NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — “You can get a phone call with a recorded message in a broken Arabic language … ‘Evacuate your house, we are coming to destroy it,’” said Mohammed Omer.
Omer, a 22-year-old journalist from the Gaza Strip, was referring to the Israeli government’s practice of giving a last-minute warning call to Palestinians before their house is demolished. The warning is seen as an attempt to blunt international criticism of its de facto policy of imposing collective punishment on Gazans.
The call often comes like a thief in the night, rousing Palestinian residents from their beds, Omer said. There is little time, typically less than five minutes, to wake the children, collect the family’s belongings and flee. It is not uncommon for an F-16 fighter jet to fly ominously overhead in order to reinforce a message that is painfully clear: “They [Israeli government leaders] want the land without the people.”
As a Palestinian who was born and raised in the Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border, Omer is accustomed to bearing witness to the brutality of the Israeli occupation. He has captured that experience in scores of stunning photographs, video footage and compelling stories.
On Dec. 4 he gave a multimedia presentation titled “Gaza: Pictorial of a Humanitarian Crisis” at Rutgers University. His appearance here was but one of many stops in a national, two-week tour organized by the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (WRMEA), among others.
Tour organizers hoped that hearing (and seeing) an eyewitness account from Omer, who is both an Associated Press reporter and correspondent for WRMEA, would help those who are uninformed to understand the dire nature of the situation in Gaza today.
Gaza’s economy is also in deep crisis, Omer said. The so-called withdrawal and the latest cease-fire have offered promises that are as empty as the stomachs of Gaza’s undernourished children.
Like a prison warden, Israel still controls the land, air and sea around 1.4 million people who live in the most densely populated region on earth. Omer succinctly summarized the disastrous conditions in Gaza when he stated: “There is no medicine in hospitals, no aspirin, no fuel, no cooking gas, no oxygen [tanks], because Karni [a checkpoint] is closed.”
Palestinians have an endless narrative of displacement, poverty and suffering. However, they are not merely victims; they are also resilient resisters, he said. Omer illustrated this point when he described his encounter with children who were returning to a place where homes were reduced to rubble. Israeli snipers were still in the area.
“When I asked the children why they were coming back to risk their lives, the first one said, ‘I want to find my bicycle.’ The second one said, ‘I want to find my backpack.’ The third one said, ‘I want to see if my house is still standing.’”
He lauded the steadfastness that Palestinian women have displayed under the occupation, noting they have seen fathers, brothers and sons as young as 15 taken away by the Israeli authorities. Citing the recent Israeli siege of Beit Hanoun and the roundup of the village’s men by the Israeli military, he said, “Palestinian women took to the streets and managed to release the men that were being held.”
Omer related his own story. “We were kicked out from our houses in a village called Yibna, which is inside Israel,” he said. At age 6 he began working in factories and selling snacks on the street in order to support his family. His father could not do so because he was incarcerated. “My father spent 12 years in Israeli jails because of nothing,” he said.
Subsequently, Omer’s house was completely demolished by the Israeli military. “I lost my clothes, my CDs, the computer. The only things I had left were the clothes on me, my backpack and my ID that I needed to get through the checkpoints.”
As the Israeli occupation continues, fewer reporters are allowed in. Those who work there are harassed and shot at. Omer wears a bulletproof vest.
One of his photographs, a picture of an elderly Palestinian woman with a face like cracked earth, is testimony to both his and her courage: “For some moments I was hoping that her eyes could be mirrors to reflect the Israeli bulldozer demolishing her house.” Minutes later, the house was turned into rubble.