“Why Gaza?” a friend asked in disbelief. Truthfully, everyone is asking me the same question. With the special security clearance finally stamped on my Egyptian Visa and my plane tickets in hand, the reality is now settling in. I’ll be leaving home in mid-October, headed for the Middle East and my new home for the indefinite future in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
This isn’t my first time to Gaza. In 2004, a friend and I passed through the Erez Checkpoint from Israel in the north. We were on a mission. Israeli authorities had refused to allow a local Palestinian psychologist to travel abroad to receive an international award and recognition from his peers, so we were carrying the award to him. That was my first taste of life under Israeli occupation – freedom of movement was greatly restricted, even for the most respected professionals in Gaza.
On that visit, we drove to Rafah in the south to see where Rachel Corrie, an American volunteer with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), had been killed a year earlier by the Israeli Defense Forces. She was crushed under a military bulldozer while trying to protect a Palestinian doctor’s home from demolition. I stood on the barren site and saw no evidence of the house or the family but many children came up and asked me to take their photographs and I happily complied.
Then an old Palestinian man, maybe in his 60s and wearing the traditional long white galabiyya, came up to me and began to emphatically tell me something in Arabic. I had no clue what he was saying but I didn’t turn my eyes away from his withering verbal assault. Finally, he threw his arms up in the air, disgusted, and walked off. Our driver shared his translation of the old man’s words for me on our drive back to Gaza City.
“People from around the world come to Gaza all the time. They look, they take pictures, they cry big crocodile tears, and then they leave and nothing changes here. The same is going to happen with you. You will leave and nothing will change.”
That encounter was the turning point for me — from a mildly curious observer of the Middle East to a serious student of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine. I’d been steeped in the Israeli narrative all of my adult life without appreciating that there was another side to this coin. I never had a reason to question the mainstream media’s reports about the Middle East, but now my eyes were telling me a different story.
The past decade has been my personal graduate education on the Middle East, including books, films, lectures and personal contacts to learn about the colonial history, the Nakba (the “catastrophe” of 1948 continuing to the present) and the failed “peace process.” I studied Arabic for a year at the University of New Mexico but must admit my failure to learn the language. Then I returned to Gaza for nine months (2012-2013) where my real education took place. (More about that visit in the future.)
Some family and friends have chided me for my “obsession” with only one side of this “very difficult conflict.” Their caution is well-intentioned but they fail to acknowledge that Americans haven’t received fair and balanced news coverage since the creation of the State of Israel sixty-seven years ago. My framing of the issues and events in Israel and Palestine only provides a more complete and (I would argue) more accurate picture. My obsession is for the truth.
“Why am I going to Gaza?” I want to witness and report what is happening on the ground. The United Nations predicts that the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by 2020. Israel’s stifling blockade, combined with its lethal military operations (3 in the past 6 years), have created an enclave of de-development (not only hindering but actually reversing development) with the highest unemployment rate (43%) in the world, according to the World Bank. The current population of 1.8 million Palestinians is expected to reach 2.1 million by 2020. The coastal aquifer which supplies most of their clean water is now 95% polluted. They are in the dark more often than not, with electricity available only a few hours each day. This tragedy has endless statistics but one simple fact remains: this tragedy is man-made as well as a foreseeable outcome of Israel’s very deliberate policies, funded and supported by American taxpayers.
So I’m going to Gaza to be a bridge between the Palestinians and people in the West (especially Americans) who cannot visit the Gaza Strip and don’t get the whole picture from the Western mainstream media. We have a responsibility not only to search for the truth and educate ourselves, but then to take action. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu