- Dan Grossman
- Mohammed Omer
Mohammed Omer grew up in the Gaza Strip, a 25-mile-long sliver of land walled off from both Israel and Egypt, hugging the Mediterranean. It’s one of the most crowded stretches of shore on earth, where two million Palestinians live.
Omer was in Gaza with his family in the summer of 2014, when the Israelis began the 51-day-long military incursion that they labelled Operation Protective Edge. During that time Omer was also reporting as a journalist. He has pursued this occupation since the age of 17. You can read his dispatches on the incursion in his 2015 book Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault.
Omer was on the IUPUI campus on Dec. 8, as part of his U.S. tour in which he’s speaking about the continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza, now in its tenth year. The tour is sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.
While ostensibly targeting Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip, the collateral damage of Israel’s incursion was cataclysmic. (It’s worth noting that Israel and much of the international community including the U.S. consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.) As Omer writes in his book, numerous civilian homes, United Nations schools, power plants, factories, and hospitals were destroyed by Israeli bombs.
But the 2014 Israel-Gaza war was not Omer’s main concern during his presentation at IUPUI. He was more concerned with the present.
“Among the Gaza population are 1.2 million who suffer post traumatic stress disorder,” Omer said. “But I don’t like to use the word post… It’s a continuous traumatic stress disorder against Gaza and its children.’”
Even when Omer leavened his talk with humor, it was to a point. He told a story of a Jewish-American man from Hawaii coming all the way to Israel with 13 surfing boards. The man had read one of Omer’s stories about surfing boards being banned from the Gaza Strip by the Israelis. He had been moved by the story, and wanted to do something about it.
“‘Dude, food is not allowed into Gaza,” Omer tried explaining to the man, “let alone surfing boards.”
The man was undeterred. But when he arrived at the border of the Gaza Strip with his surfing boards, the Israelis wouldn’t let him in.
“After a week of trying, the man grabbed one of these border guards and started hugging and kissing him,” said Omer. “And the border guard said, ‘Don’t hug me, don’t kiss me, I’m a soldier.’ Finally he was allowed to come in and distribute his 13 surfboards.”
This story illustrates the Israeli restrictions imposed on travel to and from Gaza. But these restrictions are most severe for Gazans themselves. Even getting a Fulbright scholarship isn’t often enough for Gazan Palestinians to travel past the border. And it also illustrates the seemingly arbitrary nature of the blockade on goods entering the Gaza Strip. The Israelis ban what they label dual use items, items that can be used to wage war with Israel. But many household goods are also on that list.
Rather than getting too bogged down in the complex geographical and political situation that surrounds Gaza, however, Omer had his audience in the IUPUI lecture hall employ magic markers.
That is, he had the audience members at IUPUI write with magic marker on passed out sheets what they had learned in the presentation, sheets that Omer promised to share with Gazans through social media.
One of the responses, on one of these sheets, was, “Gaza grows delicious strawberries.”
And then he had his audience employ their imaginations. He had them them imagine that they were taking a trip to Gaza.
And like the journey of the Hawaiian surfer, that journey begins at the border.
“We’ll be entering Gaza via the southern part of the Gaza Strip, [the Egyptian crossing at Rafah] because I can’t go through Israel,” said Omer. “And you can’t go through the Israeli crossing even if you have an American passport.”
Omer then projected photos of tunnel workers who dig underground under the Egyptian border in order to smuggle basic necessities, including food and medical supplies, into the Gaza Strip at great risk to their lives. (Weapons and dual-use items are also smuggled through these tunnels, say the Israelis, who drop bombs on them.)
“Among the items that are banned, the 81 items banned by Israel, are shoelaces, tea, coffee, ketchup, coriander to make falafel,” said Omer. “And I do remember when I met with [US Secretary of State] John Kerry, I said Mr. Kerry, thank you so much. It’s only today that my father was able to make macaroni. And Kerry replied, ‘You must be making fun of us.’ And I said, ‘I’m not.’ Kerry said, ‘Well, great.’ We convinced the Americans that we can’t be firing rockets with the macaroni.”
And the blockade has also meant that farmers can’t export items like strawberries, Omer said.
Despite all the death and destruction in Gaza, despite the lack of drinkable water due to the Israeli bombing of the sewer system, despite the inability of the Gazans to rebuild, despite shortages of basic necessities and medicines, Omer refuses to be pessimistic about life in Gaza.
“The resilience of the Gaza people continues,” Omer said.“You go across Gaza and you find mothers insisting that their children should wake up and go to schools. 99.9 percent of the population send their children to schools.”