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Waiting to drink coffee together in Sderot or in Gaza

By Julia Chaitin and Sameh Habeeb

Julia writes:

I 'met' Sameh, a 23 year old man, on a website that promotes peace between Israelis and Palestinians. His postings caught my attention, not only because he was from Gaza, but because he described himself as a peace activist, who was seeking Israeli partners in peace. Sameh wrote: "…I seek freedom and want it so badly. I want to move freely, travel… travel to the West Bank, London, Washington and Egypt…"

          I couldn't help but be moved by his words, when I compared his elusive dreams to the freedom of movement that I take for granted. I couldn't help but be moved by his words since we are neighbors: Sameh lives in the Gaza Strip and I on the other side in Israel. We are neighbors who yearn for the mundane act of meeting together, either in Gaza or in Israel, over a cup of coffee and biscuits, to talk about this and that.

          My kibbutz, while officially on the list of the Surrounding Gaza settlements, has never, thankfully, been hit by kassam rockets. My experiences with the "Tzeva Adom" (Red Alerts) are from my work at the Sapir College, where I am on faculty. I no longer remember how many tzeva adoms there have been, or how many students, and faculty and staff I have hugged, or tissues I have used to wipe away their tears. I have barely missed some kassam attacks – like the one that knocked out the windows in the office next to mine, or the one that fell near the clinic on campus, when I was comforting students on the other side.

My experiences with the fears of living in this otherwise pastoral area of Israel are connected to stories that my son told me about Palestinian sniper attacks against Israelis on nearby kibbutzim. They are connected to driving past communities, where I know many people, on my way to Sapir, where children and adults have been wounded and killed. They are connected to the shelter in my parking lot at school that was erected after Roni Yehi, a Sapir student, was killed, when he attempted to take cover from a rocket, but had no place to hide.

I count myself and family among the lucky ones. But, as everyone else in the region, I feel that we are living on borrowed time, and that one day one of the kassam rockets will have one of our names inscribed on it. It is, after all, Russian roulette.  

After a few emails, Sameh sent me his phone number and I called him. He asked: "How are you? How are things in Sderot? Are you and your family well? Tell me about your family." Sameh's first words to me were about my safety; his first words to me were words of care and concern, of a wish to get to know me. I immediately felt that our  new friendship already had a deep basis.

For months, Sameh and I have spoken on the phone and he has introduced me to others, who all begin our conversations with the same words: "How are you? God bless you. All we want is peace and an end to this siege." I have yet to hear anger or accusations in their voices, but rather a wish for the simple things of life – freedom of movement, the chance to meet face-to-face, opportunities for employment, and the end of the siege that is imprisoning everyone in Gaza, regardless of age, gender, religiosity, and political leanings. I hear in their voices despair and a fear/warning that we all may see a return to violence, if the siege continues, for innocent people cannot remain caged up indefinitely with no sign that life will improve.

I told Sameh about a grassroots organization that I belong to – Other Voice – which is comprised of citizens from the Sderot and surrounding Gaza region who understand that their leaders have done nothing to actually end the insane reality of life that has characterized the region since 2000. The constant kassam rocket attacks and reciprocal Israeli military incursions  into Gaza only continue to claim more and more casualties on both sides – many physical injuries and deaths in Gaza and injuries and traumatic fear in Israel, making life worse for all. I told him about our decision to organize face-to-face meetings with people from Gaza so that we can get to know one another as people, and to build normal, every day, unexciting, neighborly relations.

During one of our weekly meetings, I called Sameh and put him on speaker-phone so that we could all talk to one another. Since that phone call, he has been in touch with other members of the group, thus expanding the circle of friends/neighbors. During that phone call, Sameh was visiting a family that had become another tragic statistic for the Gazans; a teenage boy had lost both his legs and a pregnant mother had lost part of her left leg when an Israeli shell hit their apartment. We talked to members of the family and managed to put them in contact with Physicians for Human Rights, so that the teenage boy could get fitted for prosthetics.

This is the content of our new-found friendships – worrying about the other's mental and physical health, helping arrange doctors' appointments and artificial limbs. And as of yet, we have not met face-to-face over that cup of coffee and cookies. We only have an idea of what the other looks like from photos posted on the web.

At the end of every phone call, we talk about our desire to actually meet face-to-face. I wonder – when will we get the chance to meet? What will we say to one another? What hope can I offer him that a different reality is possible and that I am not the only Israeli that wishes to be his good neighbor? I tell Sameh: "We are working on such a meeting. It will take time and we need to be patient, but we are determined." Sameh and I are determined to do what is still prohibited to us by the Hamas and by the Israeli military – to visit one another, share coffee and cake, talk about our families and tell each other jokes…

Sameh writes:

Dear Julia, Peace and blessings of our one God be upon you and your family! Your words move me and fill me with enthusiasm, hope and more encouragement for a just peace between us. It's so important to me to hear from other voices in Israel working for peace as well. Voices that don't prepare guns, import American F16s or call for ethnic cleansing of people by sending them from Gaza into the Sinai or from the West Bank to Jordan. Voices which reach beyond borders, religion, and ethnicity - with true friendship.

