Read an Excerpt
Drinking the Sea at Gaza
An Isralei Woman's Journey to the Other Side
By Amira Hass, Elana Wesley, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 1996 Amira Hass
All rights reserved.
The Military Governor Has Moved Buildings
If the soldier in the sentry tower noticed the couple passing by down below, he apparently found nothing about them to arouse his suspicions. On that summer night in 1985, the headlights of the cars on Omar al-Mukhtar Boulevard in Gaza City and the light spilling from the building that housed the Israeli Northern Gaza Battalion illuminated a scene that seemed perfectly natural and normal: a woman in her final months of pregnancy, leaning on her short, skinny companion with the heaviness of intimacy, as, arm in arm, they sauntered along the length of the perimeter fence of an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) base in the heart of the city. The building, referred to by the people as the Majlis (Council) or al-Majlis al-Tashri'i (Legislative Council), was the seat of the Israeli military governor. It was also called al-Jundi al-Majhul (the Unknown Soldier) after the memorial erected by the Egyptians at the end of the boulevard. Of that, only the pedestal remained, since, as most Gazans recall, the statue was blown up by Israeli soldiers in June 1967.
Just a few hours before the couple took their stroll, the man, A.S., had thrown a hand grenade at the building's sentry tower. For the previous couple of days, he and two comrades had been monitoring the movements of the soldiers there. "We set the zero hour and drove by very fast. I threw the grenade. But we hadn't noticed that the top of the fence had been raised by a meter or more the very same day." The grenade hit the wire mesh and bounced back onto the sidewalk. "We kept driving and waited for the explosion. But there was no explosion. We suddenly got really scared that the soldiers would see the grenade, send it to the laboratory, find our fingerprints, and arrest us. For a couple of minutes we couldn't think straight. Our one thought was to go back, get the grenade, and hide it. Had we been thinking clearly, we'd have realized that the only thing the soldiers could do was to blow the grenade up. But we were panicking. I suggested getting B., my pregnant wife, and going back with her to look for the grenade — no one would suspect her. The others objected but I insisted."
It was then that B. first learned her husband had belonged to an armed Fatah cell for the past seven years. A.S. briefly explained the problem to her and she immediately agreed to his plan, joining the men in their car. About 200 meters from the spot, the couple got out and began to walk toward the fence. First time around, they found nothing. Fewer and fewer cars were now traveling along the boulevard. One by one the lights went out in the windows of the nearby houses, and fear gnawed at the four: where was the grenade? To the couple's relief, on their second pass B. spotted the grenade. A.S. picked it up, they walked to the waiting car, and got in.
"I wasn't afraid for myself," B. recollects. "I was afraid for A. I held on to him tightly and thought to myself that as long as I held him, the grenade wouldn't blow up." Off they drove, with A.S. holding the grenade out the window. In truth, the three men had no experience with explosives — that is, in disarming them. "We knew how to throw them," A.S. recalls ironically. In the training camp in Jordan there were no live grenades. The only thing he and his comrades had learned was how to pull out the pin. "So now our one idea was to throw the grenade into the sea. We drove to the shore and, somewhere between Gaza City and al-Shatti camp, I tossed it into the water."
A.S., today a civil servant employed by the Palestinian Authority, feels no regret for his action in 1985: he still believes that occupation by a foreign power demands countermeasures. Two days after the incident, however, he was plagued by remorse for having enlisted his wife. He suddenly grasped the danger in which he had placed her and their unborn child. "Even now I can't forgive myself," he says. His wife had not been surprised, though, to hear that for years — as he continued working by day at odd jobs in Israel — he had been involved in military activities against Israeli soldiers.
Between 1983 and 1987 — until the outbreak of the intifada — gunfire and grenades hurled at soldiers were a daily occurrence. "It was the usual thing," A.S. recalls. "In every Palestinian home they were struggling against the occupation," B. adds. "A.S. comes from a family of fighters. Two of his brothers were killed in the struggle, one in 1956 and the other in 1969. In my family, too, there were fighters and prisoners." And it was always understood that other family members, the women and children, were not to be let in on the secret. Nevertheless, B. had joined that particular mission without a moment's hesitation: "I told him that it was all up to fate. Even if we went to jail or died as martyrs, we still had to struggle against the occupation. But actually, I wasn't thinking about the consequences. All I cared about was protecting my husband. I was sure that he wouldn't die as long as I was with him."
A.S. was caught about one month after the abortive action. Someone had fingered him and he was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison for throwing the grenade and on three more counts. To this day he won't speak about other operations, except to say, "They were always against soldiers." After nine years A.S. was granted early release along with a group of prisoners freed as part of the Oslo Accords. He was released in July 1994, on condition that he not leave the confines of the Gaza Strip for Israel or the West Bank. Spared eighteen years of his sentence, A.S. was still freed too late to witness the IDF evacuate al-Majlis al-Tashri'i, his grenade's target.
