Navigating Syrian activist Razan Ghazzawi’s blog last night, I came across the most interesting excerpt on her sidebar. It read:
[Israel] is a state of apartheid. It’s taken me less than a week to lose impartiality. In doing so, I may as well be throwing stones at tanks.
What caught my attention was that the quote was attributed to one of the most masterful actors of our time: Daniel Day-Lewis. At first, I wondered if this was another one of those popular misattributions to famous folks from overly zealous activists. It was, much to my surprise, not. The piece, written on March 20th 2005, is no longer available on the Times’ website. Despite this, I think Day-Lewis’ writing, observations, work and thoughts are profound and deserve to be read. I do not know, at this moment and time, if he still believes what he has written here — I find it hard to fathom that he does not. Regardless, do take a moment to read this piece which explores the psychological effects of occupation and violence.
Inside scarred minds
On his first visit to the Gaza Strip, Daniel Day-Lewis meets the Palestinian families living in the heart of the danger zone and the psychologists who are counselling them.
Mossa’ab, the interpreter, leads the way, carrying a white Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) flag. Its psychology team, myself and the photographer Tom Craig are in full view of an Israeli command post occupying the top floors of a large mill. It is draped in camouflage netting, as is the house close by. It is to this house that we are heading, across 200 yards of no man’s land; the last house left standing in an area once teeming with life.
Civilians have been the main victims of the violence inflicted by both sides in the Middle East conflict. In the Gaza Strip the Israeli army reacts to stone-throwing with bullets. It responds to the suicide bombs and attacks of Palestinian militants by bulldozing houses and olive groves in the search for the perpetrators, to punish their families, and to set up buffer zones to protect Israeli settlements. It bars access to villages, and multiplies checkpoints, cutting Gaza’s population off from the outside world. MSF’s psychologists are trying to help Palestinian families cope with the stress of living within these confines; visiting them, treating severe trauma and listening to their stories. Their visits are the only sign sometimes that they have not been abandoned.
Israel’s tanks and armour-plated bulldozers can come with no warning, often at night. The noise alone, to a people who have been forced to suffer these violations year after year, is enough to freeze the soul. Israeli snipers position themselves on rooftops. Householders are ordered to leave; they haven’t even the time to collect pots and pans, papers and clothes before the bulldozers crush the unprotected buildings like dinosaurs trampling on eggs ” sometimes first mashing one into another, then covering the remains with a scoop of earth. Those caught in the incursion zone will be fired on. Even those cowering inside their houses may be shot at or shelled through walls, windows and roofs. The white flag carried by humanitarian workers gives little protection; we’ll have warning shots fired at us twice before the week is out.
Sometimes a family will not leave an area that is being cleared, believing if they do leave they will lose everything. It is a huge risk to remain. Sometimes a house is left standing, singled out for occupation by Israeli troops. The family is forced to remain as protection for the soldiers. Last year an average of 120 houses were demolished each month, leaving 1,207 homeless every month. In the past four years 28,483 Gazans have been forcibly evicted; over half of Gaza’s usable land, mainly comprising citrus-fruit orchards, olive groves and strawberry beds, has been destroyed. Last year, 658 Palestinians were killed in the violence in Gaza, and dozens of Israelis. This ploughing under, house by house, orchard by orchard, reduces community to wasteland, strewn and embedded with a stunted crop of broken glass and nails, books, abandoned possessions. As we weave our way towards the home of Abu Saguer and his family ” one of several families we will visit today ” we are treading on shattered histories and aspirations.
Abu Saguer’s own house is still standing, but its top floor and roof are occupied by Israeli soldiers. His granddaughter Mervat is with us, a sweet, shy seven-year-old with red metal-rimmed glasses, her hair in two neat braids held by flowery bands. She wears bright-red trousers and a denim jacket. Last April her mother heard an Israeli Jeep pull up briefly at the military-access road in front of their house. Some projectile was fired and when Mervat reappeared ” she had been playing outside ” she was crying and her face was covered in blood. They washed her. Her right eye was crushed. A month later in Gaza an artificial eye was fitted. It was very uncomfortable, so a special recommendation was needed from the Palestinian Ministry of Health to finance a trip to Egypt for one that fitted properly. Mervat needs this eye changed every six months, so the ministry must negotiate with Israel each time for permission to cross the border. Fifty cars are permitted to cross each day; each must carry seven people.
Abu Saguer has five sons and four daughters “You’ll go broke with more than that,” he says. He lives near the big checkpoint of Abu Houli in southern Gaza. He wants the photographer, Tom Craig, to take his picture and put it on every wall in England, Germany and Russia. He is 59. At 12 he went out to work, and at 16 he began to build the house he had dreamt of, “slowly, slowly” as a home and as a gathering place for his extended family. He had grown up in a house made of mud in Khan Yunis, which let the water in whenever it rained, and all his pride, hope and generosity of spirit had invested itself in this ambition. He had worked in Israel, like so many here, before the borders were closed to all men aged between 16 and 35.
For over 20 years, Abu Saguer had his own business, selling and transporting bamboo furniture. During the second Gulf war all his merchandise was stolen. After that he relied on his truck for income. He had cultivated 300 square metres of olive trees, pomegranates, palms, guavas and lemons in the fields around his home. After the start of the second intifada (Palestinian uprising) his crops were destroyed by the Israeli army ” for “security”. A road that services the Israeli settlements of Gush Katif had been built, and during our visit the traffic passes freely backwards and forwards, along the edge of the barren land where his orchards once flourished.
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