In The Face of Lifelong Terror, Gaza Speaks Truth To Power

A Palestinian asks how many deaths will be enough

Refaat Alareer

Mohamed alNaccar, 12, was hit in the eye with a tear gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier during the Great March of Return protests in Gaza in January 2019, shrapnel from Israeli forces being the most common injury reported in Gaza. ABED ZAGOUT/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

In 1985, when I was a first-grader, I was awakened by a hustle and bustle of noise downstairs. It was pitch dark. I could hear my mom sobbing. There were women comforting her. I had never heard Mom weep before.

When I snuck downstairs to see what was going on, I found that my dad’s old mahogany Peugeot 404 had its front and rear windshields shattered, the passenger door was wide open and blood was all over the place. My father had been coming back home that night from work, and it was his business partner’s turn to drive. As they passed the Nahal Oz military crossing from Israel into the Gaza Strip, out of nowhere, a hail of bullets struck their car. It was in the midst of that chatter that I first heard the words, the army,” Israel,” the Jews” and shooting.”

Did a sleepy soldier’s finger slip and pull the trigger? We did not know. Did he shoot the car for fun? We did not know. There was no investigation. And no one was held accountable.

My father was injured in the attack and had to deal with the shrapnel of the bullet that ricocheted and hit his shoulder. For decades, especially in cold weather, he suffered from some sort of phantom pain. Our father and breadwinner was almost killed in an instant. I still go to check on my family members every time I hear bullets outside. Every time I am made to recall those memories, I remember the women’s comforting words in my home: It shall pass.”

Cheshire-ish Smiles

Four years later, I was minding my own business (only being a nuisance to one of my classmates) in the schoolyard, when a sizable rock hit me in the head. I blacked out for some time. Then, bleeding profusely, I pressed my left hand on my head to stop the bleeding. The little kids swarmed around me, all pointing up to the adjacent four-story house whose roof was occupied by Israeli soldiers for a military post.

The Israeli soldier who threw the rock was smiling from ear to ear, a smile reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. The doctor who dressed the wound kept comforting me, It’s nothing. It shall pass.”

Early in my life, I learned one main thing about the Israeli occupation: The best course of action, whether or not you throw stones, is to run when you see soldiers, because who they target is largely arbitrary — even if you go about your life in a peaceful way, minding your own business, if soldiers catch you, they will beat you up or (worse) arrest you — which is why Israel has killed a lot more civilians than freedom fighters.

I have never been caught in my life. I was shot three times with rubber-coated metal bullets and was beaten only when the soldiers stormed our home. They slapped me and my brothers and my cousins dozens of times because, when they checked, our hearts were racing, a sign we were running and possibly throwing stones. We were between 8 and 11 years old then. Our hearts always raced.

As I grew into a proud stone thrower at the age of 12, the thing I feared most was my dad’s wrath. He worked in Israel as a laborer, and if he had caught me throwing stones, he would have rebuked me. My dad was not heartless or abusive. He just knew that if the Israeli forces had caught me, he would have lost his work permit. I survived the First Intifada (1987 – 1993), in which Israel killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and injured thousands. I was lucky I escaped Israel’s bullets and Yitzhak Rabin’s broken bones” policy.

That was not true of my friend Lewa Bakroun, then 13, who was chased by an Israeli settler who shot him dead from point-blank range in front of his classmates. The Israeli settler did not want to punish Lewa for throwing stones, for Lewa did not throw stones. The settler wanted to teach those who threw stones a lesson, by killing a kid, in front of the eyes of scores of little scared kids going back home from school. And a few meters away from Lewa’s home. 

His mother’s shrieks still ring in my ears. 

In the midst of writing this, I called my child-hood friend and Lewa’s soulmate and cousin, Fady, to check the date of Lewa’s murder. Fady was at Shifa Hospital. He informed me that Haniya, Lewa’s mother, had a cancerous tumor and couldn’t travel for treatment because of the Israeli siege on Gaza.

It shall pass,” I comforted Fady.

It shall pass,” he echoed nonchalantly.

The Second Intifada

I remember when I first heard the question, How many more Palestinians should be massacred for the world to care about our lives?” I thought, naively, that repeating the question would change people. I posted it all over the forums I was part of then. But Israel kept killing us. And boy was I wrong about the world’s reaction!

