Israel, October 26, 2008
The brief flutter of her eyes away from the soldiers told
me that the young Palestinian woman next to me also saw it crawl out from
near the guard booth to our left. Large and nearly black, it looked like it
had stepped onto a paved stage whose backdrop happened to be the gate to the Erez Crossing into the Gaza Strip.
Had it emerged a short while earlier, it might have been unceremoniously
trampled by the doctors and academics who, along with a few
non-professionals such as me, had swarmed the metal gate. We were supposed
to have crossed through it today to attend a conference organized by the
Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. But, although the conference had
been planned through proper channels more than a year in advance, although the World Health
Organization and the European Union were among its sponsors, although we
each possessed signed entry documents from the W.H.O. ― and although Israel claims
not to be occupying Gaza ― Israel refused to let us pass. And so we became
just another tiny footnote in its hermetic blockade of the Gaza Strip. But
unlike the million and a half people trapped inside it, we could protest,
and do so in relative safety. White Western privilege and the presence of
myriad cameras protected us and, for the moment, the few Palestinians among
So protest we did. We held banners and chanted slogans. We tried to talk to
the soldiers in the hope of eliciting critical thought. And we made noise.
Those of us at the front set upon the metal links, rattling them with such
enthusiasm that the soldiers seemed to think we could not possibly sustain
the din for long. But when we proved to be as relentless as locust, they
dragged out barricades and ordered us behind them, physically removing us if
we refused. Several soldiers positioned themselves in the narrow corridor
newly formed between the barricades and the fence to be sure we caused no
We might have been left to stand there, defeated and impotent, had we not
quickly discovered what effective drums the flat tops of the dense plastic
barricades make. So we laid sonic siege once again, pounding our new war
drums with flattened palms. And it was then that the cockroach stepped out
from the shadows into the mid-afternoon sun, crawling east to west through
the forbidden space.
The young woman next to me saw that I, too, was looking at it. While our
hands hammered away on the barricades, our eyes followed it crawling into
greater and greater danger, nearer and nearer the soldier
positioned directly in front of her and me. Would it be crushed
deliberately? Or inadvertently? It could not possibly make it to the other
side through the minefield of Israeli Defense Forces boots.
And then our soldier spotted it.
When in the United States one hears Palestinians referred to as
cockroaches, this is the honest talk, not the sanitized code-talk of
politicians and the mass media that achieves the same message under the
guise of “information”. In Israel, government representatives have even
publicly referred to Palestinians as cockroaches, and such statements have
been met with a chilling absence of outrage. Thus when the soldier, after
observing the insect for a moment, bent down to pick it up, I imagined him
pretending to be nabbing one of those same untermenchen in his
fingers, free to direct or end its life as he pleased, with the same
impunity as if it were a schoolchild on the other side of the gate. Like the
character in Kafka’s novella, the world had forgotten them, too.
But what did it mean that the soldier collected the cockroach very gently,
as if careful not to cause it harm or even distress? My drummer neighbor and
I exchanged suspicious glances. I could think of only one answer, and so
mentally prepared myself to have a huge cockroach catapulted into my face. I
resolved not to flinch ― that would be my defiance, to keep pounding away at
the barricade drums without missing a beat. Or was it destined for my
neighbor? I sensed that she was was equally prepared.
So it was in utter disbelief that she and I watched as the soldier,
cockroach gingerly in hand, turned and walked to the guard booth, knelt down
by a shady, sandy patch, and carefully set the wayward creature free.
Israel and Gaza
are often juxtaposed in quasi-religious terms of Good versus Evil, Israel's
militarized barrier being all that keeps the barbarian hordes from
overrunning Civilization. Thus I saw the entrance before me as the very
Caspian Gates, the mythical threshold protecting Humanity from the Biblical
monsters Gog and Magog. The soldier had left the apocalyptic Gates partially
unguarded in order to deliver the roach to safety.
Their mission of charity completed, his fingers slipped
back against the metal trigger of his US-supplied weapon. He walked back into formation and resumed his stance in front of
My neighbor pulled out a fat green marker that she'd used earlier for making
banners, and now banged away with a two-tone protest, her right hand using
the marker's hard end while her left hand persevered with her palm.
“If it was us?” she said just loud enough for me to hear over the drone, “he
would have shot us.”
― Thomas Suarez
photo by ActiveStills