The Gaza I want to remember

A young boy was killed in Gaza the day before my scheduled trip to Gaza City last week. That morning as I packed my luggage from my hotel in Jordan I saw the news ticker on CNN announcing his death and selfishly thought of the escalating tensions that would likely make my trip more dangerous – or at least more unexpected – than previously planned.

A couple of hours after arriving in Gaza City Friday November 9, my friend asks me if I want to go out for dinner. “It’s just a few minutes walk,” he says. During my last trip in June 2011, I was strictly forbidden to leave the UN compound or the hotel without hopping into a bulletproof Land Cruiser. He senses my hesitation at his offer.

“If you don’t feel comfortable, we’ll just head back and stay here at the hotel,” he assures me.

“Let’s go,” I say, and we’re off.

We exit the hotel. My friend quietly says to me, “You see, the hotel is protected. On your left and your right. Those are Hamas officers both in uniform and in plainclothes.” He points to four men on the left and one on the right. “We’re protected.” Sure. In the hotel.

Walking through the streets of Gaza I think, This isn’t so bad. There are few people on the main street, all men and boys. They sit idly and talk to each other in front of dirty shops filled with second-rate Egyptian goods smuggled through tunnels. Every other street corner has a Hamas officer sitting on a half-broken chair.  There are large, rusted garbage bins every so often filled with rot. By the looks of them their contents are likely burned on the spot rather than collected. Looking at the filth swirling around the streets you could tell that people are used to throwing their trash out anywhere, anytime.

It wasn’t so bad, in the sense that I felt safe. After a wonderful dinner we return back to the hotel and hear preparations under way for a wedding. The festivities were so loud it was impossible to get any sleep until well past midnight. “This is the only way hotels stay in business,” my friend tells me at breakfast the next morning. “There are no tourists so they rely on weddings.” There was another wedding the next night.

It wasn’t so bad, in the sense that people did what they could to live in dignity despite their living conditions. The water’s undrinkable, the food if you can find enough to eat isn’t healthy, you don’t know when you’ll have electricity and when you won’t, you can’t find the medicine you need if you get sick, you can’t get a job, you can’t take care of your family, you can’t even go for a walk on the beach because it’s full of garbage and shit and broken boats and ripped tires and everything else you want to get rid of but there’s nowhere to put any of it so you just live with it every day.

It’s impossible to fully understand the depravity of people living in conditions that are deliberately meant to dehumanize them. I feel sorrow, empathy, anger, but I will never know what it’s really like to live like that all the time. I’m passing through, a two-day temporary glimpse into a world that shouldn’t exist.

I question, as I often have, the impact of my work under such circumstances. My job this time around was to present to and get feedback from primary school teachers on a toolkit I developed for teaching human rights. It’s nothing new, it’s nothing innovative, it’s just common sense. The toolkit builds a lot on international human rights practices to introduce children to human rights. All I’ve done was to package it by contextualizing the toolkit for Palestinian teachers. I’ve focused the toolkit on specific human rights themes that Palestinian teachers told me were important: children’s participation, respect, building links with the community, and learning about equality, among others.

When I walk into the workshop room on Saturday November 10, I’m greeted by smiles from everyone. Within a few minutes our discussion leads us straight to asking ourselves what human rights are.

“Human rights are the basic things that all of us have, like the right to education, the right to live in a nice house, and the right to be healthy,” says a young woman.

“It means we respect each other,” adds the woman next to her.

Both of them speak as though these are truths. They aren’t naïve, they are hopeful. In their place I don’t know how I could possibly share their enthusiasm. I’d find it hard to fake a smile in front of students and tell them everyone has the right to live in security. When a student plays football in the field under the threat of bombs ripping his body to shreds, I think it would be easy for a student to say to a teacher, “We are never safe.”

Teachers in Gaza learning about human rights.

As the two women speak, the other participants nod and join in with similar things to say. It’s the kind of environment where I feel, as a facilitator, revitalized by the energy, thoughtfulness, and professionalism of educators who work in arguably one of the most dangerous environments around. They never admit that human rights are only what other people have; they speak of rights as entitlements everyone must have.

One in the afternoon on Sunday and the workshop is already over. Our scheduled departure for 1:30 is delayed due to mortar and rocket fire at the border. By 2:15 we’re told by security to get in a vehicle and leave the UN compound.  The first rains of the season quickly flood all the streets and bring traffic to a standstill. A normally fifteen-minute ride to the border is delayed the moment the compound gates close behind us. After half an hour wading through water at least a quarter meter thick, the driver receives the call from security to turn back because of new border attacks. We stop, wait in silence on a side street, then get another call told to forge ahead. The mortar and rockets stopped, at least for the moment. Our surroundings change as we near the border: a barren and pitted landscape even more desolate than the misery of the city looks like the perfect setting for a post-apocalyptic zombie movie. Half a dozen young boys play football by the side of the road next to a couple of pathetic shacks surrounded by garbage. I try to reassure myself that things can’t be that bad if they’re out playing.

