Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Lara Tries To Go Home

Our delegation arrived safely in Palestine a couple weeks ago. We exited our plane at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, built on part of a Palestinian town of Lyd, most of whose inhabitants either fled in 1948 during the Nakba and remain in refugee camps in Amman, Jordan or Ramallah, West Bank living under deplorable conditions, or they live as second-, third-, or fourth-class citizens in what remains of town, now part of Israel. The removal of 17,948 of Lyd's population of 19,000 in 1948 was led by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, hailed as a peacenik by those unfamiliar with his history of brutality that continued through the First Intifada (during which Rabin implemented a policy of breaking the arms and legs of any Palestinian who threw a stone at an Israeli tank, jeep, etc.) and beyond. Rabin wrote the following in his own diary shortly after 1948 attacks driving out almost 95% of Lyd's non-Jewish population:

"After attacking Lydda [Lyd] Ben-Gurion would repeat the question: What is to be done with the population?, waving his hand in a gesture which said: Drive them out!. 'Driving out' is a term with a harsh ring, .... Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook." (Soldier Of Peace, p. 140-141 & Benny Morris, p. 207)

His guilt and psychological struggle didn't prevent him from giving orders to do the same to neighboring villages ('Imwas, Yalu, and Bayt Nuba) 19 years later.

The struggle of remaining inhabitants of Lyd (now citizens of Israel) for recognition as equal human beings and their isolation from their fellow Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Diaspora is documented beautifully in one of my favorite documentaries about Palestine: Slingshot Hip Hop, documenting the rising Palestinian hip-hop movement as resistance to oppression through the spoken word.

Anyway, arriving at Israel 's airport, named after Ben-Gurion himself, our delegates waited anxiously in line for passport control, hoping we would not targeted given our desire to meet with Palestinians. Israel recently denied entry to Noam Chomsky, who was on his way to give a talk at a Palestinian university, to name but one example. Those eventually interrogated from our group were no surprise—two Palestinian delegates, simply trying to visit their homeland.

They each told us their stories that night, but I'll focus on the story of just one: Lara.

Lara stood in line next to a large group of young Jewish Americans talking excitedly about coming on vacation to Israel . They were breezed through with a smiling, "Welcome to Israel ." When Lara reached passport control, they didn't bother asking her any questions. Her name was enough. Security escorted her to another room where she was held for over an hour. First, they asked for her phone number in the United States . She gave it to them… What will they do with it? They asked where her parents were born. " Gaza ," she answered. That was all the questioner needed to know. "You will have to visit the Ministry of Interior," he said, and took her into a third room.

"What is your father's name?" Lara answered. "I know," he replied.

"What is your mother's name?" Lara answered. "I know," he replied again.

"What is your father's mother's name?" "What is your mother's father's name?" "What is your mother's mother's name?" She answered each question and with each he replied, "I know."

When the interrogator asked, "What is your father's father's name?" Lara replied that she actually didn't know because he died long before she was born. But he knew, and before her eyes he sketched out the family tree of her own family, most of them uprooted from their homes by the Israeli Army. He said "Your grandfather' s name is Sayyid. And your father's name is not only Ahmad. It is Ahmad Mahmoud Sayyid Elborno."

Lara asked, "If you know the answers to all these questions, why are you asking me?" but he didn't respond. He continued:

"What date did your grandparents get married?"

"I don't know. Do you know what date your grandparents got married?" she challenged him.

"Your grandparents were married on September 3, 1958."

Then he began to show Lara photographs from Palestinian ID cards, asking if she was related to them. She didn't recognize any of them, until the last one: a older man in a grey suit.

"That's my grandfather, " she said, looking into his elderly face blown up on this interrogator' s screen. She was surprised because it was a recent photograph of him, even though he has not been to Palestine in many years. Why and how did they get a photograph of him, carrying on a new life far away after being pushed out?

Finally, he moved on to Lara's sister, explaining that she had been here last year. "Why?" he asked.

"Tourism," Lara replied.

"But you're from Gaza ."

"So Gazans cannot be tourists?"

Lara finished her story to us: "I must have forgotten that being from Gaza is a crime. After an hour and a half, my passport was stamped and I was told to enjoy my stay in Israel ."

We thought as a group about Lara's question as to why she was asked so many questions that Israel already knew the answer to… Was it to stall time to keep her longer? Was it to catch her if she lied? Was it to gather more intelligence about her family? Or was it to show who had the power in her own homeland.

Shortly after our arrival, our group visited Erez checkpoint, the northern crossing into Gaza . Of course, we couldn't enter Gaza, which remains under siege with full Israeli control over the shoreline, airspace, borders (except Rafah, which Egypt itself closed in part due to pressure from Israel and the US), and the land itself with buffer zones and invasions. Fishermen cannot fish to feed their families. If a Palestinian student in Gaza gets a scholarship to study in the United States … Too bad. They mostly likely can't get out. Gaza used to export millions of flowers… no more (once, people in Gaza carried thousands and thousands of carnations to Rafah checkpoint and dropped them there as an act of creative protest). Adequate fuel can't get in. Adequate medicine and medical supplies can't get in. Adequate food and water can't get in. People can't get in. People can't get out. Gaza is an open air prison.

On the way to Erez checkpoint, Lara shared with the group some of the items that Israel prohibits or often blocks from Gaza :

Cilantro, jam, chocolate, French fries, dried fruit, notebooks, toys, coriander, light bulbs, candles, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, pasta, tea, coffee, nuts, shampoo, conditioner, books, musical instruments, and crayons.

[Sources: "Why Won't Israel allow Gaza to import coriander?" (Haaretz Israeli Newspaper) and "Guide: Gaza Under Blockade" (BBC). List of commercial goods allowed only at certain points here.]

Lara has family and land in Gaza that she has never seen, but along with musical instruments and coriander, she's not allowed in. But Lara went to the window to try to go home anyway. She showed the seemingly bored young female solder her passport and said that she wanted to enter to go her family, whom she's never met.

"I'm sorry," the soldier replied, and slid her passport back. "You need a coordination. "

"What's a coordination?" Lara asked.

"You need to call to get permission to go to Gaza ."

"Permission from Gaza ?"

"No, permission from Israel ."

"Why do I need permission from Israel to go to my own land?"

The soldier didn't seem to understand the question.

We hope that the flotilla and upcoming new boats will continue to raise awareness of the dire humanitarian crisis in Gaza . But the people in Gaza don't need sympathy. They need freedom, and they need justice. They don't need food; they need the ability to cultivate, catch, export, and import their own food. They don't need our money; they need the ability to thrive and to grow their own economy. They don't need our "help." They need our support, which is exactly what the flotilla was and is all about.

My friend Lara doesn't need permission to visit her land. It is her right—period. The fact that Israel consistently denies the rights of Lara and millions of other Palestinians to access their land in Gaza , the West Bank, or anywhere in historic Palestine does not make their rights questionable or debatable. They are non-negotiable, like any human right. It's as simple as that.

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