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500 Meters from Gaza

Written by Sarah Castellanos, 2015 Middle East: Behind the Headlines

Our bus got stuck in the sand…THREE TIMES!! Dusty, dirty, tired OGers dug out piles of sand behind our tires and pushed until our bus was freed. When we finally arrived at a campsite we were happy with, it’s not surprising to say we were all exhausted. Alon, the tour guide, recreated a version of Poika (even better than the last!), over a warming fire in the midst of a chilling desert night. We shared wine and Arak (a local alcoholic delicacy) and went to bed on beautiful silky sand.

That afternoon we drove to the border with Gaza and met with Ronnie, a British woman living in Israel with her Egyptian husband. She told us about their experience as a family living in her city, being moved from one area to another, her close friends in Egypt and in Gaza, and her position on the conflict. My personal reflection on our time there was that this was juxtaposition at its finest. The birds chirping in Ronnie’s gardens as she told us about the governments limits on water and electricity across the border. The fields of sunflowers and the wall that separated both territories. The barbed wire and the incredibly green landscape. The handsome soldiers flirting, with rifles slung across their broad shoulders. The mural painted on the wall and surveillance balloons eerily floating in the brilliantly blue sky.

Looking out at Gaza

I think it was particularly hard to go from an incredible evening and morning of sand dunes and desert fun to a green land tormented by flowers and bunkers and birds and division. Everything seemed to contrast itself, and once we had finished our time with Ronnie on the border, we sat in a circle and discussed. It seemed surreal. We had just been 500 meters away from Gaza. This is a place we’ve heard about in the media back at home on numerous occasions. Missiles that fly across that line we had just been next to are heard and talked about overseas. But now, we were literally standing behind the headlines, facing the reality of a peoples who yearned for peace but demanded their own land. Needless to say, it was difficult to stomach what we had just seen and heard and felt. The bus ride home (just an hour away to Jerusalem) was silent and thoughtful and far too short.

Peace dove

After an unforgettable desert trip, the whole group went back to the Bedouin camp for volunteering the next day. We’ve begun to notice the cultural differences between ourselves, within ourselves, and between the people were helping. Iptisam, the Muslim woman in charge of the Bedouin summer camp, sat down with our group with Yekiel, the rabbi working with us from Rabbis from Human Rights and gave us a list of the things needed to be done at the camp. I think this was comforting for everyone involved.

We’ve been talking about voluntourism and how sometimes it turns out that we as volunteers end up being changed more than the change we try to cause. This in and of itself can be conflicting but at the same time drives us as individuals to yearn for more change. In fact, this is how OG came to be. Sitting with Iptisam and asking for exactly what she needed might have been uncomfortable but was necessary in order for all of us to make sure we were doing something that actually helped her. So now some of us will be working with the kids (English classes will begin!), while some of us will be fixing up the dirty yard and ridding it of broken glass, rusty nails, and other items the kids tend to use as toys and even weapons. Iptisam needs a fence to prevent looters from taking school materials and the playground needs some definite reinforcement to prevent the kids from getting hurt. It feels good to be useful and to see Iptisam getting what she so desperately needs to make her school a staple in the community.

Israeli West Bank barrier

The night after volunteering with the Bedouin children, a few of us went out to check out the famous Festival of Light in the Old City. Danny Seidman’s words kept ringing in my head as we saw the “disney-fication” of the city come true right before our eyes. In the midst of a conflict that we are living and breathing, we walked from Jewish Quarters to Armenian Quarters (rarely open to tourists) to Muslim Quarters, observing the differences in art projections all across the old bricks within the walls. It was beautiful and creative and it changed from quarter to quarter and artist to artist. The halls were packed with people speaking all different languages and shop vendors advantageously selling to tourists; street food carts and musicians profited alike.

Later that night, our group split as some of us, exhausted and too tired to go on, went home. The rest of us met with Miriam’s eclectic local friends: Ilia, who apparently memorizes this blog; quiet and wise Sabir; and Tal, the wannabe magician and show-runner for the rest of the night. Tired from days of nonstop traveling, strange sleeping situations, and overly energetic Bedouin children, it was a miracle we stayed up and out as long as we did, but also necessary. I have personally found that one of the best ways to understand a country’s culture is through its very own locals. The jokes, the drinks, the places we went to were just another exciting way to fall in love with the enriching variety Israel has to offer.

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