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Going to America

By Mohammed Omer

“The gate will be open tomorrow”—these words spread like wildfire through the crowd of trapped Palestinians and visitors waiting to cross out of Gaza Strip into Egypt, and visa-versa. Would Israel withdraw yet again the promise of hope it dangled before me and [thousands? hundreds? of] families, individuals and businessmen waiting to be let out of our iron cage called Gaza? Many literally have spent weeks here at the border, without facilities, food, water or a place to sleep. Quietly I push my way toward the exit with the crowd. By three o’clock it is confirmed: for the first time in over a month, the border is open—but for just four hours.

Grabbing my bags—packed for my trip to the U.S. with my camera, clothes and whatever else I could carry in two hands—I melted into the crowd rushing like a torrent toward the border and freedom in Egypt beyond. Israel refused to allow me to travel to Jerusalem to obtain my U.S. visa, so the next closest U.S. embassy that wouldn’t require traveling through Israeli territory was in Cairo. A rush to the border, sandwiched between hundreds, heads bobbing up and down trying to see and breathe, dust swirling and caking on my skin mixed with sweat, bags bouncing off people in front of and behind me—this is how my speaking tour of America began.

U. S. Customs

At 1:07 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2006, my feet touch American soil at Washington, DC’s Dulles International Airport. Finally, after years of waiting, I would have the opportunity to share with the American people the Palestinian side of the story, something rarely heard in and indeed vehemently excised from American public discourse. As an Arab, an image often paired with the words “terrorist,” “extremist” and “fanatical,” and Muslim, a faith also paired with ominous adjectives, I didn’t know what to expect. As the plane descended, the Homeland Security message played over the intercom gives the impression that one is about to enter a fortress, complete with eye scans, fingerprinting and interrogations. I couldn’t help but notice that several American passengers seemed visibly uncomfortable with their nation’s welcome message. Perhaps this is one reason foreign business travel to the United States has fallen 20 percent since 2005. What awaited me, I was not sure.

Thankfully, my initial fears proved unfounded. Though the questions he asked were long and detailed, the immigration officer was pleasant and did his best to make me comfortable throughout the interview—quite a contrast to the way Palestinians are treated by Israelis. His soothing manner and congeniality allowed my own panic to subside. I did notice, however, that the other immigration officers handled up to 20 passengers each, while I was assigned my own exclusively. This annoyed me somewhat, but I practiced the virtue of patience, surprising even myself! The sole hitch in my entry occurred when I handed over my green passport with the words “Palestinian Authority” printed on it.

My officer seemed confused. “What kind of passport is this?” he asked, waving it before me.

“Palestinian,” I answered.

It seemed that Palestinian passport simply did not compute! More gruffly, he asked again, “What passport is it?”

When I repeated my answer, his face lit up and he responded affirmatively, “Oh! A Pakistani passport!”

 At that point I was ready to be Pakistani if it meant I could complete the exam! I took a deep breath, wondering “Is this guy for real?” But I quietly told myself, “Patience, Mohammed. Perhaps he’s color blind and cannot read green.”

Several hours later, after a call to Matt Horton, the Washington Report communications director who would be accompanying me on my tour, and who answered yet more questions, America officially allowed me entry and I left the airport for the Washington Report office with news editor Delinda Hanley, who had been waiting for me at Dulles for the hours I was being questioned.

That first evening in Washington I was able to relax with several Palestinian Americans and have a night out on the town. Although still exhausted from my trip, I found the companionship a natural elixir, and my excitement over my upcoming tour quickly built.

“My God! They’ve got him on a brutal schedule,” commented an editor of a California newspaper who saw my itinerary. We definitely had a lot of ground to cover: 22 venues in 15 different cities, from Washington, DC to San Diego, New York and Denver, not to mention Vermont and Texas, in less than three weeks.

Impressions of America

I didn’t know what to expect, having never lived in a country not under occupation. Given the Homeland Security welcome on the plane, I half expected a nation of military zones, with soldiers everywhere. The reality is close to heaven. How lucky Americans are to live without tanks prowling through their streets, shooting at their children as they head off to school. What a blessing for Americans to enjoy walking the streets without helicopter gunships hovering above, indiscriminately bombing neighborhoods and families as they sleep. What joy to travel freely from place to place without military checkpoints, soldiers torturing you simply because they can, with nothing you can do about it. For Americans, bulldozers are used to build homes, malls and offices—not to tear these things down.

