Chapter 15. Life and death in Gaza


We, too, cry when we fall to the earth’s rim.

Mahmoud Darwish
“The Kindhearted Villagers”
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise.


We were sitting on the beach by the Mediterranean in Spain last summer with a group of friends. This group included Ahmed, a young Palestinian from Gaza. We were soaking in the gorgeous Spanish summer weather, the blue sky, the perfectly azure sea and the utter peace. Ahmed was staring at the sea. He then turned to me and said: “You know, I think the arrival of peace for us will be sudden, like a beautiful boat appearing in the horizon and sailing into the coast.” Ahmed is not much given to dreaming and his life –with the exception of his being able to make it to Europe—has been more of a nightmare. Among other tragedies, he had his uncle shot dead by the Israeli army when he was a teenager as the two of them were standing at a checkpoint in Gaza. Just like that. He was unable to speak for two months after his uncle’s killing. Making it over to Europe was another hellish process that took months and many visits to checkpoints, suitcase, passport and visa in hand. And yet, Ahmed allowed himself to dream of peace. I have also heard some Israelis use similar wording–that peace will come, will appear, suddenly, miraculously. I have even heard them use the same metaphor as Ahmed, that it will be like a boat coming in from the sea. A song that we sang in our Hebrew ulpan kept on hammering that concept, the peace that will come, will arrive, will appear. What is common to all these descriptions is the sudden, almost miraculous nature of the event and how it is expressed as impersonal. Peace is not something that both sides will labor hard to bring about. It is not something that is acknowledged as a result of a time-consuming process led by two peoples, their governments and their societies. It is almost a mystical event.

If one examines history, it is clear that rationalist movements have held sway at times of relative economic prosperity and political stability. These are times when people feel that they have some control over their lives and their societies and, hence, the culture and philosophy that emerges is one of empowerment and responsibility, one of rational means being put to work to achieve rational ends. On the other hand, at times of great economic hardship, war or political oppression, the culture of mysticism and millenialism flourishes. People just do not see how they could possibly make it out of the situation they find themselves in and, yet, they must believe in a better future. That future, which cannot be conceived of in rational terms –because it just does not make sense in the current circumstances–, is imagined almost magically, miraculously, mystically –like Ahmed imagined peace suddenly coming to Gaza. This pattern is clear in Jewish history, but not only in Jewish history. It is a sad commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that so many people on both sides can only imagine peace as a sudden, miraculous event that will come one day as a beautiful boat sailing in from the Mediterranean.

 The most beautiful girls in the world

Hassan had lived all his life in an occupied Gaza until he left for the United States while already in his twenties. He told me how, during all those years, he had never seen an actual Israeli soldier face to face. At the checkpoints, Israeli soldiers were on towers or behind walls or some other barrier which ensured that Palestinians would not see their faces. I thought that was amazingly surreal, directly out of Kafka — being occupied by a literally faceless army. Hassan went on to explain that, when he left Gaza, got to the Egyptian side of the checkpoint and was finally able to see the Israeli soldiers, he was really surprised. He was still in wonder as he remembered: “They were the most beautiful girls in the world.”

The Shaheed poster

Majed is a Gazan in his twenties who has had six of his cousins killed by Israeli forces. He has seen many more people dead than that when one counts neighbors and friends. He told me the story of his brother Marwan who, at the age of ten asked his mother for two shekels without telling her what they were for. He donned white clothes, went to a photographer’s shop and had a picture of himself taken holding a gun –one that the photographer has there ready for those coming to have their pictures taken with it. Marwan came back to his mother with his “shaheed picture” and gave it to her saying that, in case he gets killed by the Israelis, they would not have to scurry about to get a picture prepared for the “shaheed poster” as had happened with some of his cousins.

The settlements were so beautiful!

Moattaz is from a refugee camp in Gaza. He lived there before moving to Europe after graduating high school. During his whole life in Gaza, the strip was occupied by Israel and the settlements and the Israeli army and the checkpoints were a constant presence. One day, I asked him about the settlements. His answer surprised me. He said that he would drive up as close as he could to them, although he was running the risk of getting shot. I asked him why he did that. He said he did so in order to look at them. He had an almost dreamy look in his face as he said: “The settlements were so beautiful!” It had never occurred to me that, sitting in a refugee camp in Gaza, the settlements could be anything but a hateful sight taking up one’s land for the benefit of others. I did not think that someone could, even if just for a moment, see it as beautiful architecture to look at by comparison to one’s own meager dwellings. I heard a similar opinion in a documentary about some Palestinians living in Bethlehem. “For us,” a western-looking Palestinian woman in her forties, said, “they are a symbol of modernity.” She went on to explain she hoped they would inherit those “symbols of modernity” once the Israelis withdrew.

