The Warm, Resilient and Steadfast People of Gaza

14 July, 2021

Interior courtyard of the Children's Land Kindergarten's multipurpose center, designed by Italian Mario Cucinelle architects, built in 2011-2012 (photo MC Archive).

Inte­ri­or court­yard of the Chil­dren’s Land Kinder­garten’s mul­ti­pur­pose cen­ter, designed by Ital­ian Mario Cucinelle archi­tects, built in 2011–2012 (pho­to MC Archive).

Antony Loewenstein

The Chil­dren Land’s Kinder­garten sits in the Bedouin vil­lage of Um Al Nass­er in the Gaza Strip. Sit­u­at­ed near the bor­der with Israel, it’s a dusty area enlivened with the sound of play­ing chil­dren. Although the facil­i­ties were destroyed by Israel in 2014 dur­ing its war against Hamas, they were rebuilt with envi­ron­men­tal­ly-friend­ly mate­ri­als sup­port­ed by Ital­ian NGO Ven­to Di Ter­ra. The class­rooms are airy, col­or­ful and cool in the summer. 

When I vis­it­ed in March 2017, I found dozens of chil­dren with a teacher wear­ing the full body abaya. There was space for 125 kids between the ages of four and six. The head of the kinder­garten, Fati­ma Aburashed, told me that there were plans to grow fruit and veg­eta­bles so the young­sters could learn the sources of their food. She explained that many chil­dren were deeply trau­ma­tized dur­ing the 2014 con­flict and the school ran pro­grams to help with the stress. It felt like a form of resis­tance for the facil­i­ty to reopen big­ger and stronger than before.

Along­side the school was a wom­en’s train­ing cen­ter to teach vital skills such as car­pen­try, tai­lor­ing, phys­i­cal exer­cise and toy pro­duc­tion. Opened in 2015 thanks to the Euro­pean Union, it was a wel­come acknowl­edge­ment that the role of women was­n’t just in the home. 

Gazan family displaced by the 2014 Israel/Hamas war (photo courtesy Antony Loewenstein).

Gazan fam­i­ly dis­placed by the 2014 Israel/Hamas war (pho­to cour­tesy Antony Loewenstein).

Gaza is a con­ser­v­a­tive place. Locals told me that after the 2014 war, many men who ini­tial­ly refused per­mis­sion for Bedouin women to learn new skills real­ized that it would improve the com­mu­ni­ty. The rul­ing par­ty Hamas sup­port­ed the venture. 

Walk­ing through the train­ing cen­ter was an inspir­ing expe­ri­ence. I saw no men — a rar­i­ty in Gaza — with women laugh­ing and learn­ing how to make use­ful goods for sale around Gaza and ide­al­ly in the West Bank and beyond (if Israel were to reduce the suf­fo­cat­ing bor­der clo­sures). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, polit­i­cal real­i­ties and then 12-year siege on the ter­ri­to­ry had put those dreams on hold. The man­ag­er said that they would keep on show­ing the world that Gazans were pro­duc­tive, cre­ative and peaceful. 

—•—

Gaza is a con­ve­nient abstrac­tion for many Zion­ist Jews: An area con­trolled by a ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tion. A state run by Islamists who want to mur­der as many Jews as pos­si­ble. Pales­tin­ian cit­i­zens who are blood-thirsty killers and need to be kept under con­trol by mil­i­tary and sur­veil­lance tech­nol­o­gy. A pop­u­la­tion no longer under occu­pa­tion, freed by Israel in 2005 when it removed its Zion­ist set­tlers. A place that no sen­si­ble Jew would ever want to go.

These are all incor­rect and racist myths. I’ve heard them count­less times over the years, both by peo­ple who could­n’t under­stand why I’d want to vis­it Gaza and oth­ers who believed that I’d end up in an ISIS-style exe­cu­tion video. Islamist extrem­ists do live in Gaza but they’re a tiny, almost insignif­i­cant part of the pop­u­la­tion. As an athe­ist Jew, born in Aus­tralia and based in East Jerusalem between 2016 and 2020, I’ve learned to ignore such igno­rant protestations. 

