Intervention – 'From Gaza: A Letter to a Friend'

25 September 2014

Dear Ya’akov,

Or have you started calling yourself Jacob since you family moved to America from Tel Aviv?[1] Anyway, this is Yaqub. You remember, your namesake Yaqub, we were together at that Seeds of Peace camp in Maine in 2000 – so long ago, we were what, 11 years old then? I could ask you, no I should ask you, how you are. You were so good with numbers. Have you become a famous scientist? Are you married? You must be. Do you have children?

Yes, I should ask you these questions. I want to know how my friend Ya’akov is. But what I really need is an answer, Ya’akov. Why is this happening? Why is Israel doing this to us? Why is the US not doing anything to stop it? You belong to both countries, don’t you? Why does our life have to be such hell? Are we not human beings?[2] We must not be. Because, I have to tell you, there are times when I feel that even animals live better than us.

But I don’t suppose you have any idea how we live. Do you? In July and August Israel bombed us for one and a half months. More than 2,000 people died, most of them civilians. Over 500 of them were children! Children, boys and girls, their entire lives ahead of them, killed! And people in Sderot sat on a hilltop, cheering as bombs rained down on us.[3]

I am sure, Ya’akov, you must have read about the UN school in Beit Hanoun that was destroyed by IDF on 24 July. Or perhaps you didn’t. Perhaps you were too busy at work or with your children’s extramural activities. What am I saying? I don’t even know if you have children. I don’t know what a normal life means for you. I’ll tell you what normal life is for us in Gaza. Seven children died in that attack on the UN school, many others were injured. My friend Najib’s son, Ahed, was killed. I went to see Najib at the Kamal Adwan Hospital. He was holding the dismembered body of his nine year old son. He could not stop crying. Something broke inside me that day.

The IDF will probably say something like: “As a matter of policy, we do not target civilians.” Or maybe that Hamas was responsible for the shelling, that they use human shields to fire their ridiculous rockets. Or maybe that the attack was an error, that they will conduct an internal inquiry. I don’t care, because nothing ever changes. How can I care, Ya’akov? You have no idea about the horrors I have seen growing up in Gaza. I have heard that the IDF calls itself the “most moral army in the world”. This “most moral army” has waged three wars on Gaza in the past six years[4]. They blast us with depleted uranium bombs, and white phosphorus shells that fry your flesh and your insides.

I read that an Israeli general describes these assaults as “mowing the lawn”. In November 2012, the lawn mowing killed 158 Palestinians, about half of them civilians. Over 1,200 were wounded. In the 2008-09 invasion, in three weeks approximately 1,300 Palestinians were killed, including some 300 children; 5,300 were injured. The vast majority of those killed and wounded were civilians. Hundreds of Palestinian houses were completely or partially destroyed. You know about the massacre at Zeitoun, don’t you? Zeitoun, where Israeli forces destroyed 27 homes, a mosque and a number of farms, and killed 48 residents, most of them women, children and the elderly? And do you know what some of the IDF soldiers did in the houses they commandeered? There are houses where excrement was smeared on the walls, or where dry piles of shit were found in corners. In many cases, the smells indicated that soldiers had urinated on piles of clothing or inside a washing machine. In all the houses the toilets were overflowing and clogged, and there was filth all around. When the Abu Eida family returned to house No. 5 in Jabalya, they discovered pots of urine and excrement in the refrigerator.[5] Other houses had graffiti inside them, slogans written in Hebrew and English, including “Death to Arabs”; “The only good Arab is a dead Arab”; and “Arabs are pieces of shit”.

I know there are crazy people on my side too, who will say these kinds of detestable things about Jews. The young people, Ya’akov, on your side and mine. I am afraid of them. I am afraid for them. There is so much rage, so much hatred. I know what brought the Jews to this land. I know your forefathers were running away from persecution in countries they had embraced and built, from the poisonous hatred that anointed them as “subhumans” (Untermenschen), that led to the Shoah; yes, I know about that, my friend. But that’s what I can’t understand: How can a people who have suffered so much, who have been so cruelly oppressed, who know what it means to be humiliated and stripped of basic dignity do the same to another people? To another people who are not even responsible for what happened to them in Poland, in Germany, in Russia? Someday you should read Ghassan Kanafani’s novel, Returning to Haifa (1969). When you do you’ll see why.

