An Israeli airstrike on Gaza nearly killed me. But I recognize both sides' trauma

An Israeli airstrike on Gaza nearly killed me. But I recognize both sides' trauma
2017-05-03
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By: Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib

As Israelis celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, marking the state's 69th anniversary, Palestinians will be commemorating al-Nakba, the 'catastrophe' of their displacement from historic Palestine. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 occupation of more territories, or to many in Israel, the reunification of Judea and Samaria with the rest of the Jewish State.

While it may be difficult to imagine both peoples moving beyond the violence, resentment, mistrust, and insistence on the legitimacy of one side's narrative, it is possible that the ground work for such a change can begin now. Initial steps require a deep understanding of each other's generational traumas that condition our thoughts and perceptions. In recent years, I've had many opportunities to connect with Jews and Israelis to understand their suffering and past traumas, both historic and contemporary, and how that has shaped their experiences and commitment to Israel. That exposure is layered on top of my own Palestinian family's story.

My grandparents were expelled from the town of Zarnouga in the suburbs of Ramla. My parents grew up in appalling refugee camps in the Gaza Strip; their families endured house demolitions, arbitrary arrests, and near-catastrophic humanitarian conditions. Sadly, young Palestinian generations are not spared further trauma due to the ongoing conflict which continues to decimate any hope of lasting and peaceful coexistence. A personal story illustrates this.

On December 4th, 2001, I was walking home from school in the Sheik Radwan district of Gaza City along with several friends. They were walking too slow for me, and I decided to walk faster ahead. Less than ten minutes after saying goodbye, the nearby Palestinian Preventive Security Force building was struck by an Israeli Air Force F-16 bomber. My friend Mohammed Abu Marsa was killed, and two others, who happened to be right next to the building when it was hit, were injured.

After the first strike, I had a terrifying intuition that something bad had just happened to them. Instead of running away from the area, I headed back towards the inferno of smoke, dust, shattered concrete blocks, and the chaos of wounded people, dazed by what had just happened. That decision would have life-long implications for me.

On arriving to the area where I believed my friends would be, another bomb struck the same target as I was frantically looking for Mohammed, Rajab, and Ali. Once the concussive blast wave commenced, my body was severely shaken; I almost stopped breathing.

I remember running as fast as I could away from the site, even jumping over a passed-out bystander, utterly helpless and unable to do anything for him. That blast caused me post-traumatic stress disorder and asymmetric hearing loss in my left ear, a condition that causes bothersome and, at times unbearable, tinnitus or "ringing" in the ear to this day.

A week before this tragic event happened, a group of classmates and I were locked in a heated debate, in which I argued that all Israeli civilians should be spared violence no matter what their military or government does. My peers believed otherwise, given that Palestinian civilians were being harmed even if they committed no violent acts. After the attack described above, my core belief that peace, forgiveness, and compassion ultimately outweigh vengeance, reprisal, and indiscriminate violence was shaken, but not destroyed. I knew that under no circumstance would I ever want to take part in violent acts against anyone.

In 2005, I received a U.S. State-Department-sponsored cultural exchange scholarship to live and study in California for a year. Leaving Gaza and travelling to the U.S. transformed my outlook on life and cemented my commitment to tolerance and coexistence, especially after experiencing unparalleled generosity, love and kindness from Jews and Israelis in the San Francisco Bay Area.

After completing the program, I attempted to return to Gaza in 2006 but was unable to due to violence and political instability, which would claim the life of a cousin who was killed in the clashes between Fatah and Hamas. With worsening conditions and concrete threats in Gaza, I applied for, and received, political asylum status in the U.S., opening the door for me to establish a new life with limitless potential.    

I appreciate the comforts of living in the U.S., yet I have not forgotten where I come from. I got out and was fortunate to pursue my intellectual and social development thanks to my exposure to the world outside of Gaza. But hundreds of thousands of Palestinian young people live without any such privilege or any options for a better life.

Several years ago, I began researching the field of humanitarian aviation and its potential role in alleviating a major component of misery in Gaza: people's inability to travel freely in and out. My efforts to restore aviation as a service in the coastal enclave have drawn much positive encouragement from many Palestinians who live in Gaza. They are held hostage by circumstances over which they have no control.

My pragmatism helps me understand that Israel has legitimate security needs which necessitate restrictions on Gaza. Yet humanitarian deterioration, radicalization, isolation and suffering in the Strip are major strategic threats to Israel and must be addressed, as Gaza could become "uninhabitable" by 2020 according to a warning by the UN.   

Nothing will change for the entire conflict without addressing the situation in Gaza. A humanitarian airport in the coastal enclave would create hope for mobility, stability, and peace for current and future generations and can be implemented while addressing Israeli security requirements. In remembrance of Mohammed and the thousands of Palestinians and Israelis who lost their lives, I am committed to this desperately-needed action of bringing aviation services to Gaza.

It is entirely possible that in the not-so-distant future, Israelis and Palestinians can plot a different path forward, characterized by mutual understanding and respect. Getting there will be extremely difficult, with the perpetual occupation in the West Bank and severe restrictions on civilians in Gaza. Both sides must encourage, not penalize, various initiatives which promote grassroots interaction between the two peoples. This will be vital in shifting the zero-sum paradigm which dominates the conflict and will give both peoples an opportunity to articulate their narratives - both of which are valid.

But the legitimate trauma of both sides must be part of a longer narrative of change, and not its conclusion.

Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib is a U.S. citizen from the Gaza Strip and based in San Francisco, California. He is the founder of Project Unified Assistance.

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