Alive in Gaza

14 July, 2021
Over 150,000 Londoners marched to stop the war on Gaza in 2014 (AP file photo).

Over 150,000 Lon­don­ers marched to stop the war on Gaza in 2014 (AP file photo).

Excerpt­ed from Ramzy Baroud’s The Last Earth, a Pales­tin­ian Sto­ry (Plu­to Press 2018), this is the account of an Amer­i­can named Joe Catron who went to Gaza by choice. Writes Baroud, “He was not a refugee, but what is a refugee any­way? It is true, he fled towards war, and not from it. But he was pushed for­ward by his fears, guilt, and a sense of pur­pose. Maybe a sense of not fit­ting into the world one is born into, or lik­ing the game one is forced to play, made him a refugee to a cer­tain degree, and per­haps he still is one. Maybe exile can be a self-imposed act of voli­tion. Maybe Joe’s last earth is nev­er meant to be found.”


Ramzy Baroud


The Last Earth, A Palestinian Story  from  Pluto Press .

The Last Earth, A Pales­tin­ian Sto­ry from Plu­to Press.

His eyes were agape as he scru­ti­nized his sur­round­ings from wall to wall. Rest is not a lux­u­ry one can indulge dur­ing times of war. You have to face the dan­ger and wel­come moments of calm when they come. This takes its toll no mat­ter how strong or resilient one is, but the Gazans cer­tain­ly know how to put on a strong face, espe­cial­ly for an out­sider. Dig­ni­ty is every­thing. And even when you can take a break, the mind takes you on jour­neys that noth­ing could have pre­pared you for, no mat­ter what you packed in your suit­case or what you might have read on a blog; or what books you might have devoured from the icons of Pales­tin­ian his­to­ry. Noth­ing can sub­sti­tute for actu­al­ly liv­ing in Gaza. It is true, no one who goes is com­plete­ly self­less and every­one has dif­fer­ent rea­sons to be there, whether they talk about them or not, or whether they even know it them­selves. Maybe one feels more alive there than in some New York cof­fee shop.

For Joe, Gaza was real and he was as present there as he could pos­si­bly be, doing what he believed was right. When­ev­er he attempt­ed to close his eyes to regain some ener­gy in some­thing resem­bling sleep, not a moment lat­er they would be wide open. Even though he had not slept for days, his wor­ry was too intense to brush aside and his fears were mul­ti­ply­ing by the minute. This place had changed him more than he had antic­i­pat­ed, and his per­cep­tion of death had also changed: a fear that he had inher­it­ed from some dis­tant past was for­ev­er cured. But this pace, this mis­er­able, poor, alien, inspir­ing, besieged, dis­fig­ured, mag­nif­i­cent place, where columns of smoke rose from every square mile of land­scape, had only swapped his fear of death with the guilt of sur­viv­ing when so many he cared for were dying or being maimed all around him.

Gaza has a way of mak­ing you grow up in a hur­ry.
— Joe Catron

What kind of life was that any­way? And what if they all did die, every sin­gle one of them; the Swedes, the Venezue­lans, the Amer­i­cans, the Ital­ians, the Pales­tin­ian doc­tors and nurs­es, and all the patients? What anguish would it be if they all died and yet he remained alive and all alone? How could he jus­ti­fy this sce­nario to any­one, but more impor­tant­ly to him­self? If they could not be saved, the vol­un­teer human shield should die too. He should be the first to fall, in the line of duty; at least that is the log­ic he could accept and live with.

He closed his eyes once more, but again he was forced to open them. It was not the sounds of explo­sions that demand­ed his atten­tion, but his thoughts laced with com­pound­ed fears and appre­hen­sion. He tried to dis­tract him­self and keep busy, and resist his soli­tude by call­ing friends in far­away places. An exhaust­ed Gaza was falling all around while the world’s so-called peace­mak­ers spewed their usu­al spiel of diplo­mat­ic chat­ter. The sounds of the city that he even­tu­al­ly grew famil­iar with—market ven­dors hawk­ing their wares to cus­tomers; bar­gain hunters demand­ing high­er dis­counts; cab dri­vers announc­ing des­ti­na­tions to ran­dom passers­by; the laugh­ter of school chil­dren and the rou­tine calls for prayer — were replaced by the deaf­en­ing nois­es of bombs drop­ping, whis­tles from mis­siles being launched from the sea, screams of pain from bod­ies trapped in coffins of rub­ble, whim­pers of the dying on the verge of tak­ing their last breaths, and shouts from hos­pi­tal staff when ambu­lances would arrive as they car­ried limb­less and stunned civilians. 

“Wake up, Joe. Just wake up.” A voice bel­lowed through his head and star­tled him into an all-sys­tems-go posi­tion. He hoped that none of it was real, but it was as real as the heart pump­ing rapid­ly in his chest. He had lived through this night­mare before, dur­ing the war of 2012, but back then he did not yet pos­sess the aware­ness of its impli­ca­tions. As soon as the Israeli army named the offen­sive Oper­a­tion Pil­lar of Defense, scores of peo­ple began falling in a calami­tous war that once again did not dis­tin­guish between mil­i­tary tar­gets and civil­ians. An entire fam­i­ly was claimed when a bomb blew out their whole build­ing with­out the slight­est warn­ing. By the time the flames were extin­guished in that cru­el Novem­ber, hun­dreds had per­ished in the war on Gaza with its beguil­ing name that echoed in main­stream media pro­pa­gan­da. While Gaza­’s grave­yards expand­ed in var­i­ous direc­tions as peo­ple scram­bled to bury their dead, to Joe’s aston­ish­ment Gazans were still grate­ful that the num­ber of casu­al­ties was not as high as that of the pre­vi­ous war. They all kneeled down and prayed for their mar­tyrs before bury­ing them and hang­ing up pho­tos of men and women across Gaza­’s streets. It was a bid to keep their smil­ing faces alive just a lit­tle bit longer, before the ele­ments beck­oned the evanes­cent visu­al poems back to ash­es. And the faces of incul­pa­ble dead chil­dren were immor­tal­ized in graf­fi­ti trib­utes atop somber gray walls through­out the refugee camps, remind­ing all who saw them how life can betray you. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, they began crush­ing the destroyed con­crete rem­nants of col­lapsed build­ings, turn­ing the grav­el and grit into bricks, try­ing to rebuild the homes, schools and clin­ics that were demol­ished. The task was great if not impos­si­ble because Gaza was still recu­per­at­ing and under recon­struc­tion after thou­sands of homes were destroyed in the war a few years ear­li­er, deemed Oper­a­tion Cast Lead by the Israelis. The destruc­tion was hap­pen­ing at a much faster rate than the recon­struc­tion; yet some­how Gazans ignored this and kept on fight­ing — weary and angry, but stead­fast as ever.

