Electronic Quill

A Father's Letter (A Gift from Palestine)

George Gessert

(Giraffe's note: the following letter was received after Quill for May had already been programmed with Kate Rogers Gessert's article "Undercovered" on the human dimensions of the war in Afghanistan. Its impassioned message compelled us to include both pieces this month. George Gessert is a biologist, artist, and an Editorial Board Member of "Leonardo" Magazine published by M.I.T. "Undercovered" can be uncovered by clicking on the link at the end of his letter).


By chance, my son and his new wife went to Palestine just before everything blew up on the West Bank. For the last two weeks, they have been staying in a refugee camp in Bethlehem. That was not what Joe and Liv had planned to do when they left for Palestine at the end of March. Israel had not yet begun its invasion of the West Bank, and in spite of suicide bombings, travel was still relatively safe. Joe and Liv, who are both 26, were part of a delegation that planned to observe conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and to help Palestinians tend orchards, repair damaged houses, and get through Israeli checkpoints. Checkpoints impede the flow of weapons, but also interfere with ordinary activities and cause delays that can last anywhere from minutes to days. Worse, soldiers at checkpoints may subject Palestinians to humiliating strip-searches, teargas them, and severely harass or physically abuse them.

The presence of outside observers tends to speed passage through checkpoints and lessen humiliations and violence. However, Israel has always refused to admit United Nations observers to the West Bank. Because of this, nongovernmental groups have begun to invite volunteer observers from outside the Middle East. The delegation that Joe and Liv are on was organized by the International Solidarity Movement. This group, coordinated by Israelis and Palestinians, is strictly nonviolent.

By coincidence the delegates, who include people from Europe, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Australia and Japan, arrived in Israel just as the invasion of the West Bank began. It was obviously no time to rebuild houses. Some of the delegates chose to stay in hotels. Others made their way to Ramallah, the center of the Palestinian Authority, where their presence may have saved Arafat's life. Still others went to Bethlehem refugee camps. Joe and Liv are with a family in Azza Refugee Camp, about three quarters of a mile from the Church of the Nativity.The camp has 1500 Palestinians, plus 18 "Internationals". We communicate with Joe and Liv by cell phone. Sometimes, when electricity is off, we talk only for a few seconds in order to spare the phone's batteries, but seconds can be enough to assure us that they are all right.

The streets in Azza are dangerous. Tanks rumble by and Israeli snipers occupy the tops of buildings. Even when curfew is lifted, soldiers may shoot. F-16 fighter planes and Apache helicopters pass overhead. People try to stay inside, but emergencies may force them out. Joe helped walk a five-year-old girl with leukemia past snipers to a hospital for a transfusion. He and other Internationals accompany ambulances carrying seriously sick or injured people. Soldiers routinely block and shoot at ambulances but with the help of Internationals some get through. Internationals have been injured. On one March day eight people near Joe were hit by shrapnel or shot. No one was killed, but an Australian woman was so badly injured that she had to be evacuated by helicopter. From time to time I've felt resentful about the worry that Joe and Liv's journey has caused us, but their courage shines out over everything.

I am not a Jew, but I have Jewish in-laws and cousins. Toward the end of his life my father considered converting. Family and much more give me a sense of affinity with the Jewish people and predispose me to sympathize with the State of Israel. And so in the midst of fearing for what Israeli soldiers may do to my son and his wife, I find myself grieving for Israel. The damage done to Israel by the suicide bombings, appalling as it is, is less than the damage that Sharon is doing by brutalizing the Palestinian people. That damage extends far beyond loss of friends for Israel here and abroad. Israel, I still believe, represents more than nationalism and colonialism. Israel represents a promise of wisdom, justice, and moral authority born of a long history of suffering, and of the creative genius of a people devoted to divine and secular law. But that promise is being squandered on terrible cruelties inflicted on Palestinians.

My immediate concern is for my son and daughter-in-law. The American Consulate in Jerusalem announced that it would attempt to provide safe passage to Americans on the West Bank. Liv and Joe, and other American observers, have respectfully refused this offer. As Joe summarized the situation to us: "There are two year olds in this building." To the extent that the presence of International observers in Azza restrains Israeli attacks on civilians there, the safety of those children may depend on Joe and Liv. They did not go to Palestine expecting that they would have to make that kind of choice What they and the others are doing is a great gift.


Clicking here will take you to Kate Rogers Gessert's information-packed article on the day-to-day impact of the war in Afghanistan, "Undercovered"