Personal notes in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead

Gaza Diaries

The water pipe has many names.

In the balkans it is called a ‘lula‘ or ‘lulava’. In Egypt and the Persian Gulf it is often referred to as a ‘shishe’. In Iran it is called a ‘ganja’ pronounced as ‘ghelyoon’. In India and Pakistan it is called a ‘huqqa’. In the Palestinian Territories, the Levant, Iraq, Jordan, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Israel, it is called by the beautiful name of ‘narghile’–a word that has its roots in sanskrit.

Zeytoun, Gaza City. The remains of what was once a poultry farm near the homes of the Somouni family – 28 members of the family were killed during Israel’s operation ‘Cast Lead’, and most all their homes and businesses in the area were destroyed. The Israeli Army claims that it is investigating the incident at this site. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009. 

But I doubt if it has ever been called a weapon of defiance.

In 2003 I decided to rent an apartment in the city of Rafah, Gaza and document the lives of the Palestinians living along the border with Egypt. These mostly refugee neighbourhoods were under assault from Israeli armoured bulldozers and tanks – all part of the machinery being used to build the steel wall along the Philadephia Corridor – the name the IDF used to describe the stretch of land it controlled between Rafah, Gaza and the Egyptian border.

Today this is the piece of land that is used by the Palestinians for digging their tunnels–and act of desperation and survival bought about by Israeli control and continued closure of the territory of Gaza. During Operation Cast Lead, this was also the area the Israeli Air Force spent a lot of time bombarding in a futile attempt to destroy these tunnels.

Near Khan Younis refugee camp, Gaza.People wait outside a gas distribution facility. Severe shortages has meant long waits, limited supply and high prices for precious commodities like cooking gas and petrol. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

One afternoon as I walked around these refugee neighbourhoods photographing displaced families, destroyed homes and the bulldozers working the area, I ran into a group of Palestinian men preparing to sit and smoke a narghile. They had spread out a blanket and were sitting smoking in full view of two Israeli tanks parked near an IDF armoured bulldozer–thank you Caterpillar–busy demolishing yet another Palestinian home. The blanket was within the 100 meter ‘no go’ zone the Israeli’s insisted on enforcing between the steel wall and any Palestinian building or person. The irony of a ‘no go’ zone wasn’t lost on anyone in the area, because, as many often quipped, even their homes were quite often ‘no go’ zones once the Israeli soldiers started shooting.

Shifa Hospital, Gaza City. Victim of white phosphorous attack. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

The men saw me walking past and invited me to join them. I hesitated, knowing full well that within minutes the tanks would approach this group of men and either threaten them or simply shoot at them. It is strange the fear of the foreigner, and the resigned determination of the resident. I decided to take a chance and join them. Just as I had sat down and before we had managed to take our first few puffs of the narghile we saw the tanks starting to move towards us to investigate. Warnings were issued as the tank gun barrel swivelled in our direction. We were soon forced to pack and leave. When I asked the men later why they had chosen to smoke there where they were sure to provoke the Israelis, they just laughed. It seemed a careless act of bravado, but I suspect that it was more a small act of defiance–to insist on being where the Israelis had warned them not to be.

Erez crossing, near Beit Hanoun, Gaza. A view of the wall that separates Gaza from Israel as seen from the Erez crossing. Taxi drivers and a few diplomatic and journalists wait for permission to walk towards the Israeli checkpoint. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

Later the next day in Gaza City I went out for a narghile with some young Palestinians I have come to know. We sat and talked about ordinary things. The Palestinians always asked me the most ordinary questions; how do you spend your time with your wife? What do you do when you are not working? How do you play with your daughter? What games do you enjoy? In turn, they tell me about their most important aspirations, and I am always struck by the ordinariness of them; The desire to find a good wife. The hope of finding a job that will bring them financial security. The hope of children, many children. Ordinary things that over a narghile become the thing of dreams.

And the water-pipe, a small act of defiance in the face of the incarceration and deprivation of life in Gaza. And also object that brings a pleasure still available to the people here; companionship, conversation and the laughter of friends.

On the Getty Images archive you can type in ‘Gaza Destroyed’ and retrieve over 5,500 images to select from.  If you run the query ‘Gaza Funerals’ you will get back over 7,000 images.  I am sure I would find a similarly large number of images on any major image archive service. Their repetition has ensured their invisibility and erasure from our consciousness. 

The Egyptian-Gaza border, Rafah, Gaza. Young Palestinian boys watch the first football game in the city since the declaration of the ceasefire. The game, played along the heavily bombarded Egyptian-Rafah border area, was arranged to raise awareness of the struggles and suffering of Rafah’s children. The infamous Gaza tunnels are mostly built in this area and were the stated reasons for the heavy bombardment. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

The challenge for a photographer arriving in Gaza is that s/he is walking into a place that has been consistently and extensively photographed for decades, and that there are many fine, talented and professional Palestinian photographers who carry out this task for their various agencies. In addition, some of the best and most talented international photojournalists have also made Gaza the focus of their work.

I arrived in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s most recent military operation–Operation Cast Lead. And I find that though the scale of this latest unprovoked assault is larger than anything I can remember from my previous travels to Gaza, its impact and consequences are very familiar. The official numbers state that over 1,300 people have been killed so far, of which it is believed that nearly 400 were children. About 50,000 have been made homeless, and over 5000 were seriously injured. This is a place where there are barely functioning hospitals or emergency services. 

