Al-Ahram Weekly Online
23 - 29 August 2001
Issue No.548
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

PAINTING OVER THE PAIN: For children wounded by Israeli fire, therapeutic art sessions at the Red Crescent's Al-Hilal hospital in Khan Younes reveal a persistent theme -- that of nationhood, deferred, frustrated, dreamt of and fought for. Recent studies show that Palestinian children's dreams since the Al-Aqsa Intifada began have revolved overwhelmingly around martyrdom; those who have actually found themselves staring down the muzzle of an Israeli gun -- shot while playing football, sitting in the yard, or taking their destinies into their hands and fighting for freedom with the most eloquent weapons at their disposal: clods of their country's earth -- may have faced terror in waking nightmares, but they have not relinquished their hopes for all that. Some crippled for life, some severely wounded, all stripped by the occupation of the right to a normal childhood, they continue to dream of Palestine and, like children everywhere, to take pride in their creations.

Where the carnations still grow

Returning to Palestine almost a year after the Al-Aqsa Intifada began, Randa Shaath finds horror, hope and daily heroism

From top: the shells of residential buildings bombed and strafed by Israeli fire in Deir Al-Balah; abandoned amusement park by the sea in Gaza; protestors in downtown Gaza City, demonstrating after killings in Nablus
1 August: It was an uncomfortable seven-hour drive from Cairo to the border. It was hot, and I was nervous. This was my first trip to my homeland since the Intifada started 11 months ago. When it started I tried twice to go, only to find the borders closed by the Israeli army. An Israeli female soldier welcomed me by rudely ordering me to put my suitcases through the x-ray machine. I thought I had gone into the wrong section and went back outside, only to discover that the Rafah border on the Palestinian side is now occupied by Israeli soldiers and that I had to deal with them.

So here I was in the promised land again. As all this was new to me, I was making lots of mistakes, like going to the wrong window, not submitting my passport for the fifth time, not showing my face properly to the Israeli security personnel sitting behind a one-way mirror... The soldiers were angry. They kept shouting at me to tell me what I was supposed to do, which unfortunately had the effect of amusing me.

The main road from Rafah to Gaza City is also occupied. All of us Palestinians were transferred to a narrow side road congested with traffic. The land looked unfamiliar and barren. No, my memory had not failed me; the Israelis have destroyed all the olive and orange trees for kilometres, creating a new desert full of garbage where no one is allowed to touch the land. No joke: they shoot. The ride from the border into Gaza City, which used to take 30 minutes, took two hours.

When I arrived at my father's house, I learned they had killed eight Palestinians in Nablus the previous day. My father was very tense. I finally went to sleep at 3.00am, listening to the waves of the Mediterranean competing for attention with the Israeli planes droning above us. The searchlights of military ships offshore drowned out the moonlight.

2 August: In the morning, hundreds of demonstrators congregated in Palestine Square in downtown Gaza City to protest the killing of Palestinians in Nablus. Everyone was angry, even the children. They carried flags, marched through the streets, and raised banners condemning the killings. Shortly after, they joined the military funeral of a Palestinian soldier killed during clashes in Gaza the previous day. It was the first time I had ever photographed a dead person. I was not really able to see the body, which was wrapped in a Palestinian flag as mourners carried it through the streets to the burial site. I just aimed my lens, closed my eyes, and released the trigger.

3 August: Friday morning. I am still in Gaza. For the third time now the Israeli army has rejected my application for a permit to go to the West Bank. I hate to be a prisoner like this, but Gazans have been living in this big prison for years on end, and in merciless solitary confinement for 11 months now. All exit permits out of Gaza, as well as those to visit the West Bank, have been cancelled. Gaza seems quiet but it is a frightening calm. One feels a disaster is imminent.

In the afternoon I photographed a totally deserted amusement park. I had taken photos there two years ago when it was full of children and their parents and there was a sense of hope that peace was coming soon. Now no one has the heart or the money to have fun. Before I went back home, I bought a bunch of Gaza's famous carnations for my family. They still grow on this sad land.

