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THE TRUTH ABOUT GAZA

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By Roy Cohen

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The Montréal Review, January 2015

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Banksy's graffiti on the “seperation wall” (2005)

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I grew up and spent 22 years of my life in Ashdod, an Israeli city located 25 kilometers north of the place we call Gaza. I’ve lived for thirty years in total — and not a single time have I ever been to Gaza. No one in my family has ever been to Gaza. It has taken me some time—I admit, I can be slow—but I have finally figured out why:

The Gaza Strip is not a real place.

My mother, myself, my sisters, their husbands, my nieces and nephews have never been able to prove empirically that the place from which missiles are launched at our southern Israeli towns is actually “Gaza”. I can place Gaza on a map, but it would be a televised one, accompanied by the voice of a confident Israeli military officer explaining in Hebrew how dangerous Gazans are. He, I would argue, is part of the mechanism that hides the fact that Gaza does not exist. It is obvious why: when the government and the military need the people be occupied with something, they occupy us with Gaza. For most of us, Israeli civilians, the Strip is a Narnia from which mystical creatures emerge: missiles, murderers or Gilad Shalit.

Ten years ago, a childhood friend of mine fought in Gaza during his military service. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but he was bombed so badly that they had to send his platoon mates to crawl in search for traces of his body. Something shaped like his body was buried--I saw it very clearly—and so did his little sister, who was trying to approximate if they got his height right despite burying ashes and dust, rather than the body -- as per the Jewish tradition. During the days after his death, I talked with old friends about our hometown and the times we spent with our late friend. Not a single word about Gaza. Growing up so close to the Strip, we could sense that something was up. Gaza can be hell-like, sure. But can it be an actual hell in which people evaporate? Sounds suspiciously unlikely.

I’ve stayed in touch with a Palestinian friend, Yousef, who was born in Gaza 26 years ago. Of course, we didn’t meet in Gaza—we met in New England. New England surely exists, I’ve been there. If you don’t believe me, I’m sure you can connect to someone online who’s from there (Good luck with finding Gaza natives that way!). Yousef left Gaza for university in Boston 8 years ago, and has never been back. Supposedly, his father died recently—but Yousef couldn’t find it in him to return for the funeral. Imagine: your own father, dead, but you refuse to go home for his final journey! When I challenged him about it, Yousef alluded to the idea that if he tried to enter, he might never again be allowed to leave. But I suspect that Yousef already knew then what I know now: that the Gaza he had left is no longer a place. Not in the same way that your hometown or my hometown are places, anyway.

There are other stories. Of Palestinian children dying by the hundreds, entire families demolished along with buildings. I saw them on social media. People posted press releases about the fact that families were notified to evacuate - over the phone, radio or with a loud speaker, I assume. But many Gazans didn’t leave. What kind of people don’t evacuate the only property they own when they are told in their mother tongue that it is about to be ruined? This can only make sense if they are crazy or have severe communication disorders. No. The only possible reason for their failure to avoid the air strikes is this: Gazans know that their deaths have stopped being real years ago. Probably their lives, too.

Of course, I’ve met some fellow soldiers along the years who claim that they have served in Gaza. One of my best friends, Gabriel, lost 3 members of his military unit “there”. He disappears sometimes, Gabriel. After I have asked him repeatedly whence he goes, Gabriel came up with a story about group therapy sessions in remote areas where he and his military buddies get treated for Post Traumatic Stress symptoms. Now I say: how convenient. Gabriel couldn’t hurt a fly. And yet, he insists to only talk about what he did in “Gaza” with his mysterious gang, far from the public eye. Today I know the great secret that Gabriel is trying to hide. The secret all Israeli soldiers conceal. I mean, even Gilad Shalit--the kidnapped Israeli soldier—was not seen on anything but a screen for the 5 years he was “there”. Shalit knows the answer to the most impossible of questions: how come so many recent Israeli prime ministers—right, left and center—have attacked Gaza? How can politicians who have such different ideologies all support vast military operations knowing that they have made life more unbearable for Palestinians and Jews alike? How come no other mode of action has been used to stifle Hamas? No, Israeli politicians must be in on it, too: the destruction in Gaza is not real, because Gaza is not a real place.

And they always announce a temporary cease fire. After weeks of bloody fighting, during which dozens of missiles are “shot” out of Gaza and alarms in Israel “go off” repeatedly as to make 3 of my nephews break into tears (and one of them, I’m pretty sure, has developed an anxiety disorder), military and militia agree to disagree, temporarily. Just now over 2100 Gazan civilians were killed. I don’t know any of these Gazans, by the way — strange? I think so too. Operation Protective Edge came less than two years after Operation Pillar of Defense. But I can’t tell what has changed except my hometown feels more unsafe and people in audiovisual Gaza seem more miserable. Sure, these operations orient public opinion to be around Israel’s security needs, making it harder to take away funds from the defense budget in a time of economic strife. Sure, these operations have helped in silencing moderate leaders - both Israeli and Palestinian - so that the discussion is no longer about dialogue, but about life and death. But what kind of place, allegedly keeling under some 2 million people on 360 kilometers squared, can be so struck by violence and death and still exist anywhere else but in our minds? No such place can exist, surely.

What Israelis really know about Gaza of recent years are stories, which are told across the media: press, TV, online news, social media, memes and web-native videos. Gaza has wandered in and out of reality for decades, since it first materialized as a place of congregation for Palestinian refugees in 1948. It was made significantly less real after the Israeli government pulled Jewish settlers out of the strip in 2005. And I think that when Hamas took over in 2007, it has become completely virtual: just like the word “Share” after Facebook, the word “Gaza” is now completely detached from what it had originally meant. Its citizens, if they exist, appear to be hostages of a violent gang of fundamentalists. A Middle Eastern people ruled by a group of ideological fanatics. How original.

No, Gaza is not real. Sure, it used to be a place: a famous Palestinian enclave trapped between the hostile Israeli government, apathetic-to-hostile Egyptian government and the Mediterranean Sea, which was perhaps its only friend. But, looking at it from Israel, it seems to inhabit nothing more than screens, which story-tellers rely on to hone their craft and make a living. Gaza has achieved what new media professionals dream about: it has made a full transition from a piece of land to a cross-media story platform, occupying more of the cloud than it ever did of the earth.

Oh, it’s a compelling story, Gaza. But it cannot be real. It, it mustn’t.

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Roy Cohen (@roybcohen) is a filmmaker and media consultant working in Tel Aviv and London. He has been an activist for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the Middle East for over 15 years with Seeds of Peace.

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