Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Gaza 1987 - The Flag

Dangling from the power lines, with a stone attached to it by a string, it fluttered in the hot dirty wind which came in from the sea. At that height, and in the gathering Gazan dusk, it was almost impossible to make out the red, green, and black of the Palestinian flag. The three jeeps screeched to a halt, and several soldiers jumped out. Gavriel remained seated next to the radio.
“Come here" said Dror, motioning to three youths who lounged against a crumbling wall.
The youths came over, smiling and apparently unafraid.
"Give me your ID”, said Shalom.
One of the teenagers, who wore brown polyester bellbottoms and a striped shirt, handed over his identity document. The others followed suite. Only the fourth, with a light moustache shadowing his upper lip, jeans several sizes too large and whose feet, in plastic Adidas sandals, had thick callused heels, hung back. He was holding a dustbin lid.
"Put that down" snapped Erez, the Mem mem . Then he gave them their assignment.
"We don't speek Hebrew", said the moustache, "don't understand."
Erez ignored him.
"The sooner you finish, the sooner you get your IDs back and go home."
"Its impossible", said the youth in the polyester pants, his Hebrew thickly accented.
“There's no such thing as impossible”, said Erez, as if he were lecturing a group of new recruits. "Yallah, ibshi."
The youths began a lively and animated discussion. Then they split up, and reappeared ten minutes later with a stone and a rope tied around it.
"Fat lot of good that will do" said Moti
"Rosh Aravi" said Shalom, whose own head, like others in the unit, was shaved bald.
The Arabs began throwing the stone at the cables, but each time it fell short, and returned to earth followed by the long snake attached to it. It wasn't clear what they planned to do if they did get the rope over.
The soldiers stood nonchalantly, leaning against the jeeps, and watched the youths. Shimon kept an eye on the rooftops and Nelson watched the surrounding alleys, just in case an unpleasant surprise would emerge from one of them. Not for nothing had they called this road "Rechov HaHaftaot - Surprise Street." It was always something different. One day a roadblock of burning tires and scrap metal. The next a hail of stones from behind the UN school. And once a Molotov cocktail which bounced of the jeep and burst harmlessly into flames.
The youths appeared to be enjoying themselves. They smiled and laughed and took turns to throw the stone. It was now so dark you couldn't see its flight at all. Only moustache didn't participate in the general frivolity. He stood with his arms folded across his chest, his lips closed and downturned, his eyes on the ground where he kicked at an empty can.
Motti beckoned to him.
What's your name ?"
"Well Osman" said Motti, speaking very softly and gently, "didn't they teach you at school to help your friends ?"
Motti put a brotherly arm around moustache's shoulders, and led him a few paces aside. Then he suddenly slapped the youth across the cheek, twice, hard enough that Shalom, who was digging around in the back of a jeep twenty meters away, heard, looked up and smiled. Moustache rejoined his friends, aided by the kick Motti delivered to his sparse buttocks.
By now the Arabs had grown tired of the stone and were deep in discussion again. They fell quite as bellbottoms, with gesticulations and a thick guttural flow of words, expounded on something. This speech was responded to with more passionate debate.
"I'm getting sick of this" said Shalom. Thirty five minutes had already passed.
One of the jeeps, with much revving and screeching of tires, shot off down the alley. It stopped after two blocks, next to a heavy Mercedes Benz truck, of the sort seen all over Gaza. On its orange bonnet a large eagle had been painted, wings outstretched and talons extended. The truck was parked next to a tiny shop from which the delicious smell of shishlik on the fire emanated, temporarily overpowering the rancid smells from the open drain and garbage in the street. A group of men sat in the shop, smoking and playing shesh besh.
"Whose truck is it" , asked Shalom
"Menfadlik", said one of the men, "Pleez, you speek Arrab?”
"I want the truck owner" said Shalom in a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.
"Lo mevin" said another of the seated men.
"Does no one here speak Hebrew ?"
Shalom pointed at the truck, put his hands around an imaginary steering wheel and played with an imaginary gear lever.
Silence. Blank uncomprehending gazes
Dror intervened.
"Tell me who owns the truck or we'll smash the lights. After that we'll start on the mirrors and windscreen."
Silence. One of the men, wearing an old Israeli army parka, perhaps in his late twenties, looked up and his brown eyes momentarily flashed hatred and resentment before they turned down again.
