You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Defect From Israel to Gaza

That is, even if some of the events on the Palestinian side are a little crazy themselves.

Ilan Assayag

1. Three young people who are not soldiers have managed to enter the Gaza Strip from Israel. Jumaa Abu Ghanima, a Bedouin from the Negev village of Hashem Zana, was the last of them. He was preceded by Hisham al-Sayed from the village of Hura and Abera Mengistu, an Ethiopian Jew from Ashkelon.

“They’re emotionally disturbed,” people say, but they actually behaved reasonably. After all, they were expressing human curiosity for the people on the other side of the “dark mountains” as they say in Hebrew that the politicians built and that the Israeli consciousness has become reconciled to.

Since 1991, Israel has been severing Gaza from the world and the rest of the Palestinian people. The isolation worsened in 2000 and again in 2005 and 2006. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories counted the number of calories of food that had gone into Gaza, following an order by Ehud Olmert’s government to “open the checkpoints for humanitarian needs only.” Pure sanity. The isolation has increased the despair and strengthened the armed struggle’s delusion and the Hamas regime in Gaza.

During the past few years some gestures, in the form of more exit permits, have been introduced, largely for merchants. But now, at the initiative of the Shin Bet security service, even this is being scrapped.

The businessmen have always been a pragmatic bunch who focused on improving their situation and the money in circulation in the Strip. It’s the group the World Bank and U.S. diplomats have courted. And now it’s being targeted by the Shin Bet. That too is considered sane.

Destructive accoutrements

The three young Israelis who went to Gaza are said to be emotionally disturbed because they walked a few dozen meters from freedom to jail. They paid no heed to the barbed-wire fences, the concrete walls, the watchtowers, the rifles and the other destructive accoutrements from the world of science fiction.

The three are emotionally sound, because unlike the vast majority of Israelis, they didn’t consider this huge detention camp a nonexistent entity or the people living there ghosts. They didn’t consider the severed connection with the other side a given. And if for no other reason, the Hamas authorities in Gaza should show respect to them and their right to freedom, and give their parents information about their whereabouts.

2. A thunderous noise interrupted the conversation at the house in the West Bank village of al-Asira al-Shamaliya. Then there was more thunder, and more.

Outside, fighter jets streaked through the sky at a surprisingly low altitude. But it’s a regular occurrence in these parts, in the Nablus area, said relatives of Bilal Kayed, who was put in detention without trial immediately after serving a 15-year jail sentence.

As his brother Mahmoud put it: “The planes are celebrating the results of the matriculation exams.” The quip was a short respite in a heartrending conversation with a family that was planning for Bilal’s release, only to be disappointed.

The joking reference to the exams requires an explanation. On the day of our conversation came the results of the Palestinian matriculation exams, which are a kind of collective torture for families and students. The exams demand memorization and little thinking. There’s little time between tests or an option for correction or improvement.

Palestinian Education Minister Sabri Saidam promised to gradually reform the system. One of the first steps: Starting this year, students’ scores will no longer be released publicly with their names. Only the scores will be released. Imagine that for decades the names of those who failed or whose performance was embarrassingly poor were made public, adding shame to the heartbreak.

A popular custom with the release of the exam results is to fire in the air, on top of the fireworks and other explosive displays. Entreaties by the police and the Education Ministry to forgo this dangerous practice hasn’t really worked, judging by what I heard on my way from Ramallah to al-Asira al-Shamaliya to Nablus and then back to Ramallah.

“Why is the IDF carrying out training exercises near residential neighborhoods?” I said to myself, composing in my head the grumpy question that I would send to the Israel Defense Forces’ spokesman that evening.

High threshold

But when I saw cars brimming with young people thrusting their chests or arms out the car windows or roofs, I realized that the gunfire wasn’t from the IDF. After my visit to al-Asira, while at friends in Nablus, another loud noise interrupted the conversation. Their law-student son cracked the same joke that the IDF was celebrating the results of the Palestinian matriculation exams.

On the way back home, I stopped in the West Bank village of Hawara to buy falafel for 3 shekels (78 cents). From there I called a friend in Gaza, who told me that her daughter was in mourning because she had gotten a 96.7 on her matriculation while the minimum for medical school was 98. Let’s hope the reform includes ending the universities’ reliance on only a final score.

3. When talk on the radio didn’t dwell on the matriculation exams and top scorers, it dealt with the shock after Ramadan with 898 brawls among West Bank families, including 342 during the three-day Id al-Fitr holiday alone. Eight people were killed in petty squabbles that ended badly due to the use of guns.

Now everyone is breathing a sigh of relief that Ramadan is behind them and that soon it will fall during cooler times of the year. The hours of fasting and no-smoking will be fewer, reducing the opportunities to ignite the tensions that are always around.