Testing the Waters—
Palestine & Israel, 2006

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Journal, May 20-23, 2006 (edited June 19, 2006)—Gaza & Ramallah

Photos: Gaza-8

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Dispatches from Gaza - 8
(Bureij refugee camp)

By Skip Schiel

Yesterday [May 19, 2006] Marwan [from the Gaza Community Mental Health Center, a friend and colleague of the woman, Ragdha, who invited to her home in the camp] picked me up from my flat. We sped south thru the city, about 5 km to the Bureij camp with his 2 boys, one crying the entire trip.

Driving to the Bureij refugee camp, we passed what had been a major strangulation point by the Israelis, Netzarim Junction. The settlement of Netzarim sat to the right or west of the main road, Salah al-din, crossing it and running in a protected corridor to the crossing point into Israel. Marwan explained that a simple trip to the south, to Rafah, before the withdrawal could take 3 hours, now it takes about 30 minutes. So disengagement has been a partial benefit to the Gazans. I could see little of the abandoned settlement, it looked more like a huge open scar on the sandy earth. I’ve heard that the Israelis demolished almost all the structures, including the synagogues which had been so difficult to decide about—don’t destroy them because they are sacred, but then the Palestinians will destroy them, so I think the resolution was to leave them up and sure enough the Palestinians quickly tore them down, taking anything that could be useful. A group of American Jews raised money to buy the settlement greenhouses and donate them to the Gazans. But now, because of the blockages and closures, they are useless as an economic engine.

Luckily I have my photography to keep me occupied when with a group such as yesterday’s who would occasionally forget about me, my lack of Arabic, and gamely chat on, laughing, poking each other, having a grand time while I sat deaf and dumb. This hiatus allowed me to concentrate on people, faces, light, bodies, configurations, dynamics, emotions, all the stuff of good portrait photos, without having to attend to a distracting conversation.

Ragdha’s mother is radiant, and I told her so, older but without many face lines, with full eyes, a lightness of being that contrasted with her husband. He smoked incessantly, sporadically blocked by his eldest daughter. He moved slowly with a cane and the help of his kids. The kids number 12, half and half for the gender distribution, as old as about 35 (Ragdha is 30, married young and once, quickly divorced, one son, refuses all suitors) and as young as about 8. They do not all live in the same compound. The kids mixed in so I couldn’t tell who was from which family.

The house is plain and rudimentary, people sleep on floor mats. I saw no beds, the kitchen is spacious but without much furniture or equipment, the main area is the garden, filled with fig trees (bending low, I painfully whacked my head standing up) and other shrubs and trees, plus a magnificent fountain gushing water. The fountain attracted us all, we sat around it for a late breakfast of humus, eggs, tomato sauce, and the like, traditional Palestine fare, sat around it as if a fire in the winter.

Now that Fida [director of the AFSC youth program in the West Bank] has taught me the characteristics of a refugee camp I can pick out the vertical construction, narrow passageways, poverty, and preponderance of kids. I’ve not yet seen raw sewage in the streets, one of the conventional images of the camp, nor piles of garbage. Thanks to Ragdha’s brother, Mohanad and younger brother whose name I’ve forgotten, I saw more of the camp, street life and family life. We visited the family of 2 brothers in a different family, 1 of which had been shot 3 times during the various intifadas. He proudly showed us his photo album of images made while recovering in hospitals in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Mohanad explained that sort of international support has dried up. Someone shot now earns little outside help.

Kids thronged the house, the brothers invited me to photograph them, and all gathered as requested for a posed shot or 2. I try to avoid these situations and when they are presented to me, I turn the session into a game, putting the camera high or low, picking out individuals to feature, going for a side shot, etc. This time, noticing a most compelling girl about 8 years old, I featured her.

Mohanad, Ragdha’s brother, is about 30, works now making lenses, spectacles (at 1 point he noticed my antique glasses, asked me how much I paid for them, and was very curious about the polyfocus lenses, unaware of them), once worked in TV production, once worked at the Jericho casino earning $1500 monthly, is married, lives in a neighboring camp, and seems distraught and demoralized. I believe he is one of those with the corrosive syndrome of awareness without action. He is knowledgeable, not only knows about Martin Luther King Jr whose button I conspicuously wear, but Malcolm X and the civil rights movement generally. But arguing with him about the need for struggle here in Israel-Palestine seemed fruitless and only increased his anguish. Sad case, very sad, I wonder how Ragdha is on this score. Unfortunately, perhaps because of her limited English or her lack of interest, we did not much converse, except when she asked me if I was married.