"Beseder" (all right), said Dror, and went outside. Then there was a crack as he broke the rear brake light with his fibreglass truncheon.
"Stop", said the man in the parka, in fluent Hebrew, "what do you want with my truck ?"
"Just to help some friends of yours. Don't worry, you'll be back eating your supper" - Dror looked at his watch which read 6:30 - "in half an hour."
The truck driver reluctantly stood up, went outside, and after various explanations and negotiations, climbed up into the cab of the Mercedes, which started with a low rumble. He followed the jeep back to the cross roads, and parked it there. He wasn't happy and smiling like the youths. It was the middle of supper, he had a family, and he would be rising early the next morning, at 3:30AM, when the Muezzin called the faithful.
He shouted at the youths and from this flood of Arabic a new idea emerged. The youths tied several wooden planks together with bits of rope, steel wire, anything. On the end of this leaning wooden tower went an oily peace of cloth the truck driver produced from the cabin. They poured petrol (supplied from a jerrycan on one of the jeeps) onto the cloth and set it alight.
"Jewish-Moslim co-operation in Gaza" thought Gavriel, watching from the side.
Bellbottom climbed up onto the roof of the cabin, and another youth handed him the wooden contraption. Bellbottoms made several awkward swipes with the three meter long rod, but it still fell half a meter short. After a few more ineffectual passes the cloth had burnt away and the flag of Palestine still flew proudly, if invisibly, in the Gazan night.
"They should have checked out the height first" said Shalom, "what can you do? Arabs.”
"Debilim," said Dror. Retards.
"They're drawing it out deliberately", said Gavriel softly, "why shouldn't they ?"
Another youth climbed on the cabin, this time with an even longer construction, and another burning cloth, and this would have reached the flag had the top pole not fallen off - it seems they hadn't tied it very solidly - directly on top of the youth who yelled and scrambled of the cabin to avoid the flaming cloth.
"That's it", said Erez. "Get the rest of their identity documents."
The soldiers gathered the identity documents of those who had not yet surrendered them.
"Take your time", he addressed the Arabs, "we're in no hurry. But you get these back only when the flag is down, or burnt, or whatever."
Erez knew they would finish the job. Without an ID a Palestinian couldn't get into Israel, where most of them worked. In addition, if they couldn't produce it for a passing patrol they might be taken for interrogation.
"Right, we're out of here" said Erez, climbing into the jeep next to his driver.
The jeeps roared off, down Surprise Street, and into Salach aDin Street. Gavriel sat at the back of the last jeep, in the cramped space between the radio, an extra spare wheel, a 20 litre jerrycan, the remains of lunch picked up from one of the rooftop lookouts who did 8 hour shifts, and the box full of rubber grenades, tear gas cylinders and 'tamponim' as the soldiers called the non lethal slugs fired from a tube which screwed onto the end of their rifles. He sat there, the only one with his perspex visor down, holding onto the roll bar so as not to fly off at the bumps.
They continued down the tortuous allies ripe with rotting smells, past the big central 'square' where the mosque stood. Fallen lampposts lay next to piles of uncollected garbage. Brazen rats scuttled from pile to pile. They went on, towards the sea road, and drove past the little fishing boats.
"Slow down here" said Erez when they got near the blue painted wall of the other UN school. The jeeps crawled slowly forward, about fifteen metres between them. But it was unlikely there would be stones at night.
"Let's head for the Garage", suggested Motti.
At night the jeeps would usually do a patrol or two, and then park in a local garage to wait out their shift in comfort and safety. Someone would turn on a transistor radio, someone else would open a packet of sunflower seeds. They would sit there, spitting out the shells, talking, smoking, waiting for the night to pass. Gavriel, who was from Chile, would listen to Sting singing "Ellas Danzan Solas, They dance alone." He, who at high school had participated in demonstrations against Pinochet, and been chased and tear gassed by police, now found himself in an Israeli army uniform in Shati, the worst refugee camp in Gaza, firing tear gas at the chanting mobs, and chasing after stone throwers. As he listened to Sting his heart would ache with an unameable yearning, wanting to impress upon some all-knowing consciousness the irony of ending up here. Often, on these night stops, one of the soldiers would hook up a ghetto blaster to a battery from the two way radio's, and play loud music over it. One song was especially popular, from a rock opera called Mami then playing in Tel Aviv. In the opera underpaid Palestinian waiters who work – and try to rape - the heroine Mami sing:

