.  Amin in the poem was his wife, and Munira was his sister, whose home was also destroyed.  But the poem is addressed to Tirza Porat, the Jewish teenage girl who was killed.

 

“Season of the Camomile” by Samir al-Rantisi

 

            How many more ordinary mornings

            will fill us with horror

            and transform our day to another sky?

            Who chose us

            to be the victim and the symbol,

            to be the beginning of the beginnings,

            the moment of historical trial

            We, the two dreamers,

            the routine, the ordinary,

            who chose us

            Tirza Porat

            to be the heart of the conflict

            and the crossroads of time…

            I have never wanted to be

            the headline of the conflict – of any conflict

            I didn’t even want to be a moment of explosion

            The greatest of my dreams was Amin and Munira al-Bitawi

            who no longer has

            a ceiling or a wall…

            Come back, ask

            who is it who left the pickax

            and made do with what time handed him

            made do with collecting garbage

            on the streets of Beit Shean

            for a paltry wage

            Oh, Tirza of the bad luck!

            Why didn’t you find someone besides me to be a symbol?

            Why didn’t they find someone besides you to be a victim?

            Tirza Porat

            why could they only find Beita in the spring.

 

#   #   #

June 1989

 

Background:  Stabbings, shootings, and bombings are woven like a scarlet thread through life in this holy region.  Trying to stop the violence, I began to find myself on the border between courage and stupidity.  By now, this border has become an old friend.  But in June 1989, this was my first such recorded experience:

 

On the Streets the Day of the Stabbings

 

I happened to be downtown the day of the horrible stabbing of five innocent people in Jerusalem.  I was walking along Jaffa Street when I saw and heard the crowd.  It looked to me at first like a car accident – ambulances, a crowd milling around, police keeping bystanders away.  I stayed across the street.  What happened, I asked.  “An Arab stabbed some Jews.”  Anyone dead?  Two so far.  I walked closer to the curb and stood behind a parked car.  The Magen David Adom [Israeli Red Cross] people were busy at work.  I watched the TV cameras try to push their way into the ambulances.  The police were tough in keeping them away.  The cameras had nothing to film.

 

Suddenly a man behind me started to bellow, “Those bastards, kill them all!”  Everyone turned to look at the man with the thundering voice.  “Show the world what they are doing to us!” he shouted at the cameramen, who ran over to take his picture.  The man pushed forward until he was right next to me, and glaring into the lens.  “Show the world,” he repeated, “show them what they are doing to us!”

 

I had only a split second, and I spoke up because I didn’t want the TV to show only the hatred and racism.  “Show them also what we do to them,” I said.  In retrospect, I could have thought of something a lot better to say.

 

The camera turned to pan the crowd, but the man turned to me, pointed his finger into my face, and shouted obscenities.  Then the first kick landed on me from the rear, a hard thud as a knee crashed into my bottom.  I turned around and someone shouted, “Leftist!”  That gave them what they needed, and many started to kick and shout.  “Traitor”, “whore”, “garbage”, and “leftist.”  I was swinging around trying to avoid their blows when a policeman – after observing the action for a while – finally worked his way inside and helped me get away.  I kept walking until I was clear of their sound.

 

My system was in turmoil and I was in fear that they would turn and look for me, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back to my office.  For another two hours, I walked around downtown feeling nauseous and afraid.  I listed to men say, “Put them all into concentration camps.”  I heard women say, “They’re animals, all of them.”  I watched a mob of rioting Jews chant “Vengeance!  Vengeance!” as they headed toward the Arab side of town.  Finally I went to work.

 

How to make sense of all this?  I remind myself:  All we ever wanted from Israel was to ensure a safe haven for Jews.  That seemed like a relatively simple task.  How did it become so complex, so violent?  It was surely not our intent.  And yet, trying to do what is right, we often end up doing what is wrong.  Defending against attack, we turn into attackers.  Convinced of the need for unity, we turn against those with whom we disagree.  No one ever intended these outcomes!

 

Lots of people saw me on television and heard my words.  Some told me how brave I was to say that, and others said how stupid:  “Didn’t you know they would beat you up?”  It seems I had identified the border between courage and stupidity.

 #   #   #

 

Background:  What does one do when the Intifada is raging and you are having dinner?