For three months, my suitcase was packed at the door

Mohammed is a 21-year old Palestinian from Gaza who is living in Catalonia. He is married to Marta, whom he met when they were both studying in England and he is studying to be an architect at the University of Barcelona. Mohammed is a very determined young man, sharp, driven, mature and with excellent language skills. After two years in Europe, he speaks English, German, Spanish and Catalan fluently. One summer day as I was visiting Catalonia, we got together and started discussing life in Gaza. Among the many harrowing stories I heard from him, one that particularly struck me was his experience in leaving the country. He explained that his suitcase stayed packed at the door for three whole months. His papers were ready and he had been admitted to study in England. But he would get up in the morning and travel to the Israeli-controlled check-point into Egypt only to be turned down. He would return home and place his suitcase by the door ready to try again at the next occasion. After three months, he finally made it.

The next step, however, were the Egyptian controls. There, he had no problem in being allowed through. However, he explained, the treatment the Egyptian officials afforded him and other Palestinians in the same situation was even worse than what he had experienced with Israelis. They placed all Palestinians in a bus with armed guards and took them to a subterranean terminal at the airport reserved for them and where they were asked to stay until it was time for them to board their planes. At that time, another guard led them to their plane. This story parallels others one hears about the treatment of Palestinians in Israel as well as in Arab countries. Mohammed summarized in a refrain I have unfortunately often heard from others, “They treated us like animals.”

Ever again

Ahmed is a Palestinian from Gaza in his mid-twenties. He was fortunate enough to have an uncle in northern Europe to sponsor him to come and do his university studies in the continent. After Ahmed left and Hamas took over Gaza, Israel shut down the strip. With very few exceptions, no one can go in or come out to this day. As a result, Ahmed has not seen his family for over four years. They speak on the phone and exchange e-mails, but that is all the contact they have. Ahmed, like most Palestinians, is very close to his family. Palestinian families are tightly knit and their solidarity and closeness are exemplary. It is very hard for Ahmed to be away from his family. He is studying in Europe while working. He sends whatever money he can to his family, worries about them day and night and dreams of going back to live there. It never occurred to me, though, that he might feel that this would never happen. One day, as we were talking about his family, he told me “I don’t know if I will ever see my family again.” That shook me. I am very close to my family as well and, although I have been living abroad for over fifteen years, I visit them regularly. I also, thank G-d, do not need to worry about their welfare, whether in security or in economic terms. I tried to imagine what it must feel like to constantly worry about their lives and not to know whether I would ever see them again. I wasn’t able to.

On a donkey

Rawa is a young Palestinian woman from Gaza. Since she was outside the Gaza strip when Israel shut it down after the election of Hamas, she has been away from her family for several years. I was talking to her and asking her how her family was doing. She told me that things were hard. That her parents, who had been teachers in the Gulf, were expelled from there after Arafat supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait. After they went back to Gaza, they never found a steady job again. Her father drove a taxi before they ran out of fuel due to the closure of the strip imposed by Israel. Her brothers could no longer go into Israel for the jobs they had before the closure. Her sister was no longer going to university as she, like other students, had no means to get there due to the lack of fuel.

Her grandfather, an elderly man well into his eighties, had recently had a heart attack. Because of lack of gas, her family had to take him to the nearest location where fuel could be found on a donkey. I had read in the news that, due to the severe restrictions imposed by Israel on imports and exports out of the strip, Gazans were now making great use of donkeys. It seemed like a story out of a horror movie. It struck me even more when I imagined a whole family at a standstill –a father without work, sons prevented from access to their jobs, a sister without means to go to university and an elderly man suffering from a heart attack being hauled to a hospital over a donkey.

Thirty shekels

Rami is from Nusseirat in the Gaza strip. I asked him to tell me what it was like to live there and, in particular, how difficult it was to get from one place to another in the tiny strip. So, he shared some of his experiences in Gaza with me. The extent of restrictions on movement in the strip, even before its full closure, seems to have even been greater than they are in the West Bank. Before their removal, the settlements cut right through the midst of the Gaza strip. When settlers wished to travel or just go out to walk their dogs, the roads would be shut down for all Palestinians. Even when the roads were open, in order for Palestinians to be able to drive by the area near the settlements (which was necessary to go from one Palestinian town to another), they were required to have at least two passengers in their cars. This restriction was imposed by Israelis because they believed it would reduce the chances of any attacks against the settlements. Because driving in twos was not always convenient or possible, a sinister business opportunity for children developed. A line of kids would form at the beginning of the restricted area and, for thirty shekels, they would go into a car with one passenger wishing to drive to the other side. This was one of the few money-earning opportunities for children in a devastated Gaza strip.

