June 7, 2007

Khan Younis Refugee Camp

I sat staring at the benign, expectant faces around me. I knew some rudimentary Arabic but now they were questioning me in what sounded like a completely different language. The young boy who had brought me to this table pushed a small cup of coffee towards me.

It was night in Khan Younis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. I had unwittingly caused a fistfight between two cab drivers desperate for my fare. This angelic boy had appeared through the melee, wearing the traditional robe, a dishdashe, and guided me to this group.

I looked at each of them in turn and smiled helplessly. Suddenly an officer in the blue Palestinian Authority uniform approached us. There was a brief exchange and he turned to me, addressing me in perfect English.

Relieved, I asked him where I might find lodging for the night. He ignored the question for the time being.

"Can you understand what they’re saying?" he asked me.

I indicated that I could not, apologizing for not speaking Arabic.

He informed me they had been trying to converse with me in Hebrew. "You are Israeli, aren’t you?"

Before panic closed my throat I managed to croak that I was American.

The officer smiled. "American, Israeli...we don’t care. We love people, we just don’t understand your governments."

That makes two of us. The words that young officer spoke nearly five years ago are truer now than ever. The sickening violence that has claimed the lives of 79 Palestinian and 61 Lebanese civilians, including infants and children, is as unfathomable as it is unjustified. It isn’t making the three captured soldiers any safer; it isn’t helping Israel’s reputation in the international community. A recent poll of European citizens cited Israel as the number one threat to world peace. How prophetic. However, there is one notable exception.

Enter our illustrious president, describing this massacre as self-defense. U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, cast the lone vote against a resolution condemning Israeli aggression, citing it was "unbalanced." Apparently it failed to address the status of the three captured soldiers. For that matter, the 8,238 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails were not mentioned either. But I suppose that would have made it "unbalanced" again.

The Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure, while larger in scope this time around, are nothing new.

Nidal, the Khan Younis officer, insisted I stay with his large family as a guest. The following day his cousins, one of whom was a paramedic at the Red Crescent hospital, showed me around the sprawling refugee camp. Many people live in concrete hovels that would be condemned anywhere else in the world. A lot of homes lay in rubble from Israeli attacks, the families forced to relocate to tents.

While touring the hospital, I heard horror stories of the effects of curfews and closures. Several women in labor had died at Israeli checkpoints "after hours" while waiting to be allowed to cross. The paramedic described his job as the "most dangerous in Gaza," as he was often shot at while trying to collect wounded in the aftermath of another Israeli military operation. Bullet-riddled ambulances (clearly marked as such) provided proof of his testimony.

Rolling water outages are a health concern as well as a major inconvenience. Families in the camp have one or two hours of running water a day. One young girl was in the middle of laundry when the water cut off. She had to lug the load down three flights of stairs and two blocks away to a neighbor’s whose water had just turned on.

To make matters worse, on my way into the camp I passed by a beautifully irrigated tract of land, complete with grassy lawns and palm trees. It was an Israeli settlement, draining the area’s water supply.

A large group of children followed us as we made our way to the beach. There were yards of barbed wire and an Israeli bunker that prevented us, along with the children of Khan Younis, from going to the beach. One of the boys, a fourteen year-old named Muhammad, told me what happened when he tried to go for a swim.

"Wallahi" (by God), they beat me," he said of the Israeli soldiers. Even as we spoke I could see the glint of the soldiers’ binoculars from the bunker. They were watching us. Another boy wore a crude bandage that looked like sandpaper taped to his head, a souvenir from an Israeli bullet that luckily only grazed him.

I learned that most of camp’s families had been displaced twice, the majority originating from Jaffa, Haifa or other cities further up the coast. They had been refugees once in 1948 when an estimated 750,000-900,000 Palestinians were forced out of their villages when the state of Israel was established. They evacuated again during the 1967 war when an additional 350,000-400,000 Palestinians fled, finally ending up in Gaza.

They feel they are the lucky ones, however. Palestinians living in other countries comprise 55% of the total Palestinian population. Numbering twelve million, they represent the world’s largest percentage of refugees.

"...we just don’t understand your governments." Israel is wreaking havoc in the Middle East, killing and maiming innocent civilians in the name of "self defense." The United States, claiming to be a beacon of freedom and equality in the world supports this line not only in words, but in military and economic aid to the tune of $12 billion a year. As taxpayers, we are all culpable in our support of this brutal apartheid system which persecutes people based on ethnicity and religion. Now that this rogue state has destabilized the entire region, maybe it is time for "regime change."

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