Gazans are a unique peo­ple, unmatched in their kind­ness and spir­it of rebel­lion — at least that is how they struck Joe Catron when he first arrived in the Strip in the ear­ly months of 2011. He came to stay for a cou­ple of days that some­how turned into a few years. Gazans were full of con­tra­dic­tions. They wept for their dead for hours, but car­ried on with life full of faith that things would with­out a doubt some­day get bet­ter. They spent much time in their mosques, pray­ing more than the com­pul­so­ry five times a day, seek­ing God’s for­give­ness from sins they had nev­er even com­mit­ted. And they hard­ly ceased mov­ing despite the con­fines that oblig­ed them such lim­it­ed access to the out­side world, right­ly earn­ing Gaza the des­ig­na­tion of being “the world’s largest open-air prison.” Two mil­lion peo­ple in per­pet­u­al motion, in a place mea­sur­ing less than 365 square kilo­me­ters. Gazans were loud, often enraged by the slight­est irri­tant; they were also quick to for­give and did not stew in jad­ed resent­ment. They kissed and hugged and smoked, and made chil­dren, and then went to sleep with a last prayer in case they nev­er woke up. 

Joe sur­vived the war of 2012 and record­ed some sto­ries of those who had sur­vived that onslaught and pre­vi­ous wars as well. But he nev­er ful­ly embraced war as a fact of life until July 2014, when its most uncon­strained man­i­fes­ta­tions became real for him. From his arrival to Gaza in 2011, after cross­ing through the Rafah–Egypt bor­der, until the start of the 2014 war, day by day he slow­ly began to under­stand a new set of unwrit­ten rules. Learn­ing through obser­va­tion, and with his own ori­gins in con­ser­v­a­tive Amer­i­ca, he was able to nav­i­gate the cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences eas­i­ly by com­par­i­son to some fel­low activists, and was some­times even mis­tak­en for a Pales­tin­ian him­self. Adopt­ing both good and bad habits and char­ac­ter­is­tic rit­u­als, he walked every­where and greet­ed every­one he encoun­tered; smoked inces­sant­ly; spoke about every­thing from pol­i­tics to Jinn, from poet­ry and love to the con­tra­dic­tions of the sea (offer­ing a pos­si­bil­i­ty of escape while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly being part of their prison), to the mean­ing of life and death.

Maybe all this was the per­fect train­ing ground for the ulti­mate test of July 2014. The Israelis called their new war Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge, but it was Gaza that need­ed pro­tec­tion and Joe felt com­pelled to do some­thing, any­thing. Gaza had been under a strict siege for years. As a con­se­quence, in order to push back the invaders, local fight­ers col­lect­ed their own weapons as well as impro­vised bombs and rock­ets. They dug tun­nels because the earth below offered the only pro­tec­tion, though there was also with­in them the risk of suf­fo­ca­tion or flood­ing; through them food, flour, toys, and cement, as well as rudi­men­ta­ry rock­et launch­ers, were chan­neled across deserts and bor­ders. And when tun­nels crum­bled and the bod­ies of those who had dug them could not be retrieved, Gazans would car­ry out sym­bol­ic funer­als, chant for the mar­tyrs who remained under­ground, vow to fight, and then dig more tun­nels. There was no alter­na­tive for Gazans, it was either that or bow down to the occu­pi­er. Joe of course did not have to be a part of all this, he had a choice. When the air strikes began in ear­ly July, he could have run away and no one would have ever chas­tised him for it. In fact, oth­ers did leave. Many inter­na­tion­als rushed to the Rafah bor­der and beseeched unsym­pa­thet­ic Egypt­ian guards to let them into Sinai so that they could go home from there. But Joe begged no one, remain­ing in Gaza not to dig tun­nels, but to explain to the world why Pales­tini­ans had to build them.

Vintage postcard with an aerial view of Hopewell, Virginia.

Vin­tage post­card with an aer­i­al view of Hopewell, Virginia.

Gaza was very dif­fer­ent from Hopewell, Vir­ginia. The lat­ter was an indus­tri­al town, bereft of the lights and noise of big cities, but it was good enough for Joe. His house com­prised one floor with three bed­rooms, and it was nes­tled near the con­verg­ing point of two rail­road lines that served the chem­i­cal fac­to­ries of the town. Child­hood for him was a long, unin­ter­rupt­ed bike ride upon a dirt road. The path was an unfin­ished project left to the whims of young kids who rev­eled in its sim­plic­i­ty, free from the con­fines of mid­dle-class play dates in safe envi­ron­ments that offered lit­tle risk of scabbed knees. The city plan­ners ran out of mon­ey, or for what­ev­er rea­son lost inter­est in the road. This was good news for Joe and the oth­er neigh­bor­hood kids as the dirt road was con­nect­ed to a seem­ing­ly infi­nite grassy field. Both the road and the mead­ow were a child’s heav­en. One day, though, he left it all behind. Com­pelled by a curios­i­ty stronger than him­self, he chose Gaza. It was not the last earth to which Joe would trav­el, but it was the most vivid phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al con­trast that could be imag­ined for a child from Hopewell.

Joe could have rushed back to Hopewell, Vir­ginia, as soon as the chil­dren stopped scream­ing and the evening news repeat­ed the final death toll and announced that the war was over. He could have packed his bags and left his lit­tle flat near the Gaza port, and gone home to the moth­er he had not seen in years. Bar­bara would sure­ly have tak­en a day off from dri­ving her cab across Vir­ginia, come and greet­ed him at the air­port, bring­ing him a gift or at least wear­ing a proud smile. She would have cer­tain­ly hon­ored him for fol­low­ing his heart, and like any lov­ing moth­er maybe would have admon­ished him for not vis­it­ing soon­er. And he would have remind­ed her that it was because of her guid­ance that he learned to think for him­self, to take risks and under­stand the world as it real­ly was: unfor­giv­ing at times, but grand. He had nev­er real­ly had plans to leave Gaza in the first place, even after the bombs stopped falling, and the well over a thou­sand dead were count­ed and buried. He sim­ply could not leave. Not yet. If he left, his guilt would have been a bur­den to car­ry for the rest of his life, and any­way he still did not under­stand why he had left Hopewell in the first place.

In one final attempt to fall asleep, Joe closed his eyes, but rest was out of reach. A bomb had shat­tered much of the build­ing’s fourth floor, and it was Joe’s turn to speak to the reporters hud­dling in the base­ment of El-Wafa Hos­pi­tal. They kept ask­ing him: “Why is the army bomb­ing a hos­pi­tal?” And to that obvi­ous ques­tion, he kept telling them again and again that he just did not know the answer.