 

July 1990

 Shabbat Dinner Overlooking the Intifada

 

Some days in Israel you wake up in the morning and read about a bloodbath of Arabs or Jews.  Other days, it’s easy to forget the Intifada is still out there until, suddenly, it comes into direct view.  Like Friday night dinner at Cousin Dotty’s.

 

Denna, my teenage daughter, and I drove out to French Hill, one of the northern suburbs of Jerusalem.  We arrived early and helped Dotty set the table.  Bob and Elly and their kids soon arrived, and we lit the Sabbath candles and made jokes about how distantly related we are, but still keep ties.  We sat down to dinner and Bob led the kiddush.

 

Lit by the soft light and candles, there was a good, warm feeling in the room.  The challah had almost enough raisins in it and the chicken soup was delicious.  We recalled the last time we were together and shared the recollection of family celebrations.  Dotty pushed the tea-cart, loaded with chicken and all the trimmings, into the dining room.  She managed to fill one plate when the noise began.

 

At first we ignored it.  Dotty heaped a second plate, and then the noise pushed into our consciousness.  Bob stood up and went to the balcony, sliding back the glass door to hear better.  As soon as the door opened, the sounds invaded the room like broken glass.  We jumped up and crowded onto the balcony and looked out across the valley.  About half a mile away, the skies were lit by army flares over the nearby Palestinian village of Issawiyya.  The sounds came from semi-automatics and flare guns.  No artillery explosions.  Probably just plastic and rubber bullets.

 

We stood and watched for a while, Dotty, Bob, Elly, the children and me.  “Just like Richmond during the American Civil War,” said Bob, “a view of the war from the balcony over dinner.”  Denna put her head on my shoulder and I put my arm around her.

 

But how long can one stand on the balcony on a chilly Friday evening and watch flares and listen to the popping sounds of horrors we do not witness?

 

Finally we came inside, slid the door back into place, and retook our places at the table.  Dotty finished serving the chicken, carrots, potatoes, and salad, and we were all good guests.  Except for Denna, who couldn’t finish her plate. The popping sounds stopped soon after the coffee and some of Dotty’s delicious brownies.  We talked a little about “the situation” and then went back to family patter.  Denna and I went home before it got late.  The streets were silent when we left the house.  I forgot to notice if the smell of gunpowder was hanging in the air.

 

In the morning I turned on the radio.  “In Issawiyya last night, soldiers shot and killed a 15-year old boy and his father during stone throwing clashes in the center of the village...At least 10 people were reported wounded by rubber bullets...”  And a report later that day.  “The incident in Issawiyya last night in which two people were killed is being investigated to determine the circumstances under which the soldiers opened fire...”

 

Were those killings the sounds over chicken soup or did we hear them during dessert?  And how many of us heard about them on the radio over breakfast, passing the toast and jam?

 

Denna and I went to a demonstration that day, Jewish and Palestinian women calling for peace.  Several dozen women showed up, and almost an equal number of police.  We sang songs and heard speeches.  The next morning, I went to work.  On the news there was no more mention of Issawiyya or any investigation into circumstances.  By now the rioting had shifted to somewhere else.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to finish eating, and when to put down your fork and get up and do something.  Or, in fact, what to do at all once you have put down your fork and stood up.

 

Are we doing enough to stop this cycle of violence?  To stop the brutalization of all of us, on both sides, those who kill and those who sanction the killing by their silence?

 

For dinner tonight, the mother of the boy from Issawiyya will have the memory of her son and her husband, bleeding away their lives in the streets of a war that should not be happening.  And some of us still do not know how to respond.  And some do not even put down their fork.

 

#   #   #

 

Background:  At some point during the intifada, most Israelis began to think of Gaza as a territory they could do without.  The dense and hostile population, grinding poverty, and explosive politics put this narrow strip of land high on the list of give-away territories.  Even during the right-wing Likud regime, the unwritten consensus inside Israel, with few exceptions, was to lock the door to Gaza and throw away the key.  Once the Rabin government was elected, there was a sense of rising expectations on both sides.  Gaza would be the first to go, and Gazans knew it.

