I kept few records of my brief sojourn in Palestine in 1989, something I regret. I recall being utterly miserable most of the time and mostly unaware of events outside of the little oasis of Salah El Din Hospital in Gaza City. Maybe I was aware and my memory is at fault?
A brief bit of research turned up the following facts:
The year before, USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian Airbus killing 290 after illegally venturing into Iranian waters. In December, a Pan Am 747 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie killing 270. Libya was put in the frame although there are strong suggestions the real culprit was Iran.
In 1988 the Palestinians began the first Intifada against Israeli seizure of Arab land. Particularly, this involved East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The adoption of Israel's 'Basic Law' followed the 1989 seizure of 1000 acres of East Jerusalem from its Arab owners for a new 'suburb' for Jews. The impetus for this was the expected flood of Soviet Jews from the newly opened Soviet Union.
Saddam's war against Iran had stuttered to a halt and he was having a breather before invading Kuwait in 1990.
In 1983 a truck bomber killed 240 US Marines in Beirut in the first deadly suicide attack in that part of the world in the modern era. Palestinians were reluctant to follow their neighbours in such attacks until about 1993. I don't remember suicide bombing being a burning issue in 1989 except as part of the Lebanese Civil War.
The Gaza Strip had been captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War and never handed back. In contravention of the Geneva Conventions the Knesset permitted Israeli settlements to be erected there and later sanctioned them by providing the army to protect the settlers and closing roads to ensure they moved about in security.
In the Gaza strip, we had youths injured from baton rounds, rubber bullets, tear gas and live bullets. Gaza's northern suburbs, particularly Sheik Radwan camp and Tuffah, contained many families who'd been driven from Shati camp by the Israelis. The suburbs were dirty, fetid, overcrowded and lawless. They became the focus of the Intifada, as it pertained to the City, and were no go areas for anyone unless they had an important reason for visiting there.
Southern Remal, bordering the Meditterranean, was characterised by the many European Colonial buildings. The Red Crescent headquarters was on El Nasser Street and around the corner, Al Ashar University, the UNRWA and Salah El Din Hospital. Northern Remal featured the Palestinian/American Friendship Park - then renamed just 'Palestine Park.' Most of Gaza's commercial and aid activity took place in these two suburbs.
East of Remal was the Middle class suburb of Sabra (meaning 'sabre' in both Arabic and Hebrew and the name of a cactus) The rich folks lived in Zaytoon and Sheik Ejleen suburbs to the South.
The meeting point of rich and poor in Gaza was the Old City of Mosques and Casbahs. The Old City's problem was rampant crime - car thefts, and muggings the most prevalent. In 1989 it was dangerous for the white skinned - even carrying Red Crescent credentials - and I never ventured there.
Tel Aviv was something of an eye opener. I found my prejudices crumbling one by one. Although less than 200 kilometres to the north there was a war going on, there was little evidence of it in Israel's capital city. Taxis blared their horns and truck drivers peered sullenly from their cab windows at the constant gridlock.
Tel Aviv is a city of parks and squares and I'd arranged to meet my pal Parks in one. Parks - that was his real Christian name - was an American from Virginia and we'd met way back in Wellington, New Zealand.
Parks was a fellow student at Teacher's College and had graduated a Drama major like myself. He'd hired a helicopter for the open air graduation ceremony and lowered himself down from it at almost exactly the same time as his name was called out. Parks was a star - he was outrageous and funny - and you either loved him or loathed his need for self promotion.
Parks was also gay and came from a family of Bahais. The Bahai Faith had its world centre in Haifa in the north of Israel and Parks had wanted to make a pilgrimage there. Years later, I'd join the faith myself and discover it didn't approve of drugs, alcohol or homosexuality. None of these injunctions seemed to bother Parks overly much. I liked that - a religion where you could please yourself.
Parks loved motorcycles and had pillioned with me many times back at college. I think he liked the visibility it gave him as well as the speed rush. I'd bought the Suzuki not long after trashing my Honda into a car and it came with a 4 into 1 side system exhaust. Parks loved to hear it howl and I'd wind the bike up the clock just to watch him smile in the mirror.
