Trip To Gaza

   Nader and I tried to get into Gaza on Nov. 25,26 and 27.  We met in Amman and then we flew to Cairo and then from there overland across Egypt and the Sinai desert to Arish and Rafah.  It was a very long, costly and trying journey but it would have been nothing had we been able to enter.     Needless to say we are very disappointed. Our last conversation with Dr. Suhaila Tarazi at the hospital in Gaza was heart wrenching.  The situation is grave and we are helpless. I promised that I would keep you updated, so here  is  the account of the trip so far. At the time of posting this there is stil a chance that I may enter Gaza to deliver the equipment with a boat sailing fron Jaffa to Gaza.  Cross you fingers and read this: Sunday, November 23, 2008

Amman, Jordan

The muezzin in the mosque calling for early morning prayer is determined to get me out of bed. I don’t mind it actually, this is my first night in Amman and I can’t sleep very well anyway.  Besides, I love hearing the call for prayer, it is part of the sounds of the Middle East and growing up in Jerusalem one hears this all the time.

I crossed the Sheikh Hussein Bridge from Israel to Jordan yesterday, it was for me the third time. Nader met me and with and we took a taxi together to Amman.  When we arrived at his house it was afternoon and we were scheduled for a dinner meeting at 8:30 with several key members of Jordan’s Rotary clubs. We had to time for lunch, shower and rest.

We arrived at Howara Restaurant in Amman at 8 PM, 30 minutes early. This is an exclusive, reservations-only restaurant.  We were to meet everyone there and the table was set for 8 people.  The first to come was Mustafa Nasereddin. He is a prominent Rotarian, originally from Hebron and as passionate as any Rotarian I have ever met.  After him Samir Seikali came, he is the Past District Governor of District 2450, which is geographically the largest Rotary District in the world, encompassing nine countries in 3 continents; Samir is originally from Haifa.

It did not take long for the conversation to warm up; Samir and Moustafa were very engaging and soon the others came as well.  These were Muhsen Mufleh PP RC Amman West, George Dallal  originally from Yaffa, President RC Amman, Petra and Mr. Barghouti originally from Ramallah. It comes as no surprised that many of the main players here were Palestinians ex pats.

If we needed an omen that this trip was going to be a good one, meeting these fine people in this very fine environment over the best food in the Middle East was it.  Nader and I felt encouraged.  We touched on ways to continue this initiative in hopes that Rotary will become an active force in promoting humanitarian help as well as foster human relations in Palestine/Israel.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hey ALL me beloveds,

 We’re in Cairo now; it is about 7 PM here 9 AM in SD.  We arrived by flight from Amman. Nader and I were sitting at Amman airport all went well, security was fine we made it on time, got a ride and Nader and were commenting on how flipping well it was all going. Then I get my boiling hot cuppu-blooddy-cino all over myself…my pants and everything full of it (right on the groin of course).  

 These Jordanians really know service – this young guy comes up to me as I scramble to move the laptop and what is left of my dignity out of the coffee and he looks at me quietly and asks: Are you OK? Then he asks what kind of coffee I had and gets me another, free of course while another cleans up the mess.  Good thing I got dark grey suit on so it doesn’t really show.  Anyway I had to laugh, I was fine after that, much more relaxed.

 Then we got on the flight, brand-spankin-new plane, Alia Jordanian airlines, 1 hour and 10 minute flight over desert and more desert and then we arrive in this mega oasis, CAIRO. The nicest Rotarian in the world, our dear friend Ayoub from Egypt met us like we were all old friends and takes us through this bustling city in a tiny car to our hotel. We drove for about an hour; it is like a tiny bug maneuvering through giant dinosaurs.  We got to the hotel, the Hilton Cairo WTC.  We got 2 huge suites for the price of a regular motel room in the US, one of which we gave up. This is a huge suite. I gave N the master bedroom, he is pretty sick with a flue and now I am in the office.  I opened the window to see the Nile and the lights of the city, the smells the noises, I feel like I am in a 50’s movie Casablanca or something. Very colonial this place is.

