Attempts to invite participants from the Gaza Strip to the seminars have regularly failed in the history of the project: People were not given a travel permit or were too afraid of repression. In 2019, for the first time in the history of the project, someone from Gaza was able to participate in the women’s seminar. Marja Q.* spoke with us about her motivation, the seminar process and everyday life in the Gaza Strip.
K.O .: What is your motivation for participating in the seminar?
Marja Q .: I wanted to come first of all because the seminar gives me the opportunity to speak to Israeli women. There are not many occasions on which we can meet each other without fear – without fear of what we as Palestinians and Israelis are taught about each other. I also have this message of peace: I want to show that not all residents of Gaza support violence and that most of them are normal people who simply want to live a normal life with guaranteed fundamental rights – such as the right to freedom of movement and the right to education or access to medical care. All you hear in the media about Gaza is that so many are killed by war, by clashes between Hamas and Fatah or Hamas and Israelis. And people don’t know the story behind these people. Some are just innocent civilians and are still killed because they are said to be terrorists.
K.O .: And what were your expectations for the seminar?
MQ: I said today in the bi-national session that my expectation was that the Israelis would be narrow-minded, that they would not want to hear what I have to say about people from Gaza or Palestinians in general and that they would play “Hamas card” and insist that they have to protect themselves against us because we want to kill them. But I got to know them as great women*, they were curious to learn more about the situation. They showed a lot of sympathy for the fact that we have no shelters when rockets hit over our heads. They were in solidarity with our situation. I was relieved to be able to get my message across – and relieved that they accepted it. Fortunately, they did not meet my expectations. And hopefully they will pass on what I told them.
K.O .: There was a special area for Gaza at the exhibition on the Palestinian historical narrative at the seminar. You had to go through an extra “checkpoint” to get inside. What did you show there and why?
M.Q .: At the beginning of the exhibition I was told, „This is your area, use it to get your message across with the simplest possible means“. I wanted to build the checkpoint because I have to get three permits if I want to leave the Gaza Strip. The first from Hamas: They won’t let me out if they think my trip is suspicious, if they think I’m going to Israel or meeting and collaborating with Israelis. The second approval is from the Israelis because they are very concerned about their security, in an extreme and bad way. They treat me like a terrorist and prevent me from entering unless they have completely checked me, for example they check that I have no relatives who work with Hamas or the Resistance, or that I am not involved in any activities that support the resistance. Even if I only had one relative who died in the war, whether he was with Hamas or not, I would not get permission. Because they’re afraid of us, because their government presents us to them as monsters. The third approval is from the Jordanians: we have no airports or ports, we have to use the airport in Jordan. As a Palestinian from Gaza, I am not allowed to use Ben Gurion Airport [in Tel-Aviv]. So there are many checkpoints, sometimes they stop the car, check our papers, or keep us waiting for hours. That depends on the mood of the soldiers who are on duty. I was lucky that I had no problems on the way here.
K.O .: I heard this tape recording in the exhibition room, a whirring sound, what was that?
M.Q .: Drones. Israelis use them to collect information about the movements of Gaza’s residents and to control us. Every day, 24 hours. No specific occasions, no mercy: even during our celebrations and public holidays. They claim that it is for their safety. The sound is always there. It’s barely audible during the day, but it’s very loud at night and annoying. And then also the ambulance sirens are constantly in the background. We suffer from a lack of medical care; sometimes people die because they don’t get the treatment they need.
There was a video with sound on the other side of the showroom. It was an Israeli soldier during the 2014 war. He calls a house and tells the residents to vacate the building within 10 minutes because they will attack it. One question: How many important things can you pack and take with you in ten minutes? The effect of the video was very touching: I saw some Israeli women* crying and they said how sorry they are and that they will do their best so that it never happens again.
K.O .: Do soldiers have to warn before bombing a building?
M.Q .: Yes, they have to do that by law. But they mostly speak Hebrew. If you’re lucky and speak Hebrew, you can understand it and get out in ten minutes. Sometimes they speak English. But it’s Hebrew English, hard to understand; this is also why there are sometimes additional victims. I have given two examples, in Gaza City and Khan Younis; the buildings were destroyed when the owners were still inside.
K.O .: Another thing I noticed was a bucket of very dirty water – what was that about?
M.Q .: (…) The groundwater [in Gaza] is pumped out (…). The groundwater level has dropped sharply. It is below sea level and below wastewater level – and everything has mixed up. The tap water is very dirty. There are filters and chlorine to avoid infection. But we can only use it for wiping or washing clothes.
K.O .: What were the reactions to this part of the exhibition?
M.Q .: Everyone was shocked that this is a real situation. They couldn’t imagine that. They hear and read about it, but they couldn’t feel and experience it. The dark also had a special effect. I sometimes turned off the light. So they were able to experience what it feels like to only have electricity for three to six hours a day. I also put up statistics about the population of Gaza, the poverty rate, unemployment and these things. And on the other hand, numbers about the dead in the Gaza wars and numbers about the bombardments by Israel in Gaza and by Hamas in Israel.
K.O .: What was it like to be the only participant from the Gaza Strip?
M.Q .: It was really hard. Especially when we Palestinians prepared our historical narrative. Everyone else in the group knew about the situation in the West Bank, but they knew nothing about Gaza. So at first, nobody wanted to work with me and I was alone. It was very difficult for me, I felt this loneliness – I was alone, as always. I am alone when I go to the airport and when I am subjected to the bad treatment by the Jordanians, I am alone when I use the Rafah border crossing and the Egyptians treat me like trash, and now I was alone among my own people because they don’t know the situation and don’t want to participate. Then Kira* and Lea* volunteered and joined me I felt very supported.
K.O .: So the exhibition was not just for the Israelis, but also for the other Palestinians?
M.Q .: Of course. Because they are not allowed to go to Gaza and the residents of Gaza are not allowed out. I’m lucky because I work in an international organization, but it took me three years to get the permanent travel permit. Last year only maybe ten people got permission from all the NGOs. For the others, the applications were rejected for „security reasons“.
K.O.: It is very moving that you are here. I admire your courage, because I know that participating in the seminar is a great risk for you.
M.Q .: Not just for me. If it were just me, it wouldn’t be that important. It’s my family too. You gave me the opportunity to open my mind and heart to people I was afraid of. And now I don’t just see them as friends, but they are family to me. (…) It is a privilege to be here.
K.O .: How do you manage to be so open and positive not face the Others with anger, for example, considering what you experience every day?
M.Q .: I experienced racism and hate from an early age on. I was born in Saudi-Arabia and at school they treated me like a slave. They insulted us as “foreigners”. Then they expelled all Palestinians because Saddam Hussein was attacking Kuwait and Arafat stood by him because he wanted Hussein to attack Israel. We went to Jordan, but because we had Gaza papers we weren’t allowed to go to their schools.
All this suffering has shown me that hatred creates more hatred. Revenge will lead to more death and grief. And if I want to live in a good environment, I shouldn’t fight the peace process, I should fight those who make people suffer. I don’t want anyone to have to experience what I’ve experienced. We have so much space on earth, we don’t have to make anyone suffer. I experienced a lot, the first Intifada, the Oslo accords, the peace process, the second Intifada and the evacuation of the settlements in the Gaza Strip. And even after three Gaza wars, my belief in building peace grows every day. Killing will bring more killing. But love and passion will bring more love, more peace, will make us understand each other and allow us to recognize the identity of the other (…) I wish I could do more.