Refugees Of Blood And Sand


There is a halo of blood on the ground where Huda died while sleeping last Tuesday night. Toddler-sized diapers lie strewn on the ground among the concrete heaps where the bedroom wall once was, and a single blue sandal, tiny as my fist, sat perched in a corner of the room on a wooden slab. Huda was 11 months old.

Her mother is in the hospital recovering from her injuries. A pretty, paper-flower ceiling ornament that she made for her daughter still hangs, grit covered above the child’s former room. Sun pours in like golden dust where the other half of the ceiling has disappeared into sky. Deep tank tracks advance almost as far as the back door to the house. Looking at them makes you tremble: four tank shells were fired in the middle of the night at the family in this small home. One shell overshot the house entirely and landed in the road beyond the house. Local boys brought it over to me to examine. It is a huge, ugly lump of gray-blue metal.

Huda’s six-year-old cousin was the second of four victims buried in Rafah last Wednesday afternoon. A third, a teen-aged boy, didn’t turn around after soldiers ordered him to do so when IDF tanks rolled in past the Rafah crossing. For failing to obey, a tank ran him crushing his head. Four independent sources verified his story and signed sworn affidavits. It wasn’t that the boy was being defiant. It was that he was deaf. He never heard the order to obey his masters. His brother was arrested and detained. A fourth teen-aged victim died in the shooting that kept me awake all night in the Yibne block of the Rafah refugee camp. I knew it was bad; I could hear tank fire, explosions, machine-gun fire, and then, yes, bombs, and my teeth chattered as I lay under a blanket on the floor. The photographs of Huda’s house are among the pictures I can’t bear to look at now. They sit in a corner of my room upturned, near the photographs of Jenin and Khan Yunis. Even from this angle they are pulling me apart.

Someone tried to blow up a Merkava, an Israeli tank. They were miserably unsuccessful, causing only minimal damage. Never mind, though. It was enough to provoke a high-intensity response in the persistently low-intensity war zone at the southern edge of the Gaza strip that night. I went to the funerals in Rafah the next afternoon and watched as men carried the coffins into the mosque. The crowd around the street was angry and tired. Ariel Sharon, the man of peace, had demonstrated his tactics yet again. Oh you naïve speakers of peace plans and negotiations and two states: live for a week in Gaza and you will die laughing at this foolish chatter. I drove north to Khan Yunis after the funerals to assess the rest of the damage. Two died overnight here, too.

Tuffah, “Apples”, is the name where a monstrous wall stretches down the sandy landscape dividing refugee camp from Israeli settlement. Soldiers sit watching you from their tall, concrete bunker at the corner of the wall, their guns trained on your every step. Don’t walk too close for photographs because they don’t care if you’re American and Jewish; they only care that you’re on that side – where the buildings are pockmarked skeletons and the people’s eyes defy the guns that would like to expel them from the land. This is “separation”.

Further down along the Khan Yunis –Tuffah wall, a crane lifts a mobile watchtower higher into the air to allow its soldiers a better view of the rabble too poor to relocate. A boy is shot in the arm and an ambulance retrieves him at once. Ambulances are stationed nearby all day, waiting for the next outburst of indignation from the colonial army. Forty percent of the Gaza Strip –an area of land that is approximately 25 miles long and three and a half miles wide—is now off limits to the 1.2 million Palestinian prisoners herded together like livestock into a God-forsaken corral.

But the ultimate Gaza experience is incomplete until Thursday when I sit in an idling beater taxi at the Deir al-Balah checkpoint dividing the Strip in half. I am waiting to be let through to pass and return to my flat in Gaza City. It’s 30 minutes away. I wait for 11 hours. My luck has run out. The last two times I made it through in only three. It seems the IDF had more important matters at hand in the West Bank. Now the fun there has ended so it’s time to play the torture game here again: Human beings broiling inside their cars with the Gaza sun beating down relentlessly; Maybe another half hour, maybe another hour—they’ll never say when so you can’t go back and return here later, not if you have to get somewhere today. I got here at 8:00 in the morning and I arrived home at 7:30 in the evening. There is no bathroom to use after hours of sitting there. There is no air conditioning. You can stand up and move around outside when you get tired of waiting in the cab, but then they shoot at you. The first time this happened I was shocked and outraged. Why would they open fire at hundreds of people waiting at the checkpoint? This time I just roll my eyes and slink down in my seat. I adjust to routine events here like everyone else.

Instead my attention is focused on a large truck transporting crates and crates of live chickens, stacked four high and twelve across. The driver walks along the top of the crates pouring water into them after the first two hours of standing in the sun. You can see the white wings of the chickens flapping and fluttering inside the crates when the droplets arrive. Two more hours and the water-man walks over the crates again. Two more hours and he starts reaching in to the top crates and flinging the dead, dehydrated chickens onto the earth below. No price for a dead chicken, even half-cooked. More and more are plucked out of their cages and tossed away as the sun begins to set. I have to throw up from car-sickness and watching this ritual. And then we pass the checkpoint and the passengers’ spirits lighten somewhat in relief. But the sea beyond us is a broken promise. I see no redemption in the continued struggle.

How dare you defend your land.

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