 Now N is sleeping and in an hour they are coming to pick us up for diner.  I am very happy here.  Not sure yet what the plan is tomorrow I will find out when we meet everyone tonight.  

 We spent an evening with  District Governor (DG)Zakaria Elshafi and Ayoub and the assistant DG Tawfik, we had dinner at the Cairo City Club, a private club that could have been in London Paris or New York.  We had great conversation and parted late at night.  I awoke to prepare for breakfast and then Dr. Nahidh (N’s son in law who is a pediatric heart surgeon who works at Loma Linda hospital and is originally from Gaza) came and joined us. He and Rania were in Cairo but they had to return Wednesday and Nahidh could not join us on this trip to his homeland, Gaza that he is forbidden to enter.

We drove with ADG Tawfik to pick up the equipment, it was one of those usual 10 minute turned 2 hour drives in Cairo, the most heavily congested place on earth.  The equipment was not ready so we ended up ordering it again and waiting with Nahidh’s family, who were very gracious. We finally left at 5 PM instead of 1 PM, which aint bad for Egypt.  We really enjoyed the company of Nahidh’s family who were grateful because they too have family in Gaza

We arrived in El Arish in Northern Sinai a round 11 PM and got a room at the Swiss Inn. I had some coffee, Nader devoured a huge meal and we both enjoyed a marvelously beautiful and talented Egyptian singer by the name of Shireen on a local TV channel.

Wednesday morning. I am sitting outside my room at the Swiss In in El Arish watching the waves of this magnificent and empty corner of the Mediterranean. Not a soul in sight and the horizon is clear as can be. I was awakened by the Muezzin again around 4:30 but went back to sleep until now. Its 6:30.  At 7 they serve brkfast and at 8 the driver and guide that Tawfik provided us, two very nice and very dedicated young Egyptian gentlemen will come to pick us up.  This is it! We are an hour away from the city of Rafah, the gateway to Gaza.  Last night Suheila Tarazi, out contact in Gaza said it would take a miracle for us to get it.  I have never believed in miracles so fervently in my life.  As I thought about it this morning I decided it would take a miracle for them to keep us out.  We have come a really long way. From SD, through Europe to Israel and Jordan; Then to Cairo and overland crossing the newly built bridge over the Suez Canal connecting Africa with Asia.  Stopping at Egyptian checkpoints along the way for short minutes that seem like very long hours.  Now we are here. It is the day.  I told N we should be prepared to dress with suit and tie. 

Before we left Cairo, we waited for the car with our shipment of ENT equipment at Nahidh’s uncle house in Medinat AL Nasser, a wealthy neighborhood of Cairo.  N went to sleep as n Nahidh and I sat and talked. Then lunch was served. It was close to 5 pm already. We had planned to leaver at 1, so by Cairo standards were doing fine as far as staying on schedule.  Besides the meal was worth the wait.

Then farewells, Nader had his daughter, son in law and of course his adorable 18-month-old granddaughter Me’i. 

 November 2008

Amman, Jordan

I was standing on the balcony on the 18th floor when it began as a simple chant. Then, within minutes it turned into a chorus as the muezzin in hundreds of Cairo mosques called the faithful to Friday prayer.  Gradually the chants subsided and the Friday sermons began over the loud speakers, going from one to two to a multitude of loud voices that sounded to me like some cosmic mideastern yelling match.

After 20 minutes I had to go back into the hotel room and into the relative silence it offered.  I was in one of Cairo’s many Hilton hotels trying to make sense of the past week’s events.  Everything went so perfectly well that we were certain we could not fail. Even the coffee I spilled all over my new suit at Jordan’s Amman airport seemed to be a good omen.  But when we approached the gate that separates the Egyptian city of Rafah with the Palestinian Gaza strip it was impenetrable and we could not enter Gaza. There, I said it, after all this hard work and expectations and all the fears we had to overcome, we were not able to enter Gaza.  It felt as though we were fighting a three-headed monster with nothing but a goddam toothpick.