 — • —

It was Joe’s mater­nal grand­par­ents, Homer and Bar­bara, who first got him think­ing about the world out­side Vir­ginia. He had nev­er seen his Dad, or per­haps he did once, but he was too young to remem­ber. Joe’s father died many years ago, after he had aban­doned the boy and his moth­er, leav­ing Joe with no mem­o­ries that would give him a rea­son to love his father, or per­haps hate him. It was Homer instead who took the role of father fig­ure in Joe’s life. Homer and Bar­bara were the prod­ucts of the pro­found his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances that had shaped them and by exten­sion their whole fam­i­ly. They sur­vived the Great Depres­sion and were both swept up by the promise of “relief, recov­ery and reforms” as enun­ci­at­ed in Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt’s New Deal in the mid-1930s. Both of Joe’s grand­par­ents had come from the Scotch-Irish high­lands of Vir­gini­a’s Appalachia. There in the moun­tains, pover­ty was extreme­ly dire and the painful mem­o­ries were often repeat­ed to young Joe as a reminder that his gen­er­a­tion was a lucky one. In their final years, Homer and Bar­bara man­aged to real­ize their own mod­est ver­sion of the Amer­i­can Dream —hav­ing a home of their own, two cars and some mon­ey in the bank. 

Yet they fought many bat­tles to get there: a fig­u­ra­tive war against pover­ty and want, and actu­al wars against whomev­er the Unit­ed States deemed the ene­my at the time.

Homer was a tank gun­ner on the front lines of what was referred to as the “Euro­pean the­ater”; a war that saw the destruc­tion and rebirth of West­ern civ­i­liza­tions. Then, some­time in 1940, he joined the Army Air Corps only months before it was rebrand­ed to become the US Army Air Forces (until 1945). Joe nev­er had a clear under­stand­ing of his grand­fa­ther’s pol­i­tics ear­ly on, but many signs indi­cat­ed that Homer had fought enough to even­tu­al­ly loathe war com­plete­ly. When teenaged Joe began express­ing his desire to join the army, deter­ring him seemed to become Home­r’s main mis­sion in life. Homer even­tu­al­ly pre­vailed, chang­ing the course of Joe’s life for­ev­er. Homer had always regret­ted his own lack of edu­ca­tion. Dur­ing his youth, edu­ca­tion was con­sid­ered less sig­nif­i­cant while sur­viv­ing pover­ty and war were the nation’s top pri­or­i­ties. He strug­gled to read news­pa­pers, while Bar­bara read nov­els; and when he opened the papers every morn­ing, the dis­qui­et caused by his hand­i­cap was vis­i­ble on his face. By the end of his life, Homer had declared him­self a social­ist, implant­i­ng a thrilling idea in Joe’s head: that when social­ism would one day pre­vail, as it had to, all of the world’s polit­i­cal sys­tems would be trans­formed from those that ensured the domin­ion of the rich over the poor, to those in which infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of social jus­tice and equal­i­ty were more than just the wish­ful think­ing of an aging ex-soldier. 

It was Joe’s moth­er, Bar­bara, named after her own moth­er, who helped Joe trans­late his new desire for change in the world into intel­li­gent­ly artic­u­lat­ed lan­guage. She loved books and sub­scribed to sev­er­al mag­a­zines, those offer­ing polit­i­cal com­men­tary, but espe­cial­ly fine pho­tog­ra­phy. She encour­aged Joe to read and engaged him in end­less dis­cus­sions about right and wrong, moral­i­ty and ide­ol­o­gy, and how to live a mean­ing­ful life. Born in 1954 dur­ing the baby boom years, old enough to under­stand that Amer­i­can wars were tak­ing on a more covert and sin­is­ter char­ac­ter, Bar­bara was at the fore­front of soci­etal dis­sent. A degree in math­e­mat­i­cal sci­ence, root­ed in struc­ture and rules, did not make her a con­formist in the least. She hat­ed com­pli­ance, par­tic­u­lar­ly the kind that was typ­i­cal of the drea­ry, unevent­ful exis­tence of the class known as white col­lars. Instead, she fin­ished uni­ver­si­ty and after try­ing var­i­ous career paths, she found dri­ving a cab most to her lik­ing. Bar­bara’s per­son­al his­to­ry taught her to be strong. She lost her only broth­er to a car acci­dent when he was in his ear­ly 20s, and one of her three sis­ters drowned. Left with Marie and Ava, who also faced their own strug­gles, she car­ried on with a smile on her face.

Con­flicts in the Mid­dle East were sta­ples of the news con­sumed in many Amer­i­can house­holds. These view­ers were informed, one gen­er­a­tion after the next, of Israel’s right­eous bat­tle against hordes of encroach­ing Arabs. The Catron fam­i­ly did not fall prey to this pro­pa­gan­da. They knew how to read between the lines, hav­ing been influ­enced by a self-declared social­ist grand­pa, and a younger gen­er­a­tion that grew to dis­trust the offi­cial ver­sion of every­thing. They knew the truth was quite dif­fer­ent than what was pre­sent­ed on the evening news. Ava had joined her hus­band while he worked for Aram­co in Sau­di Ara­bia, where they lived in an expat com­pound. When­ev­er she came home to vis­it, her sym­pa­thies for the Pales­tini­ans and the rea­sons for them were eager­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed to the fam­i­ly. After she sep­a­rat­ed from her hus­band, Clint, and final­ly moved back to Vir­ginia, much time was spent con­vers­ing with Bar­bara and a very curi­ous Joe.

Then there was Kei­th, who along with Joe was a fix­ture at Hopewell’s local library. Through their long con­ver­sa­tions, Joe’s pol­i­tics took yet anoth­er leap far away from the main­stream think­ing of what was accept­able in his town, indeed his entire coun­try. Kei­th, in his thir­ties, bespec­ta­cled with short curly hair and a hand­some face, was an advo­cate of a curi­ous blend of Marx­ism-Lenin­ism and Black Nation­al­ism. It was only lat­er in life that Joe ques­tioned whether Kei­th’s vari­a­tions of the two rev­o­lu­tion­ary brands were com­pat­i­ble, but with­out a doubt Kei­th’s enthu­si­asm gal­va­nized Joe and their days became a pro­longed, unsolv­able argu­ment. Between his work as a union activist and postal work­er, Kei­th read vora­cious­ly on a wide range of top­ics while Joe was still a stu­dent try­ing to form his own unique polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty, with no prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence to help him dif­fer­en­ti­ate between achiev­able goals and wish­ful think­ing. Even­tu­al­ly Joe decid­ed to delve fur­ther into the world of fic­tion when he designed his own major at The Col­lege of William & Mary, study­ing Folk­lore and Mythol­o­gy. Joe’s inter­est in the super­nat­ur­al was not new. He had spent much of his young life seek­ing solace in fan­ta­sy nov­els and as a young teenag­er tried to write his own. Sure, they were most­ly a child’s adap­ta­tions of wide­ly avail­able fan­ta­sy books, the Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy in par­tic­u­lar, but he did labor to breathe his own iden­ti­ty into them; his char­ac­ter, hopes, dreams, and fears as well.

