I went through the Erez border crossing for the first time in 2006. The ultra-sophisticated architecture of this highly secured facility made of concrete, steel, wire and armored glass reminds one of a Kafkaesque setting, both disturbing and elusive. I still remember the deep thud I heard as I approached the exit to Gaza. ‘It’s a sonic bomb, nothing to worry about,’ a Canadian journalist who was crossing at the same time reassured me. Later, I would be told of the trauma experienced by young children who, by having to listen to these sound bombs, ended up pulling out their hair, one clump after another. It was during Operation Summer Rain, the code name given to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip, whose indecent poetry reveals nothing of the suffering that rained down on the Gazan population that year.
Each time I passed through, the long maze that separates Erez from the Gaza Strip became more complex, with a new layer of security, new devices, better cameras, a redesigned architecture – turnstiles, enclosures, opening or sliding doors. Each time emptier, colder, more frightening; the slightest crack was meticulously sealed by the Israeli army to ensure that the border remained watertight.
In 2006, I worked with two women’s centers of the Palestinian Ministry of Social Affairs, which provided training and support to families in the Jabalyia and Nuseirat refugee camps in Gaza. Groups of women met two to three times a week for literacy classes, psychosocial support, and to help create small entrepreneurial initiatives to support themselves.
Initially, the women of the center began by making traditional handicrafts. But how can one get products to markets outside if the Israeli authorities have complete control over the closure of the territory? Without giving up, they turned to the local market. ‘Let’s make candles,’ suggested one of them. ‘With the electricity cuts becoming more and more frequent, the market is there.’ And so they started making candles of all shapes and colours, until it was no longer possible to find wax given the restrictions imposed on import. ‘Soap, we’ll make soap,’ said another. ‘People wash, even under occupation.’
At the end of the day, I liked to drive Najwa back to Beit Lahia, a neighborhood in the north of the Gaza Strip, before heading back to Jerusalem.
At 25, Najwa was incredibly mature. ‘The whole world thinks that our situation was solved with the disengagement, but our life is getting worse, our economy is completely suffocated. Gaza is an open-air prison.’
—Do you plan to have children one day? I asked her once.
—Why bring a child into the world in Gaza? What future could I offer him when mine is completely sealed off?
We stayed in silence, watching through the window a dusty landscape of gutted buildings and small, run-down shops. On the radio, Marcel Khalife was singing Ommi, a famous poem by Mahmoud Darwish. And I cherish my life, for if I died/I would be ashamed of my mother’s tears.
In a report published on April 27, 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW), a prestigious organization often criticized for its lukewarm attitude, accuses the State of Israel of committing crimes of apartheid and finally breaks the silence on the violations suffered by the Palestinian people for 73 years now.
Apartheid, HRW explains in the preamble of the document, is defined by three main elements established by the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC): the intention of one racial group to dominate another, systematic oppression and the perpetration of certain inhuman acts.
Drawing on years of human rights documentation, case studies, interviews, and a review of government texts and statements by Israeli officials, HRW’s report describes Israel’s colonial strategy against the Palestinian civilian population through the confiscation of their land, the building of new settlements in their territories, and a policy of deportation. The conclusions are clear: Israel’s laws and policies contribute to the subjugation of the Palestinian people.
What is argued in this document is not new. The violations and humiliation suffered by the Palestinian people have been condemned by human rights organizations, particularly after the failure of the Oslo process. For decades, countless reports from Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations have documented the occupation and its effects and denounced the crimes of apartheid committed against the Palestinian people.
In July 2005, more than 170 Palestinian organizations called for a boycott of Israeli apartheid. Hundreds of associations, trade unions and political organizations around the world responded to this campaign, despite the numerous attempts to gag, discredit and muzzle the movement.
Earlier this year, B’Tselem, Israel’s largest organization, published a shocking report that accused Israel of maintaining a regime of Jewish supremacy between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Moreover, as early as January 2007, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, John Dugard, wrote in his report to the Human Rights Council: ‘It is clear that Israel is militarily occupying the occupied Palestinian territory. At the same time, some aspects of this occupation constitute forms of colonialism and apartheid contrary to international law.’ In the same year, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter published an essay entitled Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, which earned him accusations of anti-Semitism.
Yet the Israeli occupation of Palestine continues with the complicit silence of the dominant countries of the international community, which legitimize a racist policy that is contrary to fundamental rights. ‘The international community,’ the report states, ‘has for too long turned a blind eye to, or attempted to justify, the increasingly glaring reality on the ground. Every day, someone is born in Gaza in an open-air prison, in the West Bank with no civil rights, in Israel with inferior legal status, and in neighboring countries with de facto refugee status for life, like their parents and grandparents before them, only because they are Palestinian and not Jewish.’
As I read through the 218 pages of the document, I was reminded of the words Soraïda spoke in a 2004 documentary by filmmaker Tahani Rached, ‘At the end of the day, our struggle is to preserve our humanity’.
I met Soraïda Hussein Sabbah in St-Alphonse-de-Rodriguez during a summer retreat organized by Alternatives in August 2006 a few weeks after the beginning of the Israeli embargo on the Gaza Strip. When I asked her about Palestine, I felt her eyes darken. ‘For women living under occupation, symbols of humiliation are everywhere. Can you imagine being forced to give birth at a checkpoint, with your legs spread in front of armed Israeli soldiers, because they refused to let the ambulance pass? Today, this is the reality for many Palestinian women. The endless waits at the checkpoint, the interrogations and the fear.’
How can we preserve our humanity while the occupier infiltrates our lives every day and tries to break us?
‘Security checkpoints,’ writes HRW, ‘have the power to turn Palestinians away for no reason or, as is often the case, to turn a short trip into a long, humiliating journey of several hours.’
‘My daughter had just turned one month old,’ Intisar told me once we had met in Amman. ‘We were stopped at the border crossing without any explanation. It was so hot and I just wanted to go home. I was holding the child in my arms and the soldier said to me: you go home, but he stays, pointing to my husband. My husband was arrested and spent nine months in administrative detention. And I was left alone with my daughter, not understanding what would happen to her father or why he was arrested. The most difficult thing is not knowing for how long. First they say three months, then they extend it by two, and then by three. When my husband was released, my daughter did not recognize him.’
A threshold crossed is the title of the HRW report. This position marks a departure, a fundamental change in analysis and discourse. ‘It is time for the international community to re-evaluate its commitments to Israel and Palestine and adopt an approach focused on human rights and accountability. ’. It must. In the midst of a pandemic, the silence is fading out and new voices are calling for action.
It also remains to be seen whether this report will succeed in shaking Canada’s support for Israeli policies to finally let a thread of light (however thin) appear at the end of a very long and highly fortified tunnel, such as the one that must be crossed to get from Erez to Gaza.