Tomatoes and Cucumbers

My friend Tamar is a sabra in her thirties. She is very much involved in peace dialogue initiatives with Palestinians and, when she finishes her law studies, she would like to be a lawyer for a human rights organization. One day, over dinner, she was telling me that she had participated in a peace dialogue with Palestinians and that the organizers had been able to get permits for three people from Gaza to participate. That was quite an accomplishment, as it was the time of the full blockade instituted on Gaza by the Israeli government since the takeover of the strip by Hamas. I asked Tamar how it went. She said it went fine at the beginning and that the Gazans had been able to participate in the dialogue like everybody else and be cogent and constructive.

However, she explained that, at the end of the day, the Gazans unwound and got drunk and the feelings they had been repressing while sober came out. They started to tell the Israelis off, accusing them of the policies their government was implementing in Gaza. Tamar –and the other Israelis—did not know how to react. “There is nothing I could do,” she told me in a mix of helplessness and annoyance, “I could apologize one thousand times and it would not have made a difference.” “On the other hand,” she went on, “who can blame them? At the end of the workshop, they were scurrying about getting some tomatoes and cucumbers to take with them into Gaza.”

I certainly did not cry enough for Gaza

As I was spending my first few days back at my job in Washington D.C., Israeli troops were ravaging Gaza just as Hamas continued to fire rockets into Israel. The images of Gaza in the press were devastating, ruin upon ruin, death upon death, fighters and civilians, men and women, adults and children. The survivors were just as heart-rending as the dead. An image that stayed with me was that of two girls of about 4 years of age being brought into a hospital in shock. Their eyes were bewildered, as if they had no idea what was happening to them and what the next second would bring, and they were shaking violently from head to toe. Meanwhile, I was carrying on with my life, going to work in the morning, catching up with old friends and planning my return to the city. In the background were the death and the unfolding misery, only peeking into my life from the newspapers, the occasional conversations and the emails I exchanged on an almost daily basis with a Gazan friend now living in Europe who was kind enough to tell me how his family was faring in the midst of all that violence and chaos.

After examining various petitions for a cease-fire, I signed the one I felt was most appropriate for me and most likely to make an impact –one by a group of left-wing Israelis and Jews in cooperation with Palestinians. I also made a small financial contribution to my friend to send over to his family. I had tried joining a demonstration in support of “the Palestinian people in Gaza” while I was in Europe a few days earlier, but left when I saw that the demonstration was calling for the “dismantlement of the state of Israel.” I felt my actions were so woefully inadequate and yet did not know what else to do.

As I thought about my life and how I spent my days, I remembered a vivid dream I had had shortly after moving into Israel/Palestine. I dreamt that I was in some undefined land which looked like my native Catalonia, but was supposed to be Israel/Palestine. In my dream, it was a beautiful sunny day and I was walking in the countryside with some friends when we reached an old Catalan-style farm house. There, we were told that a Palestinian child had just fallen from the balcony to his death. The child was no longer there, but some of his blood was still on the ground. I looked around and saw people going about their lives just as we continued on with ours. I felt a hole in my heart and a sharp pain at what seemed to be the obliviousness of the world at the fate of the child. A Palestinian child just died, I kept on thinking, and we are all just going about our lives in the sun as if nothing had happened. In my dream, I cried and cried till I could not cry anymore and, as I stopped crying, I was upset at myself that I and the world had not cried hard enough. By the time I reached Washington in the winter of 2009, I felt in reality as I had felt in my dream. I felt that same hole in my heart and that pain, that helplessness, and that sense that I and the world had certainly not cried enough for Gaza.

What to feel or what to do

It was a Saturday morning and I was at Kiddush in a Washington synagogue. The Israeli offensive on Gaza was raging as we were celebrating the Sabbath. I went to greet a Rabbi friend who had attended the services. I had known him for the past fifteen years and had heard him to be nothing but an unwavering supporter of Israel and its policies. That day, however, he looked visibly downcast. As he raised the issue of the situation in Gaza, he said to me, “One does not know how to feel, what to do, how to react.” His face belied his words. More than puzzled or confused, he had a look of enormous sadness and pain in his eyes. I would say that he also had a look of disappointment. He expressed something I saw in other American Jews during those days. The bewildered left seemed to have trouble believing that, even an Israel they knew full well was deeply flawed, could step down to such horror. Even some of the hard-core supporters of Israeli policy seemed to finally acknowledge a voice of conscience they had long suppressed. I believe that the war on Gaza may have finally awakened some of the American Jewish conscience. I just hope it will remain awake and be spurred into action so that Israeli policies are no longer a taboo for criticism in the American Jewish community and we can finally start to have the healthy debate we need to engage in if we are to fulfill our role of helping Israel become the country we would all like it to be and, in the process, help ensure its survival.