The biggest problem Americans have is trying to get around is traffic. And do they love to complain about it! But guess what? There isn’t a Palestinian in Gaza or the West Bank who wouldn’t gladly trade our checkpoints, military rule, tanks, bulldozers and helicopter gunships for the chance to sit in traffic on the freeway for three hours, bumper-to-bumper and going nowhere fast. Our traffic jams last three weeks or more, and we can often be found, men and women alike, camping out for three or four weeks at Abu Holi or one of the hundreds of other checkpoints erected to deny us freedom of movement.

Of course, I realize, if traffic is the worse Americans have to face, this is going to be one amazing journey—and I couldn’t wait to get started!

If one approaches strangers anywhere in the world with warmth in your heart, it is likely to be returned. America is no different. In general, I found people to be relaxed. The worry which permeates Palestinian society, leaving faces worn and ragged, was absent. Nevertheless, America is a contradiction. While some are wealthy beyond imagination, others live in a destitute underworld. I felt empathy for the homeless huddled in doorways, thrown out into the streets of the nation’s capital. They survive even though they are unwanted and often unseen, even when standing among their more fortunate citizens.

I found Americans to be genuine and accommodating, with an unquenchable thirst for understanding. Many are aware of the discrepancy between what their leaders, media, clergy and culture tell them and their nagging sense of information withheld. Those who attended my presentations ran the gamut from poor students struggling to get by, liberal activists and conservative businesspeople, industrialists, entrepreneurs, doctors and lawyers. They represented all faiths, races and age group. Some were what Americans describe as liberals, some conservatives. The desire to understand and learn seemed to transcend false boundaries and divisions created by political agendas.

Welcomed by local—and ignored by mainstream—media, I felt indebted to the brave journalists who provided a platform for the Palestinian voice. This is not easy in the United States, where staunch Zionist activists are determined to quell any inquiry or smother any light. Several American journalists, such as Joseph Sobran and Mike Malloy, have paid a price with their career for telling Palestine’s story without censure.

Thankfully, when away from editors and special interests, journalists around the world share a camaraderie, many hoping to be the next Fisk, Murrow or Pilger who changes the world through words or pictures. I sensed that they approached me with a romanticized vision, however. How can I convey that there is nothing romantic about my life under Israeli occupation! It is a daily matter of life and death, of real flesh and blood. Israeli military snipers target foreign journalists, such as James Miller, who lost his life. Nor do peace activists escape Israel’s vengeance. Rachel Corrie also paid the ultimate price.

Speaking to Americans

My favorite speaking appearance was in New York City, where the audience consisted mostly of students my age and a large contingent of business people from the Network of Arab-American Professionals of New York. Even within the Arab-American population, I found, misconceptions prevailed about the situation Palestinians endure daily. As Americans realize the impact of their unconditional support for Israel’s whims, financially, politically and morally, they begin to question. I also saw frustration. They want to correct the situation but don’t know where—or how—to start.

Zionist groups and individuals opposed to Palestinians or Arabs living in our own homeland did not shy away from representing themselves. Some came to nearly every appearance—as observers, or to film, thwart, question and divert attention from the reality I was there to describe. I found it intriguing to try and guess the antagonists in my audience. They revealed themselves through their questions and attempts to get me to advocate suicide bombings, political agendas or parties, and their historical revisionism—all designed to create an equal playing field between the world’s fourth most powerful nuclear nation and a people without an army living under occupation for 60 years.

And here is where it got amazing in several cities: audience members—Jewish, Muslim and Christian alike—prevented the distracter from disrupting the event. After seeing and hearing my presentation, the audience would have none of it! Once they were exposed to the truth, they refused to be misled. When this happened I truly understood what it meant to be united, free and what it means to Americans to be American. When Americans come together, they don’t care what a person’s race or faith is. They are all American and that is all that counts.

In San Francisco a Jewish woman came up to me after my presentation, her eyes searching and full of empathy. “I’m ashamed,” she stated, her voice faltering, “of being an American and a Jew, that this is being committed in my name.”

Hearing statements from this woman and others gives me hope. My work here is making an impact, I felt, and God willing, this injustice will soon end. The comment I received most, even from veteran peace activists and journalists, including Israeli Americans from the peace camp, was a mixture of shame for allowing what is happening and shock that, even for these knowledgeable people, the reality is far worse than they knew. My wish never was to shame anyone, however. Like all Palestinians, I just want this to end.