4 August: I woke up at 7.00am. I had planned to go to the southern areas of Khan Younes and Rafah to see the demolished homes and to visit the people who have been living in tents since November 2000. We had to pass the Israeli checkpoint near Deir Al-Balah. Since the Intifada started, the Israelis have occupied the main road splitting the Gaza Strip into three parts. Crossing the checkpoint can take up to four hours, and some Palestinians do this twice at day, every day, on their way to and from work. We passed quickly this time. We went all the way to Rafah near the Egyptian border, to an area where 18 houses had been bulldozed, razed to the ground. The furniture lay smashed and twisted among the rubble. The walls and ceilings of neighbouring houses were pockmarked with bullet holes. A young woman told me no one could sleep: Israeli soldiers shoot at them all night. I approached a little girl with my camera, and she started screaming in fear. Next door, a new house was being built for a soon-to-be-married couple.

I then went to Qarara in Khan Younes, where I met two families who lost their homes last November and have been living in UN tents since. They have suffered through a rainy winter, soaked for days at a time. Now they have to endure the simmering heat of summer. The governorate has provided them with clean water but not with electricity. Neighbours invite them over to watch TV. The woman started crying and thanking God for the safety of her children. "Losing your house is not like losing your son, Al-Hamdulillah." The sun was beating down now.

I wanted to see another area where homes had been demolished, so we went towards Deir Al-Balah, only to be thwarted by soldiers in an Israeli control tower who prohibited me from taking pictures.

I decided to go back to the city. On the way back, many children were flying kites. I saw a big one painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag, bright against the blue sky. I stopped and shot the last frame on my film. Once I got home I learned that tanks bombarded one of the locations I had just photographed 20 minutes after I had left. One more Palestinian had been killed.

5 August: In the morning, I found out that the Israelis had refused to give me a travel permit for the fourth time. There was shooting near the Deir Al-Balah checkpoint, so it was not a good idea to visit Hilal Hospital in Khan Younes, which has set up a rehabilitation programme for those injured in the Intifada. I went to my father's office and helped type an article he had written.

In the afternoon I sat on the terrace overlooking the sea. The house is not big but comfortable. When he came back to Palestine, my father wanted to build his first house, by the sea -- the house he had always dreamed of. The view is soothing, the front garden is green and full of flowers, and olive, lemon, and fig trees grow behind the house. You could be in Greece or Italy, or any other Mediterranean country -- if you could delete those ugly Israeli military ships just offshore, and never watch the news, and never speak to people because they tend to be depressed and discuss the news anyway. I wished I could wake up and find that the nightmare of occupation had come to an end.

6 August: Around 6.00 in the afternoon I learned that they had given me a one-day permit to Ramallah, ending at 7.00pm. This meant I did not have time to reach there that day. This also meant that I would need to apply for another permit from there, to be allowed back into Gaza. Still, I thought it was worth it.

7 August: I left Gaza at 7.00am. I wanted to get there as early as possible. I had to cross the Erez checkpoint on foot carrying my suitcases. The taxi I had ordered from Jerusalem was waiting for me on the other side. Cars from Gaza are not allowed to move out of the besieged Strip. The Israeli soldiers checked my bags and permit carefully. We drove along green fields, passing the monastery of Latrun. I passed the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah in an hour.

From top: homes in Rafah, among 18 demolished by the Israeli army and, next door, building a home for a soon-to-be-married couple; Hamas's Sheikh Yassin, at a funeral for a Palestinian soldier in Gaza; fishing boats have been prevented from leaving port since the beginning of the Intifada; Navy headquarters, demolished by F-16s; tent dwellers in Qarara, Khan Younes; flying the colours of Palestine
I found the key where my friend had left it for me, under the potted basil plant, and waited in the house. My two friends got stuck at the Qalandia checkpoint on their way back from work. The Israelis placed two tanks near the refugee camp at the beginning of the Intifada, and enjoy humiliating Palestinians. It has nothing to do with security: they let pedestrians pass, and cars too, but very slowly, creating a horrible traffic jam. It took my friends four full hours to cover a distance that could be crossed in seven minutes. They called me from their mobile phones every now and then: "We have moved 10 centimetres;" "We have not moved an inch in 45 minutes;" "A whole group going to a wedding party are crossing on foot: the bride is carrying her wedding dress in a dry-cleaning bag, but it must be very dirty by now..." I could not leave the house as I was hoping they would arrive at any minute. I entertained myself by cooking dinner for the three of us: pasta and mushrooms with white sauce.

When they finally arrived, they had come up with great ideas for things to do at the checkpoint: "Portable toilets would be the first thing, as I was dying to use one;" "A moving Internet café: we could have checked our e-mail while waiting;" "Scooters that could take you to run an errand and bring you back to your car." They announced they had bought me a gift from a street vendor at the check point: a cheap plastic duck sticking its tongue out in mockery.