But it was precisely because this monster is so big that we thought we would be able to sneak by.  Nader and I were determined to enter Gaza at the point where we thought we would encounter the least resistance: the godforsaken city of Rafah where the Sinai Peninsula touches Palestine. But the border crossing at this desolate spot, inhabited by farmers who are dirt poor and Egyptian intelligence agents with snake eyes and faces of beat-up bulldogs anxious to rip apart their next victim was unmoved by our efforts, by our cause or by the fact that 100 feet away 800,000 children are locked up without food, water, electricity or medicine.

From the 19 year old Egyptian soldiers in their sloppy black woolen uniforms, berets that make them look pitiful and AK 47s that are too big for them to handle, to the more slick weasel like agents of the “muhabarrat”, or intelligence agents slithering around and glancing at us with their yellow eyes trying, to pick up a hint of information they can then move up the chain of command in return for some morsel of favoritism for being good little agents, no one was moved.

What we learned the hard way was that this three-headed monster is not only big, it is effective.  With Israeli brains, American money and Egyptian cheap labor it is able to keep 1.5 million innocent civilians (as though there are any other kind of civilians) locked up in a giant concentration camp.  One really has to congratulate Israel for creating such a harmonious union that is effective, demonic and at the same time manages to function just under the radar of the world’s conscience. Of course, in a world with such a small conscience it is not that hard.

Bluntly, undiplomatically and unapologetically put, here are two important points:

  1. Israel’s policy towards Gaza has stained 5000 years of Jewish history with a stain that we as Jewish people will never be able to erase.
  2. Even though our mission was a noble one and everything was going right, we were screwed when we thought we were making love.

These are two very difficult things to swallow and even the grand wedding we were able to attend upon our return to Cairo could not take our minds off of the tragedy, not our own failure which is minimal but that of the people of Gaza. It was the wedding of Cairo’s hottest singer, the young and brilliant Hamada Helal and it so happened that the bride was the daughter of the sister of the uncle of Nader’s son-in-law Nahidh.  So how could we possibly not attend?  Well we did and every big name of Arabic music scene was there to sing.  Dinner was served at 3:30 the following morning.  By 4:30 AM Nader and I passed out in our hotel room beds only to be woken up by the 6:30 call to Morning Prayer.  That was the end of a 72 hour cycle that was, plainly put, un-f_ _ _ _ _g believable!

Now I am waiting confirmation that tomorrow morning the ship will indeed sail from Jaffa to Gaza, like some ancient mariner.  Stay tuned.

 

The following pics are in chronological order.

 

Me, Club Pres. George Dallal, Past DG Samir Seikaly and Nader in Amman, Jordan
Me, Club Pres. George Dallal, Past DG Samir Seikaly and Nader in Amman, Jordan
rotary-cairo
Me, DG Zakaria Elshafi, Nader, Ayoub, Rania and Tawfik at the Cairo City club.
dsc_1455
Between two continents, crossing the Suez Canal.

 

A poor and desolate city.
Rafah, Egypt a poor and desolate city.
The photo they did not want us to take. Riot police waiting by Rafah gate.
The photo they did not want us to take. Riot police waiting by Rafah gate.
Beyond that gate, barely 100 feet is Gaza
Nader and I facing the closed gates to Gaza at the Rafah crossing, Egypt.Beyond that gate, barely 100 feet is Gaza
Nader on the phone with security officials.
Nader on the phone with security officials.
Rafah Crossing
Me returning empty handed.
dsc_1492
Before parting, Nader and I thought it fitting that we stop at Mt. Nebo, the site where Moses was held from entering the promised land.

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It’s Time We Visit Gaza

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one area where liberals and neo-conservatives in America find common ground. From Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton all the way to George Bush and Condoleezza Rice one and all are united in supporting Israel’s assault on the Palestinian people and their land.

The criticism of Jimmy Carter’s book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid is a case in point. The hysteria on the Right is not worthy of repetition, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi outdid herself by issuing a statement that: “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression.” Wrong to suggest? Here is something right to suggest: Madam Speaker, it is time for you to visit Gaza.