* * *
I go by this building almost every day, and thoughts of A.S. and his pregnant wife strolling through the quiet night are never far away. The grenade he threw would have barely dented the building's massive walls; rather his act was a symbolic protest, an act of defiance against all that the building stood for. For decades al-Majlis al-Tashri'i, the military governor's building, had served as the heart of the Israeli occupation in the Strip; it was where hundreds of men in uniform, empowered by arms and the force of their state, determined every last aspect of A.S.'s life. The men in that building vetted the schoolbooks, imposed heavy taxes and fines, hired and fired the local Palestinian civil service, decreed curfews, recruited collaborators, conducted interrogations, and sent soldiers to carry out fearsome night patrols, lethal hunts for suspects, and humiliating street searches. Day and night, outsized jeeps would come and go with engines revving, and loudspeakers would blare folksy Hebrew songs that could be heard in the distant Saja'ya neighborhood. The soldiers would shout and joke and backslap in a display of arrogance that probably hid their fear as well.
All this not only demonstrated Israel's omnipotence and military superiority but was a permanent reminder of the long history of dispossession that had begun in 1948, when more than 700,000 Palestinians (of a population of some 1.3 million) became refugees, forced to leave their land as the Jewish national home came into being. About 200,000 of them found shelter in the Gaza Strip, then controlled by Egypt, and A.S. was a child of one such refugee family, born in an impoverished and overcrowded refugee camp. Like all Palestinians, he grew up with the longing to return home and the growing desire for national independence.
In 1967 the Israeli occupation added one more painful link to the chain of deprivation, bringing as it did even greater constrictions on individual and communal freedom. For years people believed that only armed struggle against Israel would break the chain and reverse the effects of loss. For years people like A.S. and his wife dreamed only of overthrowing Israel and expelling what was to them a foreign entity. But in time, A.S. must have realized that his one hand grenade posed no real challenge to such a solid, fortified structure. He must have been aware as well of the poor, amateurish military training he and his comrades had received in the Jordanian training camps — insufficient to present a real strategic threat to the State of Israel. Perhaps in retrospect his act seems pathetic — throwing a grenade that failed to explode and then nearly getting caught. Almost as pathetic as the delusion — born of ignorance, isolation, and poor political analysis — that Israel was a passing phenomenon, easily disposed of. But A.S.'s act and all those like it carried reverberations far beyond their immediate result: this core of defiance nourished and bolstered the Palestinians' emancipatory drive, which grew as it would among any oppressed people and culminated in the popular uprising, the intifada, which erupted in December 1987.
A.S. has undergone a passage that is both personal and yet, to a high degree, shared and emblematic: from proud but embittered refugee to ill-equipped underground soldier; from prisoner held in Israeli jails (where, while his wife and children were taking part in the uprising, he learned to come to terms with Israel's permanence even as he clung to his desire for freedom), to civil servant employed by the Palestinian Authority, which administers the self-rule areas. This book is an attempt to chart that passage, to relate the ideological, cultural, and emotional histories that make up the human story of the Gaza Strip — histories that are bound together by the common quest for freedom.
* * *
The Egyptians, who controlled Gaza after the war in 1948, had refrained from annexing the Strip, and in 1957 al-Majlis al-Tashri'i was built as the seat of the local Egyptian governor. In 1962 it housed the very first partially elected Palestinian Legislative Council (hence the building's name in Arabic), a governing body set up by the ruling Egyptians. Although just ten of the Council's forty members were elected (ten were appointed by the governor and the rest were senior civil servants), its establishment reflected Egypt's intention to grant the Palestinians considerable freedom to administer their own civic affairs, especially in the areas of health, education, and labor relations. Palestinians welcomed the step, but their national aspirations already went well beyond both the physical boundaries of the Strip and the limitations of municipal management, and it was in the Council's sessions in this building that the idea to found a movement for Palestinian liberation was first put forward.
The Council stayed in the site for only five years. After Israel occupied the Strip in 1967, it was dissolved and the building became the base for the Israeli military governor and the IDF's Northern Gaza Battalion and remained so for almost thirty years. In all this time, while Israel referred to the structure as the military governor's building, Gazans persisted in calling it "the Council"; thus the very site itself came to represent two profoundly opposing views of government — one imposed, the other elected. Finally, in March 1996, the newly elected Palestinian Legislative Council, formed as the result of the Oslo Accords, took possession.