In 2001, Israeli occupation forces opened fire on Palestinian farmers in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood in Gaza City, killing a distant cousin, Tayseer Alareer, while he was farming his land. Tayseer was shot by Israeli troops at Nahal Oz, a kibbutz that also hosted a military watchtower. This was the very same military post where my father was shot in 1985.

Tayseer was a farmer. He was not a fighter. He was not a stone thrower. But that did not shield him from Israeli fire. Ironically, Israeli troops would occasionally stop at Tayseer’s farm and ask for chickpeas or an ear of corn. Was the soldier who killed Tayseer one of those who enjoyed the occasional free chickpeas or corn? We did not know. Because Tayseer’s life did not matter, and therefore there was no investigation into the shooting.

Tayseer left behind three little kids, a distraught widow, and a farm without a farmer. At the funeral, people comforted the unknowing kids. Everyone insisted: It shall pass. It shall pass.

As the Second Intifada escalated, Israel slaughtered more and more Palestinians, some of whom were relatives, friends and neighbors.

Stories of Gaza

After Israel’s Operation Cast Lead (2008 – 2009), which claimed the lives of nearly 1,400 Palestinians in 22 days, life in Gaza became unbearable as Israel tightened its noose. Israel literally counted the calories entering Gaza. The plan was to keep Palestinians hungry but not starve them to death. Mail, books, timber, chocolate and most raw materials were all banned. The war made tens of thousands of people homeless.

I was a young academic with a master’s degree in comparative literature from University College London, teaching world literature and creative writing at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG). I remember, during the onslaught, spending the 22 days telling my little kids, Shymaa, Omar and Ahmed, many stories to distract them. Some were stories my mother told me as a child or variations on her stories, featuring my children as the heroes and saviors every now and then. Even though bombs and missiles could be heard in the background, my children were transfixed, listening to my stories like never before. I spent most of the time trying to make sure I held these storytelling sessions in the room least likely to take a hit from stray Israeli missiles. As a Palestinian, I have been brought up on stories and storytelling. It’s both selfish and treacherous to keep a story to yourself— stories are meant to be told and retold. If I kept a story to myself, I would be betraying my legacy, my mother, my grandmother and my homeland.

During the 2008 – 2009 attacks on Gaza, the more bombs Israel detonated, the more stories I told. When bombs interrupted the stories, I calmed my little ones down.

It shall pass,” I lied.

Telling stories was my way of resisting. It was all I could do. And it was then that I decided that, if I lived, I would dedicate much of my life to telling the stories of Palestine, empowering Palestinian narratives and nurturing younger voices.

Gaza went back to normal as we dusted ourselves off from the most immediate pain and agony that came with the Israeli attacks of Cast Lead. There were new piles of bodies, houses, orphans, ruins and stories to tell. I went back to my classrooms and to my students at the English Department of IUG, whose newest, highly equipped laboratory building had been bombed by Israel. Scars were everywhere. Every single person in Gaza had to mourn a loved one. I started inviting my friends and students to write about what they had to endure and to bear witness to the anguish Israel had caused.

And this is how Gaza Writes Back was born. I started assigning my students and training them to write short stories based on the realities they and their families and friends experienced. Gaza Writes Back is a book of short stories written in English by young Palestinians from Gaza, published in the United States in 2014. But can a story or a poem change the mind or the heart of the occupiers? Can a book make a difference? Will this calamity, this occupation, this apartheid, pass? It seems it won’t. A few months later, in July 2014, Israel waged its most barbaric campaign of terror and destruction in decades, killing more than 2,100 Palestinians and destroying more than 20,000 homes in 50 days.

Can a book make a difference? Will this calamity, this occupation, this apartheid, pass?

2014 War

During the 2014 war, Israel bombed the administration building of IUG. The missiles destroyed the English Department offices, including my office where I stocked so many stories, assignments, exam papers and potential book projects.

When I started teaching at IUG, I met young students, most of whom had never been outside Gaza. This isolation became even worse when Israel tightened its siege in 2006. Many of them could not go to the West Bank for family visits, or to Jerusalem for a simple religious ritual, or to the United States or the United Kingdom for research and visits. Books, along with thousands of other commodities, were not normally allowed into Gaza. The consequences of putting this young generation in the dark, the world must know, has far worse ramifications than we would ever expect.