Dur­ing this explorato­ry time, Joe remained con­cerned with the real world around him. What trou­bled him most dur­ing those years was how to achieve actu­al, def­i­nite, and tan­gi­ble change in soci­ety. He joined every group that pur­port­ed to offer pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, look­ing for an answer. The anti-glob­al­iza­tion move­ment was par­tic­u­lar­ly attrac­tive, for it claimed to offer a glob­al con­text to every­thing that had gone wrong in the world. From a dis­tance, it seemed to be the ide­o­log­i­cal exten­sion of all the anti-war move­ments that had thrived dur­ing Amer­i­ca’s dirty wars in Viet­nam and the rest of Indochi­na. As Joe drew clos­er to the glob­al jus­tice move­ment, how­ev­er, it became less appeal­ing because of what he saw as the lack of an effec­tive plan of action or even a seri­ous attempt at build­ing one.

He still marched in every ral­ly he could, and took every oppor­tu­ni­ty to exhib­it his plac­ards chas­tiz­ing one Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy or anoth­er. But the caus­es the move­ment backed seemed too numer­ous, the cos­tumes too friv­o­lous, and the signs ill-con­sid­ered. It was more like an activist cir­cus than an actu­al plat­form through which a cov­et­ed par­a­digm shift could be achieved. It was a strange mix of peo­ple sup­port­ing caus­es that seemed rarely to over­lap. Back then Joe argued that those who did not take them­selves seri­ous­ly were unlike­ly to con­vince any­one else of the seri­ous­ness of their cause, but he had no oth­er option but to keep on march­ing, ral­ly­ing, chant­i­ng, and demand­ing one form of jus­tice or anoth­er. Deep down the urgency to do some­thing more tan­gi­ble grew.

It was not until Israeli tanks rolled once more into Gaza in 2008, declar­ing war against the besieged inhab­i­tants of the Strip, that Joe found his call­ing. That was still a few years before he actu­al­ly crossed the Atlantic and then the Mediter­ranean to final­ly cross the Sinai Desert into Gaza, and found him­self a de fac­to spokesper­son for El-Wafa Hos­pi­tal days before it was lev­eled to the ground. He was angry at the plight of all of those dead chil­dren and furi­ous at his own gov­ern­ment for defend­ing and arm­ing their mur­der­ers. So, one morn­ing Joe fold­ed his most trusty plac­ard, put on his favorite kufiyah, and took the sub­way to Man­hat­tan to join an anti-war protest called by the Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ty in New York. As he reached his des­ti­na­tion, he found him­self in a whole dif­fer­ent world of activism. It was an entire com­mu­ni­ty wear­ing kufiyahs and flood­ing the streets of New York City in a sea of emo­tions, an abun­dance of tears, and a sin­gle chant that was so focused and pen­e­trat­ing that it left the young Hopewell activist in rev­er­ence. “Free Free Pales­tine,” “Free Free Pales­tine,” they all cried, delin­eat­ing over and over again this over­rid­ing pri­or­i­ty of a mobi­lized com­mu­ni­ty. It was invig­o­rat­ing. Joe was not asked to con­form to any par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­o­gy, or expect­ed to declare alle­giance to a pre­cise line of pol­i­tics. All that was required was a kufiyah, which he was already wear­ing upon his shoul­ders, in order for him to merge seam­less­ly into the bur­geon­ing mass of scarves and flags, whether in Brook­lyn, Bay Ridge, or Man­hat­tan. It was a mas­sive com­mu­ni­ty where nei­ther col­or, nor gen­der, nor class mat­tered; the impor­tant thing was being uni­fied around one cause with dis­tinct demands for free­dom, jus­tice, and an end to a war that had already tak­en the lives of hun­dreds. “Free Free Pales­tine,” he shout­ed along, his voice unique, but also a mere echo with­in the thou­sands of oth­er voic­es. This time the words had an authen­tic taste and he grew even more deter­mined to bring about this change himself.

—   •  —

He car­ried on chant­i­ng even loud­er, but soon he was actu­al­ly in Gaza. When he arrived, his first self-assigned chore was to hold a plac­ard that he had designed him­self and squat along­side a group of moth­ers demand­ing free­dom for their sons and daugh­ters in Israeli jails. It became a cus­tom Joe looked for­ward to every week as part of his hum­ble Gazan life. Most Mon­days for years, in front of the Red Cross build­ing in the heart of the Remal neigh­bor­hood in Gaza City, Joe would be there to sup­port their cause. The moth­ers had been gath­er­ing in that same spot for years before Joe had joined them, but once he did, he became a per­ma­nent com­pan­ion of the grief­strick­en women, and lat­er of oth­er sup­port­ers and fam­i­ly mem­bers who were also sep­a­rat­ed from spous­es and chil­dren with­out any news for years at a time. The Red Cross build­ing would also be the back­drop for the twelve-day hunger strike in which Joe lat­er par­took along with two oth­er inter­na­tion­al activists, in sol­i­dar­i­ty with the mass hunger strike of Pales­tini­ans in Israeli jails protest­ing against their inhu­man conditions. 

It was the hap­pi­est day of his life when 477 pris­on­ers were freed in a pris­on­er exchange that saw the largest and most clam­orous cel­e­bra­tions that Joe had ever wit­nessed. Not only did he expe­ri­ence total exhil­a­ra­tion, but he felt like he had con­tributed to some­thing much big­ger than himself.

More tasks were added to Joe’s sched­ule, which grew busier by the day. He tried to teach him­self Ara­bic, and what­ev­er he could not com­mu­ni­cate using his lim­it­ed vocab­u­lary, he attempt­ed to con­vey using facial expres­sions, most­ly those of sym­pa­thy and sol­i­dar­i­ty, but also of amuse­ment and felic­i­ty. The rest of his days were spent meet­ing peo­ple and walk­ing around refugee camps where he was repeat­ed­ly mis­tak­en for a refugee him­self. His fair­ly dark skin and unas­sum­ing demeanor obscured his eth­nic roots and evinced an air of famil­iar­i­ty, so he was often approached by peo­ple who would speak to him in a rough Gazan accent, and he would smile. “Ana ajn­abi,” he would say. Some would ques­tion if he was indeed a for­eign­er, for he dressed in famil­iar hum­ble attire and did not walk around bran­dish­ing cam­eras or elec­tron­ics as oth­er for­eign­ers typ­i­cal­ly did. He did not dri­ve around the scruffy streets of the refugee camps with a new car dot­ted with for­eign let­ter­ing, and did not have a “fix­er.” Instead he had friends who were most­ly refugees, and who even­tu­al­ly began to see him as one of them. Joe tried to inte­grate as best he could and find his place in Gaza as if he were a Pales­tin­ian, not an out­sider with one agen­da or anoth­er. In time, Gaza had become his new Hopewell and he was just fine with that. Of course, this new Hopewell was very dif­fer­ent — it was wel­com­ing and beam­ing with life, yet it was also teem­ing with great danger.

