Gaza IS Palestine

14 July, 2021
Portrait of a young woman by artist Malek Mattar, a Palestinian from Gaza. See our profile of Malak Mattar  here .
Por­trait of a young woman by artist Malek Mat­tar, a Pales­tin­ian from Gaza. See our pro­file of Malak Mat­tar here.

Jenine Abboushi

Gaza and Rafah are part of Pales­tine, his­toric to present-day. We did not need the May 2021 upris­ing that start­ed in Sheikh Jar­rah and spread over all of his­toric Pales­tine as proof of this, even if this uni­ty gal­va­nizes us. Our lives, fam­i­lies, friend­ships, mem­o­ries, and long­ings are ever inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed. With each new Israeli war, wall, impris­on­ment, and theft, our expe­ri­ences of forced sep­a­ra­tion draw us clos­er togeth­er. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in the case of Gaza and Rafah, a vast Israeli-con­trolled prison, and in the case of Jerusalem — con­fis­cat­ed by Israel out­right and against inter­na­tion­al law in 1980, rein­forced with ongo­ing appro­pri­a­tion, neigh­bor­hood by neigh­bor­hood, house by house — the Israelis and inter­na­tion­al media have tak­en to label­ing Pales­tin­ian land, towns, and soci­ety in ampu­tat­ed pieces. This way, there can be lit­tle or no men­tion of Pales­tine, the Pales­tini­ans, or their his­toric and con­tem­po­rary strug­gle for free­dom. Gaza, “Gazans,” and “Jerusalemites” (a spe­cial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion for res­i­dents as opposed to cit­i­zens), as ref­er­ents, are deployed to sev­er Gaza and Jerusalem from all of Pales­tine, land and peo­ple. And so inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties can lim­it them­selves to con­cern about Gaza on human­i­tar­i­an terms (as the poor­est place on earth), seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed to Pales­tin­ian rights and strug­gle for justice.

Memories of Water, Hisham and Sameh  ( black and white photos courtesy of Umaima Alami Muhtadi).
Mem­o­ries of Water, Hisham and Sameh (black and white pho­tos cour­tesy of Umaima Ala­mi Muhtadi).

The black and white Gaza pho­tos from 1962–63 that adorn this essay tell a small sto­ry of cru­el­ty of human and his­toric mag­ni­tude. In the ear­ly 1940s, Umaima Ala­mi Muh­tadi’s father pur­chased in Gaza a 100-dunum bay­yara, an orange orchard. From their homes in El-Bireh and Ramal­lah, her fam­i­ly and chil­dren went there on week­ends. Her moth­er and two broth­ers soon set­tled in Gaza, where her youngest broth­er Naim tend­ed to the orange orchard, and her eldest broth­er Salah worked for Star, an orange-fla­vored soft-drink bot­tling company.

Umaima’s son Khaled, my high school class­mate from the Friends Boys School in Ramal­lah, tells me about the well, 10 meters in width and over 50 meters deep, which was pow­ered by an enor­mous diesel motor pump with big rub­ber belts that drew up water to fill the irri­ga­tion pool (shown in the pho­to of the cas­cade, with Umaima’s cousin Hisham stand­ing next to her son Sameh). The pump made a loud, rhyth­mic, whistling noise like that of a train approach­ing from afar, so that indeed from afar farm­ers were reas­sured that the motor was turn­ing well. The water, fresh and cold, was dis­trib­uted into chan­nels to flow to all the trees in the orchard. Khaled’s uncle Naim would push them into the pool to cool off on hot days.

[As hot as Gaza and with sun­light as daz­zling was Jenin in the sum­mer­time, where I some­times could per­suade sev­er­al of my female cousins to swim with me in the cool, deep irri­ga­tion pools, high above ground in my grand­par­en­t’s bay­yara. Stripped down to our sun-blanched under­pants and bras (mine slight and soft-cupped, and my cousins’ impres­sive­ly armored), we felt hid­den by the lush cit­rus leaves and poten­tial­ly betrayed by our mirth and splash­ing. Some deli­cious after­noon swim­ming after clean­ing my grand­par­ents’ house morn­ings, fol­lowed by lunch and dish­es, loung­ing on met­al-framed beds with­in the cool stone walls and high ceil­ings until the mag­ic hour of 4 pm. It was then when my grand­moth­er, Tai­ta Nazla felt assured that the snakes have tak­en cov­er and the sun has soft­ened, so we could ven­ture out.]