The building sits at the western end of Omar al-Mukhtar Boulevard, the main shopping street in Gaza City and its principal traffic artery connecting the city's densely populated, older neighborhoods — Saja'ya, Zeitun, and Darj in the east — with the modern, upscale Rimaal development, nestling on the Mediterranean shorefront in the west. The boulevard starts at the disused railway station, which once served the line that linked Haifa to Cairo and since 1995 has become a marketplace for clothes and cloth and household goods and a haven for the street stalls that once blocked the sidewalks. From the station, the boulevard climbs up Gaza Hill, the highest point in the city, before swinging down to Faras, the old market. By the time it reaches Rimaal, Omar al-Mukhtar Boulevard is lined with rows of eucalyptus trees planted in the pre-1948 days of the British mandate. Like an honor guard, they direct one's eye toward the imposing building.
On May 18, 1994, al-Majlis al-Tashri'i fulfilled its symbolic function by being the last facility in the Gaza Strip to be evacuated by Israeli troops. The soldiers' departure was the result of two agreements: first, the Declaration of Principles, signed on September 13, 1993, by two old foes — the State of Israel and the PLO — which affirmed the general terms of limited Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank, beginning in the Strip and the West Bank city of Jericho; second, the Cairo agreement (popularly known as the first Oslo Accord or Oslo 1), signed on May 4, 1994. This document formally initiated self-rule, elaborated on the principles of mutual recognition already signed, and set forth a detailed plan for Israeli redeployment in Gaza and Jericho, in which most military bases and installations were to be evacuated and then handed over to the just-formed Palestinian police.
In the weeks following the Cairo agreement, building after building in the Gaza Strip was emptied of its hated occupants. Generally, the Israeli soldiers cleared out under cover of night during the curfew and thus people were denied the joy of watching the Israeli flag being lowered and folded for the last time. One by one, the evacuated buildings were thrown open to groups of uniformed Palestinian police — aged twenty to sixty — who came from Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria, all over the Arab world; some had been born in the diaspora and some in Jerusalem or Haifa, but each gray hair on their heads had been acquired, it seemed, in a different part of the world.
On May 11 the first group settled into the building in Dir al-Balah, south of Gaza City, formerly occupied by representatives of the Israeli civil administration. There I witnessed a meeting between a Palestinian coastguardsman returning from exile and family members he had never known. It had taken his relatives, who lived in the nearby refugee camp, only a few hours to learn, from neighbors of friends, about the new arrival who shared their name and came from the same village. They had hurried to the building to meet him. The guardsman, returning from outside the country, preferred not to malign the Israeli officers who had turned over control of the building to him and his fellow police. "Today is the day of our birth. Arafat, our commander in chief, had bidden us to speak well, to forget the past." But having lived through the occupation and the intifada, his newfound family could not forget so easily. "This building brings back all the painful memories of humiliation, interrogation, and beatings," one relative said bitterly. His brother summed it up: "All these buildings should have been demolished."
Then three days later, at the crack of dawn on May 14, the soldiers quietly moved out of Jabalia camp. The Jabalia refugees were especially disappointed to miss their departure — the storming of the military post in the heart of the camp had marked the beginning of the intifada some six years earlier. The night before their scheduled evacuation, the soldiers were still searching houses and chasing youngsters who had violated the curfew — a curfew that every evening for years had imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people in their cramped homes from dusk to daybreak. But the morning after the soldiers had gone I was there with the hundreds who trampled the wire mesh of the building's fence beneath their feet, touched the walls of the outpost as if in a dream, and raised the Palestinian flag over the sentry tower. "If only we'd been able to throw a few parting stones," a couple of boys joked.
I spent that evening with friends from the camp. They left their houses determined to stay out all night for the first time in years. Using my privileged Israeli status I had, on occasion, traveled through the dark, deserted streets of Jabalia and Gaza City and Khan Yunis and so had something to compare with this evening, and the vision was stirring. From a dusty shantytown where testy dogs barked at any shadow that dared to move and rats scuttled in the piles of garbage and junk, Jabalia was transformed overnight into a bustling Mediterranean quarter — light spilled out from every door and window; men in djelabas sat in the street on low straw chairs, sipping coffee; young married couples, some with children, made a bashful effort to be seen together in the evening outside their stifling refugee shacks. The barbershop, the furniture store, the grocery, another store that sold shutters, a makeshift garage — all were open at ten o'clock at night; even though they didn't expect customers, the shop owners just wanted to see what life was like after eight in the evening. Here and there snatches of song were piped out from a raspy tape player. Falafel and carob-juice carts decorated with colored paper or plastic flowers opened for business in the corners of alleyways, and the aroma of falafel crackling in oil seemed fresh and new.
Excerpted from Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Hass, Elana Wesley, Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta. Copyright © 1996 Amira Hass. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.