Things weren’t bad, at least for the few minutes required to cross between borders. The situation was labeled as “calm but tense” by one UN official and that sums up the attitude most people had up to that point. But I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder what an easy target I was as we left the safety of a bulletproof vehicle and made our way in a Turkish government-donated golf cart down the kilometer-long concrete passageway leading up to the Israeli wall. I was not eager for my fate to be ignominiously sealed while riding in a golf cart in a war zone.

Leaving Gaza, I knew the situation would deteriorate, and do so quickly. I leave with an overpowering sense of abandonment. The teachers I met will still teach, and I wonder if what children learn about human rights will give them any greater sense of comfort amidst the violence that imbues their lives.

The Gaza I want to keep in my memory is that of teachers eager to learn and teach about human rights; I want to remember walking freely through the streets, even if only for a few minutes; I want to remember the unrelenting music, laughter and screams of joy at the weddings I heard from my hotel room; I want to remember the handshakes, the smiles, and the kindness of friends and strangers alike; I want to remember the young man at the hotel reception saying, “See you next time,” with a genuine smile. I know the reality is anything but this at the moment. Like the teachers who spoke at the workshop, I’m not naïve, I’m hopeful. There must be better days ahead.

Stop taking our children: When Palestinian children get taken in the night

This is for Hatem, who wrote to me: “Please keep promoting human rights for Palestinians.”

I was in the West Bank about a month ago visiting a number of primary schools schools. Entering the schools always gave me a sense of relief. They were always surrounded by thick, white concrete walls, most often covered with happy scenes of naively-painted children in their school environment: cleaning the compound, learning in class, playing sports together. Once in a while Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry decorated the walls for good measure. 

Driving into the school compounds gave me a sense of relief because the streets outside were hardly the kind of environment a child should grow up in: filthy streets, garbage strewn everywhere, the occasional poster of a martyr brandishing a machine gun, and a depressing amount of unemployed people (mostly men) busying themselves by doing a lot of nothing. 

Towards the end of my trip I visited a boys’ school for the first time. As I walked into the school, there was a palpable difference in the energy compared to girls’ schools: the boys were a lot noisier, the classrooms seemed to be fuller, and the students had a greater tendency to ignore me than to see me as an unusual guest. The school administration was different too: all the principals I’d met before were women. The principal of the boys’ school was a scraggly man with an unkept look, an office reeking of cigarette smoke, and an annoying habit of paying more attention to his ringing mobile than to my questions. He made me feel as though my presence was an inconvenience.

“We do have a problem with one of the students,” he said after putting away his phone. “He has had trouble focusing in class, and he went to the counsellor asking for help.”

“What happened?” I asked.

He rested his hands on his computerless desk. “Earlier this week, the Israeli soldiers burst into his house during the night and arrested his brother. The soldiers said his brother was accused of throwing rocks at them, so they took him in the middle of the night and dragged him from his home. His family has not seen him since.”

“Where did they take him?”

“To a detention centre. It happens all the time. The children are taken from their homes in the middle of the night, their hands tied, and they are not seen for days. The boy whose brother was taken has had trouble sleeping since this happened. This is what we have to deal with; these are the problems our children face. How can you talk about peace and human rights when they live in fear that they may be taken during the night? So we help his brother and his family whichever way we can, and offer our moral support.”

My initial impression of the principal was turned on its head: this was not an uncaring, dispassionate man. Here was someone faced with the unreal situation of having students at his school arrested during the night and taken away from their families. In its latest newsletter, Defence for Children International (DCI) chronicles the arrest of a young boy that is likely not dissimilar the one the principal is referring to: 

Saji O. (16 years) 
On 7 June 2011, a 16-year-old boy from Azzun, in the occupied West Bank, is arrested by Israeli soldiers from the family home at 2:00am:
Sixteen-year-old Saji was arrested by soldiers whilst still in his bed – his hands were tied behind his back with plastic ties and blindfolded – prevented from saying goodbye to his family – punched in the stomach before being placed inside a military vehicle – verbal abuse: ‘son of a whore’ – transferred on the floor of the vehicle – taken to Zufin settlement – given a cursory medical check whilst still tied and blindfolded – hands started to bleed – made to sit outside in the cold for approximately 30 minutes – transferred to Huwwara Interrogation and Detention Centre – strip searched and detained with two adults, in violation of Article 37(c) of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – transferred to Salem Interrogation Centre – interrogated – tied to a small metal chair – accused of weapon possession – denied accusation – transferred to Megiddo Prison, inside Israel, in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

No one will ever be able to convince me that the mistreatment suffered by this boy – this child – is warranted. So far this year, over 200 Palestinian children have been detained, imprisoned and prosecuted in Israeli military courts. Organizations like B’Tselem are publishing reports (the latest one is here) and bringing cases like Saji’s to the world’s attention (DCI submitted a report to the UN last week). It’s time to speak up, it’s time to say this is not right.