 

I paid a visit to the Gaza Strip in January 1993, half a year after Rabin took office and another half before the Oslo negotiations became public.  What I noticed during this visit was a combination of despair and hope, of people for whom war was routine, and peace, no longer an easily evoked image.  This was a snapshot I made of that period:

 

January 5, 1993

Kite Flying in Gaza

 

The city of Gaza, once a bustling capital, is today a war zone, ravaged by 26 years of military occupation and resistance: piles of garbage, debris, and smoking tires; streets with gaping pot-holes; buildings half-razed by Israel army forces or left incomplete in the act of construction; and political graffiti scrawled onto every conceivable surface, then whitewashed, then reapplied, a modern political palimpsest.  Nothing in Gaza remains whole or undamaged – no homes, no cars, no families.  “No insurance,” the driver informs us laughing as he speeds down the blasted-out streets.  The humor is part of coping with life in a mess – the out-of-controlness of the Gaza Strip, support systems stumbling through curfews and strikes.  And Israeli soldiers with nervous eyes and trigger-fingers watching every movement.

 

A tour of the Gaza Strip invariably begins at the Jabalia refugee camp, a Gaza City suburb.  Over 60,000 people live in Jabalia, one of the most densely populated shantytowns in the world.  I step into the warren-like home of Fatma, her husband, and their 13 children: the oldest a 21-year-old married son; the newborn occupying a metal box on the floor under a dirty gray tulle to keep off the flies.

 

“Do your children go to school?” I ask her, after introductions.

 

“A few,” she says.  “But we need them to work.”

 

“Where do they work?”

 

“Nowhere.  Nobody is working now.”

 

“How do you manage to buy food?”

 

“UNWRA gives us food.  Flour, sugar, rice – a  few sacks every two months.  We manage.”

 

“Is it hard?”

 

She smiles at me.  “Allah will help.”

 

“Where does your married son live?”

 

“There, with the others,” says Fatma.  I scan her home, a mud-walled, dirt-floored hovel with a sickening resemblance to the cage in which they keep the pigeons they are raising for food.

 

“I hope your children will be healthy,” I say as I clasp her hand, trying to convey some sense of well-being.

 

“And that we will have peace,” she says, managing to step higher over everyday concerns than I have.  As I leave, some teenage boys nearby are clearing away rat-infested garbage, levelling out an open space to make a soccer field.

 

The Gaza Strip is both an easy and a hard problem for us in Israel.  Easy because there is no sense of manifest destiny about retaining the land, hard because our economies have become intertwined, Gazans providing cheap labor to the Israeli market.  Cheap is an understatement.  The average Gazan who works in Israel – most in construction or agriculture – earns on average $2,400 a year, what with workless days brought on by strikes, terrorism, closures, and all points in between.  And this is better than he would have earned locally.  In Gaza there is no economic infrastructure to speak of – no single Gaza plant employs more than 15 workers.  But how many continue to work in Israel since the closure?  No more than 15,000, down from 60,000 before the closure.  And unemployment is an astonishing 60%, plumbing new depths of unrest and anger.  Today the urgency of developing the local Palestinian economy is clear, though it had been obstructed through 26 years of Labor and Likud rule.

 

In the analogy of Raseem al-Bayari, chair of the Palestine Workers Trade Unions of Gaza, the Gaza Strip is a box of tissues.  In his simple but modern office, Raseem holds up the cardboard box and explains: 850,000 inhabitants, 90% of them refugees, are crowded into this box of tissues. Before the occupation, the end of the box facing Egypt was open.  Then that end was sealed and the other end, the one facing Israel, was opened.  If that end too is sealed, says Raseem, great pressure will build up inside.  “Too many people in here,” he says, tapping the box with his finger. It has a dull, thick sound.  No air.

 

Raseem enumerates the grievances against the Israeli military administration.  When he finishes describing the missing democratic freedoms (movement, assembly, expression, self-determination, etc.), he becomes passionate about the taxation on Gaza workers.  “We pay our National Insurance [social security] like Israelis,” says Raseem, “but can’t even collect unemployment insurance!”  Then he ticks off the list of daily humiliations by the military administration.

 

From Gaza, we head south.  Just outside Gaza City, where the open air begins to blow away the memory of piled up garbage and army jeeps that look like moving fortresses, we pass the Jewish bedroom community of Netzarim, bright sandstone homes with well-tended gardens.  Why would they want to live here, I ask myself: in the heartland of the enemy, no Biblical injunction to prop them up.  The chain-link fence and sentry-posts only deepen my belief that something very meaningful has brought these people here, and it might be God and it also might be a mortgage at give-away terms, gift of the former Likud government to populate “greater Israel”.