It’s good you are in America, Ya’akov, because I think Israel has changed since you left it ten years ago. One of my friends here – he is one of the very few people left in Gaza who has a permit to enter Israel, where he works in a factory (he has to be at the crossing by 2 or 3am when it’s open, otherwise he can’t get through) – told me that the Times of Israel website ran a column with the heading: “When Genocide is Permissible” (1 August 2014). It was taken down a short while later, but it said: “If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?”[6]

And do you know what your politicians have been saying, my friend, during the recent bombardment of Gaza? The deputy speaker of the Knesset, Moshe Feiglin, demanded a policy of mass expulsion into concentration camps for Arab citizens of Israel. An MP, Ayelet Shaked, whose party is a member of the governing coalition, called for the extermination of Palestinian mothers to prevent them giving birth to what she called “little snakes”. Another member of your Knesset, Michael Ben-Ari, said: “There are no innocents in Gaza, don’t let any diplomats who want to look good in the world endanger your lives – mow them down!” And Gilad Sharon, son of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, declared that: “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza, flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima–the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing.”[7]

You are good with numbers, Ya’akov. But for most people it can be hard to see, how numbers – 1,300, 300, or 5,300 – mean years, even generations, of a painfully assembled life, vaporized in an instant. Destroyed sitting rooms full of rubble, babies left unfed, teenagers left uneducated, families decimated, waves of grief; or that such numbers refer to that young woman without her bachelor’s degree, that young man sitting mad on a corner without a job, that father dead, that mother depressed because her three year old daughter is forever paralyzed. So many in the West fail to grasp these daily catastrophes, which so many Palestinian families must endure, from living in a cage to dying in a cage.[8] Like industrial cattle! Why does this go on, Ya’akov? It must be lack of imagination–or is it indifference?–that lets good people like you ignore what is going on, that encourages this fucking situation to persist?

Do you know what daily life is like for Palestinians, my friend? The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on earth: 1.8 million Palestinians crowded into 365 square kilometers. Or, put it another way, some 25 percent of all Palestinians living under Israeli control have been confined to 1.4 percent of the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine.[9] The air space, the sea, and the exit points–even electromagnetic fields–remain under the sole security and control of Israel. Gaza depends on Israel for the supply of water, electricity, gas and petrol; for all imports and exports–in fact, for anything that moves in or out.[10] Hardly anyone has a job. Most us have become beggars. Can you imagine the shame of living on handouts from the UN every single day?

Gaza is terrible, Ya’akov. Intolerable! Personally, I think it is the laboratory for what Israel intends to do in the West Bank: A strategy of confinement founded on three principles: erect a cage; implement buffer zones; and use aerial warfare to subjugate.

Do you know, Ya’akov, that there are about 5,000 military orders regulating Palestinian life in the occupied territories? In many cases, a Palestinian cannot work, travel, study, tend crops, transport goods, dig for water, start a business, get medical care, or even visit relatives in the next town, without obtaining appropriate permission from Israeli authorities. And, beyond that, our life is subject to an ever-changing and unpredictable web of curfews, checkpoints, roadblocks, ditches, walls, fences, and closures, whose sheer randomness aims to keep us off-balance, disoriented. This is not to mention the intimidating set of permanent physical obstacles in the form of sprawling Jewish settlements, expanding all the time, and a road network for the Jewish settlers, built on Palestinian land, to which Palestinians are denied access.