Shabbat in Gaza

It was the Friday morning after Christmas day 2008 when my friend Mohammed called me at my mother’s home in Catalonia. He wanted to discuss logistics for our upcoming trip with his wife and another Palestinian friend to Andalusia on Sunday. Mohammed is a young man from Gaza and –not counting Israeli soldiers–I am the first Jew he has ever met. “I am calling you now because I know Shabbat is starting at 5:30,” he said. “That’s impressive. How do you know that, Mohammed?””I looked it up on the web” he said proudly. We continued our conversation and made plans for Sunday.

The next morning, the Israeli attack on Gaza started. I did not follow the news as it was Shabbat, but my mother –who normally does not listen to the radio or the TV to help me keep the Shabbat atmosphere in the home–, was updating me as she listened to the radio in her bedroom. From the beginning, it was clear to me that it would be a bloody operation with at least as many civilians being killed as actual Hamas gunmen. I cringed as I thought of the days to come and what they would bring for Palestinians and for Israelis. That evening, I called Mohammed to enquire about his family. He told me they were safe, though very afraid. His younger sister had been on her way to Gaza city when she saw explosions in the distance and asked the taxi driver to take her back to their village. Mohammed, who had been putting in a brave face throughout the months of blockade and the economic hardship they brought on his family, seemed worn down: “I saw some of the Israeli soldiers going into Gaza. They were wearing that thing on their heads (he meant a kippa). They are religious Jews. But, this is not what you are supposed to do on Shabbat, is it?” he asked, neither ironically or rhetorically. I told him that it was not and that we could only defend ourselves if we were attacked on Shabbat. I felt thoroughly dejected and thought what a hillul H-Shem (desecration of G-d’s name) starting such an operation on Shabbat represented. I also wondered how many people in the Israeli government cared.

Just empty words

I was talking to Ahmed about the 2008-09 Israeli war in Gaza as it was raging. His parents and siblings were there, hiding in the home of some relatives so the shooting that was coming in from Israeli ships at sea into their neighborhood would not get to them. Ahmed, like many Palestinians, had been holding high hopes that the presidency of Barack Obama would bring change to his country and perhaps even peace between it and Israel. He was now disappointed even before Barack Obama was inaugurated as President. “He is not even saying anything about it,” Ahmed said to me with a deep look of sadness and despondency in his face. I told him that it would be hard for president-elect Obama to say anything before he was inaugurated and was able to do anything about it. To Ahmed, this practicality did not matter. In his view, his family and his people were under severe attack, hundreds of lives were being lost and there was one person with the moral stature and the standing to say something that may make the killing stop and he didn’t. It is true that Palestinians are easily disappointed. They feel quickly dejected as it is their experience that everybody disappoints them at some point in any case. Ahmed went on with his harsh, but perhaps not entirely unfair judgment: “Yes, we can!” he repeated mimicking Barack Obama’s election campaign motto and shaking his head: “It is just empty words.” I understood his feeling and, at the same time, I hoped with all my strength, for the sake of his people and mine, that he was wrong.

The context

I was in Washington with a group of Jewish friends from different countries including Israel. It was January 2009 and the Gaza offensive was raging. One of the people at the meeting, an Israeli, argued that the context of the conflict was not properly covered by international media. He went on to explain how this context included the incessant rocket attacks from Hamas into Southern Israel and their psychological and physical damage as well as the arms smuggling through tunnels from Egypt into Gaza. I told him that what he said was true and that the context of the conflict included what he mentioned, but did not end there.

It also –and very importantly—included the legacy of 40 years of Israeli presence in Gaza with the settlements, the checkpoints and the myriads of day-to-day humiliations and human rights abuses against Palestinians that it entailed and the hatred it had created. It also included the track record of failure of the “peace process” of the 90s, with Fatah’s legacy of corruption and failure to deliver improvements to the life of average Palestinians, as well as the continuing expansion of settlements. It included the rise in popularity of Hamas over all those years, on the back of Israeli brutality, Fatah incompetence and venality, and delivery of social services and promises of integrity by Hamas. It included Israel’s unilateral withdrawal without having a strong and moderate government in place which was capable of delivering genuine improvement in the life of Palestinians as well as controlling the radical in their society. Finally, it included an election won by Hamas and followed by a painful and protracted economic blockade. Without all of these factors, which are critical to understanding “the context” of the conflict, the rise of Hamas cannot be understood. This context also holds powerful lessons for the future of the West Bank.

The most beautiful place in the world

Olympia, one of the students in my class at Bethlehem University, is from Gaza. She is the daughter of a Palestinian father and a Ukrainian mother. Wondering how a European woman would adjust to life in such a different context, I asked Olympia how her mother liked Gaza. She told me that her mother loved Gaza. Because of the invariably bad news coming from the strip and because I have never been there, I -–probably unfairly– picture it as an overcrowded, poor place over-run by fundamentalism. So, trying not to sound too surprised, I asked Olympia what it was that her mother liked so much about Gaza. “She loves the sea, the people, everything,” she said dreamily and, probably realizing I was a bit incredulous, she continued: “before Hamas, Gaza was the most beautiful place in the world.”


