Gaza has been so “otherized” in the Israeli mindset that it can be hard for locals to picture anything beyond Hamas, terror, and violence. But for an hour in late May, eight Gazan peace activists visited my home in Jerusalem.
That is, we met via Skype, sharing the trials of living in one of the world’s most congested corners on earth and also their creative efforts to promote peace.
Rami Aman, a journalist and peace activist who lives in Gaza City, had invited my family to participate in a program he had created, “From Gaza to America: Let’s Share Ramadan together.” I met Rami via Skype in 2014, when he pitched a peace project at an event at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. I was there to teach storytelling skills to Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. Since then, our contact had been limited to social media because he could not secure a permit to enter Israel. We finally met face-to-face in March of 2017, when he was in Washington, D.C., on a three-month Leaders for Democracy fellowship, and my family was touring the capital. We planned our trip around his schedule. It is a sad reality that Israelis and Gazans can only meet far from their homes, in neutral territory.
Rami’s novel idea was to facilitate Skype conversations between Gazan peace activists and Americans during the Muslim holiday. Most Gazans have been living under siege since Hamas assumed control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Over the years, residents have have been dealing with a water crisis, an electricity crisis, and a medical-care crisis. Moreover, Israel has blocked or limited the passage of goods and people via land, air, and sea on Gaza’s northern and eastern borders, while Egypt has blockaded the southern border. (The western border is the Mediterranean Sea.) Gaza has therefore been generally cut off from most of the outside world. Rami’s plan was to introduce locals to Americans and lay groundwork for personal and professional liaisons.
We jumped at the chance to connect.
“Welcome to my home,” invited Ramiz Al Soury, a 39-year-old businessman, from my laptop’s screen. Eight people, hand selected by Rami, were seated around an oval coffee table that was draped with a cream-colored embroidered tablecloth like the one used by my Grandma Lii 30 years ago, in Jerusalem.
My three school-age sons, my husband, Yonatan, and I were huddled before my laptop, staring at the 11-inch screen. Who were these peace activists? Earlier that day, preparing for this call, Eitan, the 10-year-old, asked gingerly whether all Gazans were dangerous people.
The warm grins of the “dangerous people” beamed from the screen. It seemed that we were all excited about this meeting.
“Hey there,” said Jawdatt Zuhair Michael, a 26-year-old program manager for a church training center.
Fatma, 25, a social worker, the only one of the eight in traditional Muslim garb—a black abaya (long caftan) and a hijab, leopard print, no less!—greeted us with a broad smile. She and Mohammed, a 26-year-old lawyer, told us about how they had sent off 200 doves with messages of peace under the auspices of the Youth Committee, a burgeoning project of Rami’s to empower young Gazans to tackle local issues and promote peace. Alaa, 13, chimed in with giggles.
So distant from the image projected in the media of masses of violent people, terrorists.
“With the current political situation, nobody cares about soccer,” complained Mahmoud, 26, who plays for the Gaza YMCA team. “That’s sad because sports provide another avenue towards peace.”
If I’d been concerned about who we might meet, I wasn’t any more. We could have been looking into anybody’s family room. These people could have been from anywhere. They looked like so many other people we know.
Jawdatt made my point.
“We want people to know that we’re just like everybody else,” he said, leaning into the screen. “We want to smoke, drink, have clean hospitals, water that’s not contaminated, good education. We want to go to clubs. We need …”
At that moment, the computer screen went black. A blackout. As though someone had pulled the plug. Because someone had. Gazans have electricity for only four hours each day, due to an electricity crisis that was the result of a conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and financial issues with Israel. There was a schedule of rolling blackouts. For that home in Gaza City, time was up.
Now the only illumination was provided by the computer screen. We could see only flickering threads of light.
None of the Gazans flinched. This was routine for them, even during Ramadan. Me, I was jolted by the direct encounter with the electricity rationing, never mind that I had known about it, of course. We’ll call you right back, they said.
Rami and Jawdatt lit a couple of candles, popped some batteries into the router, and called us back.
“All we want is a normal life,” continued Jawdatt resolutely.
I thought of the air conditioning unit that hangs in my bedroom. It hums at night, cooling us as we sleep. And then I thought of all these devout Muslims, some who were in my living room right now, fasting 15-plus hours for Ramadan, whose homes down south are in an area that is much hotter than my own, in hilly Jerusalem.
“Where do you get the energy to be peacemakers?” I asked. How do you have the mental wherewithal to pursue peace when you need to worry about how you’re going to allot the meager 150 minutes of electricity per day?
I did not say what I was really thinking: that their faith in changing their lives, despite the shadow of what seemed to me to be an open-air prison so close to military clashes, felt almost impossible. Hamas’ siege of Gaza had been going for longer than two of my kids had been alive.
Jawdatt leaned into the screen.
“We get energy from our contact with you,” he said matter-of-factly.
Mind you, growing up in our home, our children were not unfamiliar with Palestinians.
Though I’m an American-Israeli Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, I have been involved in peace activism for more than 20 years. I attended my first Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group in 1996, and I have been working toward Jewish-Arab equality ever since. One of my closest friends is a Muslim Palestinian woman, Ibtisam Erekat, who lives in Abu Dis, on the other side of the Separation Barrier. We have visited each other’s homes, and been present for the joyous and sorrowful milestones in both of our lives.
Our family has many Palestinian friends, and my boys are at ease when they play with their children. They feel comfortable with the Erekats in Abu Dis, joining Ibtisam’s kids in roaming their neighborhood, buying candy at the corner store, doing what kids do. But we couldn’t imagine life in the Gaza Strip. We cannot picture the faces of the 1.9 million residents living on a sliver of land that is 25 miles long and five miles wide. My sons did not know about the beaches on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, or that about 50 percent of the Gazan population is under 18. What they knew were the several military conflicts that have taken place during their lives. They have distant memories of sitting in the nearest bomb shelter to our house during Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2014.
The physical inaccessibility of Gaza seems to have led to a corresponding emotional distance for us. Intellectually, we knew, of course, that Gaza was filled with regular people. But we could not envision them. Worse, my image of Gaza seemed incongruous with peaceful, nice, ordinary folk. Even Rami, whom I knew, sometimes seemed like an oxymoron—a peacemaker… from Gaza?!
“That’s exactly why I created this project,” Rami had explained in an email. “The 11-year siege in Gaza has diminished our contact with the rest of the world. I wanted to connect Gazans to Americans and begin a conversation about democracy and empowerment.”
I couldn’t give Jawdatt a generator. I couldn’t give him access to clean water, mobility, electricity.
But I could share his message: Gaza is filled with thousands, or tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of regular people who are just like me, just like you.
Tucking my sons in bed, I asked Eitan, “So how was it?”
“They’re just people,” announced Eitan.
“Yeah, the only difference is that they speak Arabic,” added Amit, 8.
Gaza had become more than a scary place. We could now picture smiling people, who would love to hang out in a well-lit room, turn on the air conditioning, and … play soccer.