Joe was not in Gaza as a thrillseek­er look­ing for his next fix, and hat­ed it when the inter­na­tion­al press want­ed to make the sto­ry about him rather than focus­ing on the Pales­tini­ans. This predica­ment pre­sent­ed itself often to him and oth­er activists who felt a moral oblig­a­tion to be in Pales­tine. But what was he to do? Risk not telling the sto­ry, or not have the sto­ry told at all? How could this norm be dis­man­tled? This para­dox had to be ignored to a cer­tain extent, as the dynam­ics of racism and colo­nial­ism regard­ing media cov­er­age was too big of a beast for him to deci­pher. So, he put his efforts into his dai­ly tasks. He accom­pa­nied refugee pro­test­ers to the north­ern Gaza bor­ders where the towns of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia were sep­a­rat­ed from south­ern Israeli towns by an army that opened fire when­ev­er a kid raised a flag or a farmer ven­tured on to his own land. It was through these north­ern towns that Pales­tin­ian refugees crossed into Gaza in 1948, bare­foot and bewil­dered. Many of the youth that Joe accom­pa­nied to the heav­i­ly mil­i­ta­rized zone came from a vil­lage or a town that either still exist­ed under a new des­ig­na­tion, often a Hebrew name, or had been entire­ly erased from the map. Their fathers and fore­fa­thers had made Gaza their tem­po­rary home and were told that return­ing to Pales­tine was only a mat­ter of time. They all fought hard to speed up that return, but to no avail. So, their chil­dren kept on return­ing to that very bor­der, gath­er­ing at the fences of what was once their coun­try, chant­i­ng, “Free Free Pales­tine,” and Joe would chant along.

Gaza pictured in the early 1940s.

Gaza pic­tured in the ear­ly 1940s.

Gaza had changed since 1948. Near­ly 200,000 refugees fled for their lives at that time, escap­ing mas­sacres and sys­tem­at­ic destruc­tion of dozens of towns and hun­dreds of vil­lages. After that, the Strip was ruled by Egypt, and fol­low­ing the lat­ter’s defeat in 1967, it was over­run by the Israeli mil­i­tary and armed Jew­ish set­tlers who claimed their own beach­es and used much of the water for their mas­sive for­ti­fied set­tle­ments, indus­tri­al lakes, man­go farms and swim­ming pools. As the colonies expand­ed, the refugee camps dimin­ished in size. Even after the Israeli army evac­u­at­ed its colonies, deployed its forces to bor­der areas, and besieged the Gaza Sea in 2005, Gaza still con­tin­ued to shrink. For one, its pop­u­la­tion had grown to near­ly two mil­lion, but also its most arable lands that adjoined the Israeli bor­der were declared mil­i­tary zones. Not far away from what became a death zone, snipers took their posi­tions above rein­forced watch­tow­ers. Even the sea was belea­guered by the Israeli Navy, which instruct­ed Gaza­’s fish­er­men to ven­ture no fur­ther than six nau­ti­cal miles from shore, which was then reduced to three, com­pound­ing the issue fur­ther as fish would be dif­fi­cult to find in the shal­low­er waters. And when­ev­er it suit­ed their twist­ed whims, they blew the small Gaza dinghies out of the water and watched the sur­vivors swim back to shore. Joe had even accom­pa­nied some of these fish­er­men and no mat­ter how much he screamed at the mil­i­tary boats that he was an Amer­i­can and they should leave the poor fish­er­men alone, they seemed to care lit­tle for him or the inter­na­tion­al laws they were break­ing. Their faces were stiff, their guns mount­ed and ready to fire, and not even Joe Catron of Hopewell, Vir­ginia, was capa­ble of chang­ing the dynam­ics of that dis­pro­por­tion­ate war. 

Joe’s stay in Gaza was ini­tial­ly meant to last only a few days. But some­thing impelled him to remain. The inter­na­tion­als in Gaza were not many. Some were affil­i­at­ed with NGOs that had man­aged to car­ry on with their oper­a­tions despite the siege imposed on the Strip by Israel and the Egyp­tians as ear­ly as 2006. Oth­ers were activists like Joe, although each had dif­fer­ent rea­sons to be there. There was the rich Eng­lish kid who walked around Gaza as if he were a sav­ior of the mis­er­able mul­ti­tudes; and there was also the old­er small-town Amer­i­can woman who chas­tised Gazans for fight­ing back, preach­ing to them the non­vi­o­lent teach­ings of Mahat­ma Gand­hi and Mar­tin Luther King. And, of course, there were the many jour­nal­ists who would stay in Gaza for a few days or weeks only to return to their coun­tries to write thor­ough inves­ti­ga­tions or even books about every­thing the world need­ed to know about Gaza­’s mil­i­tants, under­ground tun­nels, and his­to­ry of polit­i­cal move­ments. But there were also the unpre­ten­tious ones who knew that by the end of their jour­neys they would have learned more about them­selves than they could ever pos­si­bly have taught Gazans about life, sur­vival, and resis­tance. Joe was one, but there was also Vit­to­rio Arrigo­ni, the man who had proud­ly tat­tooed on his right arm the word “Al-Muqawa­ma” — Ara­bic for “Resis­tance.”

El-Wafa before it was bombed and destroyed in 2014

El-Wafa before it was bombed and destroyed in 2014

Vit­to­rio was mur­dered soon after Joe had met him. He had antic­i­pat­ed becom­ing friends with the Ital­ian, who at times seemed to phys­i­cal­ly resem­ble Che Gue­vara. But Vit­to­rio was kid­napped by a Jor­dan­ian and some Gazans and lat­er found dead in cir­cum­stances many regard­ed as mys­te­ri­ous. Pales­tini­ans wept for Vit­to­rio as if he were one of their own, just as they had wept for Rachel Cor­rie before him when she was repeat­ed­ly run over by an Israeli army bull­doz­er, and Tom Hurn­dall, who was shot in the head by the occu­py­ing army. The Pales­tini­ans called them mar­tyrs and inscribed their names and pic­tures all across the refugee camps. Vit­to­rio, unlike Rachel and Tom, was killed by Gazans with whom he had come to declare sol­i­dar­i­ty. He arrived in Gaza in 2008 atop a small boat that car­ried a group of activists chal­leng­ing the Israeli siege, and act­ed as a human shield dur­ing Oper­a­tion Cast Lead. Vit­to­rio befriend­ed hun­dreds of peo­ple and with time became a pop­u­lar fix­ture in most of Gaza­’s activ­i­ties, con­fer­ences, protests, and many cel­e­bra­tions. In addi­tion to his sol­i­dar­i­ty work on the ground, he also wrote books, arti­cles, and entries on his blog Guer­ril­la Radio when he was not pro­tect­ing farm­ers and fish­er­man. Joe and Vit­to­rio spent lit­tle time togeth­er before his trag­ic end. They first met at a café in the uni­ver­si­ty dis­trict in Gaza, but the last time Joe saw Vit­to­rio alive was at a par­ty on the roof of Joe’s apart­ment build­ing in Gaza City. That night Vit­to­rio was qui­et and reflec­tive, with lit­tle to say, per­haps lost in his own thoughts.

