On the brink of change: The risks of being a Gazan peace activist

Meet Israelis and Gazans who, seeking coexistence, refuse to lose hope or remain silent but listen to the other voice.

By TAMARA BARAAZ
August 2, 2015 05:55
A peace conference in Tel Aviv

Rami Aman is a Gazan journalist and political activist. (Below) Speaking at a peace conference in Tel Aviv.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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A sing-along for Palestinians and settlers, a coexistence trek, an Israeli-Palestinian team in Antarctica, a binational theater, a yoga workshop, an ashram, a couscous night, a women’s circle, a summer camp. These and many other coexistence initiatives were published in the media time and again over the last 30 years, if not more, each one more original than the last. People hoped that the first binational team or workshop would pave the way for many others, and eventually to peace. People read about it on websites and in feature articles with a coffee mug in hand, called it a “heartwarming story” – and then, with the wars that came, forgot all about it.

They say that revolutions start from the bottom. But what can you do when civil peace initiatives and wars come one after the other, and reality stays the same? Do you give up? Do you keep trying? Can civil coexistence initiatives indicate a change in the atmosphere? Are we on the brink of something new? Or is it another wave that will die out?

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I was told to do an article about coexistence initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. To find the people who are trying, against all odds, to live with their enemies. I set out to the challenge with a baggage of Israeli cynicism, but also with curiosity. Maybe I’ll find something new? Maybe there’s hope?

Gaza’s movement restrictions

Most coexistence initiatives take place in the West Bank or with Palestinians who live there. Gaza is a different case. Legal and security restrictions make it almost impossible for Israelis and Gazans to meet.

During the ’80s, Israelis used to shop in Gaza, and Gazans used to work in Israel. Movement restrictions started in the beginning of the ’90s, but despite that, more than half a million entrances were registered at the Gaza borders in 2000.

In 2007, the border crossings were sealed, and nowadays exits reach only 3 percent of past levels.



Only persons who fit the following categories can enter Israel: patients receiving medical care in Israeli hospitals, merchants, national sports teams, students who study abroad, and “exceptional humanitarian cases.” This means that families who are divided between the West Bank and Gaza can meet only at exceptional events such as weddings, funerals or dying relatives.

Even for persons matching these categories, getting a permit is not an easy procedure.

“We get calls from people who handed in all the necessary papers months ago, and are still waiting for a permit,” says Shai Grunberg, spokeswoman of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that aids Gazans with their freedom of movement.

“A citizen of Gaza needs to wait three to four weeks for a permit from the moment he hands in his papers to the authorities. The permits require some proof, even in the case of a dying relative. Many people don’t get their permits on time and end up missing the funeral or the wedding they wished to attend.”

“When it comes to students, since 2000 they have not been allowed to attend universities in the West Bank. In order to study abroad, they need to exit through the border checkpoint of Erez, travel to the Allenby checkpoint of Jordan, and then fly from Jordan. This procedure was hard enough before Operation Protective Edge, because even after they received the permits, the army often required a consular escort. The consulates do not tend to cooperate in this case. After the war, the Rafah [border crossing with Egypt], the main exit for students, was almost completely shut down. Israel declared that it will allow 30 students to exit Gaza every week, but so far, since December only 145 students made it out, far fewer than the great demand.”

How do Israelis and Gazans meet?


Since peace activism is not included in the categories, requesting a permit for coexistence meetings is out of the question.

“If our Gazan activists request a permit in order to participate in coexistence meetings, there is no chance they’ll get it,” says Roni Keidar, head of the Kol Aher organization.

Kol Aher (Other Voice) was established by residents of the Gaza periphery (the region of Israel surrounding the Gaza Strip), who’ve so far been the main target of missiles from Gaza. The NGO’s aim is to create coexistence between Gazans and Israelis, and meetings are held between the two in Keidar’s house.

“Our Gazan activists usually request permits for visiting a sick relative, or receiving medical care,” says Keidar, “and during their visits they participate in our meetings.”

Due to the restrictions, face-to-face meetings do not occur very often.

The program started with two bloggers, one from the Gaza Strip and one from Sderot, Keidar explains. “One called himself ‘Peace man,’ and the other was ‘Help man.’ Eventually people gathered around them and created connections from both sides of the border. The Gazan blogger helped us reach out to residents of Gaza [through the] Internet and cellphones.”

