I’ve Been to Gaza

 

I’ve been to Gaza.

In October 2001, I joined a group of journalists on a long-planned trip to Israel organized by the National Conference of Editorial Writers. There were 14 of us (only one person dropped out because of 9/11). The purpose of these NCEW trips abroad was to afford people an opportunity to visit the places they might be writing about but had never been to, and to meet people who were making the news in those places.

Though we did visit the Biblical sites, the journalist who planned the itinerary had invited people of widely different perspectives to meet our group, and much of our time was spent with those who accepted the invitation. We had meetings with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav. We also met officials of the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah in the West Bank and, in Hebron, a different group of officials from other West Bank cities.

Those meetings were on our schedule. But midweek, we learned we would be meeting Yasser Arafat at his office in Gaza at 10 o’clock that evening.

We entered through the Erez crossing, at the north end of the Gaza Strip. As we left the Israeli post, there was ahead of us a dimly lit paved area running for perhaps 200 feet between two-story buildings on either side. There were no lights on in the buildings, so it was eerie and rather intimidating. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was thinking that if it was on someone’s agenda that night to eliminate some American journalists, there was nowhere to run.

At the far end, there were two vans waiting for us along with a number of armed men wearing camo. I don’t know whether they were soldiers or police.

During our brief ride to Arafat’s PLO headquarters, we could hear sporadic gunfire, not close by, but still alarming. Less alarming than it might have been, though, since the camo guys in the back of the vans were chatting among themselves, unconcerned.

We must have been near the Mediterranean shore as we disembarked, because we could smell the sea (and the reek of sewage was much diminished).

Arafat was waiting for us in a rather crowded conference room, and began by apologizing that we had been troubled by the violence nearby. That he knew about the gunfire persuaded me that he’d had it laid on for our benefit, but possibly it was real. Our visit was during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, in which Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Authority played a major role.

Arafat took questions but didn’t really answer them. He began his answers before the questioner had finished, and said pretty much the same things he always said when he was being interviewed by non-Arab journalists. The Palestinians were not at fault for the ongoing violence. If Israel ended the occupation, all would be peaceful.

I didn’t believe him. But I think some of our group did because it was what they wanted to hear.

Arafat left the room first, and as we exited one by one, he shook hands with each of us, and his photographer took pictures of each handshake. (I included mine with my Christmas letter that year.)

I believe Arafat was deliberately lying to us, but the West Bank officials at the Hebron meeting had said much the same things, although less tactfully, and I think they believed what they were saying. It was as if they thought their American visitors had simply never heard their side of the story, and as soon as we heard it we would agree with them immediately that the Israeli occupation was the most oppressive ever. The “occupation” meant not just Gaza and the West Bank, it was “From the river to the sea,” and there was a map on the wall of that council chamber showing Palestine from the Jordan to the Mediterranean.

These officials, all older men, seemed to be living in a different reality. They didn’t know what a group of American journalists might already know or think about Israel, or that we might hold quite different opinions among ourselves (which we did). They thought that Israel was treating them badly for no reason at all, and moreover was doing so to the greatest possible extreme (they seemed to have no idea what the IDF could do). Since this was in 2001, they were all old enough to remember the Six-Day War.

Hebron is a Palestinian city in the West Bank (governed by the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s). A small part of it is under Israeli control, and travel between the two parts was limited. Our van was delayed while our guides argued with people (we didn’t know with whom) about entering the Palestinian part. Eventually, two young boys climbed into the van and directed the driver through a maze of alleys apparently avoiding some kind of checkpoint.

Everywhere we went in the West Bank, there were armed guards. One guide took us to see a ruined house, on a hillside overlooking a Jewish settlement, which had been destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces. The guide wanted us to see the evidence of Israeli perfidy. The owners of the house were innocent, he said. “It was the wrong house!” Somebody on that hillside had been shelling the settlement, just not these innocent homeowners.

We did not see armed guards in Israel proper, though there were soldiers in uniform among people on the streets. People were wary of strangers (like us) getting out of a van, though, because during the Second Intifada suicide bombers were a constant threat.

We did meet some Arab Israelis, who seemed more like their Jewish compatriots than like these culturally isolated elders, but I don’t know whether that was generally true.

There were hardly any tourists in Israel at that time. The people in our tour group were almost the only guests at our large hotel. The holy sites were nearly deserted. In the large courtyard where normally people would be waiting in long lines to enter the grotto where Jesus was (supposedly) born, there were only a dozen or so of the armed guards in their blue/brown camo. No one but us in the garden of Gethsemane.

We visited the Golan Heights, now the site of a museum, and you can see the areas that were subject to shelling from Syrian troops before and during the Six-Day War. 

I can’t say the trip changed my understanding of the situation on the ground, rather it reinforced and deepened what I already believed. Israel did end the Gaza occupation in 2005, Hamas won the first and only election, and the rest is not history. It is current events.

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  1. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Linda Seebach: Hebron is a Palestinian city in the West Bank

    Cannot hear that name without recalling the Hebron massacre of 1929–which was not the only anti-Jewish pogrom in that city.

    • #1
  2. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    Thanks for sharing that perspective. It’s easy in hindsight to see the interludes in violence were just opportunities to rearm for the PLO. Much the same gameplan was on display after October 7: inflict maximum damage, then throw themselves on the mercies of the international institutions.

    About the time of your story, I was working in Chicago and a friend of mine and I were thinking about going (snow) skiing. I don’t know exactly how some search terms were crossed, but we discovered there was a ski (hill) “resort” in the Golan Heights, complete with at least one chairlift. Could not believe it. It’s still there, actually, Mt. Hermon. Commerce will have its say no matter the landscape.

    • #2
  3. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    Chris O (View Comment):
    …but we discovered there was a ski (hill) “resort” in the Golan Heights, complete with at least one chairlift. Could not believe it. It’s still there, actually, Mt. Hermon.

    I’ve recently read that it is the only skiing to be had in Israel.

     

    • #3
  4. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    My husband visited Israel several times in the past 35 years due to his work for a company that was in a partnership with the Israeli company that created the first unmanned air vehicle (now they call them drones). It was used in the 1st Gulf War in 1991 and proved to be a seriously effective spying tool.  Israel has no intention of letting Hamas rearm again. Israel is done with the attacks and the ceasefires and the wash/rinse/repeat cycles of the past. Who can blame them? 

    • #4
  5. Lunchbox Gerald Coolidge
    Lunchbox Gerald
    @Jose

    A rhetorical question by the prophet Jeremiah:

    Jer 18:14  Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams? 

    My notes from various sources…

    Sirion is another name for Mt Hermon, which is about 40-60 miles north of Galilee. It rises to 9200 feet, which is very tall for that area and forms part of the Golan heights, hence it’s strategic value in modern times. It is the highest range in Israel, and is their only ski resort. It has snow cover much of the year, and the vegetation doesn’t start growing until August. Naturally, the spring snow melt provides a lot of water to the area, and causes the Jordan River to overflow.

    • #5
  6. Macho Grande' Coolidge
    Macho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Thanks for the walkthrough.  Assuming I’m like a lot of Americans, the specific history of that area has been “sketchy” in my melon.  For a snapshot in time that gives both the historical and look forward, with a narrative that explains the relevance of many of the locations you describe in the OP, I highly recommend this book:

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0345461924/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_image?ie=UTF8&psc=1

     

    • #6
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