Parks had gone on to teach while I'd given up in less than a year. I was shattered emotionally and decided to go back bus driving to sort myself out. After my four year marriage collapsed I was at a loose end and the drugs were starting to get on top of me once again.
Wellington City Transport was familiar as I'd worked there in the late seventies. It was like a familiar old overcoat, but, I knew in my heart that it offered other advantages. I knew how to tap the till for cash for my habit.
Users formed a small, tight knit, subset within the staff and I knew practically all of them. Most were dope smokers, but, smack wasn't hard to find and I scored within a day.
Politics had lain dormant in my life since the Vietnam War, but, being a worker once again renewed my interest. There was a vacancy for Vice President of the Union and I ran unopposed. The next year the President resigned and I ended up running the show.
At the same time I hooked up with the Socialist Action League again. At the time they were the local branch of the Trotskyist Fourth International - a kind of alternative to Soviet style Communism. It was through them that I, once again, set forth to save the world.
The 'radical Left' in those days had a network of sympathisers throughout a range of leftist and liberal organisations. Its association with the Cuban Friendship Society was why I'd found myself in Sandanista Nicaragua during March 1983.
But, the SAL thought I'd be just perfect for a gig in Palestine. In fact, I was the third person our branch secretary asked and the only one to say yes.
David S led an aid agency with strong links to the International Red Cross. He was also a firm friend of the SAL. The Red Cross signalled a need to equip ambulances in the Gaza Strip with two way radios - before the mobile phone overtook the technology. A local manufacturer had agreed to donate the sets if they could find someone to install them.
"But I've two left hands," I insisted. "I've a well known technical incompetence."
"Then you need training," David told me in that offhand manner that really aggravated. 'There were no such things as problems, only challenges' - a mantra I'd grown to despise. That training had already been organised - with Telecom Radio, as the manufacturer was based in Christchurch.
I had several personal problems to overcome, however, before I could travel to the Middle East. Not the least of the issues was my addiction. No way was I going to kick again on an aeroplane. That experience was worse than miserable. Imagine being nauseous and in pain 35000 feet up in the sky? Neither did I want to try and sneak gear through customs. None of the countries I was passing through struck me as a good place to spend time in prison. Neither, I'd imagine, would the IRC be too impressed to have one of their aid workers busted for drugs in 'Shitholeistan.'
All this seemed a lifetime away as I met Parks in a square in Tel Aviv. He told me he wanted to watch the football game that night. Hanoun Tel Aviv were playing Haifa and he was conflicted. Should he back the locals or follow his heart - the spiritual centre of the Faith?
Such trivia was far from my mind as I was beginning to seriously hang out. It's funny, but I don't remember wanting to load up all the way over. Now, though, as we had a few days to kill, I wanted to get high. I'd never told Parks of my problem - I was never certain which way he'd react. There'd been few people I could ever confide in and they were mostly users themselves. It suited me as we helped each other out.
I had the 'constant creeps' as I called it. I was strung out and couldn't stop rubbing my arms. When I see that gesture today I know exactly what it means and feel bizarrely smug. But, then it was no joke and I felt withdrawn and alone. I was too scared to try and score. To me, every dealer was a potential undercover cop or informant. I had to sweat it out.
Israeli girls are honeys. I found them independently minded, open and easy to talk to. Unfortunately, I wasn't in a mood to flirt. Parks was a social bunny and would've little trouble with the ladies if he'd been straight. Nevertheless he introduced me to a law student he'd chatted to as he waited for me.
Judith was a stunner in all ways one could imagine - smart, beautiful with an amazing personality. I was simply not in the game. There are more cafes per square kilometre in Tel Aviv as I've seen anywhere and we all fetched up there to talk. Judith and Parks talked about his Bahai Faith.
"Are you Bahai as well?" she turned to me. Her voice was like music - very precise and well articulated English.
"No," I shook my head.
It was a harmless question - just someone interested in the stories of a couple of strangers from far away. But, in my state, it seemed like a set up.
Something inherrent in my personality, however, made me want to confront, come what may. Perhaps I secretly wanted to be arrested on the spot to prove how intolerant Israeli society was just below the surface? Didn't they have Mossad and Shin Bet who disposed of their enemies efficiently, extraterritorially, and extrajudiciously?