In The Tribes Triumphant, arguably one of the best books ever written about the Middle East, journalist Charles Glass describes children in Gaza on their way to school: “… little girls with white fringe collars, boys leading their younger brothers … with canvas bags of books on their backs, hair brushed back and faces scrubbed … Thousands and thousands of children’s feet padding the dusty paths between their mother’s front doors and their schools … Beautiful youngsters so innocent that they could laugh even in Gaza.”

Glass reveals that 56.6 percent of the 1.4 million people living in Gaza (if you can call it living) are under the age of 18. That means 792,400 children; Gaza has no cinemas, no theatres, no concert halls, and no space for entertainment or amusement. Where then do these children play? Israel controls all access to, from and within Gaza, never allowing these children to see the world outside this tiny crowded strip of sand they call home. If this, Madam Speaker, is not ethnically based oppression, what is?

“Gaza First” was the slogan that got the Oslo accords off the ground in the early 1990s. Today, as innocent, unarmed men, women and children in Gaza are imprisoned, starved and killed by Israel in broad daylight, its obvious that it, meaning the Oslo agreement, was another nail in the coffin of a just and lasting peace. Then came Sharon’s Gaza disengagement, which was a disingenuous claim by Israel to make “concessions for peace”. Pretending to pull out of Gaza for the sake of peace, Israel tightened the noose around Gaza and its people while freeing itself from any obligation for the welfare of the people of Gaza.

People call Gaza a hotbed of terror, neglecting, or perhaps refusing to see that people in Gaza are attempting, albeit in all futility, to resist the terror under which they are forced to live. Close to one million of Gaza’s 1.4 million residents are refugees or descendents of refugees forced out of their homes from other parts of Palestine only to be imprisoned and impoverished in Gaza. In The Roadmap to Nowhere Tanya Reinhart writes: “Since 1967, 280,000 people in Gaza have passed through Israeli prisons, detention cells and interrogation rooms.” The connection cannot be overlooked: Residents of Gaza have made a name for themselves in resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine even before 1967 and they have paid dearly for this resistance.

On 11 December 2006 Jan McGirk described in The Independent the effects of Israeli terror on the children of Gaza: “No sane child can remain unaffected by the mayhem of Gaza Strip. Playmates frequently are killed or maimed: at last count, Israeli guns had slain 88 Gazan children and wounded another 343 between mid-June and December, 2006” She further writes that “In Gaza’s grim conditions, mothers find it hard to tell if their offspring are crying out of fright, pain or misery. But when normally bickering brats fall silent, it’s the first sign of mental scars from being constantly scared.” She adds, “Muhammad, who would hit smaller children or shatter cups when he did not get his way, eventually revealed in an after school meeting that two IDF soldiers had executed a young man right in front of him.”

In America people still speak of a “peace process”, and the situation in Gaza and in the West Bank is characterized as a conflict between two people who can’t find a fair compromise. Few dare to mention that the only process that is taking place is oppression for the sake of expansion. Palestinian children are imprisoned, traumatized, starved and murdered so that Israeli can maintain its hegemony over the: “Land of Israel”.

Gaza is collateral damage, the children of Gaza are of no consequence and the leaders of the enlightened, democratic Western world could not care less. But in spite of its enormous military might Israel’s authority over life in Gaza can be must be defied. People conscience must act so that the ethnically based oppression, of which House Speaker Pelosi says it is wrong to accuse Israel, must be brought to an end.

Hope in Gaza

Israel’s assault on the people of Gaza is so horrendous that it will not soon be forgotten. This vicious attempt by Israel to destroy an entire nation has tipped the scales for good and Zionism will forever be remembered as a blemish in the history of the Jewish people. The people of Gaza, however, give us hope and they will forever be remembered for their courage and resilience during these trying times.

The people of Gaza, while being deprived of rights and resources, still find the inner strength and the belief in their destiny to send their children to school. There are close to 800,000 children living in Gaza; they make up more than half of the population. The mothers and fathers and teachers of Gaza are creating hope where others see none, and they are building a future where some would claim there is none. But the price of education in Gaza is dear as the number of children targeted by Israeli violence rises continuously.

