Bassam Made Me Fall in Love With Gaza. Now He's Gone

Bassam al-Aqra showed me the Strip's magnetizing mixture of warmth, energy, simplicity, courage and humor

FILE PHOTO: Hamas security forces stand guard at Erez border crossing into Israel, in Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip on March 26, 2017.

“Bassam is gone” – three words which choke you up with tears that keep coming back even 10 days after his death, so premature, so unfair and so enraging. He was only 55 years old. I hadn’t seen him since the last time I managed to sneak into the besieged Gaza Strip nine years ago. There were times when we spoke by phone once every week or two, at other times only every four months or so. But each day the emptiness caused by his death grows more oppressive.

Bassam al-Aqra is one of the people I’m indebted to for teaching me what I know about the Gaza Strip. He is one of the friends who made me fall in love with that enclave and its people. Because of Bassam and his like I could generalize without hesitation and say that Gaza is indeed a tough place, but there is something in its human texture that is a magnetizing mixture of warmth, energy, simplicity, courage and humor. He and his parents are among the people who make me painfully aware of the longing for those green spaces and deserved future they had in store in their village of Burayr (on which now sits Kibbutz Bror Hayil), which we robbed from them. Because of him and others like him I find it difficult to imagine the scope of destruction and collapse in the Gaza Strip.

Bassam always retained his humanity, his ability to joke, to care for others, to be critical and level-headed, to encourage others in the most difficult circumstances, to soothe, to take interest, to speak sparingly so as not to say how difficult things were, even during the days of Israeli onslaughts and heavy bombardment, with his constant worry for his children. Even when the water didn’t flow and the power was cut off and he couldn’t make ends meet.

His death from a heart attack shocked many people. Thousands attended his funeral on February 16, and many people visited the mourners’ tent outside the family home in the Jabalya refugee camp. He wasn’t the head of a prominent clan or a businessman, but he was known in many circles: the camp, the descendants of Burayr, the Popular Front and other leftist circles, his colleagues who were imprisoned with him at Ketziot during the first intifada, the parents of children who go to school with his three daughters and son, the thousands of people who met him over his 23 years as a researcher and director of the training unit at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. He was a mensch, therefore they all mourn for him.

Adding to the collective shock was this: His wife, Dounia Ismail, a poet and feminist activist, was in Cairo when he died. She was accompanying their eldest daughter, Ugarit, who was starting her medical studies there. She started late because the Rafah border crossing into Egypt was closed during the first semester. When a brief window of opportunity opened for a few days, mother and daughter traveled there together. Then the crossing closed again and Dounia couldn’t return. Their second daughter Sham got a scholarship and is currently in a Michigan high school. A viral Facebook campaign to open the Rafah crossing so that Dounia could see Bassam for the last time was in vain. She returned only four days after he was buried. Her two daughters remained abroad. Even if they’d been able to return for the days of mourning, no one knows when the crossing would have opened again. It was decided not to risk their studies. Anyone who didn’t hear Bassam talk about their accomplishments and ambitions never heard a father who was prouder of his daughters.

Dounia and her daughters, and those who stayed home and saw their father in his last moments – the young sister Carmel and the youngest brother Ali – couldn’t even imagine a different path home, like via Ben Gurion Airport or Jordan. The wicked, sadistic bureaucracy of besiegement created by Israel does not allow such simple solutions. Especially since Dounia doesn’t have an identity card; Israel expelled her father from the Gaza Strip sometime in the ‘80s for his anti-occupation activities, stripping his entire family of residency status. When Dounia came to Gaza on a visit after the Oslo Accords were signed, she held temporary residency papers from Egypt. She and Bassam met and fell in love, and she stayed. They thought Israel would quickly recognize her right to “family reunification” and restore her residency status in Gaza, where she was born. Israel determines who can register as a Palestinian resident, and it still denies Dounia this right. Dounia can travel abroad with a Palestinian Authority passport, but, lacking an identity card, her existence is not recognized at the Erez checkpoint into Israel.

Memories are narcissistic, and here is what comes to the surface: “The world is ass-backwards, why don’t we drive that way too?” Bassam said as he drove against traffic on Omar al-Mukhtar Street, while the Israeli army was still present in Gaza City. A philosophy of rebellion in one sentence. “At Ketziot we were envious of the Fatah prisoners – the Popular Front made us study all the time,” he said, sharing the sociology of his imprisonment. “Why don’t you travel like mista’arvim (the Israeli commandos who pose as Arabs)?” he suggested. “Drive into the Gaza Strip in your own car and change your license plates like they do, instead of leaving it at the Erez checkpoint.” This is exactly what I did between April 1994 and 1998. We went to a body shop in Jabalya, where they stamped the original license number onto two fake plates, which I would always screw in right after passing the checkpoint. On the second evening, after the night curfew that had been in place for years was lifted, I went to Jabalya. I got lost in its alleys. When I arrived late at Bassam’s place, he scolded me: “Why didn’t you turn left?” “I wasn’t born in Jabalya,” I protested. “I forgot,” he said, his face not revealing if he was serious or joking.