The lost promise of Gaza

When Israeli troops start pulling out of the Gaza Strip on Aug. 15, they will leave behind 38 years of painful memories. Most non-settler Israelis who have been to Gaza were there as soldiers. To them, Gaza meant danger, often death. The pullout will mark a blessed exodus from a place to which no one wishes to return.

Ironically, I have fond memories of Gaza.

I was spared a tour of duty in the deadly strip during my military service. I visited as a student, not a soldier, and with Palestinian friends, no less.

It was late August 1999, a time of great hope in the Middle East. Ehud Barak had recently been elected Israel’s prime minister, on a platform of compromise and reconciliation. Yasser Arafat seemed poised to become another Nelson Mandela. The extremists, on both sides, were increasingly sidelined. Hope was everywhere, even euphoria. Peace, it seemed, was just around the corner.

That summer, as a sign of the times, I joined Shalom-Salaam, an organization formed by Israeli and Palestinian university students and aimed at pursuing peace and co-existence. I was one of six Israelis, along with six Palestinians, to be sent on a six-week summer program in Oslo, Norway — birthplace of the peace process we all hoped would change our world for the better.

We met regularly to exchange our personal stories and share our hopes for the future. We also debated and challenged each other, delving into the toughest issues of our century-long conflict.

It wasn’t always easy. My Palestinian roommate and I hardly agreed on anything but we did share a common goal, aside from peace, and that was having the time of our lives. No one threw stones that summer, but plenty of drinks were thrown back. We all got a kick out of how our Scandinavian hosts were so eager to splurge on our ridiculous scholarships just so we could “get along,” something that came naturally anyway to the social Middle Easterners that we were.

Then one of the Palestinians came up with the idea that upon our return home we should all take a trip down to Gaza. And that’s how I came to be the ultimate accidental tourist: An Israeli strolling the streets of Gaza City. We drove through the refugee camps, met with Palestinian ministers and visited Mr. Arafat’s headquarters. As usual, there were plenty of heated arguments. Yet, once again, friendship and common goals ultimately prevailed, and we all had fun.

That evening we headed to Gaza’s crowded main drag to catch a glimpse of the nightlife. I had the best, and cheapest, falafel of my life. One of our Palestinian hosts suggested we all speak in English to avoid any unwanted attention. Habits are hard to break, though, and at one point I slipped, and blurted out a sentence in Hebrew to a friend. A young, bearded Arab man approached us, a suspicious look on his face.

“Are you Israeli?” he said.

The blank stare on my face was a dead giveaway. Before I could answer, though, he broke into a big smile and told me how he had once worked in construction in Israel. He was even wearing a T-shirt with Hebrew writing on the back. We proceeded to have a brief conversation — in Hebrew.

That night we all camped out on the beach. It was somewhat surreal to grab my bathing suit and hop in the water for a midnight dip in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Gaza. I knew a few Israeli friends who had swum in these waters before, but they did so as naval commandos on covert operations.

Our Palestinian friends did not join us in the water. Drip-drying on the beach, I asked them why.

“We don’t know how to swim,” one of them answered.

To which one of the Israelis immediately snapped back: “(Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul) Nasser said he was going to throw all us Jews in the sea, so we had to learn how to swim.”

Everybody laughed. We had that kind of rapport that allowed us to joke around, even about each of our painful histories.

I figured I’d be back in Gaza soon enough. One day, I hoped, it would be like crossing the border from the United States to Canada. That was the prevalent mood at the time — not a question of if, but rather a question of when. If our experience in Shalom-Salaam was any indication, we all knew it was possible.

A year later, I made my second visit to Gaza. It will likely be my last.

Everything was different by then. The Camp David peace talks had collapsed, Mr. Barak had lost the confidence of the Israeli people and was on his way to defeat in the polls and Mr. Arafat had begun reverting to his old terrorist ways. The day-trip I took with the Peres Peace Center in mid-September 2000 had a completely different feel to it from my previous visit. You could practically feel the tension in the air; all the hope was gone.

A week later, what became known as the second Palestinian intifada erupted. On Sept. 27, 2000, an Israeli soldier was killed by a roadside bomb at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip, near where I had just visited. The next day, in the West Bank city of Kalkilya, a five-minute drive from my home town, a Palestinian police officer working with Israeli police on a joint security patrol pulled out his gun and killed his Israeli partner. Later that day, Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and all hell broke loose.

The hard-earned trust that had grown over many years quickly began to evaporate. From that point on, Israelis and Palestinians essentially stopped working together and started drifting away from each other. Shalom-Salaam was just one of the casualties; our group fell apart a few months later.

Soon thereafter, it became illegal for Israeli civilians to enter the Gaza Strip. It seemed we were only going back in there with loaded rifles.

I’ll probably never get to see Gaza again, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan is good for both Israelis and Palestinians. It’s absolutely the best solution possible under the current circumstances. After all, it’s much better to live apart in peace, than together in war.

But it could have been different. I know, based on my own experiences, that there could, and should, have been real peace. I hope some day there still will be.

As Israel says goodbye to Gaza, I feel mixed emotions; mostly relief and satisfaction, for all the future lives saved, but also much regret and sadness, over the many missed opportunities and the unnecessary pain and suffering caused to the thousands of casualties.

At least I’ll have some good memories.