Sara, who requested a pseudonym because she’s not authorized to speak on behalf of her NGO, meets Palestinians from Gaza at the Erez border checkpoint.

“My first encounter with people from Gaza was at the hospital,” she says. “I used to volunteer with children who have cancer. Some of them turned out to be Gazan. Their mothers used to speak to me about their hardships and their lives in Gaza. They used to ask me for a ride from the border to the hospital. This is how I started my volunteering activities with Palestinians from Gaza.”

Nowadays, Sara drives patients from the checkpoint to the hospital, and leads a team of volunteers who do the same.

“Sometimes a volunteer becomes extremely attached to a patient and becomes his permanent driver,” says Sara.

“We had a volunteer who waited four hours at the checkpoint while the missiles were firing, so the border officials told him to clear out and find a shelter. He insisted on waiting there, because the baby he waited for needed these treatments to stay alive. Eventually he managed to take the baby to the hospital.”

Last summer’s war created some other challenging situations for the volunteers.

“We had a girl who lived in Gaza and received medical treatment in Israel during the war,” says Sara. “Her father had a hard time convincing her to get out of the house and go to the hospital. He told me that during the day she was afraid of the bombardments from Israel, and by nightfall, when she was on the Israeli side, she was afraid of the missiles coming from Gaza. Another volunteer was on the road with his patients during a missile shooting. All passengers got out and hid behind the car. The missiles don’t distinguish between nations.”

The risks of being a Gazan peace activist

Aside from the hardships of exiting Gaza, the Gazan peace activists are facing a great personal risk.

“I don’t speak publicly about my activities in Gaza,” says Maha Mehana, a resident of Gaza who volunteers in Kol Aher.

“Spreading propaganda for peace and talking about peace in the local media can put me and my family at risk. Right now the borders are closed, there is no way to get out, and we are all subject to the Hamas regime, which limits our freedom of speech. The formal standpoint is to see Israel as an enemy, and coexistence activities are not an option.

“A big part of my activity is giving interviews to the foreign press. I used to give interviews with fake names only. Later I decided to use my real name, because I didn’t do anything wrong. Why should I hide?” But Mehana still prefers to take some precautions.

“I don’t give interviews to the local press, so the public is mostly unaware of my activities. Most of the people in Gaza are not regularly exposed to the foreign press. Most of my activities here are on the Internet and I don’t even meet other Gazan activists face-to-face. I cannot trust anybody. I’m afraid I will encounter a spy or something like that. We have coexistence Facebook groups, and the Palestinians usually participate with fake IDs. I usually participate in Kol Aher meeting by Skype.”

“Three years ago I arranged a conference in Sapir [a small community in southern Israel],” says Keidar. “Thirteen Palestinians from Gaza participated in the conference. Nobody agreed to identify himself or pose for the camera, except for two people. One of them gave an interview on two media channels. When they returned to Gaza, they were arrested by Hamas. One of them was released after two hours, the other was tortured. He managed to escape through the tunnels to Egypt, and today he lives in exile.”

“In Gaza you don’t act openly, because this can land you in jail,” says John Elias Debis, a Palestinian journalist and activist living in the West Bank. “The new law is [Gazan residents are forbidden] to cooperate with the Palestinian Authority. It’s far worse if you cooperate with Israelis. The peace activists I’m familiar with in Gaza are doing everything under the table. I had a colleague who was arrested for three months because he coordinated with the Israelis in a campaign for cleaning the beaches. He arranged the cleaning on the Gazan side. That’s why most of the coexistence activities happen online. People participate in meetings and conferences by Skype.”

A Skype conference is not a simple matter either. On good days, the electricity in Gaza works for eight hours a day, but this is not guaranteed, and people can be left for days without electricity.

“The Hamas and their associates are only 10% of the Gazans, and the Gazans are their hostages,” says Debis, “I think this can be changed, but you need something like the Arab Spring to change it. I myself received threats from the BDS for some Facebook activity. They told me, ‘If you don’t stop, you know what will happen.’” Rami Aman is a Gazan journalist, a political activist and a member of the Central Committee of Consortium of Independent Palestinians, an opposition party in Gaza.

“I try to broaden the categories of people who are eligible for exit permits to include peace activists,” says Aman. “People know that I’m active in peace and coexistence; I even took part in the April 29 movement that demonstrated in Gaza, calling for change.”