My disappointment in America’s “free press” was difficult to hide. The mainstream media’s bias is enough to blind a reader. I found no examples of equal or even accurate reporting on the Middle East in any of the major U.S. newspapers, television news programs or radio news and talk format. Any report on the Middle East always adheres to the talking points I’ve seen distributed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the World Zionist Organization and other pro-Israel groups.

In general, Americans are misled by omission. During my two and a half weeks in the U.S., I saw or read very little about the increasing hell in Gaza and, increasingly, the West Bank. The premise seems to be that Americans are too sensitive to be confronted with the truth. Pardon my anger, but Palestinians are dying because of American ignorance, and this ignorance is delivered daily by a hidden agenda accepted by a media in violation of the principles for which it supposedly stands. This obfuscation and euphemistic spinning of reality is based on politics rather than religion, on Israel’s acquisition of trillions in U.S. aid, its unencumbered military and diplomatic clout in Washington. Like all evils, the destruction of Palestine and Palestinians is all about money and power. How can Americans, with all their freedoms, be so blind? I have trouble grasping this. Don’t Americans realize this is killing them as well?

A Mini-Vacation and Reverie

In Southern California I did get to spend time with friends, wake up with a view of the Pacific Ocean, and ride in a convertible (something unheard of in Gaza) on a beautiful 80-degree December day. I tried eggnog (sweet and rich), mint-flavored M&Ms (quite tasty), and was taken to a very fancy grocery store with enough food to feed half of Gaza for a week. The next morning I discovered what a Harley is, as it chortled and chugged past us as we were eating breakfast at a sidewalk café in Oceanside, drowning out our conversation as my hosts twisted their faces in annoyance while plugging their ears. The mixture of motorcycle fumes with my fruit is not something I recommend!

Americans speak English, but represent every nation, every language, every faith, every race…all living together, side by side, a few squabbles but relatively peaceful and supportive of each other. Imagine if Israel…if Palestine were…

Flying over the Rockies on my way west I couldn’t help but wonder, in one of my moments of frustration: given the hold on U.S. policy by both Christian and Jewish Zionists, why not relocate Israel to the U.S.?

Hear me out on this. Logically, there is plenty of space and Americans—at least those unaware of the facts—seem to love Israel more than their own country. Even President Bill Clinton, while in office, stood up and proclaimed he would “Die for Israel”—and the American people did nothing. For Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis who don’t care about “Jewish-only” mandates and really do want to live together, life would be perfect and we could build our own Isratine. As for the Zionists demanding a Jewish-Only state, ship them over to America and let them create their own Jewish-Only state where people seem to want, love and in many cases, worship them! Problem solved.

But then I remembered. Israel as a Jewish state could never exist in the United States. America has a Constitution and a Bill of Rights which state that all men are created equal. No special privileges, no chosen people, no apartheid, no racism, no segregation; it’s impossible for a theocracy that discriminates based upon faith and race to exist within American borders….Pity, Israel has neither a constitution nor bill of rights. But then, if it did, my tour wouldn’t be necessary.

Trying to Get Back Home

As I waited at the Dulles Airport baggage claim between my arrival from Denver and my return flight to Cairo, I watched with dismay as the contents of my luggage dribbled onto the conveyor belt between other passengers’ bags. A shirt, followed by two pieces of luggage, my pants, then three pieces of luggage, then another piece of luggage…my clothes were arriving, but where was my bag? Several people helped me collect my scattered items and pile them on the floor. Embarrassed and angry, I realized my bag was destroyed. Homeland Security personnel had examined my suitcase and broken the zipper. A baggage representative wearing a Santa Claus hat insisted that the airline was not at fault. I disagreed, but still I needed something to carry my things in. Fortunately, we found a store that sold luggage, and the Washington Report graciously bought me a new bag from an airport store. So began my return home.

On the long flight to Cairo, the Rafah crossing loomed heavily on my mind. I knew that people often had to wait weeks to get back into Gaza, and that some died and others became terribly ill from lack of food, water, sanitation and shelter—a cruel form of collective punishment. And why is this necessary? Since Israel “withdrew” from Gaza, why does it control the border between Gaza and Egypt—a border, in other words, not its own? Would-be travelers enter and exit through EU-observed Palestinian Security and Egyptian security—but Israel decides if we may come or go, who and what may enter or leave, who may live and who will die. Why does no one ask this question?

