The Gazan at the Fence: ‘Death or Life — It’s the Same Thing’
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — No one would ever pick out Saber al-Gerim from the crowds of Palestinians demonstrating against Israel along the heavily guarded fence that has helped turn the Gaza Strip into an open-air prison.Posted — Updated
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — No one would ever pick out Saber al-Gerim from the crowds of Palestinians demonstrating against Israel along the heavily guarded fence that has helped turn the Gaza Strip into an open-air prison.
Not for his youthful appearance. At 22, he wears ripped jeans and white sneakers, has a modish haircut and carries a few extra pounds from too many months without work.
Not for his anger. Screaming “Allahu akbar!” and hurling stones with a sling, or straining to pull a cable hooked onto Israel’s barbed-wire barrier in hopes of tearing it apart, he is just one in a fevered multitude, a protagonist in nobody’s drama but his own.
Not even for his willingness to risk death, or his dream of going home to a patch of land he has never seen and cannot really visualize.
But zoom in on this man: A beggar’s son, just a few yards from Israel, and squarely in the line of fire. Soldiers, the only Israelis al-Gerim has ever seen this close, can be spotted through the smoke of burning tires, moving about top tall sand berms, occasionally launching tear-gas barrages, sometimes using live fire. Over a loudspeaker, one warns Palestinians to retreat or risk death.
Al-Gerim, well within range, and resting between slinging stones, shouts back: “We want to return!”
Say what you will about root causes and immediate ones — about incitement and militancy, about siege and control, about who did what first to whom — one thing is clear. More than a decade of deprivation and desperation, with little hope of relief, has led thousands of young Gazans to throw themselves into a protest that few, if any, think can actually achieve its stated goal: a return to the homes in what is now Israel that their forebears left behind in 1948.
In five weeks of protests, 46 people have been killed, and hundreds more have been badly wounded, according to the Gaza health ministry. With its 64 percent unemployment rate among the young, Gaza, under a blockade maintained by Israel and Egypt for years, presents countless men like al-Gerim with the grimmest of options.
They can seek an education in preparation for lives and careers that now seem out of reach, and hope for a chance to eventually emigrate. They can join groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad, devoting themselves to armed conflict with Israel in return for a livelihood and a sense of purpose and belonging. Or they can stay home, staving off boredom by smoking shisha, a tobacco-molasses mix, or stronger stuff, and wait for things to change.
Al-Gerim considers himself neither a terrorist nor a freedom fighter. He is not much for prayer or for politics; he says he does not belong to Hamas or Fatah or any other faction. He is a young man with nothing to do, for whom the protests have offered a chance to barbecue with friends late into the night, sleep late most mornings, make himself useful while singing songs of love or martyrdom or an end to suffering, and lash out at a hated enemy all afternoon.
“It doesn’t matter to me if they shoot me or not,” he said in a quiet moment inside his family’s tent. “Death or life — it’s the same thing.”
The protests, with an outdoor festival’s schedule of fun and games, performances and creative programming — and carnage every Friday — is meant to build to a climax on May 15, the day Palestinians mark the Nakba, or catastrophe, of their flight and expulsion when Israel was established 70 years ago.
The protest, which grew out of a young activist’s Facebook page and was a grass-roots initiative before being embraced, organized and publicized by Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, has hardly scared the Israelis into altering their basic policy. Israel continues to treat the tiny coastal enclave like a deadly virus to be quarantined and, other than that, more or less tunes it out.
But it has been a success in one important respect: It has cast a light onto the unsolved problem that is Gaza, and reminded a world that had seemed to move on to more urgent crises that its 2 million people, deprived of clean water, freedom of movement and a steady supply of electricity, are sliding steadily into despair.
Al-Gerim is typical in another way: He does not think of Gaza as his home, but he has no idea what home is.
His grandmother, Haniya al-Kurdi, 80, was a little girl when her family left what is now Ashdod, Israel, in 1948. She has never been back, but has heard that there is a coffee shop next to where her home was. The closest anyone else in the family has gotten was in 2013, when al-Gerim's sister, Sabreen, now 26, contracted cancer and was allowed to spend a year in Tel Aviv getting treatment. On the way there, her mother, Iktimal al-Gerim, asked their driver to point out Ashdod to them from the highway.
