To most people reading the news, Gaza seems distant and unknowable — in many ways a faraway place. This is true even within Israel, where the ritsua, the strip, seemed forever like a festering outlier: something to speed past on the way to someplace better. And those of us who had the hapless luck of serving knew well the silence that followed when answering the ubiquitous Israeli conversation starter, “Where are you serving?” Why talk about what nobody wants to hear?
I once reported there daily for duty as the clerk/translator/assumed coffee maker for the liaison office of the military government of Gaza, located at the former Egyptian prison. It was still a prison, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ administrative offices, clinic, mess hall, classroom and snack bar. Housed above all manner of detainees both criminal and security, conveniently overlooking their prison courtyard, were our sleeping quarters. When the prison rioted on Land Day, a traditional day of Palestinian protest, and the soldiers stormed in, the wind gently blew tear gas over us, too, and we felt the sting of our conjoined lives.
Somewhere near Ashkelon and the final stop for Israel’s Egged bus line there was a hitchhiking stand, a trempiyada, for the military and civil servants on duty ” “administering” the military government of Gaza. From there, a few more dusty kilometers past the sand-encrusted Erez security barrier of a few soldiers and a couple of empty metal barrels, there was Aza.
Fresh out of basic training in early August 1980, I joined the grim-looking gang, waiting for a ride. From my perch in the back of an army truck that picked us up, squeezed between the tiny old man clerk from the maps office who sidled up next to me on the bench with every bump in the road, and the male soldiers required to ride with their guns locked, loaded and aimed out at the passing scenery, I watched the ritsua unfold.
Speeding down Omar Al Mukhtar — the bustling main street — I saw sheep and donkey on their way to market, and intrepid Israelis shopping for auto parts, produce bargains and a schmear of some of the best hummus outside Jerusalem. Kids in “Bionic Man” T-shirts ran around to the sound of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, and the muezzin’s call to prayer punctuated the commercial chaos and cars honking. Women and working children carried their loads on their heads.
The main drag hid behind it squat housing units lining networks of alleyways and narrow, unpaved streets with waste water draining down them. The dismal brown hue of the houses was broken only by the colored signage of the United Nations Relief Works Agency food distribution storehouses. Later I would learn about high rates of electrocution accidents in the refugee camps, where in winter water rained down the walls. You could lose your life just switching on the light.
Responsible for protocol and diplomacy, the office provided press permits and interpretation between local nongovernmental organizations and the IDF. It also kept the military governor informed of Gaza in the news, and last, but not least, maintained the Geneva Convention by coordinating the flow of information between the Prison Service, the Israeli military and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Each morning I would meet with the ICRC’s clerk, a local Gaza man whom I knew by first name only — Jalal — and received lists of the detainees’ names, typed them up in Hebrew and processed them for approval. Like Jewish ones, Arabic first names were traditional and easy for me to mix up: name, father’s name, grandfather’s name and family name. Was it Mahmoud, Mahmed or Mohamed? Abed or Abdul ibn Salim? I waited for the daily call from members of our forces whom I never saw in person and who used Arabic pseudonyms.
At the appointed time my phone would ring and the clerk would listen to me transmit names Jalal had brought of those whose families approached the ICRC for help. Let their husband, father, son and, occasionally, daughter be visited per the rules of the Geneva Convention on the 14th day of detention.
Ultimately it was up to our forces to decide and to the liaison office to finesse the results. And so my Gaza year progressed. Day after day, Jalal steadfastly crossed our threshold, calmly handing over names, occasionally noting who had not been permitted a visit and politely asking what might be done about that.
No matter our resistance to his queries — and we both knew what security reasons meant — he showed no impatience, never raised his voice. Slowly he would tell me the story of the person behind the name on my list, his or her family, particular problem. Slowly I learned about life in the ritsua. He seemed compassionate, and I was mesmerized. I began to look forward to his visits and became less comfortable with our finessing.
Name by name I typed and circulated list after list between our forces, the ICRC and the Prison Service. The prison door clanged behind me as I entered with the names. Beyond that door I faced a gang of secluded male prison guards. ‘Boker tov, Madame Chana,’ said Chaim, the French speaker from Morocco, practicing flirty French on me while unpacking some uniforms ironed by the prisoners. Another day, another restless guard — Ariel, a farmer who grew roses, sought remedies for his sore thorn-stung hands. He was determined to show me tsinok, solitary confinement — as if proving that those people also did serious work. I left that morning seared by a pair of anonymous eyes staring back at me through a metal slit and the smell of a human in captivity.
As a tchupar, a perk, I was permitted to attend a khafla, a feast, at a prominent Gaza family’s home — where high-ranking IDF administrators, NGO’s and locals aired issues. Formally. Frequently the only female and vegetarian presence at the table, I noticed the women creating the meal behind a kitchen curtain. Veiled and wearing long dark robes, they sent out multiple courses, served to the table by young men. I passed on the lamb but very much enjoyed the imported cigarettes they offered to guests as hospitality. I left full of rice and eggplant, my pockets stuffed with Marlboros, wondering about the women behind the curtains and veils that were far from the table. I suspected we shared more than our silences.
Jalal’s back-stories gave voice to the names on those lists; they forever levitated off the pages of those bureaucratic forms. I never learned his last name or which refugee camp he called home. And though I live far from Gaza now, we remain forever conjoined and I thank him for that. In tending to his people, he enabled my heart to crack open just enough to retrieve my soul.