“One Occupied Gazan Summer” is a three-part personal narrative by Mariam I. who explores her thoughts and retraces her steps during her most recent visit to the Gaza Strip. Read part one here and part three here.
Part two of three. Oddly, while I was in Gaza, even the moments of national celebration reminded me of how occupation and siege shaped our lives. I remember the end of the prisoners’ mass hunger strike that began on April 17 and ended on May 14. It was my first day in Palestine. I was thrilled, smiling uncontrollably, suppressing gleeful giggles, and using my utmost restraint to keep from flipping cartwheels up and down the alleys of my refugee camp. Then news of the end of the hunger strike broke and as all of the televisions in the densely populated camp were turned to the same channel and poor insulation, open windows, and gaping roofs allowed the sound to escape into the alleys, it felt like the women on the news ululating in celebration were with us in this very camp. Their cries of celebration were as real and present as the Israeli drones circling above our homes.
I remember when Thaer Halahleh decided to end his hunger strike. I remember exactly where I was when the radio news reporter announced that Halahleh was being released to his family. I had just spent several hours with my uncle’s family at a Gaza beach and we were in a taxi on our way home to our central Gaza Strip refugee camp. We were driving past al-Mughraga village and I was choking on the rancid smell of sewage and rotting garbage. I don’t know if I was holding my breath from the excitement of Halahleh’s release or from my disgust of the smell forcing itself down my throat. Either way, I was sitting between my thirteen year old cousin and my mother whispering to each of them about how incredible Halahleh’s heroism was and how thrilled I was to receive the news of his release, all the while excited giggles escaped from me and I held myself down to the backseat to keep from jumping through the roof of the car from my joy.
The next morning was another story. On my way to work, the car radio was playing the message of a prisoner’s mother to her son. She was telling him how much she missed him, how she prays for him often, how she is proud of him, how he is a hero, how his entire family is awaiting his release, how he must remain patient and steadfast. And as she indirectly shared with her son, through the ears of the entire nation, messages of motivation, love, and encouragement, I wept silently and uncontrollably in the backseat of a taxi at 7:45 in the morning. I arrived at work face red, swollen, and lined by streams of tears. The plight of the prisoners and their families was no longer just a news story; it was a real mental and emotional struggle that countless Palestinians had to live through every day.
But there were happier moments too. My uncle, one of the prisoners released in last October’s prisoner exchange, had his name plastered up and down the walls of our refugee camp’s alleys in celebration of his release. I had the pleasure of walking past my uncle’s celebratory graffiti everyday, and everyday I would run my fingers over the wall and memorize the calligraphy to make sure the words were real and not a product of my imagination. The release of these prisoners was a national celebration, and everyday I was reminded of not just this joyous day but also of the thousands of other illegally imprisoned heroes deprived of freedom and dignity in Israel’s occupation cells.
Their absence from the lives of their families was a reminder to us, as well as to their families, that our fight against injustice continues.
Without a doubt, my most traumatic moment in Gaza occurred during my taxi ride home from work on May 31. I was well aware of what was going on. I worked at a human rights NGO where we had office-wide discussions of major national events like the one that took place that day. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw as I peered through the open window of my yellow, seven-passenger taxi.
At first, I was confused, then scared, then panicked, and finally deeply depressed. They were young men wearing camouflage from head to toe with masks covering their faces and the heaviest weaponry slung across their young, fit bodies. They lined both sides of the Salahideen Highway for several hundred feet. The lines of armed men went on and on and on; they seemed never ending. I stared into the eyes of each and every one of the young men I passed and their sorrow made me feel like my soul was on fire. I have no other way of describing it, but it was the deepest hurt I’d felt in a long, long time. Seeing them dressed as if in costume and lined up like expensive props was too real of a reminder of the painfully violent occupation we live under.
The training camps are so isolated and far from where I live; this was the first time I saw resistance fighters. As powerful and unbreakable as they looked, I only saw weakness in them. Not their own personal weakness, but the weakness of humanity as a whole. How can this be the solution? How can dressing our youngest and strongest men as symbols of death and violence be the route to freedom? How did mankind let things get so bad that we are pushed to this form of survival?
This is still the closest I have ever been to a battlefield, but this experience made me see all of Gaza as a small, enclosed battlefield. No part of our enclave is safe from Israeli aggression. This display was too honest for me; it was hard for me to see these boys dressed like soldiers because all I could think was, “which of them will be first to go?”
This was the day we welcomed the decade old corpses of Palestinian resistance fighters released by Israel.
I vaguely remember hearing earth-shaking shelling that felt so close, I wasn’t sure if our neighbors’ houses were still standing. I was lying in bed, a tiny twin-sized bed only two feet away from my cousin’s twin-sized bed. We had just agreed to stop talking and go to sleep because I had work in the morning and she had class. Then, suddenly, BOOM! There was an explosion, undeniably an Israeli missile and unmistakably very nearby.
I sat straight up, then I turned to my cousin. Her eyes were opened wide and she was frozen in her bed staring at the ceiling. I got out of bed and crawled into hers. We stayed like that, uncomfortable and suffocatingly hot, until we were sure the bombing was over. I woke up that morning to news that there were two bombings the night before, one in a nearby camp at a military training site and one in our camp in an orchard near our border with Israel. I’m not sure which one of them I heard, but the idea that both were so close terrified me. There’s no clearer reminder of the military occupation eating up your nation than the raining of missiles on its land.
Maryam I. is a third generation Palestinian refugee, born and raised in the United States. Follow her on twitter: @48Refugee.