Nadia is a Palestinian young woman from Gaza born of a Palestinian father and a Russian mother. Nadia and the rest of her family –except for Natasha, her seventeen year-old sister—were allowed out of the strip to spend the Christmas holiday in Bethlehem. As is the case with Israeli military decisions, the family has no idea why Natasha was not allowed out. The rest of the family was in Bethlehem during the Israeli attack on Gaza while Natasha was left alone in the strip and went to spend those days with an aunt. This was lucky providence as their home was destroyed during the Israeli bombing and, had Natasha been there, she would likely have lost her life. As on other such occasions with Palestinians, I was amazed at the calm and absence of hatred or even anger that I saw in Nadia’s eyes. She seemed too gentle for that. She just shrugged her shoulders when I asked her what they were planning on doing. “We will wait here in Bethlehem until our home can be re-built.”

People I never met

While I was living in Jerusalem, I received a job offer I ended up not taking. The job consisted in working for a group of donor agencies to support the Ministry of Social Affairs of the Palestinian Authority in developing and managing a database of poor households qualifying for social assistance. The project was important and interesting as there is a dire need to consolidate all the different social safety nets that exist in the country and base their assistance on a singe consolidated data-base. I did not accept the offer because it would have been a full-time job and I would not have had time to teach and research at Bethlehem University and study Hebrew and Arabic as I was doing. Moreover, I was not sure I was the best person to do it, as I had not managed a similar project before. If I had taken the job, I would have spent a lot of my time supervising staff whose job was to visit the poorest households in Palestine, many of them in Gaza. I would have worked in the strip in many of its most deprived areas and with some of its poorest families. As Israel’s war on Gaza was raging, I thought back to what would have happened if I had taken this job and wondered how many of the people I would have met were no longer alive.

Throughout the Gaza conflict, I kept in touch with my friend Mohammed by email. He was living in Europe, but his family was back in Gaza. I knew he was talking to them on a daily basis, trying to follow what each day was bringing them, and more than anything, just checking that they were still alive. I would write to Mohammed every few days and ask about his family. He would graciously and diligently answer me and let me know how they were doing. We would also exchange hopes that it would all end soon and finished our emails with wishes of a Salaam and Shalom that just seemed not to be coming. I will always remember the day of the ceasefire. He wrote to me a heartbreakingly cheerful email whose exact content I do not recall. What I do recall is the feeling that it exuded –it is over!, it is finally over! And, aside from a couple of members of the family being hurt, they survived. They are alive! The email finished with a smiley face.

Nowhere to go

Rana is a beautiful Palestinian woman from Gaza in her early thirties. She was a professor at a Palestinian university and is now doing a PhD at an American university on a scholarship from the US government. We were discussing her dissertation and life in America as well as the situation in Gaza. I asked her what she wanted to do when she finished her degree. She gave me a look implying: “That is the one-million dollar question” and explained: “I cannot go back into Gaza because it is closed. I cannot go into the West Bank because I have a Gaza I.D. I cannot stay in the US because my scholarship requires that I go back to a Palestine and I cannot go to any other country because it will not take me in.” “This is crazy” I told her. “Yes,” she confirmed “it is crazy.”

Murder in Gaza

I was speaking to Ahmad, a young Palestinian from Gaza at a café in London. Ahmad is studying at the University of London, but all his family is back in Gaza. We were discussing the situation of women in Palestine when he told me a particularly sad story. A cousin of his had gotten pregnant. Her boyfriend had said he would marry her and they were both keen on the possibility. Her family, however, did not allow it. They killed her.

I needed to talk to Israelis

I was having dinner with some World Bank colleagues and Anne, a European woman who was living in Gaza working for a human rights organization. Anne had been living in Gaza for six months and, despite the dire straits of the Gazans during the economic blockade which she had witnessed, she refused to let it out on the Israelis at a personal level. On the contrary, as we were dining at a Kosher restaurant in Jerusalem, she made every possible effort to be cordial to the waiters, including being the first person to rush to a young woman who slipped and fell. She told me that it was particularly important for her to be able to do that and that, even after the worst of the Israeli attacks on Gaza (this was before the major 2008-09 offensive), she wanted to meet Israelis and feel they were still people one could relate to at a personal level: “I needed to talk to Israelis” she said.

I understood what she meant and respected her for it. Though a significant part of the “pro-Palestinian” European left seems more focused on bashing Israel –and often the whole Jewish people– than in actually supporting Palestinians, the great majority of the Europeans I met actually helping Palestinians in Palestine were wonderful people who were willing to put their lives on the line for Palestinians and had little time or energy for berating Israelis.