Khaled and his sister Lina in the family orange orchard.
Khaled and his sis­ter Lina in the fam­i­ly orange orchard.

Soon enough, the Israeli occu­pa­tion for­bade the use of these pumps and canal sys­tems and enforced the use of the drip irri­ga­tion sys­tem in Gaza and else­where in Pales­tine. More effi­cient no doubt were these osten­si­bly eco­log­i­cal restric­tions, espe­cial­ly in sav­ing water for the Israeli set­tle­ments’ agri­cul­tur­al projects and swim­ming pools, hid­den yet sur­round­ing the Ala­mi fam­i­ly’s bay­yara, suck­ing in over 10 times Pales­tin­ian water quo­tas per capi­ta. Dur­ing the First Intifa­da when set­tlers from Net­zarim were report­ed­ly attacked on the road to the bay­yara, the Israelis chopped it down along with ten neigh­bor­ing bay­yaras. Net­zarim was the set­tle­ment Khaled and his fam­i­ly used to pass at the end of their long days of work pick­ing and sort­ing veg­eta­bles, head­ing to Gaza city, where the next morn­ing they would unload the pro­duce to be sold in the mar­ket. In late after­noons the fam­i­ly would go to the beach to relax under a rent­ed palm-leaf 3areesheh that would afford them cover.

3areesheh, Alami-Muhtadi family, Gaza beach 1962.
3areesheh, Ala­mi-Muh­ta­di fam­i­ly, Gaza beach 1962.

When the Israelis with­drew from and entire­ly closed off Gaza in 2005 — which they actu­al­ly start­ed incre­men­tal­ly with their sep­a­ra­tion wall in 1997, requir­ing spe­cial per­mits to enter Gaza — Umaima and her chil­dren were soon sep­a­rat­ed from her fam­i­ly entire­ly. Today the bor­der is still sealed to near­ly all but Israeli bombs. Over the years Umaima in vain solicit­ed 12 Israeli offi­cers to obtain a per­mit to cross the bor­der and see her fam­i­ly, espe­cial­ly her broth­er Salah who had fall­en sick. When he died in 2010, she had not seen him in ten years.

In Jenin the Israelis did not need to cut down the fam­i­ly bay­yara because my uncle Hani did it him­self, des­per­ate­ly lack­ing water to irri­gate the cit­rus trees. We drove by years lat­er with my then 5‑year old daugh­ter Shez­za, perched and alert in the back seat of my uncle Walid’s rent­ed car, and with our Haj­jeh Radiyyeh sit­ting next to him in front, her crisp white cot­ton head-cov­er­ings ever gleam­ing in the sun­light. My Amu Walid point­ed out where the fam­i­ly cit­rus orchard used to be. Prompt­ed by men­tion of the bay­yara, Shez­za sat up straight and announced: “Quss ukht el-israeliyyeh! They drew up all the water from under the ground for their set­tle­ments and now we have no bayarra,” stun­ning us all by her curse, mak­ing the fam­i­ly laugh for days every time we pic­tured Haj­jeh Radiyyeh receiv­ing Shez­za­’s deposition.