I know where these ideas come from: the Jew­ish, Zion­ist main­stream and its lob­by­ists thrive on cre­at­ing a false image of Pales­tin­ian self-deter­mi­na­tion as threat­en­ing to Jew­ish life. It’s use­ful for fundrais­ing as well as polit­i­cal and media sym­pa­thy. I remem­ber grow­ing up in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia in the 1980s and 1990s and hear­ing my cousins com­pare Pales­tin­ian leader Yass­er Arafat to Adolf Hitler. Any sign of Pales­tin­ian iden­ti­ty had to be chal­lenged and crushed. Anoth­er Jew­ish Holo­caust was just around the corner. 

I was­n’t knowl­edge­able enough back then but these views nev­er sat well with me. The reflex­ive racism against Pales­tini­ans and Arabs in gen­er­al seemed like a sick­ness with­in the Jew­ish Dias­po­ra (and with­in Israel itself, it is endem­ic). This was one of the main rea­sons I end­ed for­mal asso­ci­a­tion with the Jew­ish faith, not helped by intol­er­ant rab­bis who refused to accept any ques­tion­ing of hard-line, pro-set­tler Zionism. 

It is why I’m so pleased today that US groups such as Jew­ish Voice for Peace and IfNot­Now are reclaim­ing what Judaism has often meant in his­to­ry (though this has been trag­i­cal­ly far less pub­licly appar­ent since Israel’s birth in 1948); proud dis­sent in the face of bul­lies, encour­ag­ing a future of equal­i­ty for all cit­i­zens, whether Israeli, Pales­tin­ian, Chris­t­ian, Mus­lim, Jew­ish or atheist. 

I’ve been vis­it­ing Gaza since 2009, two years after Hamas assumed pow­er. They’ve cre­at­ed a police state on the shores of the Mediter­ranean, detain­ing crit­ics, exe­cut­ing sup­posed spies and restrict­ing the rights of women. The par­ty’s zealotry has only wors­ened after Israel, Egypt, the US and most of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty insist­ed on main­tain­ing an inhu­mane block­ade on Gaza. Iso­la­tion breeds intolerance. 

Dur­ing my March 2017 vis­it to Gaza, I inter­viewed Hani Mouq­bel, leader of the Hamas youth wing. He was ami­able as we sat in his office over­look­ing the ocean. He stressed that he was­n’t against Jews, though want­ed them to “go back to where they came from,” and was com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing an Islam­ic state. He opposed the Israeli occu­pa­tion and claimed that “all Pales­tini­ans sup­port the Hamas resis­tance project.” 

Many Gazans I know vehe­ment­ly oppose Hamas and its rigid inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam. 

Local art on a Gazan street wall (photo courtesy Antony Loewenstein).

Local art on a Gazan street wall (pho­to cour­tesy Antony Loewenstein).

 
Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, it’s vital for many Zion­ists to per­pet­u­ate the myth that Israel is the noble, inno­cent par­ty in the con­flict. “We want peace,” they claim. “It’s those mur­der­ous Gazans who want to slit our throats.” The fact that two mil­lion Pales­tini­ans are liv­ing in one of the most tight­ly-con­cen­trat­ed ter­ri­to­ries in the world, with high unem­ploy­ment, a few hours of elec­tric­i­ty a day and lit­tle free­dom of move­ment, is classed as fault of the victim. 

There’s a feel­ing in Gaza that’s impos­si­ble to put into words. I’ve always found its peo­ple wel­com­ing and warm. Dur­ing my last vis­it, with years of a bru­tal siege con­sum­ing every­one’s wak­ing hours, curios­i­ty about news from the out­side world was palpable. 

The air in Gaza smells dif­fer­ent, some­times infused with unprocessed sewage and at oth­er times the sweet, sea air. See­ing Israeli indus­try on the hori­zon is a cru­el joke inflict­ed on Gaza by the Israeli state. It’s so close and yet inac­ces­si­ble for most Gazan cit­i­zens. The West Bank feels spa­cious in com­par­i­son to Gaza, its pop­u­la­tion con­nect­ed to the globe by patchy inter­net and cell phone cov­er­age and gen­er­a­tor bat­ter­ies. Nonethe­less, the Israeli occu­pa­tion remains ubiquitous. 