It was not the impres­sion that Vit­to­rio had left on Joe that lin­gered the most. It was the shock and pain of his death that lived on. Gaza­’s small com­mu­ni­ty of activists from around the world sought com­fort in each oth­er’s com­pa­ny. So, when a friend, who had risked his own life for Gaza, was killed in pecu­liar cir­cum­stances, the pain was mixed with con­fu­sion, as Vit­to­ri­o’s mot­to “Stay Human” rever­ber­at­ed across the world.

Joe and Vit­to­ri­o’s time in Gaza over­lapped by only a month. Joe had been with the Inter­na­tion­al Sol­i­dar­i­ty Move­ment for about a week when this bap­tism by fire took place. The ISM was a group of inter­na­tion­als who stayed in Pales­tine for var­i­ous lengths of time, each with his own spin on sol­i­dar­i­ty and direct action. Before Joe arrived, death was hov­er­ing over Gaza and his com­ing changed lit­tle in the course of bloody events. Oper­a­tion Return­ing Echo in March 2012 was a crash course in the pun­ish­ment Gaza had been sub­ject­ed to for all of those years. “Only” scores were killed then, but it was a taste of what Joe and all of Gaza would expe­ri­ence in Novem­ber of the same year, when hun­dreds per­ished under the rub­ble of their homes as they took shel­ter in schools, or even in their hos­pi­tal beds when seek­ing med­ical care.

In Novem­ber 2012, Joe’s tri­al of guilt began. He had not felt use­ful dur­ing that war. Mere words of sol­i­dar­i­ty seemed friv­o­lous when grave­yards were swelled with corpses of whole fam­i­lies. That war left Joe with a dilem­ma that per­sist­ed for months. He could either dwell on his fear of death or do what had to be done—more impor­tant­ly, what was expect­ed of him and what he expect­ed of him­self. He chose the lat­ter course, and then the 2014 war began.

—   • —

El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital  in ruins  after 2014's

El Wafa Med­ical Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Hos­pi­tal in ruins after 2014’s “Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge.”

The rel­a­tive­ly large El-Wafa Med­ical Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Hos­pi­tal was bom­bard­ed for days on end. It was most­ly emp­ty. The major­i­ty of its patients had already been evac­u­at­ed, but four­teen remained because their con­di­tions were too crit­i­cal. Attached to machines keep­ing them alive, any attempt at relo­cat­ing them was like­ly to endan­ger their already vul­ner­a­ble lives. The log­ic was per­plex­ing. Bas­man Alashi, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Al-Wafa Char­i­ta­ble Soci­ety respon­si­ble for run­ning the hos­pi­tal, had appealed to Joe and a few oth­er inter­na­tion­als to come and to invite inter­na­tion­al media to see for them­selves that the hos­pi­tal stored no arms and that no rock­et launch­ers were mount­ed any­where with­in its facil­i­ties. Joe oblig­ed, not only for the obvi­ous human­i­tar­i­an and eth­i­cal rea­sons, but also because of his pro­found respect for Bas­man Alashi. Joe and the oth­er activists were cer­tain that the Israelis knew with­out a doubt that El-Wafa was not a base for Hamas or any oth­er local resis­tance group. And he was going to prove this, show­ing to the world and him­self that the time had final­ly come when he would over­come all of his fears.

El-Wafa was locat­ed at the east­ern end of Gaza­’s main com­mer­cial street, Omar al-Mukhtar, in the Shu­jaya neigh­bor­hood. The loca­tion was con­ve­nient when patients need­ed to be trans­port­ed from near­by clin­ics and hos­pi­tals for urgent care, but when Israel launched Oper­a­tion Pro­tec­tive Edge in July 2014, El-Wafa’s strate­gic address proved to be a curse. Only meters away from its main gate stood a large sep­a­ra­tion bar­ri­er that divid­ed Gaza from a mil­i­tary zone at Israel’s south­ern bor­ders, mak­ing the hos­pi­tal a posi­tion that could poten­tial­ly ben­e­fit their long-term strat­e­gy. From an Israeli mil­i­tary view­point, it need­ed to be con­quered, no mat­ter the price. For Joe, this was a crit­i­cal moment. Refus­ing to be sta­tioned in a hos­pi­tal-turned-mil­i­tary-tar­get was to betray the very essence of his jour­ney to make the world a bet­ter place what­ev­er the risk. He answered the call, serv­ing shifts of twelve hours at a time, along with oth­er activists like the Swede Char­lie Andreas­son, who also was try­ing to resolve his own moral dilemmas.

Jour­nal­ists had gath­ered togeth­er so that Joe and Char­lie could inform them of their deci­sion to serve as human shields to safe­guard the crit­i­cal­ly ill patients and the hos­pi­tal staff. But the pres­ence of inter­na­tion­al activists bare­ly changed the scene in any way. The day before Joe arrived, four small Israeli “warn­ing rock­ets” slammed into the hos­pi­tal’s roof and walls. In the after­noon of Joe’s first day on the job, a large mis­sile struck the fourth floor, leav­ing a gap­ing hole, shat­ter­ing many win­dows and unhing­ing many doors. A mas­sive Israeli strike seemed immi­nent, regard­less of the fact that patients could not be evac­u­at­ed nor could the staff leave them there alone.

Else­where in the Strip the casu­al­ties were mount­ing. The hor­rors of the war were unprece­dent­ed even by Gaza­’s grim norms. Over fifty entire fam­i­lies per­ished in a mat­ter of weeks, in every part of the Gaza Strip, espe­cial­ly in the north­ern neigh­bor­hoods where Israeli tanks attempt­ed to advance but failed due to stiff local resis­tance. Hun­dreds of fight­ers were trapped in the tun­nels which they used to com­bat the advanc­ing sol­diers. Airstrikes nev­er ceased; thou­sands of flights were con­duct­ed in the sky above that tiny patch of earth that was Gaza. It seemed that every­one was on the tar­get list: schools were demol­ished; over 20,000 homes were destroyed; twen­ty-four hos­pi­tals were dam­aged or ful­ly razed; and half a mil­lion Gazans were on the run with nowhere to go because no place was safe or sacred. Even UN facil­i­ties, where near­ly 300,000 refugees sought shel­ter, were tar­get­ed, send­ing the refugees on the run yet again. Even in this infer­no, many opt­ed to stay home with­out run­ning water or elec­tric­i­ty, and very lit­tle food. Prayer was abun­dant, because only God could help then.