As far as I knew, the border had not been opened since the four-hour window through which I escaped in November. It was now Hanukah and I was reasonably sure it would remain closed through the Jewish holiday and Christmas (a day, by the way, held in esteem by both Christians and Muslims) a few days later. Gaza still boasts a small Christian community of Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and other denominations. But since Israeli law does not allow husbands and wives from the territories and Israel to live together, why would they allow families to reunite for the second holiest day of the Christian calendar? Of course the New Year provided another opportunity for hope and celebration, another small joy likely to be denied out of spite.

These thoughts depressed me, and I was sure the border would remain closed through the end of the year. On top of this, one of my brothers was scheduled for surgery on Dec. 17. I had cut my tour short so I could be by his side and help him recover, but it looked like this, too, would be impossible. Instead I would be stranded with more than 4,000 other people already languishing at the border in a no-man’s-land. With no beds, restrooms or showers, and no food, each day the situation deteriorated. Disease was rampant, as was the smell of unwashed people, especially offensive to an Arab. Our culture, after all, is all about hygiene and cleanliness, hospitality and service to others.

This inhuman situation, similar if not worse than a prison or forced labor camp, reduced us all, from infant to elderly, to animals. Imagine not being able to wash for weeks, not having a restroom or water, no blankets to sleep with, no bed. Imagine being only minutes from your home, yet prevented from getting there simply because someone somewhere decided to make you suffer. Imagine trying to keep your children calm for weeks on end, without food, shelter or any idea of how long you’ll be stranded. And even if you arrived with money, who expects to be stuck at a border crossing for weeks and months for no reason? Before long, your money is gone. Now what do you do? Your fate, health, ability to eat, drink, sleep and move is all in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even consider you human! What do you do?

And then it gets worse.

Israel ordered Rafah closed, so Rafah is closed indefinitely. If you enter the terminal, an eight-gate system more formidable than that of a high security penitentiary, you cannot go forward without Israeli permission, nor can you go back without Egyptian permission. Basically you rot with hundreds of men, women, children and the elderly in cold, rainy winter weather until Israel says you can go home. Even prisoners get barracks. We don’t even get those.

Fortunately I had a temporary Egyptian transit visa and was able to spend my time waiting in Cairo. By the grace of God, a local and simple Internet café in Cairo facilitated phones and computers; an American professor and his wife living in Egypt invited me over for Christmas dinner. All the while the clock was ticking, however, and my time growing short. Once my visa expired on Dec. 27 I would be forced to join the thousands waiting in no-man’s-land and praying each day that it would be the day we were allowed to return to Gaza.

For the first two or three days in Egypt I wait under the illusion that the border will be open tomorrow. Every day the Israelis say “tomorrow.” But tomorrow comes and goes. A week passes, then two and still I and increasing thousands are stranded.

“What brings me back from the United States to this hell?” I asked myself in frustration. Before I left the States, friends encouraged me to stay, enjoy a vacation—go to Disneyland. But now it’s too late for Disneyland. Instead I’m in Cairo with a visa about to expire, just hours from my home—but weeks from arriving. Frantically I write and call officials in Palestine, Egypt and America, including a letter to Secretary of State Rice pleading that she, they pressure Israel to open the border and end this humanitarian crisis. To no avail.

Growing desperate, I tried to think of an alternate route. If one border is closed, perhaps I could enter through another? I tried crossing from Jordan. But Orwell reigns in Israel, which insists that a traveller—at least a Palestinian traveller—must enter and exit via the same crossing. Imagine an American flying to Asia from Los Angeles, stopping in Europe, then returning through New York only to be told, “I’m sorry but since you left through L.A., you must come back through L.A. and we don’t care if it costs you 10 times as much time or money!”

Back to Rafah

As Eid al-Adha approached, the border remained shut. My cash reserves were running low, and my patience had evaporated days ago. I’d been stuck in Cairo for two weeks—but the last 48 hours were the worst, as rumors began to fly again that the border would be opened. Dared I hope? But at last—this time—the rumor was true.

Grabbing my bags I join the torrent rushing toward the border and our homes in Gaza. Israel had said the border would be open for seven hours—from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.—enough time for a only a few hundred to pass through. Since the actual amount of time most likely will be less, getting to the head of the line is paramount. Each of us among the thousands waiting to cross is determined to be one of that few hundred. Competition is stiff. We all want to get home. We all must get home.

As I near the first Egyptian gate, I feel like a sprinter at the starting line. In my mind I hear the gun fire: “And they’re off!”