And while Jewish settlers move across the occupied territories with complete freedom (via 1,000 miles of wide, well-paved, well-lit high-speed roads), the combination of physical obstacles and the bureaucratic pass system imposed by the Israeli army on the territories’ Palestinian population has permanently separated the Palestinians of the West Bank from those of Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Israel. It has also carved up the West Bank into three distinct sections and ten internal enclaves within those sections. Almost half of the West Bank is off-limits to most of its Palestinian residents; to move from one part of the remaining territory to another, Palestinians must apply for a permit from the Israelis. For Jewish settlers the roads connect, for Palestinians, they separate.[11]

I could go on, Ya’akov. I could go on and on. But I am tired. I am not sure this letter will even reach you. Perhaps the censors will get it first. Or maybe your address has changed? I am not sure why I am writing to you. I don’t hold you responsible for what’s happening to us in Gaza. But I don’t have any other Israeli friends.

Many of us in Gaza feel abandoned, like we don’t matter. Fuck the IDF, fuck Hamas, fuck Fatah, and fuck those army thugs in Egypt. We just want to be able to live like human beings. Normal lives, Ya’akov. A life where we can think of inhabiting the uninhabitable–I mean, a life with a future! A life where I can see my children live like children, play football, read books, tell stories, not be constantly terrified; where they can grow up and aspire, like children in other places do. I know the IDF wants to beat us into submission. We won’t be beaten, but we are dying. Slowly.

Your friend,


*         *         *


Information in this letter, and in few instances entire segments of text, were utilized without attribution as part of an imaginative excursus for the teach-in on Gaza on 29 September 2014 on the University of Minnesota campus. (See ‘Further Reading and Information’ below for sources; the writings of Lori Allen, Amira Hass, Laleh Khalili, and Saree Makdisi were particularly instructive.) While the information is deadly real, the style of presentation is realist fiction: a characterization that aptly describes the nominal “author”, Vinay Gidwani. Thanks to Omar, Joe, and Sri for direction.

[1] Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories



[2] The “science” of barely keeping alive

In 2006, Israeli strategist Dov Weissglass, a key adviser to Ariel Sharon, was frank about Israel’s policy toward Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants:

“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

He was not speaking metaphorically: it later emerged that the Israeli defence ministry had conducted detailed research on how to translate his vision into reality, and arrived at a figure of 2,279 calories per person per day–some eight per cent less than a previous calculation because the research team had originally neglected to account for “culture and experience” in determining nutritional “red lines”.

Source: Mouin Rabbani, “Israel mows the lawn”, London Review of Books, 31 July 2014 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

[3] War as spectacle

“Israelis gathered on a hilltop outside the town of Sderot … to watch the bombardment of Gaza.”

Source: Robert Mackey, “Israelis watch bombs drop on Gaza from front-row seats”, The New York Times, 14 July 2014 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

[4] Israel’s wars in Gaza, post-2005 (when Israel “disengaged” from Gaza)

28 December 2008-18 January 2009, also known as “Operation Cast Lead”: the conflict resulted in between 1,166 and 1,455 Palestinian deaths (among them over 300 children) and 13 Israeli deaths (4 from friendly fire). 85% of those killed were non- combatants.

Sources: United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Locked in: The humanitarian impact of two years of blockade on the Gaza Strip”, August 2009 (last accessed 6 October 2014); Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, “IDF operations in Gaza continue; more civilians killed and civilian premises destroyed”, January 2009 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

14-21 November 2012, also known as “Operation Pillar of Defense”: the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 158 Palestinians were killed (including 33 children) and 1,269 injured; 298 houses were destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza.

Source: UNOCHA, “Escalation in hostilities–Gaza and southern Israel”, 26 November 2012 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

8 July-26 August 2014, also known as “Operation Protective Edge”: the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 2,131 Gazans were killed (including 501 children); around 70% of casualties were civilian. 66 Israeli military personnel, four civilians and a “security coordinator” were killed; a Thai civilian also died.

Source: UNOCHA, “Gaza emergency”, 4 September 2014 (last accessed 6 October 2014).

