An account of our voyage from the English Chanel to Gaza.
It’s easier to write about the kids who have died in Palestine. It’s usually done with a spreadsheet: the column and row labels would be “Cause”, “Age”, “Date” The cells would contain a number of children killed. All done.
Living children offer complexity and an implication — for a person of conscience and also for someone who tries to stick to politics — to regard them as people to whom you have an obligation.
But what exactly is that implied obligation?
In the case of Palestinian children, it doesn’t seem to matter because there are too many ways to escape.
- Kids die everyday, so what can you do?
- He’s gravely ill.
- I help kids in my family/neighborhood/church/country
- Syria’s worse (but it isn’t).
- Sure, I get it — and I don’t care.
But since we’re on the subject of Israel and Palestine, we have to consider the Israeli government’s escape clause: He’d grow up to be a terrorist.
Israeli government officials make this claim on a regular basis, but most recently the Minister of Defense, Avigdor Liberman said, “You have to understand, there are no innocent people in the Gaza Strip. Everyone has a connection to Hamas. Everyone receives a salary from Hamas. Those who are trying to challenge us at the border and breach it belong to Hamas’s military wing.”
It’s this last one that’s taken seriously and repeated by the western media.
But let’s talk about Jamil, a living child who suffers from thalassemia. There are almost 280 million people who have thalassemia, a blood condition that causes your body to produce too much iron. That leads to fatality from iron itself, but usually preceded by other threats to your life such as rampant infections, bone deformations, an enlarged spleen, anemic growth rate, and heart disease.
Jamil’s problem is not just that he is one of the 280 million who have thalassemia. It’s that he has thalassemia in Gaza. He was 18 months old when it was discovered. He’s now 17 years. The only treatment available to him in Gaza is a compete blood transfusion every two weeks. His grandfather has given Jamil blood every two weeks for more than 15 years. That is how Jamil has survived this long.
Jamil got out. He and his mother secured a prison pass a year ago and made to Italy. The Italian doctors finally stabilized and may have improved his condition. His Italian friends provided a home for Jamil and his mother. Now he has to go back to Gaza.
Like almost every 17-year-old boy, he agrees to a photo and assumes a cool-guy stance. His mother reminds him that he’s wearing a hospital face mask. It’s pale blue with child-friendly pattern in yellow, and contrasts starkly with the rest of his 17-year-old’s cool gear — dark, peaked cap with logo; dark blue shirt with logo; skinny jeans; black, low-top runners. And a smart phone, evidently not connected to plan but cool nonetheless. It’s a gift from his hospital staff. He loves taking pictures.
His mother unhooks the face-mask from his ears. Jamil’s facial skin is mottled in color like his arms and hands, a result of his illness and treatment. I roll up my sleeves and show him my arms. He sees that his skin matches my own because I’ve had a stem-cell transplant too.
When I was released from hospital 10 years ago, I lived in a country where clean water flows from a tap, hospitals have electricity, nurses and doctors are available in clinics all over the city, no one is dropping bombs. A country where we have an economy because our ports are not under blockade, where we argue about real estate prices rather than how to resist an implacable enemy that moved in with tanks, guns and airplanes more than 70 years ago and had to admit to themselves that it was not a “land without people for a people without a land”. And since then have hated us for existing and set about forcing us to flee, encircling us, restricting us, incarcerating us without charge, bombing and shooting us.
As Jamil’s mother looks toward the next few months and an inevitable return to Gaza, she probably wonders, as I do, whether there will be a place to return to, or just a bigger pile of rubble at the east end of the Mediterranean. The worry in her eyes shows that she knows how contaminated is the drinking water in Gaza and how compromised is Jamil’s immune system. Worse, if Jamil survives for months or years, Israel officially designates him as a terrorist because he is male, more than 14 years old, and in Gaza. Jamil will have no human rights. Not even the right to resist an occupying army, although he’s probably too weak to do much anyway.
As it is, Jamil will be returned to a place where 98% of the drinking water is contaminated, slowly poisoning the million or so children who live there. Water and sewage treatment plants have been bombed in successive raids by the Israeli military and building materials are largely denied. Going to the beach will not be an option as the sea is contaminated with untreated sewage. Gaza is on the verge of collapse, with military bombers and drones constantly flying overhead, people being shot by Israeli military snipers as they stand unarmed in their own land and ask for their universally recognized human rights.
That is only one of the reasons why, as you read this, I am the captain of the sailing vessel Freedom sailing as part of the Freedom Flotilla toward Gaza. At one point, doing nothing is no longer an option. Around the end of July/early August we will sail into the danger zone. That is the time, in international waters, when Israel jams our communication signals, indicating that the Israeli Navy is about to do something they don’t want you to see. That’s when they board the ships, usually with some violence, take over, kidnap the crew and take them to prison in Israel. We will be most likely be deported in a few days back to our countries of safety, clean water and civil rights.
It was hard to say goodbye to Jamil. We found something in common — our illnesses and recoveries. We compared our spotty patches, told stories and jokes to each other through an interpreter, laughed together, made funny faces at each other. Both Jamil and his mother asked me to share his story. Later, looking at his photo, I realized just how angry I was.
Part I: No Dolphins for Gaza