November 28, 2016 at 12:16 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
On the border of Israel and the Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip from farmland near Mefalsim, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Gaza Strip from farmland near Mefalsim, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

NEAR MEFALSIM, Israel — The weather in Mefalsim, a kibbutz on the edge of the Negev Desert, was unseasonably warm on Nov. 21.

An irrigation pipe in freshly tilled farmland that was along a narrow road glistened in the bright morning sun. Birds chirped as a warm breeze blew towards the nearby Mediterranean Sea. The heavily fortified border fence that separates Israel and the Gaza Strip was less than 1,000 feet away.

The constant sound of Israeli Air Force fighter jets flying above me was a stark reminder that the landscape in which I was standing was anything but idyllic. The surveillance blimps that hovered above the Erez and Nahal Oz Border Crossings were a surreal sight, to say the least. The concrete wall that separates the Israeli settlement of Netiv HaAsara and the Gazan town of Beit Lahia was the most visible manifestation of the seemingly endless conflict that has exerted a far too heavy toll on civilians on both sides of the border.

The Israeli settlement of Netiv HaAsara is a few hundred feet away from the wall that separates it from the Gaza Strip. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Israeli settlement of Netiv HaAsara is a few hundred feet away from a wall that separates it from the Gaza Strip. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007, and other Islamic militant groups have launched thousands of rockets into Israel over the last decade.

One of these rockets killed a Thai migrant worker in Netiv HaAsara — which resembles a middle class subdivision in southern California or Arizona with basketball nets at the end of driveways, cul-de-sacs and other reminders of suburban life — in 2010.

Israel on July 8, 2014, launched Operation Protective Edge to stop Hamas militants from launching rockets into Israel.

Hamas militants who entered Israel through a tunnel they dug under the border killed five Israeli soldiers near Nahal Oz in July 28, 2014. A 4-year-old boy died in the kibbutz a few weeks later after a mortar that had been launched from the Gaza Strip struck his home.

Palestinian authorities, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and human rights groups estimate that more than 2,000 people died in the Gaza Strip during the 7-week war. Statistics also indicate the Israeli Defense Forces destroyed an estimated 7,000 homes and left 60,000 people homeless.

Israel agreed to allow more aid to enter the Gaza Strip and permit Gaza fishermen to fish up to six miles offshore as part of the long-term ceasefire agreement it reached with Hamas that ended the war. A buffer zone the IDF established in order to prevent militants from launching rockets into Israel, which remains, has made a third of the Gaza Strip’s arable land unavailable to local farmers. Concrete bomb shelters — some of which contain colorful murals that are designed to ease children’s anxiety — remain a common sight in the Israeli town of Sderot that is less than a mile from the border.

Facebook provides outlet for bisexual Gazan

I can only imagine what it must be like for the residents of Sderot, the surrounding kibbutzim and the Gaza Strip to live under the constant threat of rockets, IDF incursions and war. Yet signs of what a casual observer may describe as daily life were clearly visible on that warm November morning.

People were gossiping at a produce stand in Sderot as they bought fresh fruits and vegetables. Traffic was moving well on the highway between Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz that is just north of the Erez Border Crossing, and the city of Beersheba that is nearly 30 miles from the Gaza Strip. Blocks of white apartment buildings in Gaza City and in the city of Jabalia were visible in the distance. A Gazan power plant near the Nahal Oz Border Crossing was belching black smoke into the air.

Gaza Strip, gay news, Washington Blade

The Nahal Oz Border Crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Nov. 21, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

I spent the bulk of the day before I traveled to Sderot and the kibbutzim along the Gaza border working in Tel Aviv, which is about an hour north of the area. I took stock photos of Tel Aviv City Hall and Rabin Square, which is named in honor of the late-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who was assassinated there on Nov. 4, 1995, by a Jewish extremist who opposed the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords that his government and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed at the White House. I then walked to a nearby coffee shop and finished writing my article on the interview with U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro that I did a few days earlier at the Yitzhak Rabin Center.

I also spoke with a bisexual contact in Gaza City on Facebook before leaving my hotel on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv’s bustling financial district.

I was likely standing a few miles away from where he was and from where he was likely speaking with me on Nov. 21 when I was near the Nahal Oz Border Crossing. It was nevertheless impossible for us to meet because he was unable to enter Israel. I was also not in any position to approach the IDF or Hamas, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist group, and ask for permission to enter the Gaza Strip.

I look forward to the day when my contact and I can meet face-to-face, either in the Gaza Strip or in Israel. I also hope the intractable conflict that has exerted a far too heavy toll on both sides of the border will end and the barriers that keep Israelis and Palestinians apart will come down.

This hope may very well amount to nothing more than a naive pipe dream on the part of a gay journalist from the U.S. who still has faith in humanity. This eternal optimist, however, feels that nothing is impossible if there is will behind it.

The Gaza Strip as seen from Nahal Oz, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Gaza Strip as seen from Nahal Oz, Israel, on Nov. 21, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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