For lack of water my Amu Hani even had to cut down the cit­rus trees in the gar­den of our grand­par­ents’ home, includ­ing the grand boma­leh and sweet lemon trees. At first, he plant­ed some imper­ti­nent rose bush­es along the walk­way lead­ing to the house, per­haps to con­sole him­self and us all, but even they had to die. My Amu Hani him­self died too young from a dia­betes com­pli­ca­tion pro­voked by lack of sim­ple med­ica­tion and emer­gency med­ical care. He left this world in an ambu­lance on the way to Afu­la hos­pi­tal just north of Jenin, blocked at the bor­der, despite my Amu Walid (a doc­tor in Munich) and my father’s attempts to make con­tacts in Ger­many and the USA, respec­tive­ly, to pres­sure the Israelis to let my uncle in. My Amu Hani, deliri­ous in the ambu­lance, was miss­ing his long-gone uncles. “Mes­keen, poor Abu Bashar!” Hani was report­ed as say­ing, “he died when a bomb blew his penis off!” Amu Hani’s fever-humor resem­bled him and made us laugh and cry at once.

Khaled's aunt Nawal and brother Sameh, Gaza bayyara, 1962-63.
Khaled’s aunt Naw­al and broth­er Sameh, Gaza bay­yara, 1962–63.

When my father Wasif arrived in Jenin in 1973 to intro­duce to his fam­i­ly my moth­er Leah and broth­er Mark Sha­reef and myself, we found a sys­tem of aque­ducts through­out the town, with one pass­ing through the muntaza (a café gar­den, com­mon to most towns and vil­lages) where my grand­fa­ther, fam­i­ly, and friends would sit with water pipes and play backgam­mon or swap jokes and sto­ries. Jenin was lush, a gar­den, good to its name (jenin, junaina, jan­neh — to con­ju­gate the town’s name lead­ing to par­adise, the root-word). Gone are the aque­ducts, the over­flow of flow­er­ing plants and ver­dure, too, even if Jenin is still a pret­ty north­ern town, sur­round­ed by gen­tle hills and farm­land. But today from afar it seems to me unfor­giv­ably less pret­ty since Cin­e­ma Jenin — where we grew up eat­ing bizr, seeds, and watch­ing kung fu and Hin­di films — was cut down by Jenin devel­op­ers, replaced by a shop­ping mall.

Porch­es and Courtyards

Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty on the West Bank in the 1980s includ­ed many stu­dents from Gaza, and our friend­ships tied our worlds and fam­i­lies togeth­er until this day. My dear friend Laila Abu Ghali, an engi­neer­ing stu­dent from Rafah, often came home with me in Ramal­lah for lunch or to hang out after­noons if we did not have class. She was gen­tle, a keen observ­er, and she used to say that if she could be what she want­ed she would be a painter. She had long, soft black hair and dark brown skin, and chan­neled inven­tive­ly her repressed long­ing. She loved to lis­ten to radio pro­grams, as I dis­cov­ered when I vis­it­ed her in Rafah and we sat direct­ly on the cool tiles in the court­yard of her fam­i­ly’s mod­est home, and Laila showed me her small short­wave radio. She lis­tened to the BBC and Egypt­ian pro­grams. Her fam­i­ly is Bedouin, and Laila asked her broth­er, who trad­ed in col­or­ful­ly hand-embroi­dered black thoubs, to bring them out so we could admire their wild beauty.

Manal at Martyr Moustafa Hafiz School in Gaza City (all photos hereafter courtesy of Manal Nabulsi).
Man­al at Mar­tyr Moustafa Hafiz School in Gaza City (all pho­tos here­after cour­tesy of Man­al Nabulsi).

We walked once in the late after­noon to the Rafah bor­der that divid­ed the town through the mid­dle since 1982 when Israel returned the Sinai cap­tured from Egypt in 1967. We watched peo­ple con­verse by hol­ler­ing through the fences, barbed and elec­tric wire, across the sand patrol road used by Israeli army jeeps, through the same bar­ri­ers on the oth­er side, to their fam­i­ly and friends they could see only in pieces, through lay­ers of met­al grids. Laila and I joined them in lean­ing against the fence, look­ing across in anguish and long­ing to the oth­er side of the par­ti­tion. Laila point­ed out a woman down the bar­ri­er from us, telling me how Israeli sol­diers a few weeks before shot dead her 12-year old daugh­ter with cog­ni­tive dis­abil­i­ty on this very sand road, as she had some­how crossed over — no one knew how — and she was last seen by towns­peo­ple skip­ping along the sand patrol road, chat­ter­ing and laugh­ing freely as she did through the streets of Rafah every day. Laila said she was prob­a­bly on her way to her aun­t’s house to see her cousins as she used to dai­ly before Rafah was split in two. The child’s moth­er had 11 chil­dren, she explained fur­ther, and yet was under­stand­ably incon­solable, weep­ing and mourn­ing cease­less­ly for her lit­tle girl.

