I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
I’m not a great fan of personal testimonies from internationals who have been in Palestine. Too many of them, I feel, concentrate too heavily on the experiences of foreign visitors and not enough on those of the Palestinian people who don’t have the luxury of choosing to come and go, where to live and when to leave. I appreciate that there are uses to such testimonies – the ability to engage other Westerners on a more personal level, the fact that they demonstrate that those imposing the Israeli occupation are prepared to mistreat, wound and kill anyone, not just Palestinians. But they still make me queasy and suspicious. However, someone I trust and whose opinion I respect persuaded me that it is important that every account of abuses by occupation personnel is put in the public domain and made an item of public record. And the anniversary of my own little story seems an apposite date on which to do that.
Eleven years ago today, on Boxing Day 2001, I was with an International Solidarity Movement group travelling to Gaza. We had the all-important invitations from the Palestinian human rights organisations we would be visiting, and when we reached the international section of the Erez border crossing our passports were stamped as if we would be entering Gaza. The first of our two coachloads had passed through the checkpoint, but the second bus – the one I was on – was stopped. We were given no clear explanation as to why, just fobbed off over perhaps an hour or two with vague promises and assertions.
The main figure in this was Captain Joseph Levy, the head of the international section at Erez checkpoint. We knew exactly who he was because, according to my recollection, a member of our group took a bit of a shine to him (he was quite good-looking, in an elegant and somewhat slight way), and managed to wangle his business card out of him. Levy’s role in preventing Palestinians from accessing the rest of their country and internationals from witnessing the effects of Israeli policies in Gaza have been catalogued over the years in the Village Voice, CNS News, Al Jazeera, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and Electronic Intifada.
After a long, tedious wait, it looked like we were definitely not going to be allowed to cross into Gaza. This was frustrating on a personal level, but more importantly illustrated the way in which the State of Israel prevented access to Gaza by those invited formally and informally by the people living there, even before the official beginning of the current siege. So part of our group – including myself – decided that before we returned to the West Bank it would be appropriate to register our protest against this. We walked slowly, spread out and calm, our hands open and held low, towards the checkpoint area and the gates which controlled vehicular access to Gaza.
As expected, the Israeli border guards and soldiers reacted strongly, running alongside and ahead of us and firing in the air. But Joseph Levy’s reaction was something more bizarre and hysterical. My recollection is that he fired in the air with a small gun or pistol and screamed furiously at us, hurling threats and abuse and shouting that he was going to “shoot our fucking kneecaps off” or words to that effect. When that didn’t have the required impact, he started to run from person to person in our group, singling out women, especially the elderly and those of smaller and slighter build. Some he punched, others he knocked to the ground. Eventually he reached me, and delivered a two-handed shove which sent me – in the words of one friend who was watching – ‘flying’. I landed awkwardly, my lower back and right hip impacting on the slanted base of a concrete roadblock.
I don’t remember whether or not I got back up, or if I stayed on the ground. The rest of my group, having made their point about the illegitimacy of Levy’s control of access to Gaza, decided to sit in the checkpoint road as a peaceful protest. Perhaps I stayed on the ground as part of that. I do recall that Israeli police were called to remove us all, and I had a surreal conversation with a female police officer who wanted me to get up so that she wouldn’t have to try and move me by force and possibly damage her (admittedly impressive) new acrylic fingernails. Somehow, though, I ended up on the bus, where more police worked their way through the group, confiscating all camera films and video footage. There is another account of the incident in Trevor Baumgartner’s contribution to the book Peace Under Fire. Georgina Reeves also described her experiences observing the event here. There was also a brief mention, engineered by some friends, in the Manchester Evening News. I didn’t find out till much later, so I’ve no idea who made up the quotes!
The adrenaline rushing through me meant that to start with I felt little, but by the time our bus reached Bethlehem an hour or two later, I couldn’t put my right foot on the ground. I was taken to a clinic in Beit Sahour to be x-rayed, and then to Al-Hussein Hospital in Beit Jala. From then on, everything disappeared in a haze of pethidine. Who knows where any notes ended up; the only details I remember are something to do with the displacement of my L4 and L5 vertebrae and damage to the nerves running down my right leg.
The next months and years became a tedious saga of walking sticks, crutches, physiotherapy and doctors. Now, eleven years later, I can function pretty normally on a day-to-day basis, but only with a strict regimen of exercises to keep my right hip strong enough to support me. Any substantial amount of walking or a lapse in my exercises means weakness and pain from the muscular and nerve damage. It could have been much, much worse. But, like thousands upon thousands of other abuses perpetrated by occupation forces over the years, it shouldn’t have been able to happen in the first place.