Beit Jala, Gaza. The funeral of Gaza policeman Mohammad Burai, who succumbed to his wounds in an Egyptian hospital and was later buried by friends and family in Gaza. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

I arrived in Gaza just as the cease fire had been declared and I had been immediately struck by how familiar it all seemed. The day before as I stood on the Egyptian border with Rafah and watched Israeli jets dropping their payload on buildings and tunnel construction sites I was unsure of my decision to proceed. I huddled along with journalists from most every newspaper in the world, and the writer Ahdaf Souief whom I met by coincidence. She was organising a food and medical aid convoy to send into Egypt, and as we waited for the border to open, we conversed about tea and the heat and the shame of the moment.

My first trip to Gaza was in 2003.  I then returned and continued to document the situation here, particularly in Rafah, Gaza, in 2004 and 2005.  The settlers were still in Gaza then, and so were activists from the International Solidarity Movement, and the armoured bulldozers and their accompanying tanks that were constructing the massive steel wall along Rafah’s border with Egypt.

Gaza City. The first major Hamas rally after the ceasefire. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

Home demolitions were frequent along the Rafah border as bulldozers tore down Palestinian homes to make way for this steel wall.  Tank patrols would terrorise residents living along the border, and there would be frequent firing into these neighbourhoods resulting in deaths and maiming of residents.

As a photographer I documented my fair share of funerals, Hamas marches and families salvaging their belongings from the ruins of their destroyed houses. And now, as I walk through the devastation in Gaza from the most recent Israeli operation, I am struck by how familiar and how similar it all looks.  My photographs from this morning look little different from those I took back in 2003, 2004 and 2005!  In fact, a simple re-edit of the captions of my previous work and I could convince you that the photograph was taken just yesterday!

Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza City. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

The scale is different.  Absolutely.  But the visible consequences are the same as: dead bodies and lost lives; destroyed homes and displaced families; angry funerals and political exploitation; protest marches and armed men promising revenge; physical destruction and families trying to rebuild. We have been here before.  We are here again.

As I walk through Gaza with my little camera in hand, and around me scramble some of the world’s finest photojournalists capturing yet more of what we have already known and seen, I am desperately trying to find my own voice to this story.  And it is not helping that I know that in the not too distant future there will be yet more confrontations, and more military operations, and more funerals, and marches, and destroyed homes and displaced lives.

Gaza City. Ghassan Ibrahim Matar lost his feet from a missile fired from a pilotless drone. The attack killed 3 members of his family and left many others seriously injured. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

The cycle repeats itself. Is there a way to stop the images from doing the same?

Are you from Pakistan? I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder as I heard this question and turned around. A young man in the row behind me was smiling at me. I am not sure how he that indeed I was from Pakistan. I did not know or recognise him, and I was sure we had not met nor spoken to each other earlier. 

The Al-Amri Mosque, Gaza City. First Friday prayers after the end of operation ‘Cast Lead’ and the declaration of the ceasefire. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

Why do you think I am from Pakistan? I asked cheekily. I had to know how he knew. Nothing about my appearance that day–I in my conventional trekking pants and checkered shirt, suggested my background, or nationality. How did he know?

The way you said your namaaz, he answered with a smile. The way you said the tasleem (the act performed at the conclusion of the prayer, the face turned once to the right, and then to the left) was different from the way they did it here in Gaza. He was now smiling the smile of a victor. He knew he was right. I lived in Pakistan for some years, and I had only seen that in Pakistan. Here, we do it differently. We wait for the Imam to say both tasleems before the congregations follows. You, in Pakistan, we do so at the same time as the Imam.

Jabal Kashif, Gaza City.Searching for remains of family members. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

I laughed. We were just exiting the mosque as we he vigorously shook my hand and said in near perfect Urdu “Ap say mill karr bahoot khushi hoey!”– It is a pleasure to meet you! I was taken aback. It was the last thing I had expected to hear–Urdu spoken here in the heart of a Gaza refugee camp, and that too with such affection and care.

This was back in 2004.  Since then I have met a number of Palestinians in Rafah who spoke a bit of Urdu and loved using it whenever they meet me. Many Palestinians had travelled to Pakistan after the so-called Olso Accords. Policemen, doctors, physical therapists, accountants, engineers and others spend a few years in the country for education and training and learned the language there. They had been welcomed in Pakistan–a staunch supporter of Palestinian rights, and had felt at home there. There was even a small club of Urdu speakers at a local rehab centre, to which I was immediately made a member.

Jabaliya Refugee Camp, Gaza City. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

I have always received a warm welcome from people when they learn that I am a Kashmiri and a  Pakistani. There is a relaxing of attitude, a clear and obvious sense of camaraderie, a dissolving of distance that typically exists between a foreign photographer and a Palestinian in Gaza. There is that look of acknowledgement and familiarity when they learn that I am from Kashmir–that look that says, so, you understand our predicament and our struggle. I can’t say that I actually do–I come from a privileged background, and from Pakistan, and have never lived in conditions and the kinds of violence the Palestinians do. But I know that I love to speak Urdu in Gaza for the simple reason that it is the only place in the world where I can call myself just Pakistani and not have it become a fact that restricts, or confines me. It is the only place that I know where that green passport is worth something–it even got me out of trouble with armed fighters, rightfully suspicious of a foreigner man with a camera. 

Gaza CIty. Men pick through the remains of the destroyed Ministry of the Interior, Ministry for Social Services and the Ministry of Labor. The site also included the now destroyed Office of Pensions that contained the records of pension payments owed to Palestinian workers from Israeli employers. Image by Asim Rafiqui, 2009.

Perhaps the Palestinians also like to speak Urdu because it reminds them of a time of hope when the new possibilities offered by the Oslo Accords were to be prepared for in Pakistan. Today none of those possibilities exist as the accords have been betrayed. But the language they heard as they dreamed their dreams in a far away land is perhaps the only reminder of that special time so long past and the excitement and joys that had accompanied it.

I love speaking Urdu in Gaza.

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