[5] Sources: Amira Hass, “Pots of urine, faeces on the walls–how IDF troops vandalized Gaza homes”, Haaretz, 5 March 2009 (last accessed 6 October 2014); Rory McCarthy, “Amid dust and death, a family’s story speaks for the terror of war”, The Guardian, 19 January 2009 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

[6] Source: Paul Vale, “Times of Israel runs online piece on Gaza entitled ‘When Genocide is Permissible’ then removes it”, The Huffington Post, 1 August 2014 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

[7] Source: Davide Mastracci, “Five Israeli quotes on the Gaza conflict you’ll wish were false”, The Huffington Post, 20 November 2012 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

[8] Source: Lori Allen, “A city-sized prison-house”, Stanford University Press blog, 28 July 2014 (last accessed 6 October 2014)

[9] Gaza, an open-air prison

In 2010, the Israeli Defense Force website had this description of the branch of the IDF that controls infrastructure projects and the supply of public utilities for the West Bank and Gaza:

“This branch organizes the operations of civil administration bodies in the region of Judea and Samaria [West Bank] and the Gaza penitentiary in all issues pertaining to water, plumbing, electricity, communication, international funding projects, and communication for the settlements in Judea and Samaria.” (emphasis added)

Source: Omar Jabary Salamanca, “Unplug and play: Manufacturing collapse in Gaza”, Human Geography, 4(1):22-37, 2011. p.27

[10] Source: Source: Omar Jabary Salamanca, “Unplug and play: Manufacturing collapse in Gaza”, Human Geography, 4(1):22-37, 2011. p.26

[11] Source: Saree Makdisi, Palestine Inside Out, New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. p.6

Further Reading and Information (compiled by Courtney Gildersleeve)

Rights Advocacy Groups

Active Stills: – Photographic blog that centers on life under Occupation

Adalah: – The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; has legal databases, reports on national court cases and more

Badil: – Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights – focuses on refugee statistics, needs, history, as well as residency legal strictures for Palestinians in Israel and in East Jerusalem

BDS Movement: – main website for the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement

B’Tselem: – Israeli human rights organization with lots of information on the effects of the Occupation on everyday Palestinian life; many maps, presentations, and reports

Mossawa Center: – the Advocacy Center for Palestinian Rights in Israel; looks at political, legal, cultural and social rights within Israel; annual reports on progress

Zochrot: – Israeli organization that focuses on educating Jewish-Israeli society on the history of the Nakba


+972: – non-Zionist/Left Zionist news and opinion from within Israel mostly; critical collection of authors, journalists, and bloggers

Electronic Intifada: – good coverage of Israel/Palestine occupation, edited by Ali Abunimah, author and journalist

Haaretz: – liberal Zionist daily English newspaper in Israel (the NYT of Israel); good coverage, though most blocked behind pay walls

Ma’an News Agency: – Palestinian news agency, with international support

Mondoweiss: – open streaming blog by international bloggers often linking to other news stories

Stanford University Press Blog–“Views on Gaza: A Blog Series”:

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA)–Gaza Crisis Atlas:


“Gaza: Left in the Dark” from Al Jazeera – a documentary about life without electricity:

“Gaza Strip” by James Longley:

“The Gaza Tunnels” from Al Jazeera – about surviving the tunnels beneath Gaza:

“To Shoot an Elephant” – a gruesome account of Operation Cast Lead:


Barghouti O (2011) Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Chicago: Haymarket

Butler J (2012) Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism. New York: Columbia University Press

Hass A (1996) Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege (trans M Nunn). New York: Henry Holt

Li D (2006) The Gaza Strip as laboratory: Notes in the wake of disengagement. Journal of Palestine Studies 35(2):38-55

Makdisi S (2008) Palestine Inside Out. New York: W.W. Norton

Pappé I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld

Said E W (1992 [1979]) The Question of Palestine. New York: Vintage

Said E W (1995) The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. New York: Vintage

Said E W and Hitchens C (eds) (2001) Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question. London: Verso

Salamanca O J (2011) Unplug and play: Manufacturing collapse in Gaza. Human Geography 4(1):22-37

Tilley V (ed) (2012) Beyond Occupation: Apartheid, Colonialism, and International Law in the Occupied Territories. London: Pluto

Usher G (1999) Dispatches from Palestine: The Rise and Fall of the Oslo Peace Process. London: Pluto