Summer war season

Rain is a blessing, sometimes even a miracle.

(From left to right) Rana , Ruth, her sister and Sajida take a group photo after lighting Hanukka candles last year. (photo credit: COURTESY RUTH VASILEVA)
(From left to right) Rana , Ruth, her sister and Sajida take a group photo after lighting Hanukka candles last year.
With the summer rapidly approaching and daily temperatures reaching 38º, I can’t help but feel a pit in my stomach, fear creeping in.
As one Israeli friend who just got called up for reserve duty said to me the other day: “‘War Season’ is coming. Wars are only conducted in the summer; the world has learned its lesson from Napoleon, who sent his troops to Russia in the middle of the winter, with half of them freezing on the way.”
Let’s cool off with one rainy story, which happened not that long ago – but feels like a lifetime… I remember that time as “a Hanukka miracle.” It was a chilly December night and I was finally getting to see my Gazan friends, whom I had first met in January 2014 at a negotiation workshop in Jerusalem.
There was Rami, 30, who had been in a Hamas prison for going on the radio and saying people should only marry for love. Rana, his sister, an accountant, is sweet and well-mannered; her beautiful eyes are made even bigger by the hijab she wears. Munahid, a medical student, was always asking me for Jewish texts to compare to his quotes from the Koran.
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Finally there was Sajida, a 22-year-old student of business administration; she tells everyone to call her Suzy. When Rami first met her, he said he was surprised by her outgoing and vivacious personality, expecting one with such a religious name to be demure – as Sajida means “one who prostrates, a devoted worshiper of God.”
Over the next year I stayed in touch with the four of them via Facebook and Skype. We kept up contact as best we could during last summer’s war – Operation Protective Edge – as electricity shortages were frequent. For days they would be without power and their Israeli friends would just send messages, waiting for a reply, so we’d know they were alive.
To get a permit to come into Israel from the Gaza Strip is an almost unheard-of thing, especially after the summer war. I couldn’t believe I was getting a chance to see my friends again, in real life.
They were coming to Israel to attend a conference in Tel Aviv on non-violent resistance. Their car finally arrived at the cinematheque well after the conference was under way. They had gone through three checkpoints, one for Hamas, one for the Palestinian Authority and one for Israel. The Hamas checkpoint was the most uncertain, and altogether they spent at least eight hours at the border.
By the end of the conference, Rami, Rana, Munahid and Sajida were the stars of the show. On stage in front of a theater filled with people, the mostly Israeli crowd asked the foursome about their experiences during Operation Protective Edge.
“In the summer, I realized that in Gaza none of my leaders cared for me,” Rami told the crowd. “My Israeli friends were the only ones constantly calling, checking in if my family was still alive.”
“IT’S RAINING like hell,” I said as we left, exhausted from the conference. “We’ll have to take a cab. The guy hosting you is already waiting to give you the key to his apartment.”
Munahid sat in front and Rami, Sajida and I climbed in the back. Rana had left earlier to meet up with my sister, who was also at the conference. We drove for a few minutes before the driver looked over at Munahid and told him to put on his seat belt.
“Ah! We never put on seatbelts in Gaza,” Munahid replied.
“What?! What do you mean you’re from Gaza? Are you trying to scare me?”
“No, not at all. I just mean we don’t use them – I guess because the distance from one place to another in Gaza is too short.”
I noticed the driver was becoming nervous; her hands began to shake and we drove through a large puddle that could have been easily avoided. I tried to calm her down.
“These are my friends, we’ve all been invited to a peace conference,” I explained. The rest of the ride continued without incident, and we arrived at the apartment in one piece. It was still raining, and despite the group’s nearly 16-hour day – getting up at 4 a.m. to go to the crossing – they weren’t tired at all; they wanted to go out and explore Tel Aviv. I looked enviously at the four big, cozy beds set up for them. But it made sense: Despite all of us being wet, tired and dirty, this was their only night – ever – outside the Gaza Strip.
We walked out onto Dizengoff Street, and for hours explored every corner of the city, my friends looking like tourists at Disneyland – a place I can only imagine, where I’ve never been. We stopped in McDonald’s to hide from the rain, and even this place was an attraction in itself. “I was once in a McDonald’s,” recalled Rami, “a long time ago, in Cairo.”
At 4 in the morning, the group was still not tired; we headed to the studio apartment belonging to my sister and her boyfriend for a nightcap. All of us squeezed into one tiny room: three Israelis and four Gazans. The girls took the bed and the guys stayed on the floor. A few short months ago, I could never have imagined such a scene.
BY MORNING, the sun was out and we headed to Jaffa to meet some other Israeli friends and see the Old City. But soon after, the women of the Gaza delegation – clearly the opinion leaders of the group, asserted their authority and said – “We want to go to al-Aksa Mosque.”
Rami and Munahid thought it was impossible for them to make it to Jerusalem and back to the border crossing on time. So did I. But Sajida was adamant. Suddenly, I recognized something in her enthusiasm and stubbornness, in a longing for a place. Who, if not the Jews, could understand such a feeling? Amazingly, we found a driver willing to undertake such a trip. And so the four Gazans left for al-Aksa and the Temple Mount.
Standing alone in Jaffa, the rain started to fall again. Rain in this land is a blessing. Maybe one day it will rain in the summer too.
The writer is a Bulgarian-Israeli who is involved in various coexistence projects between Israelis and Palestinians.