A dumping ground for terrorists

I was spending a lovely late spring evening in Washington D.C. out for a drink with Nada. Nada is a sharp and strong-willed Gazan woman in her twenties who is doing a PhD at a US university. We were discussing how hard things were for Gazans. “The greatest problems in my life,” she recounted, “have been caused by having a Gaza ID.” She explained how it was so hard to go anywhere –almost impossible since the complete closure imposed after the Hamas take-over of the strip in 2006—and how people’s lives were made absolutely miserable. “There is nowhere to go, nothing to do, no economy to speak of and people are locked in,” she explained. I asked her and myself rhetorically why Israel would want to do that. I told her I simply did not understand why Israel would want to make so many people so miserable. I also mused that, in my view, this situation would only strengthen Hamas and work against the peace process. “They know that” Nada replied “and it is convenient for them to have Gaza as a dumping ground for terrorists.” I remembered a conversation I had had with a right-wing Israeli. I had told him how I felt Israel’s policies were radicalizing the Palestinian population, which was not good for Israel. I had added that, if things did not change in the West Bank, there was the danger that the situation would deteriorate to the point that it could become like Gaza. “No problem” he answered: “Let’s see who wants to help them then.”

The impossible trip to Jerusalem

Sometimes one wonders what outsiders are thinking in their dealings with Israelis and Palestinians. This question came to my mind when I was speaking to Anwar, a young man from Gaza who was doing graduate studies in the United States. He told me that his visa was expiring in a couple of months and that he had no way of renewing it. The US was insisting that he get it renewed in person in Jerusalem although he cannot access the city. “They know that! Why do they keep on asking me to do this?” he asked in bafflement. “I wish I could go to Jerusalem. I can’t. I can’t even go home to Gaza.” The last time I saw Anwar, he was still trying to solve his conundrum and the impossible trip to Jerusalem required by the American authorities.


Chapter 16. The loneliest people in the Holy Land


How blest are those who know their need of God;
The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
How blest are the sorrowful;
They shall find consolation.
How blest are those of a gentle spirit;
They shall have the earth for their possession.
How blest are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail;
They shall be satisfied.
How blest are those who show mercy;
Mercy shall be shown them.
How blest are those whose hearts are pure;
They shall see God.
How blest are those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right;
The Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

 Matthew 5:1-19
New Testament


To the Europeans, I am an Arab and to the Muslims, I am an infidel

I was discussing Palestine with a Palestinian Christian professor. He conveyed to me a feeling I have heard from other Palestinian Christians –they feel caught between two unfriendly worlds as they see their own slowly disappear. The professor explained: “To Europeans, I am an Arab and to Muslims, I am an infidel.” Their situation is particularly striking in old centers of Christianity like Bethlehem or Nazareth. Christians in both cities used to be a majority while they are now a dwindling minority. They feel pressure during Ramadan, pressure to dress more conservatively than they would like to and, on occasion, there have been attacks from Muslims. Christians also tend to be particularly well-educated and have greater opportunities to emigrate. Thus, many of them do and their community consequently shrinks further.

The professor also explained how strange it was for them that westerners would have such difficulty conceiving of Arabs as Christians. “We were the first Christian communities,” he explained: “Christianity was born here!” He is right. I remembered that, during my first visits to Bethlehem, I found Christian calendars with Arabic writing somehow incongruous, as if Christianity and Arabic just did not go together and I realized the prejudice that my reaction reflected. Westerners have an amazing capacity to distort and the cultural hegemony of the west is such that we can turn anything we wish into “ours.” Christianity is perceived by the world as western, never mind that it was started by Jews in the Middle East and was appropriated by Arabs before Europeans ever did. Jesus became blond and Bethlehem in our nativity scenes often pretty much looks like Germany. The alienation of Christian Arabs, unfortunately, is not only cultural. They also fear for their security. As Joseph from Beit Jala explained, they are afraid. “Of Jews or of Muslims?” I asked him, “Of both,” he answered sadly.

The Mythical Holy Land

Absence makes the mind grow fonder. It also idealizes. People who live away from what they consider their homeland like to remember it as a perfect haven, devoid of the imperfections of their present abode. In this way, paradise, utopia, is kept isolated, perfect, untouched. Utopia may not exist where they live, but it does exist elsewhere, where they are not now, in the place that they came from and where they will one day return. Paradise Lost. This is how immigrants often think of their country of origin. Jews think this way of Israel, Palestinian refugees of Palestine and, in a slightly different way, Christians of the Holy Land in general and Bethlehem in particular. I believe one of the reasons for the dogged resistance of Diaspora Jews to criticize Israel is that they want to believe it is the utopia we wanted to create and not the badly flawed state in urgent need of repair which exists today. I am not sure to which extent Palestinian refugees are interested in what the towns where they came from really look like today. It would probably be too painful and they prefer to remember the perfect idyllic landscapes of their collective historical memory, the life untouched before 1948.