Teaching Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was tricky. To many of my students, Shylock was beyond repair. Even Shylock’s daughter hated him! However, with open-mindedness, I worked very closely with my students to overcome prejudices when analyzing literary texts.

Shylock evolved from a simplistic idea of a Jew who wanted a pound of flesh just to satisfy some cannibalistic primitive desires of revenge into a totally different human being. Shylock was just like us Palestinians. Shylock had to endure many religious and spiritual walls erected by an apartheid-like society. Shylock was in a position where he had to choose between living as a subhuman, and resisting oppression by the means available to him. He chose to resist, just like Palestinians do nowadays.

Shylock’s Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech was no longer a pathetic attempt to justify murder, but rather an internalization of long years of pain and injustices. I was not at all surprised when one of my students altered the speech:

Hath not a Palestinian eyes? Hath not a Palestinian hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian or a Jew is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Why would Israel bomb a university? Some say Israel attacked IUG just to punish its 20,000 students or to push Palestinians to despair. While that is true, to me, IUG’s only danger to the Israeli occupation and its apartheid regime is that it is the most important place in Gaza to develop students’ minds as indestructible weapons. Knowledge is Israel’s worst enemy. Awareness is Israel’s most hated and feared foe. That’s why Israel bombs a university — it wants to kill openness and the determination to refuse living under injustice and racism.

But again, why does Israel bomb a school? Or a hospital? Or a mosque? Or a 20-story building? Could it be, as Shylock put it, a merry sport”?

Personal Loss

Among the people Israel Murdered in 2014 was my brother Mohammed. Israel widowed his wife and orphaned his two kids, Raneem and Hamza. Israel also killed four members of my extended family. Our family home was destroyed, and so were the homes of my uncles and relatives. Nusayba lost her brother, grandfather and cousin. But the most horrific massacre happened when Israel targeted my wife’s sister’s home. Israel killed Nusayba’s sister, three of her sister’s kids and her sister’s husband, leaving Amal and Abood injured and orphaned. The rest of the family members were injured and had to be dug out from under the rubble. Nusayba’s father’s home and her brothers’ homes were destroyed too.

The wounds Israel inflicted in the hearts of Palestinians are not irreparable. We have no choice but to recover, stand up again, and continue the struggle. Submitting to the occupation is a betrayal to humanity and to all struggles around the world.

At the end of the day, nothing Palestinians (or those who support Palestine) do will please Israel or the Zionist lobby. And Israeli aggression will continue unabated. Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS). Armed struggle. Peace talks. Protests. Tweets. Social media. Poetry. All are terror in Israel’s books. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, hailed by most people as a champion of justice not only against apartheid South Africa but racial segregation everywhere, especially in Palestine, was slandered as a bigot and an antisemite. Renowned actor Emma Watson was attacked and accused of antisemitism for daring to post in support of Palestine solidarity on Instagram. It is not surprising, then, that Refaat Alareer or Ali Abunimah or Steven Salaita or Susan Abulhawa or Mohammed or Muna El-Kurd or Remi Kanazi is constantly attacked by Zionist trolls who slanderously use the charge of antisemitism in an attempt to silence us. No matter how mild the criticism of Israel’s crimes or how slight the support for Palestinian rights, the Zionist lobby will attempt to scorch the earth to prevent it.

I know that many Palestinians ask if more can be done, if free people can do more to prevent Israel from continuing to commit horrifying crimes against us. Can popular resistance, or armed struggle, or BDS, or pro-Palestine groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, or Black Lives Matter activists or Indigenous struggle activists, do more to exert pressure and prevent further Israeli aggressions, to bring those Israeli war criminals to justice and to end their impunity? When will this pass? How many dead Palestinians are enough?

As I write this, I am exposed, naked and vulnerable. Reliving the horrors Israel brought on us is one thing, but disclosing your life and your most intimate moments of fear and terror, where you spill your heart out, is another.

When I was approached to write for this book, the promise was that it will effect change and that policies, especially in the United States, will be improved. But, honestly, will they?

Does a single Palestinian life matter? Does it?

Adapted excerpt from Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, available from Haymarket Books. More in- formation about the anthology can be accessed at gaza​un​locked​.org/​a​n​t​h​ology.

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