Why I took a rabbi to war-torn Gaza

French-Jewish writer Marek Halter describes how he led a bus-load of Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergymen on a peace mission across Israel into Gaza, braving Hamas gunman along the way

April 7, 2009
Rabbi Michel Serfaty shows young Arabs in Gaza City a banner made for them by the children of the Israeli town of Sderot. Looking on is Marek Halter (far right, beard), the leader of the interfaith peace mission, and Brother Mathieu Gosse, a monk from Romania

Rabbi Michel Serfaty shows young Arabs in Gaza City a banner made for them by the children of the Israeli town of Sderot. Looking on is Marek Halter (far right, beard), the leader of the interfaith peace mission, and Brother Mathieu Gosse, a monk from Romania

A rabbi in Gaza is not a common sight. The last time, to my knowledge, was in the 17th century. His name was Nathan of Gaza and he was waiting for the messiah.

On the Palestinian side of the improvised border checkpoint, the man wearing a kippah is causing a bit of a sensation. The Hamas police officers, five men crammed in a booth made of corrugated iron, are confused. They call their commander on the telephone, and he arrives an hour later. Four cars teeming with armed men stop in a cacophony of honking horns and screeching tyres.

The head of Hamas security, Abu Khaled, is no less confused than his men. He makes assurances that he is here to protect the rabbi and the rest of us from the angry populace. It is two months to the day since the first bombardments in the Gaza war.

Our mission had its risks; along with Hommes de Parole Foundation (Men of Their Word, a Geneva-based independent interfaith organisation) and its president, my old friend Alain Michel, we were looking for ways to tear down the wall that separates the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Not the 12m-high wall made of cement that already runs across 350 km, but the one of incomprehension between those so far from each other and yet at the same time so close.

Crossing Gaza with imams and rabbis seemed an obvious thing to do. In this world where the influence of religion grows each day, we wanted to make a first breach by bringing imams to the town of Sderot, on the Israeli border, and rabbis to Gaza. There are men of goodwill on the two sides, and maybe they could take advantage of the moment to extend their hand.

Halter (centre) with Imam Hassan Chalghoumi (left)  and Rabbi Serfaty

Halter (centre) with Imam Hassan Chalghoumi (left) and Rabbi Serfaty

Where to begin? In Jerusalem, the Holy City for the three monotheistic religions. First we visit Aviva and Noam Shalit, the parents of Gilad, the young French-American hostage held by Hamas in Gaza. They had just set up their tent in front of the home of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to demand that he see through the negotiations for the release of their son.

Our journey leaves them pensive, and I understand why they feel that way. Our endeavour had begun on the wrong foot; we did not have the authorisations from either side. We had just learned that the rabbis and the imams holding Israeli passports could not cross the border into Gaza. And the two peoples, with their wounds of war so fresh, still grieving their dead in anger — could they understand our initiative?

In an anxious silence, on March 18 around 3 o’clock in the afternoon we take to the road. Our convoy is impressive: three articulated lorries carrying 75 tons of food, school supplies and toys for the children of Sderot and Gaza, as well as a minibus filled with imams, priests and rabbis, all under giant banners with the words shalom, salam, paix and peace, signed by the World Congress of Imams and Rabbis for Peace.

The bus driver grumbles that “people will be shooting us at every turn”. Is he exaggerating? If someone happens to hurl a single stone or insult, the journalists following us would cry failure. Nothing could be taken for granted. In Sderot, the children spend days in shelters out of fear of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. The arrival of the imams—something inconceivable — could provoke anger. In Gaza, a population that suffered two months of Israeli bombardments, could react with violence at the sight of a rabbi.

On these roads where normally only tanks are seen, we could not travel incognito. Many people stop out of curiosity, some giving us a thumbs-up as encouragement. At the entrance to Sderot, a delegation is waiting for us. At the front is Rabbi Zion Cohen, leader of the villages and outlying kibbutzim. With him is the former chief rabbi of Ireland, David Rosen, the man who negotiates with the Vatican. The Sderot authorities wonder if our journey to Gaza is advisable as rockets are still falling on the city.

The saying goes that the child is the father of the man. What is certain is that he is often more courageous. There were 100 boys and girls around us to deploy a 60m banner that they had prepared for us. On it they had painted the dream of children: peace. One of the drawings represents two characters holding hands. Another, two hills facing each other, an Israeli flag on one, a Palestinian flag on the other. Still another drawing consists simply of two words: “Shalom, Salam”. At the centre of the banner is a revolver behind the universal symbol of a slash through a red circle. The message is clear: “Killing is prohibited”.

In the East, night falls early and fast. By the light of the street lamps, the children lead us to their school, with many adults following in tow. Each had a story to tell us, a war story. One rather young woman, a shawl over her shoulders, approaches us and says that a Palestinian rocket had recently killed her husband. She adds that on the spot where he died she had planted an olive tree. With an air of defiance, she invites us to gather at this improvised memorial. She seems surprised, perhaps even disappointed, to see us accept. The tree shines in the night.

Hassen Chalghoumi, the imam from Drancy, speaks several words in French while Michel Serfaty, the rabbi from the Paris suburb of Ris-Orangis, translates into Hebrew. Brother Mathieu Gosse, a monk from Romania, and the Brussels imam, Yacob Hami, both say a prayer.