The pun­ish­ment of Gaza, and its resilient peo­ple refus­ing to dis­ap­pear or die, is a moti­vat­ing fac­tor in my own work speak­ing out. Gaza is being stran­gled in my name, by an Israeli gov­ern­ment that claims to speak for world Jew­ry, and it’s enough to make me scream. But silence is nev­er an option. The surg­ing human­i­ty in Gaza, of stu­dents with poten­tial and inter­net coders like Gaza Sky Geeks show­ing what’s pos­si­ble in the tech space, is what keeps me return­ing to Gaza, high­light­ing its plight and its humanity.

—•—

Destroyed building in Gaza after the Israel/Hamas war in 2014 (photo courtesy Antony Loewenstein).

Destroyed build­ing in Gaza after the Israel/Hamas war in 2014 (pho­to cour­tesy Antony Loewenstein).

Find­ing sto­ries of hope in Gaza has been an increas­ing chal­lenge. Back in 2009, few Gazans believed that their sit­u­a­tion would drag on for more than a decade. Four major wars in ten years, with Israel con­stant­ly threat­en­ing more mil­i­tary action, was now enough to con­vince many Gazans that there was no viable future there. One woman told me that she believed every young Gazan would leave the ter­ri­to­ry if they could and make a life else­where. She was sick of pol­i­tics and Hamas, the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty and Israel, the com­plic­it Arab lead­ers and Wash­ing­ton. Hope was in short supply. 

And yet it was­n’t entire­ly absent. Pos­i­tive change was occur­ring. Buthaina Sobh, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Wefaq Soci­ety for Women and Child Care, told me in Rafah in 2017 that social atti­tudes were grad­u­al­ly shift­ing. “Intel­lec­tu­al women now rec­og­nize that they have sex­u­al desires and can ask for it pri­vate­ly,” she said. Her orga­ni­za­tion pro­vid­ed sup­port for women whose hus­bands were abu­sive or left them with­out support. 

I attend­ed an out­door event orga­nized by the group with 50 women hear­ing about gen­der-based vio­lence and how they could claim their rights in a male-dom­i­nat­ed soci­ety. “I feel proud when see­ing this event,” Sobh said. “Hap­py that women can come and attend and leave their homes.” 

—•—

The cru­el­ty of both iso­lat­ing and attack­ing Gaza, imposed by a bel­liger­ent Israel and its trusty side­kicks like Barack Oba­ma, Don­ald Trump, Joe Biden, George W. Bush, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Mal­colm Turn­bull, Scott Mor­ri­son, There­sa May or Boris John­son, is that the Gazans them­selves are ren­dered unpeo­ple, not wor­thy of sym­pa­thy or sup­port. Their voic­es and iden­ti­ties are large­ly invis­i­ble in the main­stream media, twist­ed into a hate­ful mass of Arabs con­sumed by fanati­cism. These are lies con­struct­ed by those who have nei­ther been to Gaza nor care about its future. 

Dur­ing the 2021 Israeli onslaught against Gaza, where over 250 Pales­tini­ans were killed includ­ing at least 67 chil­dren, I attempt­ed to learn the fate of the Chil­dren’s Land Kinder­garten but could­n’t reach any­one. Mean­while I was in con­tact with a Gazan friend in cen­tral Gaza. We cor­re­spond­ed almost every day and one day all she could write was, “we are still alive.” The ran­dom­ness of the vio­lence, with the threat of one’s entire fam­i­ly being wiped out by an Israeli mis­sile strike, must have been unbearable. 

But Gaza is so much more than a threat to be neu­tral­ized. It is a vibrant, crum­bling, intense, beau­ti­ful, his­tor­i­cal enti­ty with some two mil­lion liv­ing, breath­ing souls. Walk along the shores of the Mediter­ranean, watch the fish­er­men of Gaza bring in their dai­ly catch near stalls sell­ing hot corn, and mar­vel at a peo­ple who have suf­fered more than any of us can imagine. 

They deserve noth­ing less than our com­plete solidarity. 

Another view of the Children's Land Kindergarten multipurpose center (photo MC Archive).

Anoth­er view of the Chil­dren’s Land Kinder­garten mul­ti­pur­pose cen­ter (pho­to MC Archive).