Under pressure

Most communities fragment under pressure, as we are abruptly finding in Aotearoa.  Gazans are constantly awareness that they are powerless before an overwhelming, uncaring threat – yet somehow, in extremis Gaza coheres like contact cement.

November 14, 2012 was the first night of an eight-day bombardment and I was alone in my apartment on the 14th floor. With each explosion nearby, my building and my stomach lurched further than I would have expected.

Worst was the helplessness. Gaza has no defensive weapons, so Israeli planes circled and bombed at will. I sat and waited – BOOM, lurch, correct – sat and waited. I tracked each plane across my ceiling and thought, this is what the fish sees in its barrel.

My Palestinian team members called with practical advice.  Did I know to leave the windows slightly open to diminish the chance that they would blow inward?  Had I plugged in every device to charge while there was electricity? In two of their households, parents were distracting their small children by teaching them to dance to the peculiar backbeat of the naval shelling that was pouring into Beach Camp, an undefended refugee camp just north of me.

Two of my male colleagues called me. They each lived nearby. Each man offered to leave his family, collect me, and bring me home to live with his family through the war. One of those men had enduring professional differences with me, yet he pressed me especially to take shelter with him.  No one, he insisted, should be alone beneath the bombs.

I’ve thought of him often through Covid. Imagine calling up the people you dislike, and pleading with them to lock down with your family through the worst, open-ended stress.  Imagine checking in with your nemesis daily because you are sharing an experience more profound than your dislike. Rather than turning on each other, rather than assuming that personal responsibility is sufficient in a collective crisis, Palestinians knew, ‘I will be well while I am caring for you, too.’

In 2013, I was appointed to a task force.  Israel’s blockade of Gaza produces deep poverty, and 800,000 Gazans were then in need of relief food (today, more than 1,000,000 Gazans need relief food).  Budgets were not keeping pace with need.  Our task force had to devise policy and operating systems to prioritise the food entitlements of 800,000 human beings behind a wall. Disrupted by the war of 2014, it took the task force 16 months to devise, implement, code, train and roll out a new system.  When Covid struck, the system enabled food distribution, rather than collection.

Our thorniest ethical question was this: what happens when a parent secures their family’s entitlement by giving false information?  In a situation of scarcity and malnutrition, what policy response is fair?

Fair to whom, we wondered.  Fair to a fiercely protective parent? Fair to the neighbour who did not lie? How could civic order be maintained, if not by punishing dishonesty?  How else should the system preserve its integrity? What was the point of having policy if entitlement could be forged? What would happen to neighbours if trust broke down? Round and round we went, trying to devise fairness behind an indefensible wall.

The man who broke through our stuckness was a self-described trouble-maker with lifelong radical credentials. “Wait,” he pleaded, “stop.  Who is this policy for?  Who are we responsible to?  Food policy is a policy for children’s nutrition, so why are we arguing about adults?  What is fair for the children?”

We devised our solution from caring rather than punishment, aiming to harness shared values. Our system was despised and mistrusted, as would be any mechanism to cope with insufficient resources. However, it nourished children first  and we could devise no more decent response to Israel’s indecent deprivation of Gazans.

Surviving in a situation willfully designed to harm them, Gazans made goodness their intentional, hourly work. In so doing, they refused to be defined by the violence of others and got on with the business of making the better world they had in mind.  They chose to act as if they had already won.

Their choices choices feel relevant now, as the language of outrage seeps into our social fractures.  People I care about are being drawn onto uncharacteristically angry and absolute ground.  This is going to call for every bit of transcendence we have. 

Marilyn Garson