We leave Sderot at dawn and head to Gaza. At 9 o’clock, we arrive at the border at Erez. It is the most perilous stage of our journey. There are no more gates in front of the entrance to Gaza; the biblical Samson ripped them out, and in their place now are electronic doors and X-ray booths. The Israeli soldiers who filter the rare candidates for passage make us wait. We still have not received the proper authorisations.

A half hour later, they let the group pass through, even the rabbi — everyone except me. The young soldiers are sorry, and they call their headquarters and are told that the person who was to sign my permit is absent. Alain Michel stays back to keep me company. Two long hours later, the authorisation displays on the border guards’ computer screens. My cellphone rings; military officials apologise for the misunderstanding. But it leaves us with very little time. It is already past noon and we are scheduled to leave Gaza before 4 o’clock, when the border closes.

Alain and I walk faster. We follow a narrow path between two cement walls extended by barbed wire. Here, only birds may venture without risk. We get into the car waiting for us on the Palestinian side and try to catch up to the others. We can drive fast because the road is empty. Approaching the city of Beit Hanou, we see ruins. On the side of the road, pock-marked by mortar shells, we see sections of walls tagged with graffiti depicting Palestinian flags.

Gaza City does not seem to have suffered, except on the side by the sea. The neighbourhood of al-Rimal al-Janubi, where the government buildings were, has been razed. It was here, I remember well, that Yasir Arafat had welcomed us in October 1995, at his headquarters in al-Montada. But that was during the euphoric time following the Oslo Accords, shortly before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

On Omar al-Mokhtar Avenue, the main thoroughfare, the stores are open, the market stalls full of fruit. In the middle of the patch of grass dividing the avenue into two lanes, Hamas men have planted billboards with images of martyrs. To my great astonishment, I notice portraits of Arafat everywhere, something Hamas has prohibited since June 14, 2007, the day it took control of the city after violent fighting with Arafat’s Fatah movement.

The Adam Centre for Dialogue of Civilisations, on al-Abadidi Street, is filled to capacity. More than a few Gazan imams and members of parliament have been waiting for us. We go up a staircase crowded with TV cameras, mostly Arab ones, filming. There is also a French channel, France 2, as well as two American media outlets. The crowd is dense; it’s not everyday that they see a delegation like ours. Hamas officials stand near parliamentary member Sayed Abu Suleyman, but they conduct themselves discreetly. Two men approach me, and one of them, wearing a kafiyeh, whispers in my ear: “We are from al-Fath. Welcome.”

In the square in front of the bombing-scarred parliament, the crowd grows. Word of mouth travels fast. A man grabs me by the sleeve. He has silver hair, a tired, poorly-shaven face. He speaks to me in Arabic, and a boy offers to translate. His English is rough. “My whole family was killed,” says the silver-haired man. “Allah saved my younger brother. He was in France during the bombardments. My whole family…” he says with a resigned voice.

A group forms around us. Another man moves my interlocutor out of the way. They exchange several words in Arabic. The boy translates. “He says that you must have heard a lot of accounts like this one, but that his story is different.”

I learn that this second man’s name is Marwan and that he lived at the seaside, near the neighbourhood razed by the Israelis. One night after dark, he had his two daughters on his knees. Two Israeli soldiers came into his home. One spoke several words in Arabic. “Don’t stay here,” the soldier cried. “Take the children far away!” Moments later, the house exploded. The man shakes my hand as if I was the Israeli in question. He has a penetrating stare. The Hamas police are getting anxious and ask us to leave as they chase away journalists and photographers.

The event happens at a Christian school run by Father Manuel Mussalem. It is the largest school in the city: 650 students, 100 of them Christian, the rest Muslim. Father Mussalem, wearing an enormous Basque beret, is proud of this.

“This is the only mixed school,” he says in rough French. “Boys and girls sit in the same rows.”

The crowd climbs the courtyard wall. The children are playing basketball, and suddenly Rabbi Serfaty and Imam Chalghoumi, both big fans of the sport, join the game. Two teams form: one behind the man wearing the kippah, the khakham (meaning the “erudite one,” the same word in both Hebrew and Arabic), the other behind the imam.

From high up on balconies and windows of the surrounding houses, the crowd gets excited. Alain Michel brings the banner painted by the Sderot children. The Gazan children unfurl it. It is long and takes many children to hold it up. We join them, and they begin to dance.

Rabbi Serfaty sings the popular Hebrew song Shalom Alechem, which means “peace be upon you”. The imam quickly translates into Arabic: Salam Alaikum. Everyone bursts into song, the adults around us as well as the amazed crowd that followed us in the street. Several armed men posted on rooftops watch us, baffled.

It is March 19, and, I will say it again, two months after the war on Gaza. The big surprise is that nobody shot at us. On the contrary, in the middle of the city, Gazans came together around a rabbi accompanied by an imam and a French-Jewish writer, chanting in Hebrew, “peace be upon you”.

The Palestinian members of Hommes de Paroles begin distributing supplies and toys from the Convoy for Peace. We need to get back on the road toward the border. In the streets of Gaza, I realise, almost beyond belief, that many girls are not wearing veils.

Last updated: 11:13am, April 7 2009