SURFIN’ GAZA – 1993

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I have rumbling affections for Jo. Her big brown eyes and charming British posh pedigree accent rings a bell in me. She’s a volunteer. Teacher. Far out of my league. Inviting her on a date is quite inappropriate and unattainable at so many levels. After all, she’s ten years younger than me. Roughly. Yet, I’m Viking. One does have a hereditary obligation to give it a good try. No lake is too wide to swim.

We grab a bite to eat at the kosher plastic-coated American-style diner in the main shopping mall in Ashqelon. Small town an hour’s drive south of Tel Aviv. She is vegetarian. I’m in unfamiliar culinary territory. No pork chops for miles. We get the same salad. Fake vegetarian bacon. Looks the part, but tastes much like wet cardboard. I make an effort. I pretend to like rabbit fodder. Vikings don’t live of lettuce, but when in Rome…

It’s not a date. No, no, no. Just a friendly night out. A light meal and a cinematic cultural experience. Perfect cover. My chance to sport an inkling of intellectual whereabouts. I’m right on the ball. Updated and all. I have secured two tickets to the late night showing of the new Stephen Spielberg movie. Just out. Premiere. Schindler’s List. Ta-daa.

The theatre is packed with youngsters. Some civilians. Mostly conscript soldiers in typical shabby Israeli uniforms. Boys and girls juggling buckets of popcorn, gallons of soft drink – and their automatic rifles. Some more adroitly than others. I apply myself not to exhibit concerns towards the mathematical likelihood of an accidental discharge of just one of the hundreds of automatic firearms in this audience. I squirm uneasily in my seat. The barrel of the automatic rifle belonging to the girl sitting next to me is pointing directly at my groin and lower abdomen. Severe showstopper for any romantic inclinations and certainly impeding any future intentions of reproduction, if things go wrong. I look into Jo’s brown eyes before the lights are dimmed. Her smile distracts my professional considerations, soothes my worries and I feel safe.

I don’t really follow the plot of the movie. I am too preoccupied with strategic plans for an innocent probing move to test Jo’s defences in the dark theatre. However, the movie does not provide the ideal backdrop for a romantic snug.

Set in Warsaw during WW2, the movie depicts the gruesome atrocities towards the Jewish population in the ghetto. The mayhem of Nazi crimes. Mass deportations. Slaughter. Famine. Death and destruction. Explicit portrayal of the terror of the Holocaust. And in the midst of these horrors Schindler’s heroic glimpse of hope, providing work permits for a miniscule minority of the incarcerated Jewish population destined for annihilation. Arbitrary selections, ethnic segregation, summary executions, and major drama all around. Through Schindler’s efforts the chosen few permit holders are lining up. Queuing to exit the ghetto to work for their oppressors and survive one more day. Nazis brutishly checking their papers.

I drop all ambitions of turning this evening into something more than a night out with a friend. The couple to my left is weeping. Silently at first. Then louder as the plot progresses. The young audience starts sobbing, blubbing, crying. Their anguish saturates the packed theatre. When the lights come on the entire audience is snivelling, bawling or howling. Some cringe from grief, being supported by friends to remain on their feet. The youngsters openly display their pain and agony as they shuffle to the exit.

I feel like I am attending the funeral of a distant relative’s forgotten acquaintance. I can’t really muster any level of personal involvement. Very hard to find a facial expression that escapes misinterpretation. I look at Jo. She’s alright. She is not flinching. I like it. The girl can keep her cool. Stiff public school upper lip. Not a single visible trace of discomposure. Go Commonwealth, indeed.

We hurry to the car. My white Toyota Land Cruiser with the black UN markings stands out like a lighthouse in the dark car park. This is perhaps the wrong place and wrong time to flaunt the fact that I am a Danish military observer with the United Nations serving in Gaza. I rush Jo into the passenger seat. We get out of there in a hurry. The natives are preoccupied elsewhere.

We drive towards Gaza in silence. Although the overall impression of the evening remains serene, the powerful intensity of the cinematic experience still lingers. I am glad that it is not a date. Just a night out with a friend. Any aspirations normally attached to a date would surely be out of the window, when you invite for a light meal before attending a wake-house. Bummer.

Just after midnight we slow down and come to a halt at Erez. The crossing point into Gaza resembles a toll booth at any European highway. There is no traffic crossing in any direction. I get out of the car. I attach the blue UN flag into the metal frame and make sure that the spotlight is on.

On the far side of the crossing hundreds of Palestinians are very slowly shuffling one-by one along a narrow gangway lined by metal railings. Israeli soldiers in their usual casual attire guard the long line of men moving towards the Israeli side. The soldiers thoroughly check their identity papers and work permits. Some men are singled out and detained in a locked enclosure. Bags are searched. Every other man is padded down by young soldiers. Most get through in droves.

On the Israeli side the descendants of Schindler are waiting in trucks, vans or busses. They pick-up the Palestinians. When their vehicle is full they drive off to destinations in Israel. Farms, factories, construction sites or sweat shops where the Palestinian labourers will work. Roughly 80 – 100.000 workers leave Gaza every day to work in Israel. They are the lucky ones. They gain a steady income that feed their families. Unlike the remaining 1.5 million struggling to make a living in occupied Gaza. Nevertheless, the scenery at Erez holds an eerie direct lineage to Spielberg’s depiction of WW2 Warsaw. In principle, the resemblance is striking.

We sit there watching the spectacle for a few moments in silence. I look at Jo. For a moment I can read what I am thinking in her eyes. A mutual revelation. We connect. I start the car and we drive into the pitch black darkness of Gaza. I’m glad this isn’t a date. Any romantic aspirations would surely be botched by now. Too much Warsaw for one evening.

We cruise along the coastal road to the south. I kill the lights and turn on the cabin light a few hundred meters from the Israeli checkpoint at the entry to Gaza City. We cautiously approach the barrier not to scare the youngsters manning the outpost. The soldier wants to know why we want to cross. He is visibly baffled when Jo tells him we live here with an intonation and a charming smile as if it is the most bleeding obvious thing in the world. The subtleness of the British Empire strikes again. He is shaking his head in disbelief when we pass. Living in Gaza is far beyond his most imaginative comprehension.

Gaza is a ghost town during the daily curfew from dusk till dawn. At night the dark streets are populated by jumpy Israeli foot patrols, swarms of rats bigger than cats, and the occasional UN vehicle. We reach the walled bungalow where Jo is living. She is smiling. I steal a shy kiss. I don’t detect any resistance. On the contrary. Go Vikings. After an inappropriately extended moment she reluctantly tears herself away and leaps through the gate to her house. I drive to my humble abode. I’m glad this was not a date. Just a night out with a friend. Still, if it had been a date I couldn’t have planned it any better.

There’s something absurdly incomprehensible about the narratives in this conflict, and the mechanics they invoke. Oppressors casting themselves as victims. Somehow constantly challenging the observers neutrality, demanding one takes sides. Heart-breaking. Yet, tonight Jo’s the undisputed winner of hearts. I stealthily grab a ham sandwich before I go to bed. Don’t tell Jo.

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