 

In the south, the scenery becomes pastoral, bucolic – fields of tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants.  Eucalyptus trees line the roads and shade our van benevolently as it bumps along.  At the entrance to Deir el-Balah, we pass the spot where Rabbi Shimon Biran was murdered by a Gazan Arab.  A bus-load of religious Israeli teens is touring the site as part of their Zionist education.  Biran, rabbi of a tiny Israeli settlement in Gaza, had been a teacher at the yeshiva which abuts the Arab town.  The yeshiva is now enclosed by a shiny new fence labeled with a skull and crossbones and the words, “Danger, high voltage.”  Good fences make good neighbors.

 

After the killing of Rabbi Biran, some settlers took their revenge on the Gazan town of Deir el-Balah.  They burnt 60 acres of wheat fields, chopped down 500 orange trees, and destroyed 8 tons of food inside an UNWRA building.  The cycle of violence is appalling.  But the murderer of Rabbi Biran will be pursued and prosecuted, while the settler vigilantes will get off scot free.

 

Our group of human rights documenters is studying the evidence, but the scorching heat of the midday sun in Deir el-Balah cajoles my mind to wander.  A breeze whips through the open windows of the van, and soon I am contemplating a disrespectful nap.  My eyes roll upward and catch a kite visible above the homes, dipping and swooping on the warm air currents.  Freedom?  Hope?  Is the kite the liberation of the Gazan or the liberation of the Israeli from Gaza?  Or is this just another father and son having a good time, your typical kite-flying refugees?

 

Our van jolts through the entrance to the refugee camp of Khan Yunis.  The main street is broad, spacious, uncluttered, unlike the war-zone streets in the northern Strip.  Relatively little graffiti covers the walls, and the look is almost sterile.  “Where are the soldiers?” I ask a resident Palestinian.  “Too hot now,” comes the reply.  “After 3 o’clock we all go back to work.”

 

We reach an area of fresh graffiti covering a wall.  This graffiti had been the site, a few days earlier, of the brutal shooting of one of its artists.  This is the story we were told by eyewitnesses:

 

At 7 p.m., three Khan Yunis youths were painting political slogans on the wall.  Another two youths, each holding a hatchet, were keeping guard nearby.  Just as they finished painting the long message, a car with Gaza plates drew up and five men in Palestinian garb emerged shooting.  A bullet caught one youth in the leg and he fell, raising his hands in surrender.  The signal had no effect.  The man with the gun ran up to him and emptied the clip into his head and chest. The other youths managed to escape.  The men dragged the body into the car and drove to a nearby Israeli army camp, where the boy was pronounced dead.

 

Who were these killers?  Incredibly, they were Israeli soldiers from undercover units.  “The lives of the soldiers were in danger,” said a highly-placed military source, justifying the killing.  Based on the fact that no one claims the graffiti-painters had more than an axe and painting tools, it’s hard to see what danger they posed to five armed soldiers.  But few investigations are held into these deaths and by now the blood of the terrible graffiti criminal is gone from the sidewalk.

 

Though it’s late afternoon by the time we get back to Gaza City, I arrange for a quick visit with my friend Inam, an English teacher.  I hear updates about Inam’s diligent children: Jemana studying economics in Cairo; Muna studying medicine in Oxford, and Usama studying engineering in Paris.  All on scholarship, of course.  This is also a family that began in the refugee camps.  Inam is no less real than Fatma, and both bear the scars of occupation.  Inam’s son, Usama, had spent 10 months in the sub-standard conditions of a detention camp for having belonged to an illegal organization which advocated “two states for two peoples” by nonviolent means.  No more subversive than what many people suggest.

 

“They are all mazhnoun [crazy],” says Inam fiercely, “the Israelis, the Palestinians, the UN!”  Yes, Inam, I agree.  I wonder if there’s something more I could be doing to end the craziness.  Maybe if we stop paying attention to them for a while, they will all stop showing off?

 

The sun is beginning to sink and we turn towards the border and begin our drive out.  The terrain is flat and desolate here, broken only by soldiers’ encampments and military installations.  A tranquillity sets in, and my mind is trying to make order of another Gaza experience.

 

I look up then and see another kite.  A big white one, swooping in the evening wind, twisting and banking, taut against the sky.  I study it in cynicism.  Who has time for kites in Gaza?  And then I see another, a Chinese smile lighting up its dragony face.  Kites?  I look toward the horizon and find a dozen soaring in the dusk, tilting at the clouds, doing absolutely nothing but floating on the free and open sky.