—Gaza, May 20, 2006

Dreaming, beloved dreaming, 1 that I can recall, a failed attempt to meet Katy [my younger daughter]. Lynn [my former wife] had arranged that  I’d pick up Katy from the Star Market parking lot at 8:15 pm. I’d forgotten. Another arrangement and I forgot again. Finally Lynn in her calm manner informed me that Katy, pregnant and about to deliver, was at a friend’s house and if I wished I could meet her there. I was perturbed with myself for forgetting twice, and wondered while dreaming if this forgetting signaled some deeper intention or meaning.

This morning [May 21, 2006]  the air is chilled and more moist than usual. Also I heard gunshots far away at about 5 am. If patterns hold, I’ll never learn what they were about.

At the Bureij Camp, we visited the only sports club in the camp of some 30,000 people. A relatively large site, with a spacious gym, the facility is now used only sporadically. Reason? Closures. Before 2000 and the beginning of the 2nd intifada, teams could travel relatively freely into the West Bank. Bureij Camp won championships, the camp was proud. Now the team can play only local clubs, those within the strip.

A former player, a “game maker”, as my host Mohanad named him, toured us. The man is now the director of the little used club. Older men played dominos, all former basketball team members. The director pointed out a partially completed building, one floor only, funded by an American Catholic group. The group ceased its funding after the Hamas victory.

One key discovery for me on this tour was a store with partially empty shelves. Not because of delayed supply or rapid depletion or a recent run of customers. But because few have money to buy, so the storeowner has no capital to replenish his inventory. He showed us his charge book—pages and pages of charges from people in the community who need food but have no money.

Altho Ragdha was fairly quiet in our conversations together, asking me only that one question, am I married?, her younger brother was quite affable and skilled in English. He’s in an American style high school in the strip, aspires to study his junior high school year in the States, is interested in science, knows a great deal about American history, correctly identifying my Martin Luther King Jr pin for instance, and asking me what I knew about a black boy who’d gone south one summer from the north and had been killed because of how he spoke to a white woman. I knew in a flash who he was referring to: Emmett Till. I filled in the story a bit for him, personalizing it by telling him that I was Emmett’s age, 14, when he was murdered in 1955, and I lived near him on Chicago’s South Side.

Both of Ragdha’s sisters were  also articulate in English, and one had studied photography in Amman Jordan with 2 internationals.

Despite living in a refugee camp, the family seemed healthy, happy, together, and I must admit, I long for such family intimacy. Our family is so spread out: sister in Alaska all the way across the wide continent, one daughter 500 km south in Brooklyn, both parents long dead, long long dead, aunt and uncle, both ailing and 1300 km from me, my partner at best across town, or if on the road, across the country in California. This is not constant family togetherness. Can’t be because of the geography.

—Journal, Gaza, May 21, 2006

I’m gradually catching up on my writing and photo processing, but I’m stymied by my inability to broadcast the results. In Haifa and Ramallah I had good Internet connections. But here, mainly because of my packed schedule and my inability to walk freely thru the city for an Internet cafe, I have not yet uploaded anything, nothing since about May 8. This contrasts with at least weekly if not bi or tri weekly uploads, possibly overloading my audience. Perhaps they like the break. I console myself by realizing that when I return to Ramallah I’ll have some free time, and certainly when Stateside. I’ve left myself nearly 1 big month of relative inactivity after I arrive home. If only I get out of Israel-Palestine safely and home with all my treasures.

—Journal, Gaza, May 22, 2006

A dream finally, after a few empty nights: Lynn and I were hosting a group for dinner, I was doing most of the cooking, and we had an argument. I forget the details, something about what to serve and how much to offer. I felt neglected, so I pouted and withdrew after shouting, as I once did years ago before my transformation into an apparent nice guy, even-tempered and accommodating.

—Journal, Gaza, May 23, 2006


Palestinian refugees in Gaza camps

Remember These Children Killed During the Current Intifada, Israeli & Palestinian

A photo project with children in the camp

A photo exhibit by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East


“Gaza settlers' greenhouses to be handed to Palestinians—Private foundation pays as settlers prepare to leave Gaza,” August 12, 2005

“Gaza settlement devolves into a junkyard for scavengers,” Dion Nissenbaum, Knight Ridder Newspapers, April 9, 2006

“Palestinian workers receive partial pay in Gaza,” Nidal al-Mughrabi, Reuters, June 19, 2006

“Did you see Huda?,” Hannah Mermelstein, June 2006