The electricity cuts out at 2pm in Gaza, but Muhammad has charged his phone in advance so he’ll have enough battery for our conversation. I call him on Facebook Video, and when he answers, he’s wearing a white vest and dripping with sweat. “Is it this hot where you are too?” he laughs, and I nod, look over at the fan in my room.
I’ve known Muhammad for a little over a year. He was the first person from Gaza I ever spoke to. He works as a physiotherapist at a government hospital, and has experienced Gaza’s wars through the injuries he’s had to treat. He starts our conversation with a warning: “I’m not worth your while interviewing. I don’t have anything to say about the Israeli elections, because they don’t interest me,” he says. “Firstly, because I’m drowning in day-to-day problems in Gaza. We’re not being paid our doctors’ wages, and the noise from the drones is driving me crazy.” He glances upwards, and imitates the humming of Israeli military drones. “The buzzing won’t leave me alone. It’s there constantly, over my head, in the sky. I hear it in my room, in the office — everywhere.
“The second reason I’m not interested in the elections,” Muhammad continues, smiling bitterly, “is that I don’t think it matters who wins. [Israel’s] policy toward Gaza won’t change. I heard about their other leader, the general who’s competing against Netanyahu from the Blue and White party — what’s his name? ‘Gantz’? Right. Him. I saw him boasting about killing loads of Palestinians in Gaza, and promising that he’d continue this level of force against us. In other words, Netanyahu by a different name.”
Even though he’s not interested in the elections, Muhammad still knows three of the parties: Blue and White, Likud, and the Joint List (for whom he would vote, if he could). He says that Facebook has made it easier for people to follow what’s happening in Israel these days. Most of his knowledge about the elections has come from social media.
“It wasn’t like this 10 years ago. Now, everyone can easily see what Israeli leaders are publishing online,” he says. “I hear people at the hospital chatting about the elections, and particularly with the question of whether there’s a chance of things changing. People are hungry for change, even if it’s minor.”
Yet for Muhammad, the most painful aspect of the elections is how “Israeli leaders use Gaza to drum up votes” during the campaign. “Every leader tries to seem like a bigger hero than the next one, promising to strike us and defeat Hamas,” he says. “Do you know how challenging that is, psychologically, for the people living here? Not just because of the wars, but because of the sense that they’re exploiting us. That they’re exploiting our death.”
After finishing my conversation with Muhammad, I call Maryam. She’s 25 years old. She used to be the spokesperson for an organization in Gaza that dealt with violence against women, and tells me that her work there was particularly intensive during wars with Israel, because “violence against women always increases during times of conflict.”
Maryam managed to get out of the Gaza Strip to go to Cairo last week. “It’s like a miracle. I’m so happy. It’s the first time I’ve been out of Gaza,” she says, as she rotates her webcam to show me a bustling Egyptian street outside. I ask her if she intends to return to Gaza, and she laughs loudly, as if I’d asked a naive, childish question. “What do you think? That a prisoner would want to go back to their cell?”
Unlike Muhammad, Maryam is interested in the outcome of the Israeli elections, and wants to be able to vote in them. “The Israeli government has molded my life — at least until last week,” she explains. “It has a say about how much electricity the computer in my room receives, my ability to visit my homeland, to go abroad, to get an entrance permit for my mom who needs medical care in East Jerusalem, and more. This government has total control over our borders. And if that’s the case, then I deserve a vote. I shouldn’t be left out of the picture.”
I ask Maryam who she’d vote for if she could, but she’s not sure. She doesn’t know the parties well enough. “The best outcome I could imagine is someone who would give us…maybe not give, but ease the restrictions on us a little: the lack of freedom of movement, the ban on imports, etc. It’s a short-term solution. The essential issues, like Palestinian national rights, the right of return, lifting the siege, true freedom of movement — the elections will never solve them,” Maryam concludes.
“It’s hard for me, because my biggest hope is to return to my homeland,” she adds. “My family is from Jaffa. And look…I don’t want to expel anyone. I want us to be together, in one country,” she says, before asking whether there’s a political party that takes this line. I tell her there isn’t, at least not actively. It’s a long way from the political discourse here, I say.
“Maybe I wouldn’t vote, in that case,” she says, “if there’s no possible outcome which would let me return to my homeland.”
Yousef is a journalist from Khan Younis. He’s currently not working; the economy in Gaza has been strangled by the siege, and nearly 70 percent of young people in the Strip are unemployed.
Yousef starts out by asking to use an assumed name, for fear that our interview will lead to a Hamas interrogation. “They don’t want us to talk to Israelis, and I have no desire to get mixed up with them,” he says.
