Sara Farsakh frantically scribbles notes on the sides of her paper, adding names and places as they come to mind. Behind her, a friend massages her shoulders like she would a boxer about to enter the ring with her toughest yet most anticipated opponent.
Farsakh just spent most of the previous day and half the night debating whether she will be able to share this story in public and dreading the path her emotions might take should she choose to do so. Her decision made, all she can do now is stare at the floor and focus intently on keeping her intentions and emotions in check as she waits for the introduction to her first public speech in years. With a few deep breaths and a couple mutters of “bismillahi rahmani rahim” (I begin in the name of Allah, most beneficent, most merciful) under her breath, she begins …
“The story begins on Jan. 3, 2009. A man living north of Gaza city, near Beit Hanoun, woke up for the dawn prayer. He lit a candle as he walked his way to the bathroom, near his daughter’s bedroom. He walked into the bathroom, put the candle down and began to make wudu, a cleansing before prayer. As he began making wudu, a bomb struck, hitting him in the head, ripping apart his face; part of his head was bare open.
“His wife ran [to him] immediately, [as] the house was half destructed. Imagine looking at your husband of 26 years, faceless, with blood everywhere. She ran outside looking for help; as his wife ran, she saw her neighbors dead in the streets. Soldiers began shooting at her, [so] she ran back inside.
“The woman found her husband somehow hugging his only daughter’s bed. She quickly put his face back together, looking at him for the last time … ”
Farsakh exhales. “That man was my uncle.”
Farsakh lost five family members to the current war in the Palestinian Gaza Strip – four who were killed as they were standing outside their home on the first day of the attacks – a war that has catapulted prominently to the national stage since Israel launched a massive air strike on the densely populated Gaza Strip on Dec. 27, 2008, and followed it with a ground offensive on Jan. 3, 2009.
The attacks follow violations of the Egypt-brokered truce between Israel and the democratically-elected Hamas leadership in Gaza, whereby members of Hamas would stop launching rockets into Israel and Israel would halt raids in Gaza and ease its economic blockade, originally imposed when Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007. Although debates continue in regards to who committed the first violation, many on both sides of the conflict can agree that the people of Gaza are undergoing a serious humanitarian crisis.
According to CNN and The Guardian, after only three weeks of fighting, more than 1,200 Gazans, a large number of them civilians, have been killed, with almost 5,000 injured, a situation the Red Cross, as per the AFP, has deemed “completely and utterly unacceptable based on every known standard of international law and universal humanitarian principles and values.”
The Red Cross further states that as of last week, 28,000 Gazans have been displaced to escape fighting near their homes. Both the Red Cross and the United Nations have emphasized the lack of adequate food, aid, electricity, water and other utilities in the Gaza Strip, home to 1.4 million people.
The calamitous humanitarian situation has reignited the flames of activism across the globe. Massive demonstrations have taken place in countries varying from Paris, France to Lahore, Pakistan. The Guardian even reports 10,000 people in Tel Aviv, Israel who took to the streets in protest. Yet, protest is most popular amongst student groups in various campuses across the nation. From staging mass call-ins to city council members and members of Congress, to circulating divestment petitions and hosting numerous fundraisers, students are standing up and letting their voices be heard.
It was therefore no surprise that Farsakh found herself at the “Voices for Gaza: Student Speak-Out” on a recent sunny Thursday afternoon at UC Irvine, sharing with hundreds of friends and strangers her family’s tragic tale.
Farsakh sits curled up at her friends’ Berkeley Court apartment, near her own place five minutes away from where she lives with four other girls, eager yet anxious to crack open discussion about Gaza again.
A Palestinian fourth-year political science major at UCI, Farsakh calls the heavily populated strip home. Born on a rainy day in Gaza City during the First Intifada – the Palestinian uprising against the Israelis – Farsakh recalls being told that the hospitals were opened largely for the wounded, and several pregnant women were squeezed into one hallway due to the lack of space and utilities. Shortly after being introduced to the world, Farsakh contracted pneumonia – an experience she says that she was lucky to survive.