 

Whose freedom is poised over the war-wracked Gaza Strip awaiting the fresh breeze?  I don’t mean to overstate the case, but they are flying kites in Gaza.

 

#   #   #

 

We were 3 years into the Oslo process and in the midst of a wave of terrorism:

 

March 1996

Bombs, Revenge, and One Iota of Hope

 

On Sunday, March 10, I awoke to the second bomb in Jerusalem.  This time “only” 18 dead, “only” 7 seriously wounded.  But Sunday was the last day that my friend Nahum Barnea would sit in official mourning for his son, killed in the first bomb a week earlier, so I felt I had to see him, although I was afraid to use the buses.  I decided not to take the bus 18, the target of the two previous bombs, but to take the longer route.  Longer but safer, I felt.  There was a guard standing on the steps of the #19 bus checking every person who got on, which made me feel better.  I sat down facing the back of the bus and saw a woman crying in her seat.  I got up and stood next to her and put my arm around her.  Someone else passed her a tissue.  Then I saw tissues passing around the bus.

 

I had to transfer to the bus #4, but that bus had no security guard.  Two stops later a young man got on, in his twenties, wearing a heavy backpack with nobody to check him.  I wondered, should I tell the driver?  Should I tell another passenger?  I thought, if he is carrying a bomb, he will blow us all up the minute he knows someone is suspicious of him.  So I got off at the very next stop and watched the bus pull away, dreading to hear an explosion.  I walked the rest of the way to Nahum’s house, about half an hour, wondering if I had done the moral thing by deciding to save only my own skin.

 

Nahum and his wife appeared “strong” in the presence of the company.  They made everyone feel welcome and god-forbid not have to exert any compassion, serving coffee and cake.  There was one tough man who talked about everything but the death, though that’s supposed to be the object of the mourning period.  Then he pulled out a poem he had written on the day of the bomb, mumbled apologetically that he never ordinarily writes poetry, and gave it to Nahum.  Nahum read it to himself and started to say what a nice poem, I mean, just from a literary point of…  And left the room to compose himself.

 

After I left Nahum, I decided I was brave enough to take the bus 18 home.  After all, about 5 hours had passed since the bomb, and they wouldn’t put two bombs on the same day on the same bus line, would they?  I was scared, but the bus was about half full, the passengers sitting very quietly.  No guard, but everyone looked safe.  One teenage girl pored over a book of Psalms, her lips moving silently.  Everything was quiet until we got downtown to the area of the bomb, where a mob was gathered and beginning to get violent.  They were shouting, “Death to Arabs”, “Death to Peres”, and the like.  Mayor Olmert was in the center trying to calm them down by shouting over them.  (If decibel levels are a criterion for public office, this man is outstanding.)  But by now the mob had flowed onto the streets and blocked traffic.  Everybody inside the bus then lost their surface composure.  One man shouted, “Peres is a whore, the peace process is a whore, the whole country is a whore, it was better in Russia”.  Another woman shouted, “Separation, separation, we can never live together!”  And a little boy, about 8 years old, was slapping his chest with his open hand, his eyes wide with fear, as if he were an aged grandmother speechless with grief beating her breast.  After about 15 minutes, the police got the mob to let the bus through.  I felt safer after having passed the two sites of the bombs and reaching my own neighborhood.

 

The next day, I heard two wonderful items of news at noon:  (1) The head Muslim Sheikh in Israel declared that terrorism was against the Koran and called upon clergy throughout the Muslim world to demand an end to it; (2) A mass demonstration of several thousand Palestinians in Gaza came out to support the peace process and call for an end to the bombs and terrorism.  I was looking forward to seeing these on the main news of the evening.  But something upstaged these items.

 

At 4 p.m. another bomb went off.  The newscaster said that so far there were about 15 dead and over a hundred wounded, some of them children.  But before my little heart was completely wrung out, he said that this bomb was in Tel-Aviv.  Forgive me, dear loved ones in Tel-Aviv, but for a few minutes, all I could think of was relief that it was not in Jerusalem again.

