Voices from the Middle East: Gaza
Junior Mahroh Jahangiri, a political science major at Wash. U., is currently studying abroad at the American University of Cairo in Egypt. Following the recent violence in the Gaza Strip, Jahangiri decided to join a humanitarian convoy to Gaza, accompanying 100 American, European and Egyptian students across the border into Rafah, Gaza last week. Escorted throughout the Gaza Strip by Hamas military officials for two days, Jahangiri witnessed the wreckage and heard the stories of the victims of violence in the Middle East. She shares her reflections on the experience with Student Life below.
Student Life: Why did you decide to go to the Gaza Strip after the recent Israeli airstrike?
Mahroh Jahangiri: A few reasons. I guess it broke out the weekend before last and within a day or two I think the civilian deaths were like up to around 50 or 60, and around that time I saw a picture at Wash. U. being circulated that said ‘We stand with Israel’ and it [showed] like the DUC filled up with students. And I was really taken aback by the very blatant support of Israel when, in spite of like civilian deaths, I was hoping for a bit more discourse on military policies and how they were creating a humanitarian crisis. So at that point I really wanted to go there and see for myself and document for myself what was going on [in Gaza] because, I mean, I had heard about the deaths and I had heard much more being in Cairo—the news reports here were obviously more favorable towards Palestine—so I definitely wanted to see personally what was going on and if so be able to send that stuff back home, because I was very surprised by the little diversity in the discourse at Wash. U.
SL: What sites did you see while you were in Gaza?
MJ: It actually took us about two days to get there so that was half the process…Once we were in, I did not know anything about the plans. I just knew there was a convoy going with supplies and I tagged along. It turned out that the convoy had been in touch with the local government—which would be Hamas—because they needed Hamas’s permission to allow a convoy of like 100 people to come in. So once we were there we were basically escorted by Hamas officials for like a day and a half. When we first got there we were taken to one of the families. There were two families that live close to each other that lost two people during the strikes. One of the two had been firing rockets and he was hit by an Israeli strike in return and was killed. We met his widow and his 20-day-old daughter, and so the family was still in mourning. I was not expecting to be taken into people’s houses that had just had someone killed like three days ago. So I was definitely very taken aback because we were definitely immersed very quickly without much background.
SL: Did you speak with the family at this site?
MJ: She [the widow] was definitely not in a talking mood. She was sitting there balling. The house itself was still in a post-funeral setup. It was just like an open house for people to come and mourn in. So there was one woman who I guess was in charge of speaking to the foreigners. It was mostly in Arabic, so I understood bits and pieces of it, but it was very, very much directed towards, ‘Notice us. [Be] aware of this. Try to talk about what’s happening.’ And I think that family was definitely more hostile towards the Israeli government.
SL: What other sites did you visit throughout your trip?
MJ: We were just escorted I guess through the Gaza strip. So we went through different towns and…basically it was like a quick recap of everything that had happened in the past three days, like all the destruction…so we didn’t really get a chance to see like regular Palestine or regular life in Palestine. It was very much focused on what had happened under the most recent strikes. So we passed the bank that was hit. One of the ministries was hit so we stopped there. [We] saw the debris, and I mean it was all very recent so nothing had been cleaned up.
The next house we were taken to…I don’t know if you’ve read the story about the one family that lost twelve family members in the strikes, so that was the second house we were taken to. [I] also was not expecting that. For me personally that was terrifying to be there. I was a mess. I like was not expecting to be hit so hard emotionally by it.
SL: Did you speak to any family members at this house?
MJ: The first house was definitely more hostile and acknowledged being part of the resistance. But the second family had no part at all with the resistance. The father was pretty old. He didn’t really have like young twenty-something-year-old sons either, so he wasn’t a part of the resistance at all. He said he had taken his little son out just to the grocery store and when he came back his house was gone, his neighbors’ house was gone and his family was all dead. So, we got a chance to like walk through the structure of the house next door that was remaining and you could still see kids’ sweaters caught up in the debris. You can see the phone hanging, you can see like the dirty dishes that they had been eating off of a few days earlier. So that was really hard, and especially hearing [the father] talk, because he wasn’t angry. The first family’s anger made sense to me, even if shooting off rockets wasn’t like the best idea, it’s like their anger in response kind of made sense to me. This [father], though, was kind of like he had just totally accepted that this is going to happen to his family, and at least after this I guess his family [is] in a better place than they were under the blockade. So that was definitely very difficult to listen to.
SL: What did the Hamas officials who guided your group have to say about the conflict?
MJ: Very angry. Very much angry at the fact that Israel had been getting away with this. Or getting away with strikes or killing civilians. In a sense, [this trip] worked for me because if I had more time I would love to see all of Palestine, but for me, for us, we were going on a humanitarian trip. So to see the disaster part of it was probably like the most important thing we could see in two days. And [the military officials] were also very conscious of that too. They wanted us to see the worst of Gaza and like take that back with us. So it was very much like, ‘We don’t even have to say anything. You can take your pictures, you can see this, and we just hope that you tell the world about it.’
SL: What did the Egyptians you traveled with to Gaza have to say about the conflict?
MJ: I mean, everyone’s unanimously against Israeli policies and Israeli government. I think there was a huge spectrum on what Palestine should be doing. There was a good number that were very supportive or at least understanding of Hamas’ resistance movement. Some of the Palestinian opinions I heard [while in Gaza] were that, in their minds [in order to] justify rocket attacks on Israel, they thought that every Israeli adult is responsible for their Israeli government, and the fact that Israeli adults haven’t been changing their government for the past ten, twenty years, they’re also, I guess, part of war crimes. That is how they justify it in their mind. Every Israeli adult is basically in a state of war with Palestine because they are not fixing their government…I guess the only unanimous consensus is that Palestine has the right to exist and the U.S. government and the Israeli government haven’t done anything to move forward on that.
SL: Now having returned to Egypt, what are your reflections on your trip?
MJ: I don’t even know. I really don’t know. A lot of things. First and foremost I felt so responsible for what’s happening. Like, regardless of the politics of it, people forget so easily the humanitarian issues that come along. Thinking of Palestine, it’s just like somehow Hamas being the official government, I think, is used as a justification for civilian deaths in the area…It was good to be able to see the humanitarian side of it without necessarily [discussing] the politics of it because I wasn’t really talking politics with people. I was just going to destroyed houses and families that had lost civilians. So that part of me makes me want to be more vocal about the issue in the United States.
Also part of me just wants to not talk about it because it seems like both sides are so, so stubborn, and there are no understandings, and it makes sense why they are [so stubborn]. But, like I can process how [Palestinians] got to the point where they are today. Where they are so desperate and so like desensitized to violence where anything is okay as long as they get their land back, but at the same time seeing that was quite disheartening. So I don’t know, I really don’t know where I stand on it. It was a lot and I haven’t even processed it fully yet. But for me, I really wanted to go and be able to just take pictures and see the human side of it…because at Wash. U. we do have students studying abroad in Israel. So, we see [on] our Facebooks, or at least my Facebook, I regularly have pictures of Tel Aviv…I regularly have [updates on] students [in Israel] that might feel unsafe and statuses that they post, but we don’t have a connection to Palestine at all. I don’t know if we’ve ever had a student in Gaza, but we very rarely have a personal connection to Palestine. I feel like the human side of Palestine is very easily forgotten.