In a previous article (“It’s time to visit Gaza“) I quoted from journalist Charles Glass’ The Tribes Triumphant and I wish to do so again here. Glass, unlike CNN or any other news agency is not obsessed with violence but is impressed as we all should be by the children: “Thousands and thousands of children’s feet padding the dusty paths between their mother’s front doors and their schools … Beautiful youngsters so innocent that they could laugh even in Gaza.” One can only imagine the mothers preparing lunches for these children, and making sure their clothes are ready and clean as they send them off to school. But the road to school in Gaza is an uncertain one, and risk of death by Israeli death squads is imminent.

I was deeply moved by Ramzy Baroud’s recent piece about his late father (“There are no checkpoints in heaven“). Clearly the man was head and shoulders above most people and clearly he recognized the need to defy the occupation and maintain his dignity as a man and as a Palestinian. He paid dearly for this, because there is nothing more threatening to Israel’s occupation than a man who would defy its brutal force.

Ramzy’s story is similar to that of another friend of mine who is also from Gaza and who was also prevented from visiting his dying father. This gentleman is a physician and is devoted to saving the lives of children. He is an inspiring man of deep religious conviction and optimism. When I visit Gaza, as I am determined to do before this year is out, I hope that they will be able to join me. In fact, I hope to be able to go with a delegation.

For over 60 years Gaza has proven itself to be an endless source of optimism and courage. Even with a population density that is among the highest in the world, and a lack of resources that seems hopeless, and even with a brutal occupation and severe restrictions that have been part of life for Gazans since the destruction of Palestine some 60 years ago, still Gazans fight on. Resistance to the occupation, education and steadfastness are only a few of the hallmarks of the people of this ancient land.

I recall the first time I heard first-hand about the type of torture that is the daily bread of people in Gaza. It was more than 20 years ago, while I was living in Japan as a student, a young Israeli who I mistook for a friend shared the following story from his days of service as an officer in Israel’s “glorious” naval special-forces, or as Israelis call it, “The Commando.” He told us how, as a matter of routine he and his unit would patrol the Gaza coast aboard their naval warships. As they came upon a Gazan fishing boat they would stop the boat and force the fishermen to jump into the water. Then, they would blow up the boat. Once the boat was blown to bits, the Israeli sailors would shift their attention to the helpless fishermen in the water. Under gunpoint, one by one, they would force the fishermen count from one to a hundred. One by one these men, who eventually could no longer hold themselves above water, drowned to death. This, the young Israeli officer said, was done “to instill fear in the Arabs, and to teach them who was boss.”

This young Israeli officer was one of Israel’s “finest,” the product of the finest Zionist education system. He saw no wrong in letting men drown in front of his eyes, and felt no urge to save a helpless human being from certain death. But he is not alone in his disregard for human life.

The Israel newspaper Haaretz’s online edition recently published that “[Israeli] Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday defended the Israel Defense Forces’ operations against Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip as necessary for the advancement of peace negotiations.” According to Haaretz, Livni said: “I would expect that when civilians are harmed by deliberate terrorism, people won’t make a comparison between them and Palestinian civilians that are harmed during Israel’s defense operations.” Furthermore, according to Haaretz: “Livni expressed concern at what she termed a growing trend of de-legitimization of Israel in world public opinion. Livni does not see the connection between Israeli actions and the reaction of the world community.”

Livni is no different than the young officer who murdered Gazan fishermen. She and other members of the Israeli cabinet along with the military top brass see no problem with Israeli forces killing Palestinian children, and they seek and often receive the support of the world community. In their minds, Palestinians do not deserve the same rights as Israeli Jews, and therefore it is permissible to torture them and murder their children. What is not permissible is to criticize Israel for the killing innocent Palestinians. Livni and her comrades are disturbed that the rest of us do not see this as clearly as they do.

But rather than give attention to the lies and accusations of Zionist militants, we would do well to focus our attention to the people of Gaza and in particular to the children who are forced to live in this concentration camp. These children and their brave and caring parents represent hope in its truest form. They need courageous people who, like Ramzy Baroud’s late father, are willing to defy the brutal Zionist regime but who unlike him are free of the restraints of that regime. People who live in Israel and the US need to stand by the people of Gaza and help them to tear down the walls of this ghetto.