 

Then the next blow:  The government announced its “defense” measures against terrorism, Prime Minister Peres trying to out-Likud the Likud with an iron-fist policy.  This included total closure of the territories, including blockading the entry of foodstuffs and medical supplies, the demolition of the homes of the families whose sons had been the suicide-bombers, and possible expulsions of the male members of the families.  The gross inhumanity and stupidity of this decision!  All of these are large extended families with nowhere else to go.  Demolition of their homes would mean that another 60-80 people, perhaps more, most of whom had nothing to do with the bombings, would now lose their homes and become dependent upon Hamas support and incitement.  And all their friends, relatives, and neighbors who witness the house demolition would also become sworn enemies of Israel.  Collective punishment – the perfect way to get a civilian population to hate you.

 

I called the B’Tselem human rights organization (where I was about to step down as chair) and we talked about how to stop it – advocacy of sympathetic Knesset members, rallying international protest, appealing to the High Court of Justice for stay orders, etc.  But bad precedents made all of this a struggle doomed to failure.  Not a single case to prevent collective punishment of Palestinians has ever been won since the occupation began.  After considerable agonizing, I gathered the courage to call the mother of someone who had just been killed – who I knew would be sympathetic – to ask if she was willing to speak out against the house demolitions.  If she as a mother could bring herself to sit in the home of the family whose son placed the bomb that killed her son, to protect them with her own body, I was fairly certain that the army would not be able to destroy that house.  Well, although she agreed with the principle, she didn’t agree to do it for various personal reasons, especially not “exploiting the death” of her son to advance any form of ideology.  I do understand and respect that, but what a lost opportunity.  It also makes me want to say right here out loud, in writing:

 

If I get hurt or killed in a terrorist act, I refuse to sanction the use of my injury or death by the government of Israel to justify harm to innocent people.  Furthermore, I hereby authorize the use of my injury or death to advance the cause of peace, including blatant exploitation of my funeral or mourning or death, and I condone especially all acts of kindness, compassion, and humanity to all those responsible for my death.

 

That night, a Peace Now demonstration was quickly organized and I went bearing a homemade sign:  “Peace = No more revenge!  Do not harm innocent families.”  The organizers were incensed at my sign and asked me to stand apart from everyone else.  Some of them objected because they were afraid it would sound like criticism of Peres (it was!!), who the demonstration wanted to support (he was running for election), but others objected because they disagreed with the message!  I was shocked to learn that so many thought the homes of the families should be destroyed, that this is an excellent deterrent measure.  When I asked if the homes of the families of Yigal Amir (Rabin’s assassin) or Ami Popper (the Israeli Jew who machine-gunned dead 7 Arabs) should also be destroyed, YES, they said in unison – a testimony to the liberal mind.

 

When I got home, I had another idea – I called a man whose son had been killed in a terrorist act a few years ago, and who was said to be outspoken in favor of peace and territorial compromise.  Well, I asked as gently as I could, do you feel that you can speak out against the home demolitions?  “Not only should their homes be destroyed,” said Mr. Outspoken, “but the parents should be shot in public for raising their sons to do what they did.”  So much for that.

 

It was all disheartening.  The consensus in Israel is overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the closure of the territories, blowing up the remaining homes, and deporting “male family members”.  Closure is not a mild sanction, don’t forget, as it means 70% unemployment in Gaza, no access to medical systems across the border (Gazans can’t even get into the West Bank, where medical care is better), and limited food.  Even the fishermen off the coast of Gaza are not allowed to take their boats out, as a siege by the Israeli navy seeks to prevent the escape of terrorists.  And the famed left-wing author, David Grossman, whose book Yellow Wind did so much to raise awareness to the oppressive nature of the intifada, spoke out publicly in favor of these house demolitions, calling them “painful but legitimate”.

 

The only ray of hope – as usual in Israel – is the women’s peace movement.  A dozen Jerusalem women got together and decided to put an ad in the paper of women who condemn the collective punishment.  We managed to get signatures from 250 women from all over Israel (Jewish and Arab) decrying the government actions.  The newspaper Davar actually carried it on their first page (we only paid for an inside page), probably because it seemed so newsworthy that 250 people were flaunting the consensus on this issue.  Just about all the women on the list were veteran peace activists, almost all were Women in Black.  Peace activism, it seems, is an educational experience.

 

Here’s a copy of the ad we placed:

 

To the government of Israel:

 

STOP COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT

 

We, Israeli women,

 

        Express our sorrow at the suffering of the victims of terrorism;

        Support intensified efforts to achieve a permanent peace; and

        Recognize the obligation of the state of Israel to defend its citizens.

