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Story Publication logo February 26, 2009

Can't I just read in peace?


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Inside Gaza

Gazan healthcare facilities have been strangled by an Israeli blockade since June 2007, when Hamas...

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Multiple Authors

Elliott D. Woods, for the Pulitzer Center


Fishing boats at anchor in Gaza's lone protected harbor, on the Mediterranean coast beside southern Gaza City. — Elliott D. Woods

Gaza City — The Gaza Strip boasts a beautiful stretch of Mediterranean coast line, and the breeze down by the water is oddly warm for this time of year. In the southern part of Gaza City, a wandering foreigner starved for bow-tie clad waiters and sleek décor will be pleased to find a string of nearly-luxury hotels with sun-splashed terraces and stunning views nestled against a long stretch of haphazardly stacked concrete tenements — otherwise known as Beach Camp, one of Gaza's many permanent refugee communities. When I know I'll be in the area, I like to bring a book and sit for a couple of hours reading in the sun, listening to the surf and the fishermen, smoking shisha. That's exactly what I planned to do this afternoon. But the Israeli military had other plans.

I shouldn't have been surprised. Last night Apache helicopters thumped back and forth above my neighborhood for almost two hours, doing god knows what. This morning, F-16s were all over the place. By the time I got settled with my new book and my shisha, nary a second passed without the "voice" of the F-16 drowning out the waves. Gazan English speakers frequently use the word "voice" as a synonym for "sound." It's always the "voice" of the drone, the "voice" of the helicopter, the "voice" of the bomb. Today, the sky was full of menacing "voices."

I also witnessed an Israeli attack boat harrass a fisherman today. The attack boat — the Super Dvora — is capable of reaching 40 nautical miles per hour, and it throws up a mean wake. Its wake alone is frightening enough for a fisherman in a fiberglass skiff, even before the cannons come into view. The attack boat circled around the fisherman a few times, fired over his bow, letting him know that he'd come too close to the boundary of the Israeli naval blockade, and then went back to slinking along the horizon. It was very weird to see all of this transpire from shore, where I felt completely safe. It was like watching bombs explode in Gaza from the Egyptian side of the border. But it was also different, because the Israeli offensive is over now. What was happening today was just run of the mill harrassment, a fact of life from which Gazan fishermen and farmers will get no respite no matter what cease-fire arrangements are hammered out in Cairo.

So there I was, trying to read my new book, Quarantine, by Jim Crace, about some humble folks who happened to go wandering in the desert not far from here at the same time that Jesus was fasting for forty days and forty nights. Of course I couldn't get into it. Despite the biblical subject matter, it happens to read at a quicker and more exciting clip than the Gospels. It was just that every time I found my place, another jet would scream past. Finally I gave up and went home. At least inside my apartment I am not tempted to scan the sky for aircraft every time I hear the "voice" of the F-16.

The F-16s were retaliating today against Grad rockets fired from north Gaza City toward Ashkelon, the southern Israeli city that is plainly visible from the very terrace where I sat this afternoon. I heard the rockets too, I think. Hard to say with all the whooshing going on. Fair enough, I suppose, to combat the attackers. But does Israel really need to mobilize the whole air force?

I don't know what exactly is going on in Cairo, but I know that about 1.5 million Gazans would appreciate it if the delegates assembled from Palestine and Israel would get on with their negotiations and quit the tit for tat fire that won't allow someone to read for an hour in peace, let alone allow for the safety and economic benefit of a long-term cease-fire.

As important as quieting the hostile "voices" above, Hamas and Israel must find a way to open the borders to commercial goods. As one Gazan put it, "The borders are Gaza's lungs. As long as they remain closed, we are suffocating in here." Israeli bombing has been hitting the tunnels next to Rafah regularly since the January 18 sort-of-cease-fire, and the Egyptians are now arresting tunnel operators on their end. Prices and supply stocks here are skyrocketing and plummeting, respectively. The tunnels have been like so many snorkels for Gaza's merchants and consumers in the year and a half since the siege began, and now Israel and Egypt have jammed their thumbs in the intakes.

Of course, the ones who suffer are the ones who have no ability to change anything. The ones who suffer are the ones who can't find blood-pressure medication or diapers for their kids (there are a LOT of kids here, they're more than 50% of the population). The ones who suffer are the ones who depend on the tunnels for generator fuel to run their businesses after the Israeli Air Force inflicted catastrophic damage on the power plant that provides electricity to all of north Gaza.

When it comes to the "voices," everyone suffers. What is it that drives one crazy under Chinese water torture? The steady drip . . . drip . . . drip of a harmless drop of water on one's forehead? Imagine replacing that drip . . . drip . . . drip with the sounds and sights of deadly aircraft, knowing full well that those aircraft could strike at any time without regard for collateral damage. For "security" reasons. Knowing full well that such attacks are not even newsworthy anymore, now that the cease-fire talks are going on in Cairo, cease-fire withstanding. To me, it seems like the torture of a whole society. Maybe residents of Israeli towns say the same thing about the hiss of rockets coming from Gaza. I'm sure southern Israeli children have many of the same fears as Gazan children, even if the threats posed to each are so drastically asymmetrical.

What was the word? Disproportionate.

All the more reason to ground the jets, get a real cease-fire pushed through the gauntlet, find a way to open the borders, and let the people who live on this tiny sliver of earth exhale for the first time in years.


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