The Colgate Scene
January 2003

Heading south
A personal account of life under occupation

Before starting graduate school, Nathan Stock '98 (shown in his family's home in Forestville, N.Y.) is completing a book based on his experiences living in the Gaza Strip for two years. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

When I first arrived in Gaza, it always struck me as humorous when Palestinians spoke of "Al-Janoob," "The South." The entire Gaza Strip is about a third the size of my native Chautauqua County in western New York, making Al-Janoob just a 30-minute drive away. Before the second Intifada, I thought nothing of heading south. I had some good friends in and outside of the town of Khan Younis, whom I visited whenever work and play permitted. I couldn't help but notice the illegal Israeli settlements along the way, and I was constantly aware of the immense potential power the settlements and their access roads gave the Israeli army in controlling Palestinian movement within the Gaza Strip.

When the second uprising against the Israeli occupation began after Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, clamping down on movement was one of the first things the Israeli army did. By late October 2000, the question on everyone's lips was "Kyaf it-tarik?" (How are the roads?) In retrospect, in those early days, we didn't know how good we had it. Then, people might wait five to 10 minutes at the main checkpoint at Matahen, which divides the north from the south. Even at that point, the waiting wasn't the hard part, it was the fear (people had been killed at the checkpoint), and the massive undercurrent of humiliation present in the entire process.

In the fall of 1996, my junior year, I took International Relations of the Middle East, a great class taught by Moshe Ma'oz, an Israeli professor visiting from Hebrew University. The course outlined the modern history and current status of the region. He also painted a small picture of what life might be like for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, although at the time, I'm not sure I fully appreciated it. The course sparked an interest in me for a previously unknown region of the world, including new languages, religions and cultural traditions. Despite spending the following semester, and then the first year after I graduated, in China, when I finally came home in August of 1999 I was still very interested in the Middle East. I'd also developed an interest in conflict resolution during my senior year, while taking Introduction to Peace Studies. Israel/Palestine seemed like a perfect match. I could get a hands-on education in a new culture, and in conflict.

After seven months of job hunting, I left for Gaza City in March 2000 on a one-year English teaching contract with a large American nongovernmental organization, Amideast. The plan was to teach for a year, while building language and culture skills, and, hopefully, doing volunteer work in something related to conflict resolution. This year was supposed to lead to the coveted "real job." Surprisingly, despite intervening events, things more or less went according to plan. In September 2001 I started working full time as the public relations and fundraising officer for the Palestinian Center for Helping Resolve Community Disputes, a great organization on the cutting edge of community development in Palestine. In the process, I also had a front row seat for the final demise of the Oslo process and the first year and half of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

I remember my first trip back to Gaza City from Khan Younis after the Intifada started. I was in a taxi, the first car waiting at Matahen, heading north. This checkpoint marked the beginning of a 300-meter stretch of Saladin Road, the main north-south artery in the Strip, which was also used by Israeli settlers traveling between Israel and the Gush Katif settlement bloc. We waited, staring down the barrel of a heavy machine gun on an armored personnel carrier, while an Israeli soldier at the gun directed traffic. I'm sure that, like me, everyone was thinking of the stories they'd heard of people being blown away where we were sitting.

The atmosphere inside the car was tense. The soldier was looking west, away from us, in towards the settlement, when we heard a single shot ring out. You could have heard an ant burp in the taxi as I struggled to contain my fast-liquefying bowels. Somehow, for some reason, the soldier didn't bat an eye. Maybe it was a signal he was expecting. I don't know, but either way, he didn't even glance at us. As we slowly began to relax, he waved us through.

During his time living in the Gaza Strip, Nathan Stock '98 quickly learned that the normal routine was frought with tension when traveling between Gaza City and Khan Younis. [Enlarge]

18-year-olds with guns
On a similar trip in spring 2001, I had passed Matahen and Netsarim settlement, which is located about 400 meters east of the Sea Road. I was almost to the big mosque by the beach, in the southern Remal neighborhood of Gaza City. I began to breathe a sigh of relief, thinking I was home free. Then, the bullets started whizzing into the sand around the road. It was a beautiful March day. The sun was shining. There was no "terrorist attack." There was no "crossfire." They just started shooting. In a daze, I slunk down in my seat as the driver floored it. I think I was out of range of the tower at Netsarim, but the IDF had a Palestinian home they'd commandeered closer to the road. The driver said he thought they were firing from gunboats off shore. Unlike the movies, I never knew exactly where it came from.

Two weeks before I left Palestine last June, I made my final trip to Al-Janoob, where things had worsened considerably. I hadn't been south in months because people were routinely waiting upwards of six hours at Matahen, some even spending days trying to make the hellish half-hour commute. I was hardly looking forward to it, but it was something I had to do because there were people I had to say goodbye to, and nothing less than a visit would suffice.

I left Gaza around 2 p.m., the time that everyone advised me to go if I wanted to be fairly certain I'd make it through the checkpoint before dark. (You did not want to be there after dark.) I was with a good friend, and we were going to his place in Rafah, near the Egyptian border. As we got closer to the checkpoint my heart rate increased. Would we wait for hours or minutes? What kind of mood would the 18-year-old kids with the guns be in today?

