Rosy Memories Of The White City

The eyes grow a bit hooded, a faint smile passes across the lips, sometimes even accompanied by a sigh. “Ah, Tel Aviv.” This is the almost uniform reaction of Gazans aged 35 and above when they discover that their interlocutor is an Israeli. Some mention the names of streets even if they have not been there for 15 years to underline the closeness they feel. Allenby and Bloch, Ben Yehuda and Yehuda Hamaccabi. Some mention the names of people, always the first names of people they worked for and with. Dudu and Haim, Shlomo and Itzik. Those who react in this way are always men: taxi drivers, a few relatively elderly policemen, farmers, residents of refugee camps, some who are now unemployed, others who completed their higher education and now work for nongovernmental organizations or for one of the United Nations organizations.

Some of them have traveled abroad but haven’t been to Tel Aviv for the last 10 years, some have not left the Gaza Strip since the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some are from families that lived in Jaffa, Abu Kabir or Salame, now the area of Schocken Street in South Tel Aviv. But as Abu Jamil, about 40, whose family is originally from Majdal (today’s Ashkelon), who studied sociology at Birzeit University in the West Bank and who now holds a senior position in a human rights organization says, “For my generation, Tel Aviv was the first cosmopolitan place we knew after 1967. It was a place we came to love because of the atmosphere of freedom and openness we found there.”

Time and distance prettify the experiences somewhat. The former laborers always recall the fair employer with whom near-family relations developed. They don’t mention the others. The owners of the sewing workshops remember the Jewish partner or the contractor who paid on time, not those whose debts piled up. The farmers note with fond nostalgia the Israelis who arrived with their vans and loaded grapes and figs and hot peppers and even stayed the night.

In the past five years all these people have endured all or some of the following brutal experiences: violent evacuation from their home in the middle of the night; destruction of house and vineyard; a 9-year-old relative killed by a shell or by machine gun fire; place of work bombed or demolished or forced to close down because of the checkpoints and the bifurcation of the Gaza Strip; long, frightening months of life in the shadow of daily fire of tanks, helicopters and guard posts protecting a neighboring settlement.

These speakers those, that is, who did not work in one of the Gaza Strip settlements make an effort to recollect one or two settlers whom they got to know in the past 10 years, whose home they visited, who visited them. Even if he lived one kilometer away, or 200 meters from them. After all, it was not only barbed wire fences and concrete walls and army submachine guns that separated the Gazans from the settlers. Let there be no mistake: when they talk nostalgically about “Tel Aviv” and the people they knew there, they do not for a second regret the return home of those they saw and continue to see as foreign intruders “who built a paradise at our expense.” They prove that they are able to differentiate, to avoid generalizations.

The distance, together with the nature of memory, which puts a positive gloss on past events like wine which improves with time, but also the “cosmopolitan atmosphere” they found in Tel Aviv and the rich store of Israeli human landscapes they encountered, created in their consciousness an interesting severance between occupying Israel and the representatives of the occupation  -  the soldiers and settlers – and the Israeli society, which does not view itself as an occupying power but as a regular society that behaves accordingly. The Gazans, that is, came to see the Israeli society within the Green Line as that society sees itself.

The members of this generation, who once traveled to “Tel Aviv” at 8 P.M. and returned after midnight (they always accompany this memory with a gesture of the hand that imitates the insertion of the key into the car ignition and turning it) are not so willing to buy the “victory” slogan with which Hamas is now bombarding the residents of the Gaza Strip and which the other organizations, especially Fatah, are echoing because they have no choice in the face of the fierce political competition and the forthcoming elections.

There is no mistaking the fact that this generation took part in the first intifada: in the aspirations for liberation from the Israeli occupation, manifested in demonstrations, stone throwing, defying the soldiers who roamed the streets, organizing popular protests, holding forbidden meetings with the clandestine cells of their organizations, and then serving time in Israeli prisons. But they did not dream about a “state in Gaza” and certainly they did not imagine that the Gaza Strip would become after 1991, and even more intensively after 1994 and the implementation of the Oslo accord, a massive prison where very few could enter and leave. It was a prison that dictated not only a life of poverty but also great ignorance and an absence of expectations, of personal ambitions and of hope.

The television cameras that are now rushing to document every masked individual who marches with the model of a mortar or a Kalashnikov under a “victory” sign, juxtaposed with images of weeping settlers, are helping Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the others who are floating slogans to silence the other, different voices whose message is of course more complex than short, catchy slogans those who believe that the welcome evacuation of the Gaza settlements is intended to strengthen the West Bank settlements and complete the severance of Gaza from the West Bank. In other words, to torpedo the dream of an independent state harbored by the generation that knew Tel Aviv.

This is a generation who, when asked about “disengaging,” express nostalgia for reconnecting.

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