 

The measures taken by the government against the Palestinian population at large do not ensure security, and inflict harm on innocent people.

 

The closure has raised the threat of starvation in some segments of the population and has prevented access to vital health services, with sometimes fatal results.

 

Measures of collective punishment – closure, demolition of homes, deportations – are immoral, are not a solution for terrorism, and only serve to strengthen support for the perpetrators of terrorism.

 

Only a just peace will bring security.

 

Someone told me that Mahatma Gandhi said that if we all believed in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, we’d all be walking around blind and toothless.  Well, there are quite a few people who are already blind and toothless, but they still haven’t learned a thing.

 

#   #   #

 

Background  At the height of violence and tension in Hebron, the Israeli women’s peace movement held a joint march there with Palestinian women.

 

November 2, 1996

 Hand in Hand in Hebron

 

It began three weeks ago when a group of Israeli women crossed an abyss of cultural differences and visited Hebron, hoping to come up with some joint peace action with Palestinian women.  After our initial ceremonial meeting in the office of the mayor, we began to meet twice weekly in the local women’s center – not a bastion of western feminism, but a place where the empowerment of women is carried out in the context of fundamentalist Islamic tradition.  Third world women will know what I’m talking about.

 

In warm and mutually respectful meetings, using local English teachers to construct a halting common language, we decided on a plan for a grand peace march through the streets of Hebron.  Some tension arose in our efforts to find slogans for the march that would be acceptable to us both.  While our side vetoed “Jerusalem for Muslims Only”, the Palestinians took us aback by vetoing all our slogans that implied legitimacy for the state of Israel, such as “Two States for Two Peoples”.  “We personally agree with this,” they said, “but in Hebron we cannot carry such signs.”  It was disappointing to us that they could not defy that position, and perhaps even shared it.  Nevertheless, we were all eager to find that narrow ledge of consensus on which we could cling to each other and balance together.  It felt to us all that from this beginning, both sides could build a firmer footing.

 

As the official negotiations between Israel and Palestine alternately advanced and floundered regarding the redeployment of Israeli troops in Hebron, and as Hebron settlers stepped up their level of violence, we decided that a mass march could never take place in this explosive context.  The Palestinian women had come to the same conclusion and we decided to postpone the event, but we were all reluctant to let this opportunity slip from our fingers.  “Let’s hold a small march,” suggested Amal, their chief decision-maker, and we all agreed at once.  We set the date for Thursday.  Yes, a work day and a school day, but we were determined to make at least one modest statement before new political realities overwhelmed our enterprise.

 

Hebron is a town without pity – 120,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers, the latter protected by a staggering number of Israeli soldiers.  As if this firepower were not enough, both the Palestinians and the settlers in Hebron have stockpiled huge arsenals waiting for someone to light the match.  Hebron is a city isolated and demonized throughout Israel:  Only Jews hostile to Arabs ever attend prayers at the religious site, and tourism has treated them like lepers.  We knew it would not be easy to find women to enter the jaws of a population with such hatred in their hearts for Israelis.  And we knew that marching together with Palestinians in full Muslim regalia would not win us points with the Israeli soldiers who have orders to break up any Palestinian demonstrations.

 

To make matters worse, in the days preceding our scheduled event the settlers in Hebron were involved in two shooting incidents against Palestinians.  Following this, a phone call from a senior army officer warned peace groups not to even think about demonstrating in Hebron in the near future, as the settlers there have two new squads – “one to shoot Palestinians and the other to shoot left-wingers who come to town”.  After several hours of discussion, we decided to go through with the march: first, because one does not give in to bullies and intimidation; and second, because we have an important statement to make and we intended to make it.

 

Thursday morning came and thirty of us set off for Hebron with a mixture of trepidation and hopefulness.  Along the way, we reviewed contingency plans in the event of confrontation with settlers or the army, set up a buddy system (“if your buddy gets arrested, make sure that you’re arrested too”), and distributed stickers for our inside sleeves on which were printed the numbers of the three mobile phones we had with us.  Knesset Member Tamar Gozansky joined us, and she was delegated chief negotiator in the event of confrontation with the army.

