By Andy Beale
—I met Lora Lucero, a social activist from my mom’s generation, on brief occasions at (un)Occupy Albuquerque events. But a few weeks after arriving in the West Bank, I noticed she was writing Facebook status updates about life in the Gaza Strip. Lora later told me she’d promised her sons to post at least once every day so they would know she was safe.
I wrote her a message that I was in the West Bank, and that I hoped to meet with her. She replied that it was “almost impossible” to get to Gaza from the West Bank.
War gave us the chance.
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, following Israeli army killings of a couple of civilians during the previous weeks, the Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Jabari was assassinated, launching the bombing campaign known as Operation Pillar of Cloud.
To get into Gaza, I needed an Israeli press pass, but I had given up my dream of getting one. I’d heard countless stories about the arduous and invasive application process, which seemed designed to deter foreign journalists from even attempting to obtain press cards.
During the war, however, I was advised that the Government Press Office was giving cards to almost everyone who asked—presumably to avoid a repeat of bad publicity during the last large-scale Israeli attack on the Strip when foreign journalists were denied entry to Gaza.
On the last day of Pillar of Cloud, I went to the press office and easily obtained my press card with the help of a recommendation letter written by Marisa Demarco, New Mexico Compass co-founder and ex-Alibi editor in chief.
I was extremely nervous about entering Gaza during a war, but decided to head in the next day, along with my neighbor Rebecca, a fellow journalist. Before I got my press card, I messaged Lora to tell her I was planning to come to Gaza and that I would love to meet if the situation permitted.
Her response was not encouraging. She highly recommended that I not enter, referencing the killing of several journalists by the IDF in preceding days.
Luckily (for me, for Lora, for the people of Gaza) a cease-fire was declared that night.
The next day, I crossed into Gaza via the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint.
After a couple days of touring and interviews, including with a duo of doctors who went without sleep for nearly the entire eight-day war, I found Lora in Palestine.
Lora taught law at UNM before she traveled to Gaza to teach engineering students at the Islamic University of Gaza a very different subject: global warming.
“I wanted to contact the city planners. I’m a city planner as well,” she told me. “But they don’t have planners. The next best thing was the engineers.”
I pointed out that Gaza—with a population of 1.7 million people permitted to use electricity for only 12 hours a day—probably isn’t one of the world’s major producers of greenhouse gases.
She explained that her class, “Building a Resilient Community in the Age of Climate Change and Conflict,” focuses on steps that can be taken to reduce the toll of climate change.
“There are some islands in the Pacific that had very little impact [on C02 levels], and now they’re underwater. It’s the same here,” she said. “It’s adaptation. What kinds of things can you do when you’re building new buildings?”
Lora told me she didn’t come to Gaza just to teach, but to get a better understanding of the situation.
“I have to confess I’m learning more than I’m teaching. I could read all I wanted, but until I’m living here, under occupation, living with electricity 12 hours a day, living with no clean water … “
She had been to Gaza before, in 2004. In the city of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, an old man approached and started yelling in Arabic. She didn’t understand what he was saying, but a friend who witnessed it translated.
“He said the old man was telling me that international people always come to Gaza,” she said. “They want to see the destruction, and then they go home and nothing changes, and that’s what you’re going to do. Meaning me. And that really hit me in the gut.”
Lora decided she had to come back for a longer trip. After an unsuccessful attempt to enter last year that involved a three weeks wait for approval in Cairo, she finally got permission this year. She credits the regime change in Egypt with more relaxed restrictions on entering Gaza.
Our conversation turned to the war. Lora said she’d never seriously considered leaving during the bombing campaign. She spent the eight-days of violence with her host family.
“My sons asked me what am I doing to stay safe. There’s nothing you can do to stay safe,” she said. “I did exactly what every other Palestinian did to stay safe. I stayed off the streets. … 1.7 million people were off the streets. It was dead silent. We sat inside. When we had electricity, we tried to communicate with the outside world.”
It was an experience Lora shared with all of the residents of Gaza: sitting in a candlelit room, listening to bombs fall, hoping your house won’t be next.
“When they’re off in the distance, it’s hard to tell the difference between a bomb and a thunderstorm. But when it’s a block away, you can see the fireball out your window,” she told me. “The scariest thing to me was hearing the swoosh of the missiles. You can hear it before it hits, and you don’t know if it’s going to be your house.”
Agence France Presse reported 163 Gazans were killed during the bombing campaign, and six Israelis were killed by rockets fired from Gaza.
Lora asked me not to tell this next part to anyone in Gaza, but said it was OK to put in this article: She has connections to Gazans affected by Pillar of Cloud, and she has family connections to Israel. “My sister converted and is an orthodox Jew,” she said. “On and off, her children have lived in Israel. And they’re very ardent supporters of Israel. And one of her sons was in the IDF and got called up as a reservist [during Pillar of Cloud]. So I was here worrying about the bombs falling, but also about the impact of the occupation on the soldiers.”
A cursory glance at testimonies given by ex-soldiers to Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-IDF members who have served in the occupied territories, confirms her fears. The violence has intense psychological effects on the people carrying it out.
I took my leave from Lora after my friends and I gave her a ride to her house in the pouring rain. But we’ve stayed in contact, and I expect we will for a long time.