Seeing the Ruin of Gaza from the Ruins of Umm el-Jimal

On January 15 my wife and I sat
in the guest room sipping tea
with Abdullah Serour, the current
sheikh of the Umm el-Jimal village
in northeastern Jordan. I have
been working in the area for over thirty
years, among other things documenting
how archaeological materials have
been reused over time. As Abdullah described
how he used to go to school in a
refurbished Byzantine house surrounded
by ruins, the television on the wall
displayed live coverage of the bombing
of Gaza city.

All day long as I ran errands in nearby
Mafraq, I’d been seeing the image of
smoke coming from the tall U.N. building
in Gaza. Purportedly the Arab news
agencies in the building were targeted
to hide the mayhem from the world. But
Al-A rabiya’s cameras covered the destruction
from about a kilometer away, A destroyed medical clinic in Gaza
and a reporter on the scene bantered
along in Arabic, as though he were covering
a football match. He’d been doing
this for weeks, and his voice was tired.

I had last visited Gaza over a decade
ago while planning a course on
environmental geography to be offered
jointly by Birzeit University and my own
institution, Calvin College. What struck
me then was not only the uneven distribution
of water resources between the
Israeli settlements (now gone) and the
Palestinian towns and refugee camps
of Gaza, but also the puny size of the
entire Gaza “strip.” In one day, we drove
from Ramallah, stopped along the way
to see the destroyed village of ancient Emmaus (transformed into Canada
Park), were held up for an hour at the
Israeli entry gate which was closed due
to a blockade, toured the entire strip’s
antiquities and environmental features,
and made it back to Jerusalem
by supper time.

Imagine a strip of Lake Michigan
beach dunes about seven miles wide.
If you were to put Gaza City at Grand
Haven in the north, Holland would
be where Khan Yunis is in the south.
That’s it. Now put 1.5 million people
in there and bring on the F-16s and
Apaches (notice the American brands)
with their missiles and bombs.

We call that Israeli bombing of offices
and houses and mosques “warfare.” We
call the firing of Hamas’s homemade rockets
at the Israeli settlements to the north
“terrorism.” As of New Year’s Day the kill
score was roughly “Warriors” 400, “Terrorists”
10. In terms of the old just-war
theory, we used to call that “disproportionate.”
Today, we call it “asymmetrical
warfare,” a term that glosses over the absurd
distance between the powerful occupier
and the powerless occupied. Such
euphemisms open the way for calling the
powerless the aggressor and the powerful
the defender.

What was happening in tiny Gaza
is an epitome of what was happening
in the world at the end of 2008. The
passenger sitting behind me on this
trip from Chicago to Amman, wearing
a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and
Bears jacket, was headed for Baghdad.
“What do you do there? ” I asked.
“I blow things up,” he answered. “Who
for?” “I work for the State Department,”
he said. Then he added, “People like me hope that our children do not follow in
our footsteps.”

In all this the old definition of terrorism
as the targeting of innocent victims
for one’s own political ends has
lost its distinct punch. Warfare, as portrayed
by the onslaught on Gaza and
all its recent precedents, cannot get off
the hook by claiming this is all “collateral
damage.” All this is slaughter.

As we talk about the Umm el-Jimal
of Abdullah’s youth, Al-Arabiya television
flashes statistics over the black smoke
billowing into the rosy winter sunset on
the Mediterranean: 1070 killed, more
than forty percent of them women and
children. Over 10,000 wounded. Abdullah
says: “The damage the Israelis are
doing is far deeper than these dead and
wounded.” I agree, the people of Gaza
will never forget. He, and we, will never
forget; the world will never forget. He
adds, “Someone should catch Bush, put
him in a container, and shoot him into
space; he has destroyed everything, including
America itself.” The Serour are
pro-American, drive Cadillacs even.
Abdullah still hopes the inauguration
will mean a new America in the Middle
East. Our Amman friends believed that
in November, but they no longer do.

Earlier in the day Professor Khairieh
Amr lectured to us on the design of the
new Jordan Museum. She had carefully
thought out exhibiting strategies to enhance
the familiarity of modern Arabs
with Jordan’s deep and sophisticated
cultural heritage. From my earlier visits
there, I know that the same characterizes
Gaza’s richly layered past. Umm El Jimal Professor
Amr’s lecture thus presented an eerie
paradox. As the new museum symbolizes
the blossoming of Jordanian culture
in the soil of its heritage, the bombing
of Gaza less than a hundred miles away
symbolizes the intentional blighting of
that heritage beneath the phosphorus
fires raining down from Apaches and F-16s. “Bomb them back into the Stone Age”
was one American general’s prescription
for Vietnam in the 1960s. That’s happening
to Gazans today.

After her lecture Professor Amr
first refused the proffered honorarium,
but then asked if it would be acceptable
to donate it to one of the many bazaars
being held in Amman for the rebuilding
of Gaza. We agreed, and our joint gift
became a symbol of resistance. It was
a token of our refusal to be stymied by
helpless frustration.

All of Jordan is organizing fundraisers
for the healing
of Gaza. To me, even
as I contribute, such
popular penny-level
acts of mercy seem
like quixotic jousting
against the mercilessly
driven mills of
Gaza’s destruction.
Nevertheless we contribute,
knowing that
the alternative is the
grinding up of hope itself
into shards of bitter,
unforgiving memory.
This survival of
hope takes us into
this new year, with
Abdullah Serour’s insistence
that the inauguration
of a new
president will open
the door to a better
world.

Bert de Vries is a professor of history at Calvin College
in Grand Rapids, Michigan.