They asked if they could take a picture of the swimming pool. One of them had never in his life seen a private pool before, and actually maybe not a swimming pool of any kind, not to mention a house on this scale.
There are no private swimming pools in the Gaza Strip because, among other things, there’s not enough water. Nor enough electricity; it’s only supplied six to eight hours a day. The two visitors took pictures of the pool and had themselves photographed next to it, as though not wishing to miss any detail, as though to make every moment last and live it to the fullest.
That was they way they acted in general, throughout the two days in which we traveled around the country together, from the lost village of their forebears in the south to Rosh Hanikra in the north. Two days of vacationing and of freedom after all the years of siege and after the horrific summer residents of the Strip endured last year. Two days of an emotional roller coaster, for them and for us, too.
They’re not likely to forget this outing anytime soon. They took in the landscapes of Israel, without displaying the least sign of hatred, without an iota of envy, without so much as a word of bitterness. A few times they said, “If only we could get out of Gaza once a year and come here.” The words left us speechless and shamed. A feeling of unease hung in the air during the excursion, in the restaurants, the markets and the mosques: Can’t things be like this all the time? Isn’t this the way they should be? A trip with friends from Gaza in our country, which is also their country, as an everyday occurrence.
In the end, these were also two very sad days.
After half a year of corresponding and coordination, Ghassan Qeshawi, 59, and Munir Dweik, 53, two friends of mine from the Strip, were able to get an extraordinarily rare permit to enter Israel for a few days, because they work for GVC, an Italian aid organization, in Gaza. Qeshawi, an agronomist and water engineer, is in charge of desalination projects; Dweik is a driver on behalf of GVC, and also one of the two taxi drivers we previously worked with for years when reporting from Gaza.
Though he was born in Gaza, Dweik grew up in Tel Aviv, somewhere between the Hatikva and Carmel markets. Ever since then his motto has been: “If they give you something, take it; if they hit you, take off.”
He also knows the Jewish prayers of penance by heart, and used to recite them ahead of Yom Kippur when he worked at a butcher shop in the Hatikva market; the clients thought he was a Jew.
When Qeshawi was a high-school student in Gaza, his class went on an outing to Rosh Hanikra – the spectacular cliffs and grottoes on the border with Lebanon. It was an unforgettable experience. This week he asked whether Shlomo Hillel, Zevulun Hammer and Yitzhak Navon are still alive. He recalled that Navon, a former education minister, spoke fine Arabic.
Qeshawi spent 19 years in Saudi Arabia, before returning to Gaza in the late 1990s, and since then he’s been imprisoned there, along with the rest of the population. Dweik has never been abroad, and in the past 22 years he wasn’t able to get out of the Strip, either, apart from one occasion.
Dweik endured the horrors of the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Protective Edge last summer in his home in the town of Beit Lahia, which was on the front line. His home wasn’t hit, but fear and dread were pervasive, especially after a dud Qassam rocket landed near his house; everyone was afraid to remove it. All his beehives, which he had placed next to the border, so the bees would avail themselves of Israeli pollen – there are hardly any trees or flowers in Gaza – were destroyed.
Qeshawi’s home is on the Gaza seacoast, adjacent to the Safina, the ship-like headquarters of Palestinian intelligence, which has been bombed and destroyed three times by Israel over the years.
Dweik’s descriptions of life in Gaza today are more despairing than ever. The people have lost all hope, he says. Most of the ruins and wreckage of the war have yet to be cleared, and thousands of homeless residents continue to huddle in schools run by UNRWA, the United Nations relief agency.
“We’re finished. Halas – Gaza is done for,” Dweik said. Qeshawi added, “This is the worst time in Gaza’s history. Worse than 1948. This is our Nakba” – a reference to what the Palestinians call the “catastrophe” of the creation of the State of Israel.
The swimming pool scene took place in the residence of the Norwegian ambassador to Israel, Svein Sevje, in upscale Herzliya Pituah. We paid a visit there after the two Gazans prayed in the renovated mosque of the lost village of Sidna Ali, on the Herzliya seashore.
In that mosque, and in Jaffa, Acre and Lod, wherever the visitors encountered Israeli Arabs, it was astonishing to see the indifference and lack of interest with which the two Gaza survivors were received by their Israeli Arab brethren. The Israeli Jews to whom we introduced the visitors responded with greater emotion and interest than the Arabs.
“Why did my parents flee?” Dweik asked several times, and answered his own question: “When you’re afraid, you don’t think.” He was referring to the event that sealed his family’s fate – when his parents fled to Gaza from their village near Ashdod in 1948. He and Qeshawi were born in the Strip, but the latter still wanted to visit the ruins of his ancestral village, Al-Kubeiba, which was where we started the second day of this short family-roots journey.
We arrived at the ruins of the home of the village’s mukhtar (headman), a multi-arched building that stands desolate on a high hill west of Kfar Gvirol, a neighborhood in Rehovot. We found the structure by means of the wondrous cellular app iNakba, developed by the Zochrot NGO, which directs users to the remnants of every lost Palestinian community in the country.
The silence when Qeshawi got out of the car quickly gave way to exuberance. He seems to know every inch of ground here, every stone, from the stories he heard from his parents. The Shakhin family lived here, and the Jadili family there, and below, in the valley, was the local well. He caressed every flower and gazed fondly at the landscape. Sentry-like, a pair of palm trees and a pair of cypresses loom high in front of the mukhtar’s ruined home, as though nothing happened here. But a layer of concrete that someone used to seal the house partially shows that this is a place that no longer exists, in a village where few other ruins remain. Only the cactuses and the remains of a few more houses in the valley below – now traversed by a highway – evoke the life that once flourished here.
An odd silence hung in the air, breached by the noise of planes that took off from the nearby air force base – from where aircraft also probably departed to bomb Gaza. Qeshawi took pictures of his parents’ village, or what remains of it, and had his picture taken against that backdrop. Throughout, he used his cellphone camera to take video clips, and accompanied them with explanations and descriptions. When he gets home, he’ll show the images to his family. This was his country.
His admiration for what he saw was boundless: the landscaping along the roads, the expressways, the prosperous-looking Arab towns, the mango and avocado groves, the work done by the Israeli water company Mekorot, and the bicycle racks on cars – something he’d never seen before. Irrepressibly inquisitive and enthusiastic, Qeshawi regaled us with questions and also with professional explanations about the types of soil, crops and the sprinkler systems – his areas of expertise – we saw along the way. Occasionally he spoke by phone to Gaza – “You’ll never believe where I am now – and on the other end of the line they couldn’t believe it.
In Jaffa he looked for strings for his oud; they can’t be had in Gaza. To be on the safe side, he bought three packs. The visitors were appalled at the prices in Israel: 70 shekels ($18) for two sandwiches. Vertigo seized them on the cable cars that descend to the grottoes at Rosh Hanikra. In the Old City of Acre, they admired the walls and buildings that have lasted so long.
They asked whether there would be another war in Gaza soon, and we said yes. Our parting was very sad.
Italian aid organization GVC points out that the two GVC employees who were interviewed for the above article do not represent the views and opinions of GVC.