I must make it through the eight gates that await me—the first four gates controlled by Egypt, the last four through supposedly withdrawn Israel on Gazan territory—then a 20-minute taxi ride on the other side, then home.

After passing through the last Egyptian gate, Israel requires everyone to board a bus to traverse a short, easily walked, distance. Another nonsensical rule, yet I find myself boarding the bus, smashed between desperately tired and fully dehumanized elderly men and women. Manners and respect for my elders requires that I not take a seat. The elderly, women, mothers—all take precedence over a young man of 22. So many sick, tired and defeated people—women with toddlers hanging from their arms, an old woman crumpled in exhaustion. Behind me a blind person touches my shoulder, pleading, “I’m blind; is there anyone to help me?”

My heart aches. Several people offer assistance. I step forward to purchase my bus ticket (another irony: people must forego food to pay for an unnecessary bus ride to get into Gaza). The bus is already crammed to capacity for the few minutes ride. Forbidden to walk, we instead are packed like sardines in a tin can. Five minutes pass, 10 minutes, an hour. After four hours, our bus still hasn’t moved. With room for 48 people, it is packed with 120. To make room, children lie on passengers’ heads. It is raining out, drenching our luggage, which has been left sitting in the mud. The few minutes’ delay stretches into a ordeal without end.

I’m standing in the door, stuck, with no room to bring both legs inside the bus. The rain continues to fall. My feet hurt. I’m tired, cranky and balancing on the edge of the steps. Finally the driver moves to close the door. But my leg and back are stuck, and the doors wedge me between the frame and edge. My breath becomes shallow, and I feel faint. All memories of the U.S. are gone. All I feel is the pain of the door closing on me, as the reason for the delay is explained as a “logistics issue.” It seems the electricity went off, and the live security cameras couldn’t supply the Israeli army with an uninterrupted view of people trying to get home. This also means that the electric gate wouldn’t work, of course. Nobody considered opening it manually.

So we wait for hours, sardines with children sleeping on our heads. Will we be stuck forever in this no-man’s-land? “All they have to do is stamp my passport,” I think, “and in 20 minutes, I’ll be home.”

Nearly three weeks to travel 20 minutes. That’s Israeli time—for Palestinians.

Looks Like We Made It!

Late in the afternoon we finally made it through the Rafah border gates. My passport is stamped by Palestinian officers, as EU observers look on. Their only purpose is political, since they work under Israeli orders. With a little more hassle my luggage is checked, and I start into Gaza through the fifth electric gate then the sixth. The seventh gate is where people begin to gather in anticipation of the arrival of friends and relatives. Finally I cleared the eighth gate. Now all I needed was a taxi to take me home.

Nearly a month and a half after I left Gaza, I stumble, weary yet thankful, through the front door of our humble home. My 5-year-old brother, Osama runs up to greet me, eyes bright and laughing.

“I’m happy they opened the border at the end. Welcome back from America!” he cries happily.

Welcome back, indeed. Dorothy was right. There really is no place like home.

Mohammed Omer, winner of New America Media’s Best Youth Voice award, reports from the Gaza Strip, where he maintains the Web site www.rafahtoday.org. He can be reached at gazanews@yahoo.com.

Reprinted with permission

First published in
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

 March 2007, pages 20-25

Christians in Gaza by Mohammed Omer

[Editor's note:  After returning home to Gaza from London on June 26, 2008, where he traveled to receive the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, Mohammed Omer was questioned for four hours and strip searched at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge Crossing between Jordan and Gaza.  Mr. Omer said that after the strip search and questioning, he passed out as he was being dragged by the legs by two officials with his head hitting the ground.  He woke up in a hospital in Jericho, Israel, where he called the Dutch officials who had helped with his trip to London, and the Dutch officials drove Mr. Omer to a hospital in Gaza where he was treated for several broken ribs.

Israeli officials said Mr. Omer was strip searched and questioned, "because of the suspicion that he had been in contact with hostile elements and had been asked by them to smuggle something in."   Israeli officials also said, "fair treatment and no irregular action was taken towards him. 
At the end of the search, he lost his balance and fell for some reason unknown to us.  A team of medics, an ambulance and a paramedic were summoned, and he was transferred for treatment to Jericho."]

[Editor's Note January 13, 2009]  Mohammed Omer is recovering in a hospital in Amsterdam from above injuries.

 

 

 

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