When I started talking to you, I thought that there has been a step forward to change the ideas depicted in your mind about Gaza or its people. I was deeply saddened by the images of Gaza being promulgated across the region and across the world. We are portrayed as terrorists or savages, and the images bring tears to my soul and eyes, for truly we are not.  We are simple, peaceful people who yearn for the freedoms granted to you and the rest of the world.  We yearn for peace, for freedom from imprisonment, for clean air and water, for laughter in the streets from children playing, for an end to the fear that we will die if we walk down the street, or even if we stay in our homes...what is left of our homes....  We long for safety. We long for adequate medical treatment, so that so many will not die due to lack of care. We long for a time when we will be treated as human beings, just like everyone else, and not like caged animals, shot at for sport or fun or power. We long for simple things, that most people take for granted.

I hope to find in you, a growing and lasting friendship and I extend my hand and heart in solidarity, peace and brotherly love, for we are all connected as brothers and sisters in this world under one God.

Julia – the Israeli government carries out offences in the West Bank and Gaza and has pushed my people by means of deprivation, murdering of our children and women and men, for no apparent reason, other than we are Palestinians.  This has led to desperate actions, on the part of certain militant groups, who have been shooting kassam rockets since 2000.  I am deeply against these rockets, which bring fear to Israelis. Violence, as a response to violence, is against the code of humanity and all that lies sacred in the eyes of God, who is the only one who can take a life.  No man or woman has that authority to do so; it is a sin against God and goes against the beliefs of Muslims, Christians and Jews. Peace must be negotiated, all weapons must be put down and people must be allowed to live, not merely exist, behind walls of cement and fear. By not giving us our rights, the violence is flaming violence. Our President, Abbas, is ready for peace. I doubt if the Israeli government is ready. Our cause is not a case of food or relief, but one of gaining just rights.

People might say:" There are rockets fired from Gaza and there are people in the West Bank wishing to destroy Israel. So how can Palestinians claim "We want Peace!"  But has anyone asked: Why? It is because we are deprived, trapped, depressed, panicked and lost. We are surrounded by the reality of children, fathers, and mothers killed by Israel. What can we expect from a young person who is only surrounded by death and beatings and at a tender age sees horrific acts that the human mind cannot comprehend? We want the children to grow up with compassion, forgiveness and peace in their hearts.  We want them to be healthy, to go to school, and to become responsible and caring adults, who live in peace and security, and who offer their hand in friendship to others.  However, a few have left the path of hope and peace and seek out retaliation. And I say this is wrong.  

However, it is Israel's governmental policy, supported by the United States that is the reason that rockets are fired. Israel's faulty and inhumane polices. Israel's government is imprisoning the people of Gaza, and denying them employment, medical care, and education. Israel's policies are destroying human life, homes, agriculture, the economy, banning development and building cement walls to cage us as animals. 

If we had our freedom, the situation would change. If we were treated as human beings, there would be peace. An example is Jaber's family, that was directly hit by an Israeli shell. They did nothing to deserve this. The Israeli attack came at a time where there was no fire from the Palestinian side.  I do not understand the Israeli policy which claims that incidents are "mistakes" and then says: "Sorry."  This shows a lack of humanity, a loss of compassion and lack of a true desire to build peaceful relations.  If one is sorry and makes mistakes, the actions do not keep happening over and over and over.  And those who commit the "mistake" are held accountable.

In 2005, Mr. Sharon pulled out from the Gaza Strip and dismantled the illegal settlements.  But the Occupation didn't end, but rather became harsher and more brutal. Why?  We do not know.  The siege and killing of innocent people continues.

So many people have been shot, died due to lack of medicine, have had their homes bombed. Children have seen their teachers shot right before their eyes, schools have been closed by the Israeli army, and the borders are continuously closed. Many people have not received needed supplies and have had their shops in the marketplaces stolen by the Israeli Offense Forces (the IOF). From our perspective, the correct term for the Israeli army is the IOF and will remain so, as long as the Occupation in the West Bank and the Siege in Gaza continue. When they end these occupations, then we will be able to call your army the IDF.

The truce, which began in June of this year, falsely raised our hopes.  The people were let down when the Israelis did not keep their commitment to end the siege. We live a daily life in a hell. Julia, all of this breeds fear, apathy, and depression. I pray for the day when peace is realized and we can live in peace and harmony. I pray for this for Palestine as I pray for you the people of Israel. I pray for the day that we can be friends and welcome each other as friends do

I hope Julia that you and I meet, speak and drink a hot cup of coffee in the fresh air of Gaza and Sderot!   Right now it seems impossible, since Israel does not give permits to young people, like me, to enter the country. Gazans are labeled as "dangerous" in all times – both during war and during peace. If the Israelis only knew what was truly in our hearts. But, with the help of you, my dear friend Julia, and other peace-seekers who are my neighbors, we will get permission one day soon.  I look forward to that day....

Our endnote:

It took us two weeks to write this joint article. Because our governments prohibit face to face meetings, we sent drafts back and forth to one another via email, negotiating terms and phrasing, until we were able to co-sign our names. Writing this article has not been easy for us; indeed undertaking any joint action is not easy for Israelis and Palestinians. However, we know that we have no choice. If both peoples are to live in dignity in this shared region, then we must do this together, no matter how hard it is to hear how the other sees life, understands reality. While this was our first joint article, we hope that it will not be our last. The dialogue is difficult, but we are committed to continuing this dialogue. We have no other choice.  
 

 

1/15/2009