I did not see Laila again after our grad­u­a­tion in 1986, even when I returned to vis­it Pales­tine because it became very hard, then impos­si­ble, to cross the Israeli bor­der into Gaza. Dur­ing a vis­it over a decade lat­er, Nass­er Atta, a jour­nal­ist, attempt­ed to get me per­mis­sion to cross in as he drove me south-west in his four-wheel dri­ve. On the speak­er phone he called a col­league in Gaza City, who picked up but sound­ed grog­gy. “What, sleep­ing on job, Omar?” Nass­er joked. We heard sta­t­ic and the move­ment of Omar as he gath­ered him­self togeth­er. “Of course not,” snapped Omar, not miss­ing a beat, “how can I sleep with Jerusalem occu­pied?” He went on to say that per­mis­sion to enter Gaza would be impos­si­ble to obtain.

Three years ago, I found Laila, or rather her broth­er Salah found me, through Face­book. Laila and I spoke for hours, and saw each oth­er smil­ing broad­ly, Laila now wear­ing a head­scarf and me with dark­er, short­er hair, as she not­ed. She spoke of India, where she had lived for years to pur­sue grad­u­ate stud­ies in engi­neer­ing, and she now works in a Gaza min­istry. We were so hap­py to find one anoth­er, and she invit­ed me to vis­it her as I used to, explain­ing with her broth­er how I could be safe­ly smug­gled from Egypt through the tun­nels (dug out after the Israeli block­ade to smug­gle in food and med­ical sup­plies). I did think about it, and then remind­ed myself that I have two chil­dren and could not get myself stuck in Rafah. We promised each oth­er that we would meet again soon.

Gaza dur­ing our Birzeit Uni­ver­si­ty days remind­ed me of Egypt. And some hous­es in the Rimal neigh­bor­hood, like that of Man­al Nabul­si’s fam­i­ly, remind­ed me of the ante­bel­lum South with their wrap-around wood­en porch we all sat on to catch a breeze.

Rula and Manal (right and second from right).
Rula and Man­al (right and sec­ond from right).

My best friend Rula Abu Kishk, a Pales­tin­ian Israeli from Nazareth and Lyd­da, who was my class­mate since age 13 in the Friends Schools in Ramal­lah, took me along to spend the week­end at Man­al’s house, her class­mate from Birzeit’s engi­neer­ing school. We sat on the floor of the porch with Man­al’s sis­ter-in-law Ayan who had just giv­en birth, laugh­ing, talk­ing, crack­ing open almonds and eat­ing them until her milk flowed down her dress. We stayed put on the porch floor to eat lunch, shad­ed by the over­hang­ing gar­den trees. We spooned rice and hot soupy green slimy mloukhiyyeh into our mouths, our sec­ond hand cupped under our chins with each bite. With the gen­er­ous amount of hot pep­pers cooked in, we all sweat­ed at first, then I felt numb from the neck up but did not stop eat­ing it was so deli­cious. Lat­er we walked in the sleepy, dusty, hot mar­ket­place to see the veg­eta­bles and mar­vel at a slaugh­tered camel hang­ing out­side the butcher’s shop, a bou­quet of pars­ley extend­ing out of its emp­tied stom­ach cav­i­ty, and to sur­vey store win­dows. We made our way back to Man­al’s house to laze on the porch, talk and laugh some more before evening.

Manal's family home, Gaza city,  1980s.
Man­al’s fam­i­ly home, Gaza city, 1980s.