"No," I answered, "I'm a Communist."
"Ah!" she replied, not batting an eyelid. "You know how they treat Jews in the Soviet Union?"
"Yes, I know," I answered, "but I'm not pro Soviet. I guess you could say I'm Trotskyist."
"Oh," she smiled, "he was a Jew, you know!"
Yes I did know. That fact seemed to have Judith's approval. She knew her history and was aware Trotsky was assassinated by Soviet agents. Did she know Trotsky had not only renounced his faith but also religion in general? Didn't matter to Judith. Trotsky was born Jewish and a Jew was always a Jew.
Later, she asked me why I wanted to go the Gaza Strip and I explained about the ambulances with no radios. "But," she insisted, "they will only use them to organise attacks against the army."
Here was the attitude I expected all along - honed over the 40 years of the Israeli State. But, there was little rancour from Judith - it was as though she was merely stating a fact and I ought to be aware of it. I was in no mood to argue, however, and merely shrugged.
But, as an outsider, who was I to judge? Had I a family member serving in Gaza or the West Bank? Had I knew someone killed in the conflict? It was easy to point the finger from far away. Judith made me feel uncomfortable because she subconciously pointed out my own prejudice. But, this was no place to pick a fight and I lapsed into silence. There are always two sides in a war and no-one has a monopoly on morality. To pick a side means having to dismiss the thought that your enemies have families, lives, and hopes for the future.
Armed revolution was always something we knew was going to happen - Karl Marx had said it would - but, not something we'd ever dealt with inside the party. The core of the SAL were ex student intellectuals - theorists and polemicists - not fighters. No-one, in my experience, had ever so much as fired a gun let alone possessed one. This was one of the more absurd situations that intrigued me. I was never a good Commie and would've gladly surrendered after the first shot - or preferably before.
But, I think, the idea of conspiracy and subversion was exciting to me. I stood my ground on many a picket - performed my class duty - and tried to sell books to an uninterested public below a red banner. But, as the 70s rolled on into the 80s that public's attitude turned from apprehension to derision. No, the revolution wasn't going to happen in New Zealand any time soon and I felt relegated to the status of some weird religious cult - about as dangerous as the Hari Krishnas. Even the Security Intelligence Service had lost interest in us. It was utterly humiliating.
Parks insisted I visit Haifa with him before heading south into the Strip. It was going to be a week before I'd get my permission to enter what was then a military zone. Haifa seemed closer to the war then going on in Lebanon, but I agreed - having nothing better to do. Parks was my only friend and, apart from the nice Frenchman from the Red Cross, the only person I knew in this part of the world.
The Bahai World Centre is perched on one flank of Mount Carmel. The founder of the Faith, Abdul Baha, was a great believer in the peace inherrant in the garden and the BWC has many gardens. Standing before the Bahai International House of Justice is one of those great spiritual experiences. You look down over tiers of manicured lawns and flower beds and far away, the curve of the blue Mediterranean. Below, is the noisy and cramped suburbs of Karmi'el. Towards the sea, the satellite towns of 'Akko, Qiryat Motzkin, and the sprawl of Haifa. The whole appeared bleached white under the hot sun, contrasting with the reddish tint of the soil. Not far away there was the ribbon of modern highway that led up to the Golan Heights.
I discovered my soul there, although I was yet to admit it. How can anyone defile such beauty? Looking East over the Sea of Galilee I saw the sunbaked redbrown of Syria as it rose above the Jordan Valley. So much history and conflict, but, on that day it seemed nothing could disturb the tranquility of this place.
Earlier, when we got off the bus, I came across a character that looked like he stepped out of Lawrence of Arabia. He was the first Arab I'd ever seen who went in full regalia. Parks reckoned he was just a local businessmen - there were many Arab businesses in Haifa - but I thought he had to have been a sheik.
The Arabs in Israel, I came to realise, are way better off than their cousins in the occupied territories. As Israeli citizens they're entitled to the full rights and privileges and any discrimination was based on class. To be poor and Arab put you at the bottom of Israeli society, but, to be well off, there was little the state could do. What they did lack was real political power - consumate with their minority status.