Last Christmas season, when I went to Bethlehem one last time before going to Spain to visit my family, I was struck by the clash between the Bethlehem of the 21st century and Christian nativity scenes. While Christians (or at least Catholics) all over the world are busy building idyllic landscapes with shepherds, green fields, brooks, wells and pastoral scenes of people going about their lives at the time of Jesus’ birth, real Bethlehem was struggling to breathe, surrounded by settlements, the separation wall, military observation towers and checkpoints. When I went back to Europe and tried to tell people about the real Bethlehem, I realized most of them did not want to hear about it. They preferred their nativity scenes. Real Bethlehem ruined their utopias.

Speaking up as a Christian

Palestinian Christians are used to keeping a low profile. They remind me of European Jews. They know they are a minority in a fragile situation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, their loyalty to the Palestinian people is doubted by some who associate them with the West and the Crusades. They are also afraid to speak up about the discrimination they endure. Many have fled. Since they were a much more urbanized, literate and internationally-connected group, these assets together with the pressures from the occupation and increasing hostility from some among their Muslim Palestinian brothers, combined to lead them to emigrate abroad in higher proportions than other Palestinians. Despite their dwindling numbers, or perhaps because of them, some feel now is the time to stop being silent. Mary, a Palestinian Christian who works at an international organization near Jerusalem, told me: “I used to always subsume our grievances within those of the Palestinian people as a whole. Not anymore.” She said almost defiantly. “Now, I also speak up as a Christian.” I hoped that the Christian world would listen.


I had a meeting with a professor at a West Bank university. We were discussing a number of issues about Palestine and about his university. He told me that the town where the university was located had Christian residents and that those who had started up the university were themselves Christian. I told him that, in my classes at the Bethlehem University, I had not sensed any tension between the students –half of whom were Muslims and half Christians. The professor told me that there used to be no problems at all between Muslims and Christians and that the reason there are some now is that Christians are identified with the West which, in turn, is identified with the United States and Israel.

After my meeting, I went on a tour of the town with John, a Christian Palestinian who is doing a doctorate in the United States and was back in Palestine on holiday. I was interested in John’s opinion about what the professor had said. In my experience, majorities only see a small portion of the problems that minority groups go through. Hence, I always try to ask both sides how they view a situation. The greater the gap between the problems one group sees and what the other group feels they are, the more serious the situation tends to be. In Palestine, there is a gap. John told me that, as a Christian, he had indeed experienced discrimination in the job market many times. He said that, because one of his first names can be a Muslim name, people would first think he was a Muslim. On some occasions, once his interviewers found out that he was a Christian, their attitude changed and he was not offered a job that he had previously felt was forthcoming. When I told John about the professor’s diagnostic on the situation of Christians in Palestine he shook his head: “The problems are not new. They are much older and much deeper than that. They go back to the Crusades.” “The Crusades?” I asked in disbelief “That was a thousand years ago!” “I know,” John said, “but the Crusades shaped the consciousness of Arab Muslims towards Christians and we are identified with the Crusaders to this day.”

I no longer want to put myself through the pain

It was mid-December when I visited Dr. Nair, a Christian academic and a member of the Palestinian Parliament who also works for a Christian NGO. The offices, located in a modest building in East Jerusalem, were decorated for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Dr. Nair was insightful, measured, gentle and polite to a fault, but also visibly down. We discussed many aspects of the occupation and the political situation in Israel and Palestine. He, like most Israelis and Palestinians I talked to, was pessimistic. I told him that, in my view, the important gaps in negotiating positions that existed between Israelis and Palestinians could only be bridged by two strong leaders who could convince their own people that they could deliver and that the other side could do the same. He agreed. He told me that he would often say just that to his colleagues, many of whom thought that change needed to come from below. He explained that he himself had lost faith in grass-roots initiatives. “Even at the social level,” he said, “when I used to receive invitations to visit the homes of Jews in West Jerusalem, I would swallow hard and go for the sake of building bridges. But I have lost faith and I no longer want to put myself through the pain.” I found the fact that even such reasonable, enlightened Palestinian leaders had lost faith in the likelihood of peace greatly disheartening. As I looked at the faded holiday decorations in the office, I also wondered what it must feel like for the tiny Arab Christian minority to celebrate Christmas in a sea of hostility at the heart of the birthplace of Christianity.