With her birth in Gaza, Farsakh was given a “Hawiyya,” or Palestinian identification card, which according to Farsakh allows the Israeli soldiers to disregard her U.S. citizenship and prevents her from being allowed into Tel Aviv. Her earliest memory of life in the strip was at the age of 3, when Israeli Defense Force (IDF) tanks were leaving, following the end of the First Intifada, through the streets of her neighborhood. She remembers her family and neighbors gathering outside their homes or on their flat rooftops and flashing peace signs to the departing soldiers, hoping to show that they meant no harm.
Although Farsakh left Gaza a few months after she was born, the way she reminisces about it reveals a deep emotional attachment. After all, most of her mother’s family lives in that area, as did her mother’s 48-year-old brother, Sami Louzon. So when Farsakh’s mom saw Louzon’s eldest son Khalil and his wife Samar rushing into a hospital next to a stretcher on an Arabic news network in the early hours of Jan. 4, she started panicking.
“A few minutes after my mom saw them on TV, one of my cousins called, screaming and telling my mom the news,” Farsakh says. “When I called the house nine hours later, I immediately knew something was wrong because my sister was crying on the phone. Though it was several hours later, I could still hear my mom screaming in the background. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe it was actually hitting home … ” she trails off, speechless and dwelling on her own thoughts.
“You always hear that [the fighting] is so close to your family,” Farsakh continues. “But you never really think something like this will happen to someone you know. But to finally have it hit you directly, it hurts, and you want to do more, have a stronger fight for the cause because you feel like you owe that much to [those who died].”
As a result, despite lacking any affinity to speaking in public, Farsakh agreed to participate in the Jan. 8 speak-out and rally that took place at UCI.
“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! The occupation has got to go!” students exclaimed.
“Free Gaza now!” Farsakh cries along with 200-250 other college and high school students who banded together for an hour-long rally, hosted by various campus clubs and organization that marched almost the entire length of Ring Road around UCI. A couple dozen people ahead of her marched Russell Curry, a fourth-year biological sciences major, student activist and local emcee. Ever since he started reading up on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, he found himself more and more deeply vested in what happened there, so when the recent crisis in Gaza struck, he definitely felt the blow.
“When it started, I was seriously just sad,” Curry recalls. “A desperate feeling of helplessness spread over me that lasted for a few days because I wanted to be able to do something, anything, but didn’t know how.”
So Curry began spreading the word of the unfolding situation through his blog, and as fellow bloggers began to show interest, the “coalition for Gaza” gave birth, and organizing the rally and protest – as well as the candlelight vigil taking place on Jan. 21 – commenced.
Following the rally were several students and community members waving Israeli flags in support for the Jewish state’s latest operation and countering the ensuing rally’s chants with their own songs and calls. Amongst them walks Isaac Yerushalmi, a member of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and president of Anteaters for Israel, whose own family has been affected by the situation in the Middle East.
Hamas’s consequent launching of Qassam bombs in various parts of Southern Israel, including civilian areas, has worried Israeli residents, and was a large factor in the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to launch the recent attack on Gaza. Since the operation started, 13 Israelis have died, including four killed by rockets launched from Gaza and three of whom were civilians, according to the Los Angeles Times.
A lot of Yerushalmi’s own family lives in Ashkelon, a city in southern Israel, not too far from Gaza. Since the ceasefire ended, Yerushalmi, who keeps in touch with one of his cousins in the region, says his family has been retreating into bomb shelters multiple times a day. He says when a siren goes off, residents have 15 seconds to get to a shelter, and claims some people won’t take showers because they worry they won’t be able to get to a shelter in time. Although none of his family has been physically hurt, Yerushalmi sees the effect it has on them mentally.
Farsakh agrees that the mental toll that the entire Israel-Palestine conflict, and in particular this current attack on Gaza, has taken on civilians has been exceptionally high.
“I know from talking to my grandma that people are suffering from a lot of psychological issues in Gaza,” Farsakh said. “Either these people and their children can’t eat, or when they eat they suffer from severe vomiting and diarrhea. If they go outside their house, all they hear are fighter planes flying over, bombs going off and people screaming.
A UCSF professor researching the mindsets of Gazan children has found that this conflict is going to severely affect them for generations to come.
“At the end of the day, what I’m trying to say is that these people in Gaza are humans, and they have the right to be treated like humans.”