Last night I woke up shaking and crying to the brilliant flashes of light and booms. It was a monsoon thunderstorm. I thought I was in Gaza. It was only desert summer rains. I thought I was among the 500,000 internally displaced people, scrambling like mad to avoid adding their numbers to the over 1,500 murdered relatives friends neighbors, running from building to destroyed building to targeted hospital to flattened school, seeking shelter from the 86,000 armed soldiers and the 200 tons of bombs raining daily. Like the monsoon thunderstorm, but deadly, evil, horrible. I thought I was in Gaza. I thought I will need therapy for the rest of my life for this one night. I was not in Gaza. I was safe in the U.S., safely inside the tanks, behind the scopes of the guns, directing the unmanned drones, flying the Apache helicopters. Safely armored as I rained hellfire and destruction on the 1.8 million people of Gaza for over 24 nights and days. And as I spent another sleepless night I thought I will never comprehend the horrors that the people of Gaza live every night. And I will never forgive myself for not stopping them.
“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group, (b) causing serious mental or bodily harm, (c) deliberately inflicting upon the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Source: UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%2078/volume-78-I-1021-English.pdf
How much does it take?
How long do the borders need to be sealed to make it a ghetto?
How limited do the shipments of food and medical aid need to be to bring about physical destruction?
How many water sources and power supplies must be destroyed?
How many rounded up and imprisoned without charge, indefinitely?
How many protests, journalists, and human rights inquiries quelled?
How many government officials must call for murder or expulsion of an entire population?
How many denials that the group of people even exists, or have any claim to their homeland?
How long must the refugees be kept away from their homes?
How many homes need to be destroyed?
How many children must go to bed to the lullabies of drone strikes?
How many innocent people must be killed?
For how long will we stand by and wait for the numbers to cross some magical threshold before we act?
For how long will we maintain that only ovens and gas chambers count?
For how long?
For how many?
I’ve visited the issue of grief’s visibility a lot on this blog. I’ve also been drawn to the comparisons of grief to a physical loss or impediment. The healing, or perhaps “coping” is really the word, process involves a subjugation of that visibility and a circumventing of the physical limitations. It is a sign that I’m doing “better” that people don’t see the pain in my features anymore; it is a sign of improvement that I can interact with the world in a way that doesn’t reveal my amputations.
It is a sign of improvement, but it also feels like a betrayal and like a disguise. And so, to honor that this loss is physical and keep it visible, I got a memorial tattoo for the 2 year anniversary of Alex’s death. I wanted a visible, physical marker that I have lost, but I also wanted it to demonstrate the enduring Alex, his extremism and his humor. When it came down to it, I wanted an image that would capture my loss without making me cry every time I looked at it. Since I can’t draw for shit, an image that captured that spirit was a while in the making and largely entrusted to the tattoo artist. I gave him some concepts, a story, and a glorified stick-figure drawing.
I’ve known I wanted a memorial tattoo for some time, but I didn’t realize how right it would be. I just thought of it as something else to do; as someone told me this weekend, when you’re stuck, your only non-option is doing nothing. It isn’t just that it serves as a prompt for me to talk about Alex with strangers, as I initially hoped; it also allows me to feel that I am carrying Alex with me at all times.
I still talk about Alex frequently, since our lives were constantly intertwined for some 15 years and only slightly less tightly woven for the next 14, so many of my stories feature him. Sometimes I talk about him in the present tense, which occasionally leads new people to ask where he is, a question I have answered variously with “that’s a bit of an existential question,” or “dead,” or “his body is buried in a suburban cemetery,” depending on whether I’m feeling snarky, or kind, or curt. None of those answers feels good. They don’t even feel honest — “dead” is not a where, and his body is not him.
I don’t get much cheesier than this, so grab a cracker and some wine and hang on: this tattoo has allowed me to answer the question of where Alex is with, “Here. He’s here, with me, and with everyone who knew and loves him.” (Those mismatched tenses are intentional.) And that feels honest, and, in the way that we make do with loss, good.
The point of this road trip was to change my narrative, the story of who I am and how I ended up here, wherever here is. I have suffered, I have lost, and I will not be made whole again. I won’t pretend otherwise. But I did not want to lead with my self-pity. Now, through distance, friends, and the unlikely aids of needles and ink, I’m at least beginning to change my lead, edit out the minor villains, and spend more chapters building my co-protagonist’s character rather than focusing on his cataclysmic demise.
Let’s talk about tunnels.