We lucked out and only waited for five minutes. It was a baraka, a blessing from God. We arrived at just the right moment when the IDF decided to open the checkpoint. My fellow passengers and I crossed the final barrier repeating "Il-Hamdurilla" (Thanks be to God) and part of me was overjoyed. Another part was sickened by my firsthand look at the latest advances in settlement infrastructure since my last trip some months earlier. Settlers no longer used that 300-meter strip of road. They now had their own overpass, a massive bridge, complete with gun towers on both ends spanning the entire checkpoint. Walls on the sides of the bridge hid the grim reality of an area the size of three football fields that had been made barren. Nearly everything around the checkpoint had fallen to Israeli armored bulldozers and tanks. In gradual, relentless destruction over 18 months, homes, farms, trees, orchards, lives and livelihoods -- all turned to dust. There was nothing left but the sad determination of ordinary people struggling to lead normal lives in an extremely abnormal situation, as young and old, woman and man, truck and taxi, ground forward through the choking dust.

I spent two nights in the south. It was great to see my friends and hard to say goodbye. Both of my friends live near Israeli settlements and the massive system of military installations, bunkers, fences, guns and cameras that surround them. They've gotten used to taking gunfire on a nightly basis, but those particular evenings weren't too bad -- nothing too close, and nothing too intense.

A fearful return trip
As with all my trips south since the Intifada began, the entire visit was overshadowed by a lingering fear of the return trip. As usual, I allotted myself plenty of time. After breakfast on Saturday morning, I told my friend Zeyad I should get going. I had things to do at home in Gaza City that day, and who knew how long I'd spend on the road. He said he thought it would be a bad time for the trip, but he called a friend to ask about the checkpoint. The friend reported that, at least for now, it was open. That was it: we were all so conditioned to responding to the whims of the occupier, there was no need for discussion. I had to go.

But such things always take time. This was a lesson I'd learned long ago. From a North American perspective, everything in the Third World takes longer than you think it should. Still, in other countries, as in Palestine before the uprising, this never bothered me, but now it was different. Now, a five-minute delay could mean five hours of fear and frustration at the checkpoint if I arrived after it had been closed. In downtown Khan Younis, there was an agonizing wait for the taxi to fill up with the requisite seven passengers needed for the driver to eke out a tiny profit. We even had to go pick someone up and wait while they loaded what seemed like all their worldly possessions into the van. The tension was brutal. We'd all heard the road was open, but for how long? Could I be that lucky again?

Finally, we were moving, and in ten minutes, I sat again at Matahen for what I knew would be my last wait there for a long time. A concrete guard tower had replaced the armored vehicle present during the early weeks of the uprising. The tower's tiny metal window was just big enough to keep the barrel of heavy machine gun pointed at the car. Yet again, Il-Hamdurilla, we were the first in line at the gate. We all hoped desperately that the soldiers would let us through. We waited. I eyed the Israeli guns nervously. There was a massive bunker of concrete cubes and camouflage netting to my left, plus three more of the cylindrical guard towers in front of me, counting the two on the new bridge. We waited. A new steel gate, raised and lowered electronically, barred our way, and the traffic light on the bunker continued to shine red. We made nervous conversation.

And then, the gate was raised and the light turned green. A five-minute wait -- two miracles in three days! I was on a roll. We started forward. The soldiers in the bunker called out "Yalla, yalla!" (Let's go!) from a megaphone. I joked to my traveling companions that they really didn't need to remind us not to hang around. We proceeded as best we could, slowing only for the massive steel speed bumps the Israeli army had installed. A concrete wall separated us from the still divided, but now deserted, highway on our right. On our left was endless sand that used to be the site of homes and fields of crops.

We approached the final bunker at the northern end of the checkpoint. Normally you don't have to stop there, but you never knew. We passed it without incident, and as the distance from Matahen grew, our incredible good fortune began to sink in. No bullets on the Sea Road, either, that day. It was a good trip, and my last.

But then, I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm an American. Even when I was in Gaza, I had a good, decent-paying job, which allowed me to live in comfort in a place where most adults are without work. I lived in Gaza City. My daily "commute" was a ten-minute walk through streets that -- except for the rare daylight air raid -- were always peaceful. Co-workers of mine like Ashraf (a counselor in the Center's Family Service Program), who lived in Khan Younis, weren't so lucky. He had to make that trip at least three times a week, and I watched its effect on him. Some mornings in the office I'd hear, "It-tarik sa'eb ilioum" (The road is difficult today), a classic Palestinian understatement that could mean anything from hours of delay to gunfire. At some point, often in the afternoon, Ashraf would arrive. I could see the stress etched on his face. I knew that he was dreading the return trip, just like I did. But he was dedicated. If humanly possible, he was always at work.

Note: This article was first written for the winter edition of News From Below, a quarterly magazine.
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