I returned from Israel and Palestine months ago; and still I dream of felafel stands, security checks at every café -- and a sea of taxis and donkey carts, baking for hours in the blazing sun, waiting to crawl through a Gaza checkpoint.
As an American Jew, for three weeks I criss-crossed the Green Line, the shifting border between Israel and Palestine, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones on this, my seventh trip to the region. This time I participated in the International Solidarity Movement's Freedom Summer campaign, doing nonviolent direct action with Palestinians against the Occupation and also networking with Israeli peace activists.
In Gaza I stayed near the spot where, one week later, the Israeli military dropped a one-ton bomb on an apartment building, assassinating a Hamas leader suspected of planning suicide bombings. Nine children were killed with him -- and this only hours after Hamas had indicated a willingness to stop suicide bombings, if Israel would withdraw from Palestinian population centers. I also gazed from a hill overlooking Jerusalem, near the Hebrew University cafeteria where seven Israelis and Americans were subsequently killed by a Palestinian explosive a few days after the Gaza bombing.
In Tel Aviv my friends Anna and Leon told me how their 8-year-old screams when they leave him to go to the movies, terrified that they will be killed by a bomb, or will return without a leg or an arm. "Whenever I see 15 people in a group," Leon sighs, "I think, 'This is a good target.'"
In nearby Al-Amari refugee camp, I witnessed soldiers rounding up hundreds of Palestinian men and boys, and holding them in a field, handcuffed. "You're scaring women and children. Do you ever think about what you are doing?" my friend asked one young soldier. He looked down. "I think about it all the time," he murmured.
I traveled to Gaza with eight other Americans and one Canadian between the ages of 23 and 61; half of us were Jews. Our Palestinian host Ali was so moved by our presence that he introduced us to everyone he knew: "They are Jews, and they stand with us for peace." Most of these Palestinians had never before met a Jew without army fatigues and a gun.
In Rafah camp, Ali showed us where nine homes had been demolished the night before. In a house left standing nearby, scarred by bullet holes, we met 2-year-old Deeah, wearing overalls with elephants on it. He is so frightened by the constant Israeli shelling, his mother said, that he still does not speak.
Upon leaving southern Gaza we approached the soldiers up in their concrete towers, their guns pointed. Holding our international passports high so they would not shoot, we asked them to open the checkpoint. Two hours later, they finally lifted the gate, while a morass of cars jockeyed to squeeze through before the gate again slammed shut. Although Israel claims that checkpoints ensure security, no IDs were checked, no cars searched. "It's all about power and control -- and humiliation," Ali sighed. "This is what builds hatred in people."
"But I have a dream," he continued. "That Israel will be my neighbor -- there are a lot like me who believe this. One day the peacemakers will win, and you will come here as tourists -- not to stand at checkpoints."
Back in Jerusalem, I spent an evening with 50 Israeli youth who are considering refusing their army service. My friend Yvonne was there with her teenaged son, Tomer, whom I had held in my lap as a little boy. In the last year, nearly 400 Israeli high schoolers have signed letters declaring their opposition to Israel's human rights abuses, joining the nearly 500 reservists who signed a statement refusing to serve any longer in an Occupation army. Some young people present had already served prison time for refusing army duty.
I spoke about what I had seen in Gaza. Afterwards, a young soldier approached me, gun slung over his back. "Thank you," he smiled. "Your talk was so powerful. Now I would like to go to Gaza, without this uniform, to see for myself."
Even after hearing all the reports of Jenin refugee camp, I was unprepared for what I witnessed there: a devastation like the aftermath of a giant earthquake. Trudging through mountains of debris -- coming upon a child's shoe, a smashed wheelchair, a mangled sewing machine, a couch dangling out of a half-demolished house -- I felt I was walking through a graveyard. When we saw wires poking out of the ground, my Palestinian friend whispered, "We are walking on the second story of a house." I wondered how many children, women and men had been buried alive beneath my feet.
My friend Hanan is a striking young Israeli-Palestinian lawyer, who "opposes attacks on Jewish Israeli civilians." She has not yet recovered from taking survivors' testimonies from the April assault on Jenin. "We found one man alive, underneath the rubble," she said. "He said the last thing he remembered was his grandchildren trapped with him, crying 'Grandfather, we are so hungry, we want to eat!"
When my group entered Nablus soldiers stopped us at the checkpoint, even though there was no curfew that day. As I tried to negotiate with them, one soldier looked at me intently: "I want to help you, I believe in what you are doing," he said quietly. Two hours later, when we were finally allowed to pass, he crossed the road and shook my hand. "Good luck," he smiled.
In Nablus I marched with Palestinians and internationals against an Israeli-imposed curfew that holds 2 million Palestinians captive inside their homes, sometimes for days at a time -- homes where 10 people may share two rooms. Because they cannot go to their jobs, or harvest their crops, the poverty level throughout Palestine is increasing dramatically. Reports from the US Agency for International Development state that 30 percent of Palestinian children under 5 are suffering from chronic malnutrition. Our taxi driver shrugged, "A kilo of tomatoes is only 2 shekels (40 cents) -- but who has 2 shekels?"
But despite the curfew, in the late afternoon something magical happens. As the light turns amber, children appear on rooftops and balconies -- all flying kites. The sky fills with these homemade wonders, symbolizing a high-flying spirit that prevails, despite overwhelming suffering. They remind me of graffiti I saw in Gaza: "If you destroy our houses, you will not destroy our souls."
My greatest hope is with the women of the Jerusalem Link, Israeli and Palestinian, with whom I shared coffee and dreams, who through the hail of bullets and bombs, through the obstacles of checkpoints and curfews, mistrust and fear, are together forging a joint movement for peace.
In a declaration before the UN Security Council last May, they asserted that "The deliberate harming of innocent civilians, Palestinian or Israeli, must not be condoned." Calling for "a life of security and dignity for both peoples," Israeli Jewish peace activist Terry Greenblatt explained, "My government fears that international intervention will prevent it from carrying out its agenda. We, the peace activists of Israel, are insisting that you do just that."
They also asked that Palestinian and Israeli women be included in all peace negotiations, in keeping with UN Resolution 1325. As Greenblatt explained, "We are learning to shift our positions, finding ourselves moving towards each other, without tearing out our roots in the process. Even when we are women whose very existence and narrative contradicts each other, we will talk, we will not shoot."
During the Days of Awe this past fall -- the holiest time in the Jewish calendar -- I reflected on where I had "missed the mark" in the past year, and how I could do better in the year following.
And this year, while I support Israel's right to exist, and care about its people, and love its land, I ask the government to reflect on where it has missed the mark in terms of violating the human rights of three and a half million Palestinians. And then, to make it right. To end the Occupation.
As Americans, we need to follow the lead of Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, and call on our government to send international peacekeepers into this region immediately. To join with the majority of Israelis who want to dismantle the settlements. To join with the majority of Palestinians who support a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel. Before it is too late.
Penny Rosenwasser is a social justice activist in Oakland, California.
She is the author of "Voices from a 'Promised Land: Palestinian & Israeli
Peace Activists Speak Their Hearts" (Curbstone, 1992).