 Joe stayed too. He sin­cere­ly want­ed to. He knew that Alashi had sum­moned him — not to die, but because as far as the Israelis were con­cerned, Pales­tin­ian blood was cheap. Though it was a long shot, the hope was that the pres­ence of an Amer­i­can and a Swede might make the Israeli gov­ern­ment pause and con­sid­er the con­se­quences of its actions. The uni­ty of the activists inten­si­fied along with Israeli threats against the hos­pi­tal. The num­ber of inter­na­tion­als there grew. Joe and Char­lie were joined by an Aus­tralian, a Brit, a French nation­al, a New Zealan­der, a Spaniard, and a Venezue­lan. Days passed and mis­siles whis­tled by. The activists were pre­pared to die so that oth­ers would have a chance to live. And in that very moment, Joe Catron had stepped over the bound­ary that sep­a­rat­ed his old self, an activist with many ques­tions and few answers, to his new self, a man, still with very few answers, but with a clear sense of a call­ing and a purpose.

Unlike the pro­longed con­ver­sa­tions between Joe and Kei­th back at the Hopewell Pub­lic Library, Joe’s con­ver­sa­tions with the oth­er inter­na­tion­als who gath­ered as human shields at El-Wafa Hos­pi­tal were more lucid and far sim­pler. They both­ered lit­tle with grand plans aimed at chang­ing the world. There was no time or even desire to fig­ure out whether nation­al lib­er­a­tion move­ments could be stream­lined into Marxist–Leninist the­o­ries with­in an anti-glob­al­iza­tion plat­form that could effect a par­a­digm shift the world over. Their reflec­tive and almost spir­i­tu­al con­ver­sa­tions at El-Wafa were focused large­ly on their deter­mi­na­tion to save lives, sac­ri­fic­ing their own if nec­es­sary. Even­tu­al­ly El-Wafa was entire­ly destroyed. A bar­rage of mis­siles struck on July 17, prompt­ing a chaot­ic evac­u­a­tion of all those inside. Oth­er hos­pi­tals were also destroyed in the fol­low­ing days, and not even the pres­ence of two Swedes at the Beit Hanoun Hos­pi­tal spared its total ruin on July 25. Aware that their West­ern pass­ports mat­tered lit­tle to the advanc­ing army, Joe and his inter­na­tion­al com­pan­ions still moved to serve as human shields else­where, this time at the largest Gaza hos­pi­tal, Al-Shi­fa. There was no turn­ing back once they had made their choic­es, notwith­stand­ing what lit­tle affect their actions had. There still would have been the guilt of “What if?” haunt­ing them had they not stuck to their ideals.

—   •  —

It was in late August that news of a loom­ing cease­fire began to sur­face, though the sounds of the blasts which shat­tered many win­dows were telling anoth­er sto­ry as Joe filled his Twit­ter feed with the lat­est causal­i­ty fig­ures. His stint as a human shield at the Al-Shi­fa Hos­pi­tal was less fright­en­ing than his days at El-Wafa. The explo­sions grew clos­er after mid­night for some rea­son while he sat in the hos­pi­tal’s library, not far away from the over­flow­ing morgue. Yet the sounds of bombs nev­er grew famil­iar to Joe’s ears. Each and every boom was accom­pa­nied by the same adren­a­line rush and fear for his life. But he want­ed to save oth­ers more than he want­ed to save him­self. Those who live through wars devel­op a range of psy­cho­log­i­cal meth­ods to paci­fy them­selves, to sur­vive the vio­lence while main­tain­ing their san­i­ty. “Once you hear or feel a blast, you have already sur­vived it,” is what Joe used to say to con­sole him­self and oth­ers when the bombs came closer.

Al-Shi­fa Hos­pi­tal staff had already informed him and the oth­ers that even Gaza­’s largest med­ical facil­i­ty, far away from the com­bat zones, was no longer safe. In fact, when heavy explo­sives were unremit­ting­ly lobbed from the ground, sea, and air, all of Gaza became a com­bat zone from which there was no escape. Joe’s typ­i­cal response to all of this was even­tu­al­ly reduced to “mashi,” accom­pa­nied with a ner­vous smile and a fad­ing hope that the war would soon come to an end. The real­i­ty was total­ly oppo­site. There was noth­ing “fine” about it. And although the war car­ried on for much longer than any­one antic­i­pat­ed, fifty-one days, Joe nev­er grew numb to the sight of bod­ies of muti­lat­ed chil­dren and women, or to the decom­posed, ago­nized corpses com­ing to Al-Shi­fa morgue. He was so far from Hopewell and his days read­ing about astron­o­my and mythol­o­gy. The two worlds were so dif­fer­ent, and he strug­gled to make sense of it all. 

In Gaza he learned to bridge cul­tur­al gaps because the pres­ence of death teach­es peo­ple to care more for one anoth­er than for them­selves. When the sur­vival of a whole group is at stake, the indi­vid­ual, although he still mat­ters, becomes a sec­ondary aspect of one’s unyield­ing fight for exis­tence. The point is to save a col­lec­tive being. Joe Catron not only reached that real­iza­tion in the last days of the war, he inter­nal­ized it as well. He nev­er real­ly aban­doned his fears com­plete­ly, but fear over his per­son­al safe­ty shift­ed to fear for that of oth­ers, chang­ing Joe’s rela­tion­ship with him­self and the world. He could final­ly under­stand why war made a “social­ist” out of Homer. The old man could hard­ly deci­pher the lan­guage of a news­pa­per, but it turned out that sol­i­dar­i­ty was not real­ly con­veyed through a writ­ten word, but through action.

Indeed, one aspect of Gaza­’s cul­ture that struck Joe as odd when he first arrived — to stay for a few days that turned into years — was how young peo­ple, the she­bab, would often run towards explo­sions, not away from them. They did that to save those trapped under the rub­ble of some build­ing or pull out the bod­ies of those whose flesh and bones were melt­ed togeth­er in the burn­ing met­al of blown-up cars. Towards the end of his stay, he was doing the same thing, exact­ly what he once per­ceived as pecu­liar. Unlike many oth­er, more sen­si­ble, for­eign­ers, his instincts made him rush to res­cue some­one he had nev­er met before or even knew exist­ed, rather than run away to save him­self. When­ev­er a cease­fire was declared, he found him­self along with oth­er inter­na­tion­als rum­mag­ing through the wreck­age of destroyed neigh­bor­hoods, look­ing for trapped bod­ies. This led him back to Shu­jaya neigh­bor­hood when it was almost entire­ly destroyed, and hun­dreds of its res­i­dents were killed or trapped under the con­crete of their homes. The Red Cross had by then sus­pend­ed its oper­a­tions in that area since the invad­ing sol­diers nei­ther respect­ed human­i­tar­i­an cease­fires nor had any par­tic­u­lar regard for ambu­lances with large red cross­es on them.