The Biggest Idiot

I was spending two days in Jenin, in the northernmost part of Palestine. Jenin is a stronghold of Palestinian nationalism and, during the 2002 Israeli re-occupation, there was fierce resistance, especially from Jenin refugee camp. A harshly violent stand-off emerged between the camp’s dwellers and Israeli forces which ended up in a particularly high number of deaths, almost all Palestinian. I was visiting the Freedom Theater in Jenin Camp, a wonderful place created by a group of devoted local and international activists after the killings, aiming to provide some therapeutic outlet for the creativity of young men and women there. Samira, a lively and sharp young woman who spoke great English, was explaining the activities of the center to me. At one point she veered from the topic of the camp to tell me excitedly, “Did you hear what happened to Bush today?” “No,” I answered fearing what might have happened. Samira eagerly related the incident of an Iraqi journalist throwing his shoe at then-President Bush during a press conference that day. She was understandably delighted. Later on, I heard the story from many other Palestinians, all of whom were thrilled by the event. They felt as if someone who deserved much worse was at least taught a lesson and shown in an unequivocal manner the contempt which he aroused in so much of the Arab world.

I remembered that incident later on as I discussed the relations between East and West with Dr. Hazboun, a Palestinian Christian academic. Dr. Hazboun, a calm and moderate man whom I had never seen lose his cool when discussing the Israelis or insult them even when condemning their actions, did lose his cool when discussing then-President Bush: “He is the biggest idiot!” he told me angrily. We spent centuries patching up relations between Christians and Muslims in the Arab world and here he comes starting up wars all over the Muslim world and calling them a Crusade.” He stopped for a second and seemed to be thinking just how anybody could be so reckless. He went on to summarize his view with a sigh: “He has destroyed the position of Christians in the Arab world.”


Sara is an Arab Christian from a small town in the Galilee. She was born and raised there. She left to go to University in Tel Aviv. However, after completing her degree, she could not find a job in mainstream Jewish society. She is convinced it was because she is an Arab, the discrimination from potential employers being obvious to her. She felt betrayed by mainstream Israel. She ended up going back to her hometown in the Galilee and getting a job nearby. It is a peaceful little town in the hills which is almost exclusively inhabited by Palestinian Christians. There, she feels at home. But only there. Sara says that, as soon as she steps out of her hometown, she is not comfortable. In Jewish society, she is made to feel like a foreigner –“though my family has been living here for centuries”—she would point out in hurt. In Palestinian Muslim society, she does not feel comfortable either. She is what one would consider a very “western” woman. She dresses in jeans and fashionable T-shirts. She is in shape. As a Christian, she does not cover her hair. She is in her forties, unmarried, professional and independent. In her Christian town, her choice is respected and she can go out with her girlfriends. But this is not the case in Muslim Palestinian society where her attire and lifestyle would be frowned upon. As a result, her world is de facto reduced to her little town. “Only here do I feel that I belong” she summarizes.

A Christian University

I was speaking to my friend Ibrahim about my teaching experience at Bethlehem University. At first, he seemed surprised that I would be teaching there as a Jew. He asked me: “Is it OK with them that you converted to Judaism?” I told him that it had not been a problem at all, that I had explained it to the Dean who hired me and he had had no objection. Moreover, it is not the first time I teach at a Christian university after converting to Judaism. I had been a Visiting Professor for two years at Georgetown University, a Jesuit university in Washington D.C. I got the sense from Ibrahim that, had I been a Muslim who had converted to another religion, I would not be similarly welcome at an Islamic University.

Arab Christians and the Christian Churches

Because Arab Christians are, in many ways, in the middle of two hostile fronts –one Jewish and one Muslim–, they feel particularly vulnerable. They also feel culturally lonely. In such an atmosphere, the various Christian Churches could be a particularly valuable tool to help Palestinian Christians. My conversations with Palestinian Christians about Christian churches, however, more often than not reflected disappointment and dejection. In my experience, Palestinian Christians feel Christian churches are more interested in their buildings, their shrines, their pilgrims, their politics and their stakes in the Holy Land than in helping Palestinian Christians.

Palestinian Christians feel they get very little economic support from Christian churches –some of which are actually keener to support the state of Israel, Jewish immigration into Israel and Jewish settlers. Palestinian Christians also resent that the heads of the church that are appointed for Palestine are often not Palestinian, but rather come from other Arab countries. Some Palestinian Christians also told me that their Church is even taking funds collected in Palestine and transferring them to the countries of origin of this foreign clergy (though I have never verified this). In the view of others, some of the money even goes into the clergy’s pockets.

One of my best friends, a Palestinian Christian woman from Jerusalem, recounted she used to do a lot of volunteer work for her local Church as an accountant when she discovered that money was being embezzled. She tried to raise the issue with Church representatives, who asked her to stay quiet. She didn’t. They proceeded to threaten her. She scaled up the case to the highest level and, once she realized that, even at that level, there was no interest in taking up the issue, she gave up. She stopped volunteering and stopped going to Church. Her disappointment was so deep that it had separated her from the Church, though not from her beliefs.


Continue to Chapters 17-18

Return to Table of contents