“I’m against what Hamas is doing in Gaza,” he adds. “I think we need a new government every few years, like in the U.S. We shouldn’t have the same regime for 15 years running. We need elections — we haven’t had them since 2005. Most young people want Hamas gone, and the Palestinian Authority even more so. They’re hungry for change. I hope we can replace them with a third option, something new,” Yousef says. “Right now there’s no real political force presenting an alternative. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are sitting on their throne, and refuse to hold elections. It’s a tragedy.”
I ask Yousef what he thinks about the Israeli elections. “The Zionist left and the Zionist right are the same — they’re both racist, because they both believe in the idea of a Jewish state while denying that the Palestinian people belong to this land,” he says. “But I hope that this changes in the future. That we both vote for the same government. I want us to live together in one country, under truly democratic conditions,” Yousef continues. “A civil country, not a religious one, where everyone is free to believe or not believe what they want, and the fact that you’re Jewish and I’m Muslim has nothing to do with political rights.”
Most Israelis would be against that scenario, I tell Yousef. He nods in response. I ask him how his idea would go over in Gaza. “I haven’t polled anyone, but I think I’m in the minority here, too.” We joke about the fact that out of all our friends, there’d be perhaps 10 who would be in favor of a one-state solution. “But even that’s something,” he says. “There’s no choice. That’s the only solution.
“I understand Israelis’ fear that we’ll attack them, or that there’ll be another Holocaust,” Yousef adds. “My dad worked in Israel for 30 years, and he told me about his Israeli friends and the relationship he had with them. Before the siege people came into contact with one another, worked together, and nothing happened,” he continues. “So I’m convinced that we can live together. And aside from that, what about our fear? We shouldn’t have to die because of your fear. We’re suffocating in Gaza. People are devastated by all the wars. We feel isolated — cut off from Palestinians in the West Bank, and cut off from the world.
“So my message to Israelis who can vote is that they shouldn’t choose a party simply because it’s ‘not as bad’ as the right,” Yousef says. “If I were Israeli, I assume I’d be on the left, just like I’m on the Palestinian left. I’d work to change relations with Palestinians from the ground up. I’d be against the siege, which imprisons us in a narrow strip of land behind tall walls. I’d encourage real dialogue between the two peoples, free from fear.
“If the elections don’t improve things, then I think it’s better not to vote,” Yousef concludes. “If I vote for a racist candidate, even if they’re less racist than someone else, I’m still endorsing their worldview. And things won’t change that way.”
Sajah was introduced to me by a mutual acquaintance in Gaza, who directed her to my website. She sent me a short Facebook message, apologizing for contacting me out of nowhere, and explaining that she was studying philosophy and literature and that she’d never spoken with an Israeli. “I have a few questions,” she wrote.
I was impatient for our conversation, but also a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to answer her questions. “I contacted you because I want to understand why you’re ruling over us,” Sajah says straight away when I answer the phone. She asks a lot of questions. She’s energetic, with a sense of humor and curious to understand ‘how Israelis think.’ There’s something about Sajah’s efforts to decipher the logic behind her lived reality that fills me with sadness.
“How do Israelis see Gaza?” Sajah asks. “I mean, I have no rights, like Palestinians in Israel, but I understand that you don’t see Gaza as part of Israel. But on the other hand, you don’t recognize Palestine’s existence… So what is Gaza, if it’s neither Israel nor Palestine? A country of its own? Occupied territory?”
We speak like this for two hours, back-and-forth between questions and answers that I don’t always have. Her forthright questions, which get right to the heart of things, also allow me to ask basic questions about life in Gaza. When I finally ask for her thoughts on the Israeli elections, she responds that she has no faith in Israeli politics, because while governments change, the agenda remains the same.
“In my opinion, the only thing that we can do long-term here in Gaza is to address the people of Israel directly. To persuade them that there’s another way. You see, like we’re doing, it’s possible,” she laughs.
But, she adds, most young people in Gaza wouldn’t speak to me directly like she’s doing. “The previous generation knew Hebrew and worked in Israel, but we grew up completely segregated,” she says. “Young people here are full of rage. I think many of them would be unwilling to talk to you. They’d tell me, ‘Why are you speaking with your occupier? The State of Israel has ruined our lives.’
“Think about it from their perspective — Israelis are the monsters who are shelling them from above,” Sajah continues. “It’s all they know: Israel equals war and suffering. Having said that, there’s also a lot of curiosity as a result. You’re the first Israeli with whom I’ve spoken like this. I’ve spoken with Jews before, but never Israelis.”
She suddenly glances at me. “You know, I think that’s why I wrote to you. This situation, with all the anger, is weighing on me mentally. I want the siege to be lifted so I can leave here and see you all, engage with you, understand your habits, like us. [To see] that there isn’t such a huge difference between us after all. I’m sure that you’re all human beings.
“If you could truly see us, see what you’re doing to us, you’d put an end to this suffering,” Sajah offers. “You’d change your government, and change your policies. Right?”
This post was originally published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.