In Haifa the faiths mingled far more than in the rest of Israel. Whereas there tended to be Arab quarters elswhere, in Haifa, Jews, Christians, Moslems, Bahais and others interacted freely. Old Abdul Baha would've been proud.
I had to have a grudging respect for the Israeli people. The Country is a large monument to the struggle of the Jewish people to survive, and the founding of the State amid Arab hostility and big power shenanigans. The original Sharmach - the Jewish fighters who defended Israel from the Arab League back in 1948 - are imortalised everywhere. Tel Aviv has a museum devoted to that and the subsequent wars with her neighbours.
Palestinians, of course, have an altogether different perpective as I was to learn later. Their story is just as compelling, emotional and righteous, which is the reason for this continuing tragedy. The whole mess is shrouded in retelling, mythmaking and historical distortions.
The holocaust was perpetrated by Europeans yet the Palestinians were made to pay with their land. 'If they want a State, let Germany give them Bavaria.'
Ancient Samaria and Judah was promised to the Jewish people by God. 'We are only taking that which is ours by right.'
'Then, ' the Palestinians insist, 'we'll have Grenada back and those parts of old Moslem Europe that were reconquered by Christians.'
This place does your head in with its historical justifications. Long memories sit at the heart of every problem here.
The further South you go the air seems to change. The countryside is sparser, poorer, and even the beaches look sullen. Ashqelon was the last sizeable place before the Strip and where the IRC had their project headquarters. I was to report there to receive my briefing and various documents I'd need to get through the checkpoints.
There were six other people in my group. All had specific aid projects they were connected with and all, except me, had been to the Strip before.
Personal security was the foremost topic and the list of dos and don'ts was truly intimidating. 'Don't go anywhere unless you have to. Never go unescorted. Always wear your orange vest. Keep your ID with you at all times.' I was reminded the Red Cross, or Red Crescent as it was here, didn't involve itself in politics nor take sides. Always obey military directions and refer any 'difficulties' to the project director to deal with. I'd absolutely no intention of disobeying anyone, nor solving 'difficulties.' 'You can't argue successfully with a man with a gun, ' Anton, a German neurosurgeon advised me.
At Ashqelon I began to get a severe case of the jitters. Although, it was stressed, truly dangerous areas were well defined and my task shouldn't see me near any of them, nevertheless, there were one Hell of a lot of guns around those parts. Indeed, the whole of Israel and the occupied territories was armed to the teeth and it was common to see Israeli citizens packing heat the further South you went. The Red Crescent didn't make you bullet proof and the Gaza Strip is a very compact and overcrowded area. Likely the round that hit you wasn't aimed at you personally. Not a great comfort, it has to be said.
Violence in the Strip was seasonal, sporadic and reactionary. In 1989, Palestinians in Gaza were sectionalised by Israeli settlements and the need to keep routes open for those settlers to drive to and from work each day. Highways had half kilometre strips each side protected by barbed wire to prevent Arab youths from getting within rock throwing range. To the North of Gaza City was a huge settlement, now closed, with watchtowers and, so the Palestinians claim, anti-personal minefields. Occcasionally, Palestinian fighters and the settlers would exchange gunfire but, when I was going, everything was relatively quiet.
We all had to wait, however, for the border crossing to open. Of the 8 hours a day when the crossing was open, 6 of those hours was reserved for the few hundred Israeli settlers and 2 for the 12,000 odd Palestinians who travelled to and from Israel each day through Erez. The Red Crescent was considered 'Palestinian' by the Border Authority for the purpose of getting in and out. The crossing could be closed to Palestinians without notice at the whim of the authority at any time.
Despite the calm reassurances of my fellow aid workers I wasn't a happy camper at Ashqelon. I withdrew into myself - a defence instinct from childhood, reinforced by drug use. Someone said that drugs prevent you maturing into adulthood - that it was some subconcious desire to remain in a childlike state. In hindsight, waiting was a terrible experience and far worse than confronting whatever I was bound to confront.
I remember calling Parks in Haifa just to hear a friendly voice. I told him I thought it all a bad idea and suggested going back up to stay with him.