Since the latest excuse for the current Israeli assault on Gaza is the tunnels, let’s talk about the tunnels. Let’s talk about a population of 1.8 million people in a 140 square mile zone who cannot leave via land, air, or sea. Let’s talk about a place where outsiders are not allowed in. Let’s talk about a place where farmers and fisherfolk cannot get their wares outside the perimeters for sale, and strawberries and watermelons rot awaiting passage. Let’s talk about a place where basic goods cannot be brought in; sometimes cloth, sometimes concrete, sometimes medication. Where fuel is (over)priced and allocated by the very same force that controls the entrances and exits to the territory, allocated at such small amounts that electricity is never available all the time, and during times of acute crisis is only available a few hours a day. Where my friend, now an American citizen, couldn’t enter for his brothers’ weddings. Where the unemployment rate is at 60%, and even government employees have their pay frozen by foreign powers who don’t like the current ruling party.
Let’s talk about people with sumud (steadfastness), who have lived in this situation for over 60 years, increasingly awful for the last 7. These people can die, or they can dig. Tunnels represent a literal underground lifeline for Palestinians. The light at the end of the tunnel has been used to smuggle goods, livestock, people; my friend did get to the weddings, because he entered through the tunnels.
If you lived in Gaza, would you wither or would you build tunnels? And when the screws were tightened even further, elevating the usual mostly starvation style of violence into epic bursts of bombing flattening whole neighborhoods and their inhabitants, would the idea of using those tunnels for weaponry cross your mind? We ask amazing feats of sacrifice from Palestinians, and amazingly, most deliver: we ask that they bear their wrongful imprisonment in silence and peace. The tunnels are still primarily used for civilian purposes, or would be, if they aren’t all destroyed. So let’s talk about tunnels, and why they are there in the first place; then let’s talk about destroying the tunnels by opening the fences.
Many people have asked me how Basel’s family is doing. I wasn’t sure if an update alert would be sent if I edited the original post (“Your home is about to be destroyed”), so I’m just adding a quick one now:
The Khalils of Jabaliya Refugee Camp are still alive as of now. They have a new baby, Basel’s niece Taleen; she is healthy. They have not left their home; there is nowhere to go. Others in Jabaliya and Beit Lahiya have fled to UN shelters, but as we know from 2008-2009, UN shelters are not safe. Nowhere in Gaza is safe.
Israel is using white phosphorus gas again. The magnificent, firework-spectacle screaming streaks through the night sky, the ones that burn flesh off on contact, melt babies alive, keep wounds open even on the survivors for years with nerve damage and bleeding reminders of the world’s abandonment. That stuff that was declared a war crime when Israel used it on Gaza in 2008-2009. Where do they get it?
Israel is also using another unidentified poison gas.
Basel’s family is trying to shield part of their home with plastic sheeting and put the children there, so they don’t breath the poisoned gasses. Please tell your local media and elected officials about the Khalils.
I just got off the phone with a dear old friend. She thanked me for keeping her updated with what is happening in Gaza, and for sharing my views, because, as she rightly pointed out, the news in the U.S. is impossibly tangled. The pictures accompanying headlines about rocket fire into Israel have several times now been pictures of flattened Gazan homes (thank you, Diane Sawyer and Fox News).
But this friend didn’t just thank me because I was able to sort out some of the facts. She also thanked me because it was important to hear this from a Jew. This is a smart, caring person, a lawyer, human rights activist, and religious Christian. She has known me for years, known my views on this for years, and yet she still feels like she needs my permission to get involved.
And thus, we get to Jewish privilege on the issue of Israel/Palestine. The kneejerk cry of “Anti-Semitism!” is still so common a reflex that people shy away from making their unease with Israel known, or even learning more. Information from organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace becomes more trustworthy than that from “neutral” sources, and certainly more than that from Palestinian/Arab/Muslim sources. Signs like the one my dad held this weekend, “Occupation: Not in My Name” alert passersby that a Jew has weighed in, criticized Israel, and therefore said passersby can now engage in conversation, take literature, think about the issue.
This is deeply problematic. It is problematic because it means we need permission from people within the oppressor group to criticize oppression. It is problematic because it negates the voices of others, but especially and most importantly because it negates the voices of the victims themselves. It deems the Palestinian narrative less trustworthy, in this weird belief that bias exists only on the side of the oppressed.
And yet. And yet. As deeply uncomfortable as it makes me to write on my demo sign that “I am Jewish AND. . . ,” my friend reminded me that this is what gets those people who are disquieted by the news but not engaged to stop and read the rest of my sign. It should not matter that I am Jewish; it should only matter that Gaza is constantly under siege and is now undergoing a massacre. But if I refuse to use my privilege in this case, I may have lost a group of nice nervous people who really do feel they need my permission to get involved. It’s not really their fault; Holocaust guilt runs deep, as it well should, and it is cleverly and constantly exploited by defenders of Israel.
Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get invitations to radio programs, to churches, to civic organizations. Jews involved in Palestine solidarity work get pats on the back for being so courageous. It can be flattering, and we can let it go to our heads and forget that Palestinians are being ignored in their own struggle. We must use our privilege in a constructive way, one that alerts concerned people to listen to Palestinian voices. My mother once refused to speak on a panel unless the hosts invited Palestinian speakers, and then provided a list of local qualified speakers. Jews are the bouncers at this event: we get the crowd to listen up by shouting our Jewishness into the loud-speaker, then we hand the mike over to the Palestinians. I would like this not to be the case, I would like us not to have to grant permission to criticize Israel, but even more I would like the Occupation and war crimes to stop. If that means I have to write “I am Jewish AND . . .” on my sign next time, I guess I will.
On this, the 2 year anniversary of my brother’s death, I awoke to a message from a Palestinian friend. His family, in Jabaliya Refugee Camp in the Northern Gaza Strip, has just received the phone call from Israel: their home is about to be destroyed, get out.
The family of Ali Rajab and Leila Khalil lives in the Hay Raid al Saliheen neighborhood of Jabaliya Refugee Camp. They are refugees, from Israel-proper. They are a family of paramedics. They have no connection to rockets, to fighting, or even to a political party.
Basel’s family received 5 phone calls. The first said to get out by July 15th, their home would be destroyed then. The most recent one said they had 4 hours. I said, Basel, they need to get out now. Israel doesn’t give people the time it says it will. Basel said, they can’t. There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza. Nowhere. In 2008, people in his neighborhood taking shelter in a UN school were blown to smithereens. Basel’s dad, Ali, nearly got blown up a few days ago when the Red Crescent Ambulance he was driving was narrowly missed by an Israeli missile.
I really don’t know if his family plans to try to leave their house and risk assassination on the streets, where Israel is now firing missiles at groups of people, or to stay and risk death at home. Again I asked Basel if they had anywhere they could go. Again he told me that there is not a safe place in all of Gaza, and there is no way out.
Israel called the family on the landline. If their intelligence has the phone number to the house, and the address, then surely it has the intelligence to know there is nothing in that house but civilians. Israeli public relations states that the “warning” calls and bombs (gentle, warning bombs, like a soft kiss in the morning) are an indication that it is humane, because it gives people time to evacuate. But this would require somewhere safe to go, and unlike Israel, Gaza has no bomb shelters, and no safe places. It also implies that somehow, a civilian home in which all the civilians should be given a chance to leave, is still a target; that doesn’t even make any sense. Are the Khalils’ bedsheets or family photos threatening to Israel?
My mom suggested that Israel “warns” its victims because it is engaging in a new form of torture, psychological torture. Like a cat torturing a mouse before dispatching of it, except in this case the mice are people. Basel says Israel is doing all this to try to turn the majority Gaza population against Hamas, cause an uprising, but this might only work if the Gazans weren’t so busy trying not to be killed; also, it’s one hell of an evil way to provoke a civilian uprising. I search for rational, if still evil, motivation in the action of nation-states, but I come up empty-handed. I suppose that genocide lacks reason, except perhaps to whip the majority population up into a patriotic blind frenzy. And I can no longer think of a word that better describes trapping a huge population, denying them essential supplies, and then engaging in massive bombing campaigns against them other than genocide. (See the UN Convention on the Crime and Punishment of Genocide, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html)
Basel called me I think mostly because he needed to talk to someone. I hope it was not because he thought I could do something, because I feel completely helpless. A family — Leila, Ali, Ghassan, Mohammed, Ahmed, Hannan – has just been told that their countdown clock is on, and given no ways to stop it. All we can do is tell people. I’m telling you. Please tell someone.
I feel that I am watching helplessly as a military I fund commits genocide. I have not forgiven the Americans, Germans, and other citizens of the world who watched this happen to my grandparents. I do not want to be among the helpless enablers this time.
It’s the 2 year anniversary of my brother’s death. But as my mom, who I called this morning, said, Alex will still be dead in a week. For now we focus on the people who have a chance to remain alive. Please call the White House at 202-456-1111, the State Department at 202-647-4000 (ask for the comment line), your Senator at http://www.senate.gov/senators and Representative atwww.house.gov/representatives, and write your local media. Please tell people about the Khalils.