I spent the summer of 2000 in Gaza City, far from my air conditioned privileges back home in Chicago. I was only nine-years-old at the time and although I didn’t know what humidity was all about, I wasn’t immune to the heat, the sweat, or the mosquitos. I sat on my hands whenever I could to keep from scratching puffy mosquito bites and I knew better than to walk barefoot on the blisteringly hot sands of the beach.
My immediate concerns were weather-related but the more time I spent in Gaza the more I became attuned to the militarized reality of my immediate surroundings. I think my parents, specifically my mother, made a good decision in letting me think for myself on this one. Growing up, she had instilled in me a very cultural pride in Palestine. She’d talk politics to me, sure, but not in a way that confined me to a specific set of political beliefs. I was fortunate enough to develop my opinions on my own, and part of the reason I was spending my summer vacation in the occupied Gaza Strip was to give me direct access to the tools and the proof I’d need to make a conclusion.
At the time, I was allowed to travel to Gaza via Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airpot even though it meant dealing with long and unfriendly stares, something I clearly remember complaining about to mama. I was processed through the Erez Crossing and made to maneuver between foreign soldiers monitoring my every move. Tanks blocked passage through roads which, I assume, led to Israeli settlements. The cab driver who drove my family to our destination was made to flash an identification card at checkpoint stops. There were watchtowers and guards sitting on chairs and green jeeps driving to and fro.
Aside from the challenge of getting into Gaza and then being denied entry to a cemetery to pay our respects to a fallen relative, my family — and by extension myself — had very minimal interaction with the occupying soldiers. But trouble caught up with us when we tried to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. A visit like this requires a trip to the West Bank, of course, and the Israeli military wasn’t having it.
We brought along my aunt as a guide in our first attempt. We got through but she didn’t. The soldiers gave no reason for denying her exit from Gaza and so we were all forced to return. The crossing was a very dramatic scene. Families that made it across fully intact celebrated as if someone had done them a huge favor. Families that were forced to split showed tears.
We tried again the next day but with one of my cousins instead. I can’t remember the following chain of events but we did eventually get through.
The arbitrary limitation on my ability to move — to breathe, it felt at times — gave me much to think about. By the end of my stay in Gaza I had begun to figure things out on my own. The sadness in my grandmother’s voice and the frustration in my aunt’s made sense. So did the restlessness in mine as I came to grips with the fact that freedom did not exist within these borders.
On the final day, grandma joined us as we took a taxi cab back to Ben Gurion Airport. A couple of soldiers and guard dogs made their way to the vehicle which by now had stopped in a dark area mostly surrounded by pavement. We stepped out of the vehicle for yet another body and vehicle search and stepped back in, although my grandmother was forced to stay behind in the company of these soldiers. She was not authorized to travel any nearer to the airport.
Now that I think about it, my view from the rear window of her standing in between two armed soldiers is a very eerie but good representation of what the occupation is all about. Menacing soldiers wielding heavy guns juxtaposed with a shorter, older woman whose wrinkles represent the trials she’s lived through. Oppressive power vs. resilience. Products of impunity vs. a product of reality.
The Second Intifada began about a month and a half later. On one of those nights following a major air strike, mama pulled me to the television to watch footage of a rescue crew sort through rubble to pull out lifeless bodies.
Many of us have been told before that we’re taught to hate. Most recently, the ex-Chair of the Israeli Fund for UNICEF even said that hatred is wired into our DNA. None of this is true. Rather, we come to grips with reality and we refuse to let it rear its ugly head any longer. Had there been no occupation, no displacement, no human rights abuses, I might’ve spent my summer break fixated on the heat, playing on the beach, maybe even doing other vacation-y things. But instead we’re presented with the unacceptable subjugation of an entire people.