For al-Gerim, the family’s old property is an idea more than a place he can actually picture.
Israelis themselves he has had more experience with. When he was about 10, before the Israelis evacuated their Gaza settlements in 2005, al-Gerim climbed a tree outside his grandfather’s house to get a better look at the soldiers a few hundred yards away. Then he fell to the ground and broke his right hand.
He has been as enterprising, and as ill-starred, ever since. He used to raise pigeons and chickens on his family’s roof, for fun and for food — until an Israeli airstrike hit a neighbor’s house and it collapsed on the coop, killing all of his birds.
He sometimes dreams of working in an automobile-manufacturing plant, of traveling overseas to learn how to build cars, then coming back to Gaza to make them. But the closest he has ever gotten is loading tuk-tuks — motorcycles with cargo beds — or handling a pushcart to distribute sacks of donated flour, sugar and other staples to his fellow refugees.
In the autumn, al-Gerim sometimes harvests olives. When there is construction work, he looks for chances to lay bricks or pour concrete. He has never had a regular job.
He is stoic for a 22-year-old, though this may be an acquired response to adversity: His father is mentally ill, al-Gerim says, given to flying into destructive rages over the slightest disappointments. His family — two younger brothers, their sister and their parents — all share a single room with a tile floor and blankets but no beds. The kitchen floor is sand. The family’s debts are choking them, he says.
Al-Gerim's industriousness shows at the protests, as does his stoicism.
On Thursday, he arrived early at his family’s tent, a roomy contraption that was provided to them by the protest’s organizers,and set about sweeping the tarpaulin floor for the first of several times, before building a fire and cooking eggplants and tomatoes that city workers were distributing to the needy.
At lunch, a charity handed out meals of chicken and rice, and then al-Gerim swept the floor of crumbs and bones, singing a love song as he did.
He has no girlfriend, and no hopes of marrying. “There is no money, no work,” he explained. “Marriage is not free.” After lunch, he walked up to the fence for a quick look across at the Israeli soldiers, then foraged for firewood. He dragged a 6-foot log more than a quarter-mile back to the tent, and broke it apart with his hands and feet.
Later, he assembled kites from sticks, clear plastic and paper — and talked about attaching soda cans to them stuffed with gasoline-soaked rags, to sail over the fence and maybe set something or someone on fire.
At 10 p.m., he and his friends began barbecuing a feast for 12. It didn’t end until 2:30 a.m. It takes a long time to cook 22 pounds of chicken wings on a grill about 18 inches across. Sitting around the fire, a friend named Abu Moaz, 25, said he wanted to use a kite to drop leaflets in Hebrew and Arabic warning Israeli soldiers to “evacuate your houses and return to the countries from which you came.”
Everyone liked the sound of that.
Al-Gerim went home to sleep, but was back at the tent at 8 a.m. Friday, sweeping again, building the wood fire, drinking tea with his neighbors.
He went to Friday prayer, then ate a falafel sandwich.
At 2:30, he was crouching behind the barbed-wire barrier, whirling his slingshot like a helicopter rotor, aiming in vain at Israeli soldiers again and again.
Around 5 p.m., he saw a group of men a few hundred yards to the south, and ran to see what they were doing. They had breached the barbed wire, and were trying to get to the main fence marking Israeli territory. Al-Gerim hung back, and did not try to join them.
Near him, a man fell, hit in the stomach by what seemed like a grenade fragment, al-Gerim said.
He was not shocked by this, he said afterward.
“I could be shot or killed anytime,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.” Night had fallen now; the protesters were headed home. And soon al-Gerim was singing again — this time a Lebanese tune of weariness with conflict.
“Enough is enough,” he crooned softly in Arabic. “Enough for miseries, promises and words. School students, church bells, a soldier, a knight and the calls of prayer — all pray for prevailing peace.”
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