8 August: Although my friends took two days off work to spend some time with me during my short stay, I left them early to visit the Abu Raya Rehabilitation Centre, where most of the people injured in the Intifada are treated. Some of them refused to be photographed. Rami, aged 18, was paralysed from the waist down. He was shot in Nablus nine months ago and has been in hospital since then. He has turned his tiny corner of a room crowded with other wounded young men into his home. There were flags, framed Qur'an verses, photos of his favourite pop singers and dried flowers hung on the wall.

Emad had a face of solitude. He was on a physiotherapy machine that exercised his left hand. His arm was wrapped in bandages, and he was just pushing the machine back and forth. He answered all my questions politely. He was shot in Jenin. He is 34. He has been in the hospital for three months. I asked him if his other hand was OK. He said yes. I then asked him if I could shake his hand. His whole face lit up. He shook my hand forcefully. He started telling me how much he missed his children and his hometown.

Later that evening we were joined by more friends. They all insisted on showing me the latest café-restaurant, Vache, to have opened in Ramallah. The place is built high on a hill overlooking a valley, trees and an Israeli settlement. On our way there, a Palestinian policeman stopped the car in front of us, checking the papers of all three young men in it. I asked why. "Oh, no big deal, it is because the Israelis usually bombard this area." As they saw I was getting nervous, they reassured me: "Don't worry; when we see the planes, we all go home."

9 August: My stepmother asked me to buy a few food items that can no longer be found in Gaza. A friend of mine who lives in Jerusalem decided to visit me while I was shopping. He informed me that he had broken it off with his fiancée. "She lives in Gaza and I live in Jerusalem. For 11 months now we have not been able to see each other."

We were about to have lunch when I started getting phone calls from my family, friends, and friends' parents, all telling me about the bombing of the restaurant in Jerusalem and instructing me to leave at once to Gaza before the Israelis closed the checkpoint completely. I called the same taxi to come pick me up. The driver called me back after a short while to inform me that the Israeli tanks had closed the Qalandia checkpoint and that he would not be able to reach me. That meant somebody had to drive me from Ramallah to the checkpoint and that I would then have to try to cross it on foot to reach the taxi on the other side of the barrier. Everyone was worried that I would not be able to cross.

To avoid the increasingly dense traffic before the checkpoint, my friend drove through the narrow serpentine streets of the refugee camp. Without previous planning, five residents of the camp came out immediately to direct the traffic. They led cars through the camp and warned those of us heading towards Jerusalem about the two extra Israeli tanks blocking the road and checking permits right around the corner. We passed the two Israeli tanks, and the 10 soldiers who stopped our car. I made it to the taxi and started my journey back to Gaza.

10 August: My father's colleague who was to accompany me to Cairo driving a Palestinian-plated car for a medical checkup there called me at 7.00 in the morning. He told me that the Israeli army had cancelled all travel arrangements for Palestinians, and refused to issue him with a travel permit for his car. He told me they could soon seal the border with Egypt, and suggested I leave without him as soon as possible. I was ready in 10 minutes. I knocked at my father's bedroom door, said good-bye and wished them well.

We drove quickly all the way to Deir Al-Balah. There was a line of cars four kilometres long parked on the side of the road. "They are not letting any cars through," neighbouring drivers informed us. The driver decided to overtake the line. I was embarrassed and tried to apologise: "I am leaving to Cairo now and they might close the borders," I explained to all and sundry. So we were in the first batch of cars waiting to cross the checkpoint. The Israeli soldiers started allowing cars through, but only two at a time. It took 20 minutes to get our car right in front, by the army tanks. A soldier started shooting into the air, the bullets whizzing past 30 centimetres away. I turned around to look what he was aiming at, and the driver pulled me back, ordering me to look forward and roll my window all the way down. "The car has tinted windows and they hate not seeing who is inside," he warned me. We both opened our windows, and finally got past. He drove as fast as he could, to make it to the border before it closed.


The Israelis closed the borders with Egypt two days after I got back. I am in Cairo now, "safe" in my little apartment. I am not relieved, though. My heart and mind are still in Palestine. Under constant siege, in the middle of fear and destruction, I felt part of the determination to live, to resist and to hope. I feel home is back there, where the carnations still grow and thrive, in the burning land of Palestine.




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