On April 29, around 400 Gazans protested in the destroyed neighborhood of Shejaia, in Gaza City, calling for reconstruction and the end to intra- Palestinian conflict. Hamas police responded violently to the demonstrators and broke up the protest.

“I don’t openly speak about peace,” Aman continues. “I speak about ending the occupation, making some change. If I talk publicly about peace, most of the public will agree with me, but the leaders and the press will focus on me and slander me. Our crowd is not ready for that yet. Right now I’m looking for a partner for negotiation, and I meet with different elements in the Palestinian government for this purpose.”

Coming out of Gaza

In Gaza, young people who were born in the ’80s and thereafter have most likely not seen Israeli civilians their entire lives. Such is Ismail’s story.

When Ismail, who also requested his real name not be used, was 15 years old, he had no clue about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He was living with his family in Saudi Arabia, until one day his father decided to return to Gaza to live with his family.

Overnight he found himself in a war-torn prison.

“It was a big shock for me to come here,” says Ismail, “I was never in a conflict zone before. I suddenly had movement restrictions. We used to go out to the desert on family vacations, but suddenly it was not possible anymore; the door shut down on us.

“It takes 1.5 hours to cross Gaza from north to south. The space is extremely limited. I couldn’t get electricity whenever I wanted. Even refueling the car was a problem. You want to go out, do something, but you can’t. It was so frustrating. “I used to fight with my parents as a teenager. I used to tell them: ‘We had a good life back home! Why did you bring us here?!’ But eventually I came to terms with reality. Later on, during my work at an NGO, I had the chance to enter Israel. I met my relatives for the first time, and I also met Israelis for the first time. Up until then I had no idea how they think, what is going on in their minds. When I met them, I realized there are people on the other side who think like me and would like to see a change.”

Are we on the brink of change?

“Since the last war, I see more people calling for a political solution,” says Keidar. “People feel that so far, our actions have not yielded results and we need to try something else. New coexistence NGO’s were established here in the Gaza periphery, and we are trying to work together.

“I have no doubt that everybody wants peace. The difference is in the way we expect to achieve peace, and what we are willing to give for it. I am not naive. I’m aware that opening the siege is risky. But I am already living in danger. I don’t know when the next missile will come.”

“Hamas wants peace now,” says Aman. “They changed since 2007....Hamas does not like to admit publicly the need to negotiate with Israel, but they are actually interested in a peaceful life and a good economy. They are even talking about five-, 10-year truces, which is already a big change.

“I see the change even on the Facebook level. In 2011, I was constantly trying to add Israelis as Facebook friends. Not even one person approved my requests. Then in 2014, I entered Israel for the first time in 10 years. I got a permit for one day, in which I met an Israeli activist. I told her I wished to meet Israelis and engage in activities to end the conflict. She helped, and since then, many Israelis are adding me on Facebook.”

“Before I started volunteering, I did not know people from Gaza,” says Sara. “For me, Gaza was a big black hole full of terrorists and bad people. Nowadays, after meeting so many people and children from Gaza, I see them as human beings who want to live decently, like me and you.”

The last war with Gaza ended only a year ago. This was not the first war, and there is still talk about the next one. Up until this day the press is full of stories coming out of Operation Protective Edge – articles about wounded soldiers, bereaved parents, investigation committees, and new weapons being purchased. It seems that our minds are still deep in war.

And yet, other voices from both sides can be heard.

Not all interviewees were included in this article, because not all of them seemed to fit. Some of them were merely repeating slogans they thought the audience would like to hear. Others seemed more authentic and worth quoting.

Sentences such as: “We are trying, we want to, we can’t,” repeated themselves throughout some of the interviews. Sometimes it seemed that not enough is being done, that the few voices being heard are not widespread enough and not loud enough.

But on the other hand, who am I to judge? Would I do more if I were them? Probably not. And who knows, maybe that’s how good things start – very slowly.

There is a fear that the cynical reader will say, “Another group of bleeding hearts trying to clear their conscience with useless peace activities”; that the person reading this paper with his coffee mug, the one who says “What a heartwarming story!” will become a cynic after the next violent incident.

And sometimes there’s hope that maybe we are on the brink of something new. After all, a big part of the coexistence initiatives were not there 10 years ago. A coexistence NGO from the Gaza periphery, a well-publicized binational peace concert and a memorial ceremony for Israelis and Palestinians seem like a fresh change.

Whether this amounts to progress only time will tell.

This story first appeared in the Jerusalem Post Magazine. 

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