Noth­ing remark­able hap­pened, just togeth­er­ness with Man­al’s warm fam­i­ly. Inside her house I was remind­ed even more strong­ly of Cairo (I trav­eled from Jerusalem by bus to cross the El-3ar­ish bor­der every three months to renew my tourist visa, nev­er know­ing if the Israelis would let me back in) by the fan­ci­ful décor, full cur­tains over win­dows and walls, state­ly fur­ni­ture, a big kitchen and din­ing table, airy bed­rooms also amply dec­o­rat­ed with drapes and coverings.

The every­day­ness of vis­its to friends in Gaza con­trast­ed with my first trips there with my fam­i­ly as a child in the 1970s and ear­ly 1980s, also with uni­ver­si­ty peo­ple. We went to swim at the beach in small groups, and I have no mem­o­ries of vis­it­ing friends in town. At Gaza beach we were in fact vis­it­ing the begin­ning of time, pass­ing the day in a world of three raw ele­ments: sand, sea and sky and noth­ing else as far as we could see. Well, noth­ing else but us vis­i­tors, and an occa­sion­al clutch of young boys who emerged from behind the dunes descend­ing to the beach, smil­ing wide­ly at one anoth­er and at our for­eign­ness in swim­suits. “Hel­lo, hel­lo, hello!”

Most of our Gaza beach days were naked, not just our bare limbs and tor­sos but the stark world around us. I can still see my broth­er and I at the water’s edge, with no shel­ter or para­sol, and we would wade into the sea to escape the harsh­ness of the sun. It was so emp­ty and pri­mor­dial a seascape that my sun-dyed hair, tanned skin, fine blond fur on my arms and thighs, my broth­er’s long dark curls, his squint­ing green eyes framed with cur­tain-thick lash­es (like those of camels, to pro­tect from sand and sun, as my moth­er point­ed out), took on a painter­ly clar­i­ty, so vivid against the frothy waves and sand and sky that I could not stop mar­veling at our parts. We, the sand, sky, and sea seemed like all there was in the world.

Manal (l) in her Salon, Gaza City, 1980s.
Man­al (l) in her Salon, Gaza City, 1980s.

Today Gaza­’s sea ends at 9 kilo­me­ters, the lim­it set by the Israelis. What does this look like when you stare out to sea? If not a clear­ly demar­cat­ed watery bor­der, every­one in Gaza knows the sea ends at that invis­i­ble point where peo­ple’s lives could end too, policed by Israel’s Navy, if their fish­ing boats ven­ture fur­ther out. The small plot of sea is over­fished and deplet­ed to feed a mal­nour­ished and hun­gry peo­ple, like the Israeli occu­pied fields in the West Bank that can­not be left to go fal­low some years, to enrich the soil, lest the Israelis use this as “legal” jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to con­fis­cate “aban­doned,” untilled land.

The Israelis are now inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with us Pales­tini­ans on this beau­ti­ful and poignant land that is his­toric Pales­tine. Were the Israelis to suc­ceed in their plan to dri­ve all Pales­tini­ans into exile, keep­ing only a small num­ber of us to call “Bedouins,” “Arabs,” and “Mus­lims,” as folk­loric décor, say, or as proof of diver­si­ty, Israel is still not an island and is not part of Europe. It is a tiny piece of land that is part of a large, diverse con­ti­nent includ­ing Arabs, Kurds and the Amazigh (Berber) peo­ples — a diver­si­ty that his­tor­i­cal­ly includes Jews. Hence, con­tin­uin­gas a bel­li­cose, besieged coun­try can­not be a good idea in the long term. It is in fact unworkable.The only way to ensure peace for all in this region is through the inte­gra­tion of the peo­ples and land of Pales­tine through repa­ra­tions, equal rights, and justice.



Jenine Abboushi is a Palestinian American writer, freelancer, and traveler, especially around home. She lived for many years in the United States, Palestine, Morocco, Lebanon, and now in Southern France. A TMR contributing editor, you can follow her on Twitter @jenineabboushi.


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