I met Nassrin (not her real name) my Gazan friend, in India four years ago. It was after the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, a war that wreaked havoc in Gaza and drove Israelis running to the shelters.
We met at a 10-day conference attended by 50 youngsters from all over the world who were tapped by the organizers for potential leadership in their countries. The Israeli who attended the previous year’s conference told me the Palestinian who took part in her gathering refused to speak to her. I expected the same attitude from my Palestinian counterpart.
It wasn’t difficult to recognize her on the first day. She was the only one wearing a head covering. I came up to her hesitantly and introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Netta, from Israel.” She looked at my face, then at my outstretched hand, moved it aside and hugged me firmly, meaningfully, saying: “I’m so sorry for the summer you’ve been through.”
I had indeed undergone a difficult summer – many times I ran to the shelter with my son, who was then a baby. The atmosphere in Israel was awful. My newspaper colleagues and I were attacked from all directions, and every time I went to the newspaper offices I feared one of the rightist hotheads would come over there and carry out some heroic act, similar to the 2015 terror attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The antiwar demonstrations held in Tel Aviv near my home were surrounded by rightist thugs who roamed the streets after the protesters. It seemed like the end of the world was here.
All this falls into perspective by comparing it to the summer Nassrin had been through. Her 13-year-old cousin was killed in one of the IDF’s nightly bombings, and they managed to find his body in the ruins only a day later. She, her elderly parents, elder sister, brother-in-law and two little nieces had to wander from one apartment to another every time a Hamas launching apparatus was found nearby. There isn’t a single person in Gaza who doesn’t know someone who was killed, wounded or lost his home that summer.
Nassrin works with children, so as the days went by, she saw Gaza’s children falling apart, absorbing more and more traumatic experiences, losing the innocence every child is entitled to.
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All this she endured at home, on the other side, yet her empathy, compassion and basic humanity enabled her to see me, too, as a victim of the situation, and to sincerely regret it as well. Our curiosity to know life on the other side of the fence knew no bounds. Whenever we had a chance we sat next to each other asking questions. What do they teach you in history lessons? What does your day look like? What books do you read? We felt we were partners in destiny, along with an exciting sense of subversiveness – in our very friendship we were defying the regimes that seek to prevent our acquaintance.
Nassrin isn’t my first Palestinian friend, nor the first Gazan I’ve met, but the one I have the closest relationship with. This sense of subversiveness arises at any meeting with Palestinians. Here we are, refusing to succumb to the indoctrination, keeping our heads clear despite the mass brainwashing that calls for dehumanizing the other. It’s an intoxicating sense of victory.
Every time there’s an incident between Gaza and Israel we write to each other. “Are you all right, habibti (my dear)?” “I’m OK, how are you?” Our contact is almost daily, and gradually I see her optimism draining away. Donald Trump’s declaration about stopping UNRWA’s funding was a mortal blow for her. She told me how many things UNRWA does in Gaza. For example, operate 22 clinics, the only ones working these days, while the Gazan hospitals are collapsing.
When a bomb exploded on IDF soldiers near the border fence on Saturday, she asked how I and my loved ones were doing. I said everyone I know was all right. Later, when the Israel Air Force attacked targets in Gaza, I asked how she and her family were. She wrote that she was “horrified,” that the bombardments and fighter planes were making a huge noise. On Sunday she wrote that she and her parents couldn’t get to sleep until 4 A.M. They told her nieces it was only thunder. “We’ll have to find another excuse when the storm passes,” she wrote.
To tell you the truth, I’m worried. I’m worried about her and her family and her friends and co-workers. I worry about the children she looks after, and about the children in Gaza in general. It’s a genuine concern for a woman I love, there’s nothing political in my worry, nothing to do with ideology. I’m sure that if you knew Nassrin, you too would be concerned for her welfare.