"You took our land in the name of democracy
called us Nazi's and cockroaches in the name of demagoguery

the soldiers would all join in and sing the chorus lustily

Mami, Yah Mami tiftechi et haraglayim
LaShiva Medukaim, Shiva Palistinayim

Mami, mami, open your legs
two seven oppressed, seven Palestinians

It seemed strange to Gavriel that the soldiers sang without seeming to make any connection between the words and their situation. As the music boomed out over the quiet streets, Gavriel wondered if any of the locals were listening, and if they were, what did they make of it ?
But tonight they never reached the garage. The jeeps screeched to a halt because someone had spotted a Caterpillar earth-mover parked at the side of the road. And an earth mover, as is well known, has many uses. Again banging on doors, questions, and then the owner - a mature man, with gray hair and a gray mustache, dressed in a white jalabiah. He didn't want to come of course, but the soldiers brought him anyway. In a little convoy, two jeeps and then the caterpillar and the last jeep, they returned to the intersection. The Caterpillar driver got out of the cab and joined the others.
Introductions. Ahalan we sahalan. Gif Halak ? Il Chamdulilah. ( Hello. How are you ? Allah be praised.) The two elder men looked weary and pained, but the youths still maintained an air of revelry. What else did they have to do on a dusty Gazan evening in this forsaken place where everyone went to sleep an hour after nightfall ? So the Israel Defence Force had come along and arranged the evening's programme for them: flag lowering, flag burning, solving puzzles, team-building exercises, socialising with previously unknown neighbours. All free of charge, courtesy of the IDF.
One of the youths climbed into the large flat shovel of the caterpillar. The man in the jalabiyah raised him up slowly. The make-shift pole now reached the flag but the wind took the flame away. A delegation was sent to locate more petrol. (The army, that is, Erez, had decided it was no longer supplying it.) They disappeared for more than half an hour.
While they were away the truck owner argued, pleaded, with Erez.
"It is impossible, please, Adoni, you said only half an hour."
The man pointed elaborately at his watch, which now indicated 10 o clock, turned and addressed anyone who would listen to him. He demonstrated, with many hand movements, why it was an impossible task. He gave scientific proofs, the wind, the foolishness of the youths; he cajoled, was supplicatory and ingratiating; Adoni will certainly understand that a married man should not be involved in these pranks, he has four children, Allah be praised, he is a good man, he works very hard, he is certainly not looking for any trouble, could he please go home now, Adoni ?
The Caterpillar owner was different, silent and stern, saving his precious energy for more productive things. His thoughts remained hidden behind his grey moustache. He climbed into the cabin and puts his head on his arm, which rested on the steering wheel, like an observant Jew at mincha saying tachanun.
The truck driver was still talking when the youths returned with a two litre Pepsi bottle filled with pinkish petrol. This time, with a new rag and new petrol, the flag caught alight and burnt merrily. Gavriel wanted to shout hooray until he remembered who he was and who they were and what was burning. Seemingly satisfied the youths waited for the return of their identity documents. The Caterpillar driver went off immediately, without a word, the lorry driver soon after him. The youths still lingered, waiting to see what might happen next. But nothing did. The jeeps drove off, and the eyes that had been watching from behind the slatted windows of the surrounding shacks and houses turned away, perhaps to other occupations.

I Suttner -1990?

Mem mem - lieuftenant
tachanun - prayer asking for mercy said with forehead resting on arm

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