Memories of an Israeli Visiting Gaza

Hillel Schenker made Aliyah from Brooklyn in 1963, first to a kibbutz affiliated with his radical-left Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, and then living most of his adult life in Tel Aviv, working as a journalist and peace activist. Today, he remains active as the Israeli co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal. The following (with his permission) is an abridged and lightly edited version of his latest Times of Israel blog post — including that photo of him posing with Yasser Arafat in 1994:

So the latest round of Israel-Gaza fighting has ended – how many has it been – 16, 17, 18? [The current count is 17–ed.]  As Pete Seeger put it: “When will they ever learn?”

While the fighting was going on, I reflected on my personal relationship with Gaza.  I have actually visited Gaza four times:

My first visit took place in July, 1967, right after the war ended, when most Israelis headed out to explore the newly accessible neighboring areas, partly motivated by the thought that they might soon be given back as happened in 1957 after the second Arab-Israeli war. . . .

My second took place in 1985, this time at the invitation of journalist Mohammad Khass. I had met Mohammad the previous year when I participated in a tour of the U.S., sponsored by five major American peace organizations, with speakers from trouble spots around the world who believed in a non-violent resolution of their conflict. Mohammad told me his story:

Towards the end of the 1948 war, the Israeli forces led by former Palmach commander Yigal Alon were fighting the Egyptians on the southern front.  As the war was drawing to a close, Ben-Gurion ordered Alon to withdraw from Gaza.  Much to their surprise, the Israelis found me, a Palestinian from Gaza, sitting in an Egyptian jail. I didn’t look like a typical criminal, so Alon asked what I was doing there.

I explained that since I had been an active member of the Communist Party, which supported the UN Partition Plan, they had put me in jail. Alon then said: “We can’t leave you here to face the Egyptians. We’ll take you back with us to Israel and bring you to your Party colleagues in Haifa.”

That’s where I met my wife, Mary, a Christian Arab who was active in the Party. We married, and I worked as a journalist at the Communist daily Al Itihad, which was published in Haifa. When the Israelis captured Gaza in 1967, we decided to move back to Gaza where my family had been living for eleven generations. Today Mary is responsible for the UNWRA pre-school programs and also works with the Quakers; I edit a weekly publication in Gaza, and we are both active in promoting non-violent resistance to the occupation and [advocating for] Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.

After our respective return to Israel and Gaza, Mohammad invited me to visit their home, which I did, and he also took me on a guided tour of Gaza City.

My third visit took place in September, 1994. I was a Tel Aviv representative in the Peace Now national leadership forum, and we decided that the way to mark the first anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which we believed was the first major step towards Israeli-Palestinian peace, would be to visit PLO President Yasser Arafat at his Gaza seaside headquarters. He had recently returned from exile in Tunis.

We took a bus from Tel Aviv to the Gaza border, about an hour’s drive, and after going through the Erez checkpoint on foot, were picked up by a Palestinian bus to head towards Gaza City. A senior Palestinian officer with a lot of bars on his uniform joined us on the bus to guarantee our safety while a jeep rode alongside us all the way to the city, protecting us from potential violence from either Israeli settlers or Palestinian extremists.

When we arrived at Arafat’s seaside headquarters, we discovered a series of delegations from all sectors of Palestinian society waiting to meet him. Apparently, the Palestinian leader had a hands-on approach to leadership, displaying a readiness and desire to meet with everyone. We were ushered into a room with a long table, filled with Palestinian snacks and water for all of us after the journey through the desert. It was clearly a festive occasion, and Arafat gave us a warm welcome. We had decided that a young Peace Now youth activist would come with us and make a presentation on our behalf as a representative of Israeli youth who support peace.

It was before everyone had a camera on their phones; I was the only one who had a camera with me. After the meeting, Prof. Galia Golan asked if she could have a photo together with Arafat.  The PLO chairman was happy to oblige, so I took a photo of Galia standing alongside him, wearing his traditional khaki military fatigues and keffiyeh, with a big, broad smile. Then everyone else wanted a photo; Arafat was willing, so I took a photo of each member of the delegation standing alongside the Palestinian leader, always with the same smile. Someone took my photo with him as well.

Those were the days before digital photography, so when I got back to Tel Aviv, I brought the film to my neighborhood photo store on Ben-Yehuda Street. The owner looked at all the photos he developed, frequently making comments, and no different with this film. “I see you made a visit to Madame Tussauds’ Wax Museum in London, and had these photos taken alongside Arafat’s wax figure.”  “No,” I exclaimed, “that’s the real Arafat in Gaza!”

“Wow!” he responded. “That’s great! You know, I support Oslo.” So I suggested that he put up some of these photos on the wall of his store. “Well,” he said, “of course I support the peace process,” but maybe some of his customers didn’t, and he didn’t want to upset them.

My last visit to Gaza took place a year later, when a delegation from The International Center for Peace in the Middle East arranged an encounter with the Palestinian leadership in Gaza. About sixty Israelis in two busses headed from Tel Aviv to Gaza; I remember sitting next to poet Natan Yonatan, whose eldest son Lior had been killed in the Yom Kippur War.  We had a very warm meeting with the Palestinian leadership, and also a lunch at a Gazan seaside restaurant.

Yes, all of this was before the 2005 Israeli Disengagement and the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Still, communications between Israelis — particularly those living in the kibbutzim, Sderot and other towns adjacent to Gaza — and Palestinians in Gaza has continued via the “Other Voice” movement. There is a film that’s very worth seeing, “OSWAT ACHERIM” (Other Voices), about their ongoing encounters:

Schenker ends with the same basic question he posed at the beginning, but this time hazarding an answer:

Do we really have to continue to have these mutual rounds of fighting every few years that get us nowhere? Why not consider alternatives, like having the Israeli government and civil society, and also the international community, trying to engage Hamas in dialogue about a resolution of the conflict? It would also help if the major Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, would achieve a form of reconciliation that would enable them to be a united address for any attempts at resolving the conflict. … The Third Narrative