Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

One woman’s story illustrates some Gaza realities

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Sara Rogers' story (USA Today, 3.11.2013) sounds like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. While living in New Mexico she met Hatem Abu Taha, who worked at the local Middle Eastern coffee shop. Hatem proposed three days after they met, and they went on to get married and have three kids together. Then the plot thickened: in 2001, when Sara was pregnant with their fourth child, Hatem decided they should all visit his family, in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, on the border with Sinai (Egypt). But upon arrival, Sara was forced to stay in Gaza, trapped in her husband's family home for four years, until she finally managed to escape with her children across border to Israel, and then back to the US.

Now living in Boston, she recounts her story, and her experiences shatter some of the most prevalent misperceptions about the Gaza Strip. She soon noticed the constant incitement against Israel and Jews. Living in an area known as a launching area for Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli towns, she saw first-hand terrorist activity perpetrated from civilian infrastructures, such as schools, and, at times, with the approval and even support of locals. She also noticed the high standard of living of some of Gaza's residents - she recalls that she was "surprised to see that Taha's family appeared to be well off," and was the owner of "Gaza's only cigarette patent"- a far cry from the often exaggerated depictions of Gaza's poverty.

The most heartbreaking part of Sara's story is probably the harsh treatment, and at times physical abuse, she received from Taha and his family, who were "hostile to the American in their home," and indifferent to the suffering, pressure and anxiety the forced stay in Gaza caused their children, who were harassed and bullied - including for allegedly being Jewish.

When Sara and Taha arrived in Gaza, a third floor was being added to the family home, which turned out to be intended to be used as Sara's residence.

"Rogers was distressed and said she wanted the family to return home to the United States.
"‘He just laughed: 'You have no embassy here. You have no family. No one.' I was in shock,' she said.
"Her mother-in-law was the cruelest, she said, patrolling the downstairs so Rogers didn't escape. The children were called ‘Yehudi'(Jews) and bullied constantly at school. Her husband told her the children were his and that she was nothing but ‘a vessel.'
"'I did not exist as a person,' she said."

Sara also attested to the Palestinian terror groups' "urban warfare tactics," of using civilian facilities when shelling Israeli towns, and using local population as human shields against any Israeli military action.

""The Palestinians would get inside a local school and start shooting from the windows,' she said."

Taha's family appeared to have links with Hamas, and have been active in local terror networks. Those links, and views expressed by family members, could be seen as an example of extremist ideology among some of Gaza's residents. When Sara expressed her safety concerns, especially for her children, her father in law responded that it would be an honour for them to be "martyred." And indeed, Taha's nephew appeared to have been associated with Islamic Jihad, and he died while carrying out a terror attack:

"One night, Taha and his nephew Yahya didn't return from a trip.

"‘On the BBC was a report that two Palestinians from Islamic Jihad had claimed an attack and a young man and his wife were dead,' said Rogers. ‘My sister-in-law came up the stairs crying happily, saying that Yahya was now a martyr and in heaven. I had to get out.'"

Eventually, the fear for the lives of her children, and the toll life amongst terrorists, incitement and bullying must have had on their wellbeing, proved to be too much, and Sara decided to escape. This is how she describes the process of this realisation, and her escape:

"Gunfire cracked all around Sara Rogers as she climbed to the roof of her high-rise home in Gaza. The year was 2005, and Israeli soldiers were fighting Palestinian gunmen to stop rocket attacks and destroy smuggling tunnels.
"Rogers closed her eyes. ‘Just let one hit me in the head,' she begged. ‘And make it quick.'

"It was not the months of violence of the Second Intifada that made the Italian-American college graduate ache for death. It was her virtual enslavement by one of the most feared families in the Middle East.

"Days later, Rogers was in a taxi with her five children, praying her husband wouldn't catch her and their five children before she reached the Israeli border.
"'It was the most relieved I have ever felt,' she recalled of her escape to Israel. ‘Four years of hell was [sic] finally over.'"

While Rogers' horrific story had a happy ending, many in Gaza seem to be striving to rewrite their own story, and change Gaza from within. In a recent Washington Institute report, acclaimed Israeli commentator Ehud Ya'ari explores the activity of Tamarod Gaza, a social change movement modelled after the similar Egyptian movement, which worked to topple ex-President Mohammad Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent organisation. And indeed, Tamarod Gaza seem to be going after Hamas, in an attempt to bring the organization down and end their control of Gaza.
Ya'ari explains:

"Although many dismiss Tamarod, which coalesced mainly outside Gaza, as having very limited potential to pose a real threat to Hamas, it does constitute the most important domestic challenge ever faced by the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas indeed takes this threat quite seriously."

The main demand of Tamarod Gaza is the immediate formation of an elections committee, "without any delay or obstacle," leading to general elections, which are long overdue. This reflects the notion that Hamas' popularity has greatly eroded in Gaza, and that the organisation, which gained control over the Gaza strip in a coup in 2007, does not represent the will of the people, and is too repressive of their civil rights and liberties.

Tamarod Gaza also holds Hamas responsible for the stalling reconciliation with rival faction, Fatah. The division between the two, Tamarod argues, is causing suffering for the population in the Gaza Strip for the benefit of Hamas' own political interests and survival.

Hamas is not taking the new movement lightly. In a drastic move, Hamas shifted responsibility for the stability of the Gaza Strip from its internal security apparatus to the military branch, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Threats were made by Hamas interior minister Fathi Hamad that any demonstrations in Gaza will be met with the utmost force. Meanwhile, preventive arrests have been conducted over the past few weeks, and explicit warnings were sent to Tamarod supporters, one of whom, Ya'ari reports, was shot in the legs and ended up being evacuated to an Israeli hospital for medical treatment.

So far, Hamas' brutal tactics appear to be succeeding with the Tamarod movement forced to cancel its day of scheduled demonstrations on Monday in the face of a massive deployment of security forces on Gaza streets. But it nevertheless appears to be the case that discontent with Hamas rule in Gaza is at historically high levels and Hamas is taking the threat seriously.