 

At the women’s center in Hebron, we met our partners and were led by them to the rallying point.  Another small group awaited us there.  “We’ll be right back,” Amal said, and they returned half an hour later with dozens of girls they had recruited from the nearby high schools, all carrying signs and ready for action.  Amal gave the signal and we unfurled a huge 30-foot banner that proclaimed, purple lettering on white, our three agreed-upon slogans in Hebrew, Arabic and English:  “Implement International Agreements”, “Settlements Are an Obstacle to Peace”, and “Yes to Peace! No to Occupation!”  We began to move down the street headed toward the center of Hebron, Palestinian women interlacing with Israeli women, pushing the banner in front of us like a skirt protecting this child of peace yearning to step out and be seen, but still afraid.

 

As we turned the corner into the main street, the whole city of Hebron seemed to wake up to our presence.  We blocked cars in both directions, drivers pulled over to watch, storekeepers came out to see what all the fuss was about, market vendors put down their tomatoes and shook our hands, greeting “Shalom, Salaam, Peace” as we walked by.  A huge procession formed behind us, more women, children, shoppers, loiterers, the unemployed, the revolutionaries, the bored – even two horses appeared out of nowhere, their young riders standing on horseback and holding aloft our signs, as our now huge procession made its slow way through the center of town.  Media people – ever orbiting the Hebron planet in hopes of a camera-worthy tragedy – swooped down on us, filming, snapping pictures, taking notes in tiny orange pads.  I found myself talking into lenses in unrehearsed platitudes: “Solidarity of Israelis and Palestinians...no more bloodshed...no more violence...a true and just peace”.  A Palestinian woman put her arm around me and I put mine around the woman on my other side, and we were all marching with our arms together, “yad be-yad” as we say in both Hebrew and Arabic, “hand in hand”.

 

None of us had envisioned that it would be this powerful, this inspiring.  We stopped waiting for an explosion, stopped expecting disaster.  Now we were feeling buoyed by the sense of common purpose, by the great longing in all our hearts for those very platitudes – no more bloodshed...a true and just peace.  Thus we marched through the streets of that town of despair, feeling hopeful for a whole morning, hearing the sounds of a song to which all of us were marching together, though we walked in silence.

 

I feel again right now as I felt yesterday, unwilling to let go of that moment.  I don’t think we ever will let go, not those in Hebron nor those of us in Israel who experienced it.  It was not a piece of paper signed between governments, but it was a vision of something that can really be, that can really happen, a vision of a reality that is more profound than paper, and that could light the darkness until we find our way to get there.

 

#   #   #

 

Army misbehavior sometimes took bizarre and anti-female forms:

 

December 31, 1996

Strip Searches of Palestinian Women

 

Have you heard about the incidents of 17 Palestinian women in Hebron who have been strip-searched by Israeli police looking for weapons?  The B’Tselem human rights organization did excellent work in learning about this, documenting it, and publicizing it.

 

On Sunday, 40 Israeli women went to Hebron for a solidarity visit with two of the Palestinian women who had undergone a strip search.  The B’Tselem fieldworker took us to the home of two of the victims and their families, with their prior agreement, of course, and we sat on their large balcony as they described the event: Israeli police entered their home, forcing the women to undress completely, doing body searches for weapons.  In this case, policewomen conducted the searches, although in 2 homes, policemen were present during the undressing.  No weapons were found anywhere, and no men were told to undress.  This was clearly a case of harassment.  We expressed our anger and shame to the women, and they expressed surprise that we had come out there just to tell them this.

 

In the next room were some 15 children, the smallest ones terrified of having Israelis in their home again, so I spent my time finding ways to get close to them, being playful in broken Arabic.  On the balcony, I heard one of our women take a scarf off her neck and place it on the woman telling her story and embrace her. Another removed a peace dove pin and placed it on the other Palestinian woman.  The ice broke, and soon the women were chatting, the baby (who had also been strip searched!!) was being passed from lap to lap, and we ate tangerines and sipped sweet dark coffee, trying to dissipate some of the bad feelings.  It was good we had made the visit.  As we were leaving, the children came over to me shyly, one by one, and shook my hand.

 

By the way, representatives of Bat Shalom, who met with the Minister of Internal Security to protest the strip searches, were told that this was not a policy.  Seventeen cases in 3 months sounds a lot like policy, though.

 

telaviv1988rachelostrowicz_liter.jpg
Marching in Tel Aviv 1988. Photo: Rachel Ostrowicz
Top of Page:  Activism 1988-1996
 
 

2006 Gila Svirsky, Dispatches from the Peace Front available on www.gilasvirsky.com.  Please cite this full reference if you quote passages from the book.