Today I went to the tunnels in Rafah. I climbed into a loop of rope attached to a wire on a pulley and was lowered seven meters to the tunnel floor. When I stood up the man next to me signaled me to follow him into a narrow passage, maybe three times as thick as my torso. Soon I was walking, crouched, behind him. When I turned back I saw some of my friends beginning to follow. But the tunnel must have taken a bend a few meters later, because when I turned a second time I saw only the wire suspending small lights along the tunnel wall. My guide beckoned again, and again I followed, promising myself I would turn back at the next light. But when we got there I saw more lights ahead, and I thought maybe he was taking me to a room, or another chimney out of the tunnel, and I followed further.
We continued this way for I don’t know how many meters, and soon I couldn’t hear anyone behind me, only a murmur that might have been distant voices ahead. Each point of light held the promise of hot sun and desert air, but each time I arrived to find only more tunnel, and a hand imploring me to follow deeper.
Soon my legs were burning with wanting to stand. It became so dark in the long lapses between electric lights that my guide had to take my hand as we felt our way along. So many times I said “Khalas” — I have seen enough. But at each light he would signal that it was just a little further.
Finally, I was finished. I could not remember why I had followed, and why I had continued to follow. I’d lost track of how many lights we’d passed, and had no idea how far the journey back would be. My guide pointed to a light maybe 8 meters ahead, and this light was different. Brighter, and more yellow. I knew this time we’d almost reached our destination, perhaps the end of the tunnel and the relative freedom of Egyptian sun and sand, but I couldn’t continue. “Khalas,” I said, and this time he knew I meant it. I turned and began to feel my way back.
Soon I was tearing through the tunnel, tripping over the uneven floor and scratching my fingers on the packed dirt and sand of the walls. Craggy sections of the ceiling tore at my hijab but I would not slow. My guide grabbed my hips to steady me and force a more even pace, and so I dragged him with me. Finally he pulled me to my knees inside one of the occasional wooden box frames supporting the more than 20 feet of packed sand and dirt above us. He sat down next to me and pushed his open palms up through the air in front of his chest and then down, showing me how to breathe. “Shway,” he said, “slow.”
Nearly everyone I’ve talked to in Gaza has told me that the effects of the siege and the massacre have been worst for women and children and I believe them, but seven meters below the rubble of Rafah and the rumbling of the tractors that push this endless sand away from the mouth of each new tunnel, my thoughts turn to Gaza’s men.
The guide kneeling beside me, and thousands like him, cheat death every day in these tunnels as they journey back and forth between Rafah, Egypt and Rafah, Gaza, one city divided by a border and a cruel siege. And nearly every day, at least one of these men loses his gamble and does not come home. The siege has kept out everything but a painfully short list of humanitarian items. Building materials, a wide variety of foodstuffs, ink and paper, and so many other necessities are not permitted to enter Gaza. If the people of Gaza are to have anything close to a life, to bathe and eat and rebuild and learn, they must purchase this contraband illegally, and someone must illegally import it.
The Israeli government claims that the tunnels must be bombed because they are used to smuggle weapons, but in reality the tunnels are almost always used for anything but. After the massacre the tunnels brought lions and tigers to replace the ones loosed by the attack on Gaza’s largest zoo (Can you imagine? Amid all the bombing and chaos, wild animals running through the streets of Gaza!) Many people have told me the next big project is to smuggle in cars, a necessity in a place where virtually every vehicle is subject to regular breakdowns.
The tunnels provide a necessary lifeline for the people of Gaza, but as my guide patiently awaited the end of my panic attack, I began to realize that they are born out of another necessity: The tunnels offer an opportunity for men to reclaim their place as protectors and providers in a society where occupation and siege make those roles virtually impossible.