It was then that Joe met Salem Shamaly, the arche­typ­al Gazan teenage boy with short hair buzzed on both sides, skin­ny jeans and not ful­ly devel­oped facial hair. Salem was the only son in a fam­i­ly of sev­en sis­ters. He was some­how sep­a­rat­ed from his par­ents and sib­lings dur­ing the chaos. When a tem­po­rary truce was declared, he returned to a dev­as­tat­ed Shu­jaya, walk­ing hazi­ly amid the rub­ble, yelling the names of his loved ones, unable to rec­og­nize his home or even his neigh­bor­hood. When he met Joe and his friends as they too looked for sur­vivors, they tried to dis­suade him from going any fur­ther, know­ing that Israeli snipers were posi­tioned atop the tall adjoin­ing build­ings of the neigh­bor­hood. He was des­per­ate to find his fam­i­ly, and they agreed to join him in his search.

Joe Catron, a solidarity activist and freelance reporter, returned to New York from Gaza, Palestine, where he lived for three and a half years. He writes frequently for  Electronic Intifada ,  Middle East Eye  and  Mint Press News , and co-edited   The Prisoners' Diaries: Palestinian Voices from the Israeli Gulag  , an anthology of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 prisoner exchange.

Joe Catron, a sol­i­dar­i­ty activist and free­lance reporter, returned to New York from Gaza, Pales­tine, where he lived for three and a half years. He writes fre­quent­ly for Elec­tron­ic Intifa­da, Mid­dle East Eye and Mint Press News, and co-edit­ed The Pris­on­ers’ Diaries: Pales­tin­ian Voic­es from the Israeli Gulag, an anthol­o­gy of accounts by detainees freed in the 2011 pris­on­er exchange.

There were eight of them in total, sev­en inter­na­tion­als and Salem. Joe cap­tured much of the under­tak­ing with a cam­era, and the cap­tured images would gnaw at him for prob­a­bly the rest of his life. They decid­ed to walk in two groups, cross­ing streets as quick­ly as they could so the snipers would have lit­tle time to shoot at them with their explo­sive bul­lets or reload their guns for anoth­er go. Salem either did­n’t under­stand the plan or was eager to cross the once famil­iar roads once again. He crossed alone, just after Joe and three oth­ers ran to the oppo­site side of a dirt road, and just before they ges­tured for the oth­ers to fol­low their lead. It was a mat­ter of sec­onds that deter­mined it all. A sin­gle bul­let struck Salem in his low­er body. The young man, wear­ing a green t‑shirt and car­ry­ing a cheap Nokia phone, remained con­scious and expressed his pain through ago­niz­ing shrieks that echoed across the streets of the now destroyed Shu­jaya. He raised one arm to the snipers so that they would stop fir­ing, but they did not heed this call for mer­cy. They fired a sec­ond bul­let, and a third, and a fourth, and with each shot his voice fad­ed, his body stiff­ened and even­tu­al­ly he ceased to move alto­geth­er. Joe and the oth­ers stood frozen by the hor­ror of the moment. Noth­ing could have pre­pared them for this. When Salem’s body gave in and shells began to fall all around them, there was no oth­er choice but to run back to rel­a­tive safe­ty, leav­ing Salem behind in that spot where he stayed motion­less for sev­er­al days until it was safer to retrieve his body. 

Salem’s death, so quick and fero­cious, the sight of him grasp­ing his out­dat­ed Nokia and the sound of his voice cry­ing the names of his sev­en sis­ters and par­ents, had an impact on Joe like no oth­er expe­ri­ence he had had before in Gaza. The team of wit­ness­es shared the video­tape of the inci­dent, record­ed by Mohammed Abedul­lah, on every social media plat­form they knew of, aim­ing to com­pel the Israeli army to allow the evac­u­a­tion of the teenager’s decom­pos­ing corpse. Salem’s fam­i­ly nev­er dreamt that one day they would watch footage of their own flesh and blood leav­ing this earth in such a bru­tal way. It was one of his sev­en sis­ters who rec­og­nized him while view­ing a YouTube video of what she expect­ed to be some unnamed dying Gaza kid. Hear­ing his cries for her just made the expe­ri­ence all the more scathing. Salem did not deserve such a cru­el final walk on his last earth. By the time she saw the video, before the final car­nage, Salem’s sis­ter had man­aged to escape from Shu­jaya along with the oth­ers and was deep in the heart of Gaza City. 

“Gaza has a way of mak­ing you grow up in a hur­ry,” Joe wrote to a friend soon after he left Gaza. He quot­ed a poem of Mah­moud Dar­wish which he had read every sin­gle day dur­ing the 2014 onslaught.

Time there does not take chil­dren from child­hood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first con­fronta­tion with the ene­my. Time in Gaza is not relax­ation, but storm­ing the burn­ing noon. Because in Gaza val­ues are dif­fer­ent, dif­fer­ent, different…

Was Joe refer­ring to Salem? To all the chil­dren who grew up under­neath the ground, dig­ging their own tun­nels to free­dom, only to end up fight­ing an impos­si­ble war and being buried under sand and water? Was he refer­ring to him­self, to that child from Hopewell, Vir­ginia, who grew up with­out a dad and escaped his demons on a rick­ety bike over a dirt road that led to an infi­nite mead­ow? Some months after the war, he wrote with the cyn­i­cism and stub­born­ness of a true Gazan:

I’ve emerged more ener­gized and deter­mined to sup­port Pales­tin­ian lib­er­a­tion than ever. This doubtless­ly has some­thing to do with basic human impuls­es: engag­ing with peo­ple and shar­ing their lives has a way of mak­ing you under­stand their moti­va­tions and goals more intu­itive­ly than you might otherwise.

Joe returned to New York a few months after the war end­ed. Once there, he rarely engaged in con­ver­sa­tions about grand the­o­ries of social change. His expe­ri­ence in Gaza made him all the more engaged and focused, but at times also very cyn­i­cal, the same syn­drome that afflicts many Pales­tini­ans once they leave their home­land. This was espe­cial­ly true for Gazans, who fear being far away from home when the next onslaught comes. Joe’s wor­ry for his friends in Gaza, who ini­tial­ly mis­took him for a refugee, over­whelmed his thoughts. That small strip of land, a micro­cosm for all the con­flicts bur­den­ing our imper­fect plan­et, would stay with him for­ev­er. His rela­tion­ship to it was now that of true devo­tion to a broth­er, or a fam­i­ly. In fact, Joe’s feel­ings were not all that dif­fer­ent from Salem’s when he called the names of his sev­en sis­ters just before he was shot down, nor from the hope that he would remain alive long enough to find them.


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments