Around Gaza

By: Paz Braunstein

Paz embarked on a journey among the people of the Gaza Strip, returning with thoughts of an almost absurd reality just about half an hour away from us.

Paz embarked on a journey between the people of the Gaza Strip and came back with thoughts of an almost absurd reality that is only half an hour from us. “I don't understand what you're having trouble with,” said Neria, my best friend and travel partner, “Even Amit, Miki’s son from Kibbutz Suda, said you were nosey.” “Their 9-year-old boy said that their Pekinese dog was nosey” I replied. I tried to look for some clever proverb on journeys before sitting down in front of the computer and starting to write. Actually no, wait a minute, I stared at it first and hoped the words would just appear on their own, but they didn't show up. So I looked through the photos from the trip, which I collected on my phone, the smiling people we documented, the landscapes–that imagine how beautiful they’ll be after it rains a bit and the anemones bloom– and of course I stared gluttonously at the hummus we ate at the end of our travels in Sderot. I may have glorified it a little more than it actually was (nonetheless, there is also hummus in Beersheba), but for me, it marks the end of Neria and my journey.

I call the experience I went through a “journey" because it meets the definition in many ways: from the mileage that the calf muscles in my legs have accumulated, to abrasion that my backpack suffered from, and to the multiple conversations I had with people I never thought I'd meet. How elementary it sounds – that's how significant it was. "So welcome to the Gaza strip," we heard over and over again from the welcoming residents, who were repeatedly surprised to hear the reason for our arrival. "You came all the way from Beer Sheva to see what else is here besides red alerts?" They asked us questions of wonder and doubt, while looking around them in an attempt to find us an attraction, so as not to disappoint us. "It's amazing that it's only a half-hour drive from us," I responded, concluding my geographical ignorance, which definitely evolved on this journey.

A simple Google search of the phrase “Gaza Strip” will show you how much more is hidden than revealed. This grouping of words comes with connotations of anxiety and sympathy and the crazy thing is that it is such a small distance from us. Despite my appreciation for current events and my peculiar affection for politics, I was tired of being exposed only to the negative things. I wanted to know what's going on there beyond what the media says, to understand what 35,000 civilians find in such an intense area, which they can't find anywhere else in the country. Is it the tax benefits? The nice neighbors? A Gaza beach that can be seen on a clear day?

The inspiration for the trip was the initiative of two soldiers from Kerem Shalom, who, to encourage tourism in the area, created a new travel itinerary: from Kibbutz Zikim to Mitzpe Gevulot (yes, where the InDNeveg festival takes place). The length of the trail, called the Western Negev Trail, is about 90 miles and takes about five days walking. Along the way, you pass through significant and beautiful spots in the surrounding area such as the Black Arrow Monument, Be’eri Forest and the Habsor Park. The track, which looks beautiful in photos on the official Facebook page of the site, stimulated the traveler w

ithin me, but I knew it was only a fraction of what could be absorbed by the Gaza Strip, a second and a half before returning to the freezing auditorium in building 98. So, we decided to stretch the route and extend it, from Kerem Shalom to Netiv Ha’asara, to cover the entire fence, to say "hello" to Haniyeh, if you will. But the real twist was the people – the hitchhiking we hoped to encounter went beyond imagination, and the people who agreed to host two foreign youngsters at their house surprised us each time over again. And also those groups of soldiers, security teams and political activists, who devoted their time and agreed to share us with their daily routine, so that we would be exposed to the reality they live in.

“It's amazing how much we threw ourselves into this situation, don't you think?” I asked Neria one evening as we looked up at the sky and tried to find the stars to end the day. In front of us were dazzling lights that I slowly realized belong to the streets of the Gaza Strip. “We don’t have a problem getting into another round of escalation, but provided it is once and for all," I remembered words of Ophir, the tour guide we met and our adoptive father at the kibbutz. “And what about the fence? It's effective, isn't it?" I asked him on the tour he gave us, and in response he said, “Yes, but for what purpose? The gate is supposed to prevent attempts of penetration.” He then continued to remind me that for every issue that is settled, a new one rises. He pointed to the satellite balloon that distorts the kibbutz's pastoral view and completes, "This silence is simulated."

The residents of the Gaza Strip are not only concerned with politics and prefer to avoid wasting time unnecessarily, but the disappointment with government policy even leads many to find the solutions on their own and perhaps deepen the discourse to the root level that fails to pass an average home TV screen. One of my most memorable moments is a conversation we had with Tomer from Kibbutz Kissufim, whose wife, Dr. Yael Ronen, is a strong Hadas activist. "The easiest thing to say is that there is no one to talk to," he replied, when I asked him if he thought there was a partner across the fence, "but maybe we need to believe that you can talk to anyone who is looking to hear." He went on to say that when he and his family came to the kibbutz, they lived near a family that supported Rabbi Kahane's "Zak" movement. Neria and I exchanged glances and began to laugh at the absurdity of two neighbors who are on both ends of the political spectrum in such an explosive location. "If we were able to develop a good neighborly home, I believe that we will succeed with these guys at some point too" he said, pointing to the view across from us.

My deep thoughts on essence and religion, and on questions that are sometimes better not to know their answer in advance, have miraculously found their place in the Gaza Strip. Whether it is the dissonance between me, a secular blonde, and Neria, a Yemenite religious nationalist, or whether it is the gap between the pioneering kibbutzniks and the right-wing spouses – I was filled with a sense of hope that is possible despite the differences, and that Zionism still exists in our country even if we thought it was gone.