A few days earlier, Palestinian psychiatrist Eyad Sarraj told me of a game he plays with his young nephew called “Arab and Jew.” In the game, his nephew would play a Palestinian, chasing Dr. Sarraj around the yard and pretending to throw rocks at him. Not long ago, they played the game again, but this time his nephew insisted on playing the Israeli. Shortly into the game the small boy leapt onto his uncle’s back and began to beat him as hard as he could. Once Dr. Sarraj was able to escape his nephew’s brutal attack, he immediately asked his sister about the change in her son’s behavior. She told him that the child had recently witnessed his father humiliated and severely beaten by Israeli soldiers. Dr. Sarraj tells this anecdote to illustrate a growing trend he’s seen in young Palestinians: As parents, especially fathers, are humiliated, beaten, arrested, and otherwise disempowered in front of their children by Israeli soldiers, they lose their status as protectors in their children’s eyes. Desperate for signs of strength in terrifyingly unstable and dangerous times, young Palestinians find a new role model: the Israeli soldier.
Dr. Sarraj finds the origin of this trend in the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948, when Israelis began ethnically cleansing Palestinians from their land. Since 1948, the trauma of losing agency over one’s life and living conditions has become, in the words of Dr. Sarraj, “a part of the Palestinian psyche.” This trauma, which has grown with every violent incursion into Palestinian communities, strongly intensified with the first Intifada in 1987, when Israeli soldiers mercilessly beat children armed only with rocks, and also beat and arrested their parents. The psychiatrist notes that many of these children grew up to embrace more violent weapons in the second Intifada in 2000, a response to the brutal abuse and humiliation they’d witnessed. More than 45% of Palestinian children have watched Israeli soldiers beat and/or arrest their fathers, and the trend Dr. Sarraj describes has grown exponentially since the December/January massacre. Since the attacks, more than 75% of the youth of Gaza do not believe their parents can protect them from Israeli soldiers. Surrounded by the rubble of schools, hospitals, and whole neighborhoods, and with virtually no hope of employment upon graduation (the siege-induced unemployment rate is 80%), it is hard for the youth of Gaza to envision much of a future. And it is virtually impossible for their parents, highly educated but lacking agency and employment, to give them hope.
The trauma that is now part of the Palestinian psyche, that forces Palestinian youth to seek the new role model of the Israeli soldier, can be seen at its worst when these children grow up. Dr. Sarraj tells another story from a brief detention in a Palestinian prison. In the cell next to his, he heard a Palestinian guard interrogating a prisoner. The guard’s voice became louder and more frantic as his anger grew, until he began screaming at the prisoner in Hebrew. Dr. Sarraj later learned that the guard had been severely tortured in an Israeli prison. In this moment of uncontrollable anger, the guard became his tormentor.
Stories like these are all too frequent in Gaza, where weddings and graduations are celebrated with a soundtrack of constant Israeli bombing and shelling. My own such story came on a beautiful afternoon on the beach, while eating lunch with a large family. One of the older sons, maybe in his late teens, asked me to follow him to a small tent tucked behind the rows of family tents facing the Mediterranean. The son sat me down at a cheap metal table that had been transformed into a desk, decorated with a poster of young men murdered by Israelis, a couple of notebooks, and a mug holding some pens and a small Hamas flag. The man seated behind the desk and surrounded by young boys anxiously awaiting their next task made it clear that he would interrogate me, and sent one of the boys to find an interpreter on the beach. The son who had brought me beamed at my side, occasionally picking up the Coke my interrogator had presented me, encouraging me to drink more. After about ten minutes my interpreter arrived, another boy in his late teens. My interrogator spoke in a serious voice, but his questions were the same as those I’d received from students and families, curious about my country, a source of so much fascination and suffering for the people of Gaza. “What do Americans think of Palestinians? Who do Americans blame for the ‘war’ in December and January? What does American media say about the people of Gaza, and about Palestinians? What do Americans think of Bush? What will Obama do differently?” Throughout my “interrogation” I could not distract myself from the image of this authority figure, digging his toes into the sand, surrounded by a volunteer staff of young boys, protecting the beach by investigating a camera-toting foreigner from behind his make-shift desk and small Hamas flag.