"Don," he told me, "you need to do this or you'll regret it the rest of your life. When was the last time a Red Crescent worker was harmed? You're going to install radios not throw rocks."
The road South from Ashqelon to the Erez checkpoint had roads leading off into seemingly empty countryside. Anton told me they lead to military depots where the IDF kept their tanks and troops in preparation for the next security operation. In addition, Anton continued, just over the border was a large Army Camp with more tanks and armoured cars.
The attitude of the IDF, he explained, covered the range from surly and bullying to civil and polite. Many were conscripts and didn't want to be there.
Anton was in his late forties and his Germanic bearing could be mildly intimidating at first. He was tall and slender with blond receding hair. His eyes were penetrating, appraising, and he loathed stupidity and pretension. I think I got on well with him because I exhibited hardly any pretensiousness whatsoever.
The minibus was a Toyota Hiace - virtually the same vehicle used as ambulances in the Gaza Strip. It was painted white with the red crescent on the sides and roof. To emphasise its peaceful intent, 'red crescent' was spelt in Arabic and Hebrew. I found myself examining the simple dash and working out where I was to screw these damned receivers.
Anton explained that the ambulances out of Salah El Din hospital often found themselves trapped behind checkpoints. Sometimes the IDF waved them through if they were in the mood but, if they were cranky, patients and ambulances had to wait with everyone else. Radios would enable them to be controlled and routed better.
"But," Anton added in his clipped, German accent, "I don't think the army will allow you to operate them."
"The army believe Al Fatah use ambulances for transporting weapons," he explained. "It is possible to paint any white van with the red crescent. Our ambulances couldn't be used for such purposes but the Israelis are pig headed about such things."
Erez checkpoint was chaotic. Long queues of vehicles waited impatiently four across by about 100 deep. Border guards strolled vigilantly up and down the columns in full combat gear. Erez was boiling hot and stank of humanity. So far back in the queue were we we couldn't see the razor wire.
An hour later we'd moved up enough to see what was happening. Every vehicle was being searched by just two teams of guards. One would run a trolley under the vehicle to check underneath while everyone inside had to be offloaded and marched to the side of the road. In some cars, the headlining and upholstery was ripped open, radiators checked, and some owners had to dismount the spare wheel and cut it open.
All this time there was much shouting, pushing and shoving. I felt quite sickened by the way the Israelis treated the young and old, yelling abuse and shoving Arab women about. Moslems do not like their women manhandled and I watched the pure hate on the faces of their menfolk as they had to witness the outrage with guns pointing at their ribs.
"Co-operate and say nothing," Anton advised. As if I'd think of doing anything else. This was not a place for heroism of any kind.
When I read later how checkpoints were targetted by bombers I thought of this scene and understood.
The checkpoint was understaffed and overworked, it had to be said. By mid afternoon, it was clear the guards' tempers were beginning to fray. It wasn't hard to imagine violence erupting at any time in these places.
Even the Hiace got the full treatment, although our upholstery was left alone. A trolley was run under the vehicle and everyone marched to the side of the road away from the van. A guard patted each of us down before taking our papers into a white building surounded by coils of razor wire. After about 15 minutes, an officer came back out and gave each of us back our IDs. He smiled at me and said to 'take care over there, ' in an American accent. The contrast between this pleasant man and his surly men blew me away.
We entered Gaza City via the Port and Beach Camp. Inland from us we could see a large hill with its Jewish settlement and guard towers looking down on the suburbs of Jabalia and Radwan. In the late nineties, bulldozers would bash down a swathe of housing in Jabalia to widen the settler 'buffer zone' and punish the alleged families of suicide bombers.
The stench of Gaza is the first impression I remember. I thought I was acclimatised to the Middle East but this was an education. It seemed like you could get sick just by breathing the air. The place just looked, sounded and smelt unhealthy in all respects.
A triangle of the city bordering North and South Remal and stretching East to the British Council was the commercial district. Past this we turned East along Jamal Abdul Nasser Street, passing streets with French names like, Victor Hugo and Charles De Gaulle. Our destination was the Red Crescent Headquarters on El Nasser for more briefings, more orientation.
When this story gets more text, you will need to Log In to read it