The Last Time I Was in Gaza
The Frenchman was, at last, smiling. He was just ahead of me in the security line to enter the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Gaza. It was the winter of 1994. The Oslo Accords had recently been signed. Tentative peace had broken out. Patrice Barrat, whose father Robert, had been a champion for Algerians during the long Franco-Algerian war of the 1950s, was ecstatic. Like his father, Patrice had championed Arab causes and had fought for international recognition of Palestine. Oslo had seemed like the gateway to that possibility.
It was all very new to me. In spite of having the last name Greenberg, I’d never thought much about Israel, had never been there and certainly didn’t have any direct experience with the Middle East peace process. But I worked for an NGO at the time that had just received funding to train Palestinians to do television news. Since I’d done something similar in post-Soviet Russia I was flown in to Tel Aviv and driven down to Gaza with the idea that I could help.
“Hey Patrice,” I said tapping my colleague on the shoulder, “I bet I’m the first Jew to ever go into P.L.O. headquarters.”
“No, you’re not,” said Patrice, “and I’ll tell you why in a second.” He passed through the metal detector ahead of me and entered the building’s vestibule. Then he turned to me, with his sparkling green-flecked hazel eyes and laughed, “I was the first.”
That Patrice had kept the fact from me that his mother was Jewish-born was somehow indicative of the time. The oppression of Palestinians at the hands of Jews was unsettling to many of the liberal French colleagues with whom I worked. One-by-one I learned after Oslo that this film editor I’d worked with had a Jewish father or that producer was bar-mitzvah-ed. Oslo was the great sigh of relief — the chance to come clean about identity and to say “extremists be damned. I’m a Jew. You’re an Arab. So what?”
And once we were inside the Gaza municipal building that housed the city’s main television station, I could see that the same sigh of relief had infected the Palestinians. This television station could be something other than an instrument of propaganda. It had cameras, editing bays, the usual brick-a-brac that I’d seen in any…