This story is not representative of my experiences with Hamas. I do not know my interrogator’s official role within the government, if he actually has one, and I expect that the members of Hamas who were tasked with protecting and providing for our delegation would have been angered to learn of my unauthorized interrogation, an inconvenience they would have spared me. But this story stays with me because of the trauma Dr. Sarraj describes, which was palpable long before he described it to me. In detaining and interrogating a foreigner whose American passport can take her anywhere in the world and could have rescued her from the December/January massacre, this man momentarily seized his agency. In front of his young, eager audience, he claimed his place as their protector.
The phenomenon Dr. Sarraj illustrates is not only visible in individuals. One need only look at the devastated building of the Hamas-led Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) to see the Israelis’ humiliation and abuse on a governmental scale. Of all of the destroyed buildings I’ve seen in Gaza, in some ways this one haunts me most. These walls housed a democratically elected government that has endured a vicious siege since 2006, fought off an attempted coup, and has struggled with great patience and flexibility to be seen as legitimate by the global community. All of these pressures combined are enough to destroy a government, but they are magnified exponentially by the horrific massacre that stole the lives of more than 1,400 Palestinians and forced the PLC to meet in a tent behind their largely collapsed building. I think often of the meetings held in this vulnerable tent: I wonder if sometimes the pressures bearing down on these legislators simply become too much, and they are unable to breathe, to force their words out into the hot air of a Gaza parking lot.
Just as the task of protecting and providing for one’s children in Gaza is nearly impossible, the task of Hamas to fulfill the role of protector and provider for 1.5 million people is truly Herculean. Every day the leaders of this government wake up to regular attacks from one of the best-funded militaries in the world and a global misrepresentation as a terrorist organization that took power by force. Because of the horrific Israeli siege Hamas cannot provide rebuilding materials to the people of Gaza, or even feed the people who voted them into power based on the party’s history of providing necessary social services to the Gaza community. The vast majority of food aid that reaches Gaza comes from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), tasked with caring for Gaza’s refugees (80% of the population). While UNRWA supplies vital necessities to the slowly starving people of Gaza, their presence is a constant reminder of what Hamas cannot provide. It would be a lie to say that Hamas is loved by everyone in Gaza. But every action for which Hamas is condemned by western media must be understood in the context of the inhuman Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing, which have become so commonplace and expected we sometimes forget they exist. With the siege, their complicity in the attempted coup, and the December/January massacre, the Israeli government has stolen the agency of the government the people of Gaza chose.
While Dr. Sarraj’s explanation of the societal effects of trauma explains so much about my interactions in Gaza, about the youth who only want to be photographed pretending to shoot guns at my camera and the gaming centers whose violent advertisements are omnipresent on Gaza’s city streets, the brilliant professor and one-state activist Haidar Eid makes an important counterpoint to Dr. Sarraj’s theory. While Dr. Eid agrees with much of what the psychiatrist describes, he insists that by attributing every action Palestinians take to Israeli-induced trauma, one steals the last ounce of agency Palestinians have. When Palestinians take up arms against their occupiers, or smuggle food and tigers through tunnels, they resist the inhuman Israeli occupation and reclaim some of their agency. As a Palestinian soldier told a delegation member, “What else are we supposed to do? We cannot sit by when they come to kill our families. We have to protect them.”
It has been more than 12 hours since I left the tunnel, and I still can’t catch my breath. Dusty walls of packed earth occupy my eyelids, and whenever I near sleep the walls begin to crumble. When we finally neared the tunnel entrance and I could see real, natural light maybe 15 meters away, we heard a distant rumble. Bombs dropped from Israeli planes perhaps, or a partial tunnel collapse somewhere, or more mechanical digging. All of these things happen almost every day in Rafah, and then there are the near-daily silent threats, like the poisonous gas the Egyptian military releases into tunnel entrances before permanently sealing them. As I scrambled out of the narrow tunnel passage and into the loop of rope that would pull me up to the surface and back to a reality where my American passport and some patience guarantee my safe passage across the Rafah border, I watched my guide shrink below me, before ducking back into the bend of the tunnel and resuming his daily routine.