By Shafiq Morton in Cape Town, South Africa
When I first visited Gaza in 1997 with a tour group from South Africa , we took the Israelis off guard. It was Shabat – or the Sabbath when Jewish Halakah does not allow the lifting of a fingernail – and the Erez checkpoint was completely deserted.
It was dead quiet, and Erez’s parking lot was a dusty sea of trucks, buses and cars. Israel does not permit Palestinian-registered vehicles to leave or enter Gaza. Only diplomats and government officials enjoy dual access. Your bus or taxi has to drop you off at the border, and somebody has to pick you up on the other side.
We entered a wire tunnel resembling a cattle-pen, and surprised a dozing Israeli soldier. He awoke with a start, astonishment written on his face. We had taken a wrong turn and had entered the Palestinian section, one that had been closed after Israel had been rocked by bomb blasts at the Ben Yehuda Mall in downtown Jerusalem.
After enduring the tedium of Israeli bureaucracy, we finally entered Gaza. Our beaming bus driver was totally unfazed by a three hour delay. Unable to speak English, all he could say was: “Welcome Mandela!”
Gaza is actually the name of an ancient seaport. Thousands of years ago, the Nabateans used to send their camel trains laden with frankincense to Gaza. Palestinians say Gaza is named after the Prophet Muhammad’s great-grandfather, a Makkan trader who is buried in the old city. The prophets Ibrahim, Yusuf and ‘Isa (as) also passed through Gaza on their journeys to Egypt.
Gaza’s history dates back to the Bronze Age, and it’s only since 1948 that it has been known as a “Strip”. During the Byzantine era it was a seat of philosophy, and is the location of some of the oldest churches in the world. Under its sands lies a largely unexplored archaeological treasure trove.
Modern day Gaza boasts some of the most unspoilt, uncrowded surfing beaches in the Mediterranean, but in contrast its breeze-block urban centres jostle hap-hazardly across its cramped province – one of the most densely populated refugee dumping grounds in the world.
Gaza is squeezed into a tiny space that is only 42 kilometres long, and about 10 kilometres wide. It is 14 times smaller than the West Bank, and nestles on the Egyptian border where the refugee centre of Rafah was cut in two by the Camp David Accords. Half its citizens live in Egypt, the other half in Gaza.
With about 3,000 Palestinians for every square kilometre, and with a population of over 1 million (mostly refugees), Gaza has the power to make Israeli leaders wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Gaza is a demographic pressure cooker; it is a festering seat of resentment and resistance that nobody wants.
The motivation of Ariel Sharon’s unilateralism in 2005 when he disbanded Gaza’s 18 settlements, housing some 2,500 Jewish settlers, was to conveniently completely parcel off Israel’s least desirable entity.
Sharon knew well that with the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and the 1948 territories now exceeding that of Israeli Jews, one of the most pressing Israeli questions had become demographics. To cut off Gaza, to deny its existence, to foist it upon Egypt (its caretakers before 1967) would be to buy the Zionist project another twenty years.
I visited Gaza for the second time in 2006 to observe Palestine’s parliamentary elections as a member of South Africa’s Foreign Affairs mission. This time we did not catch Israeli sentries off guard, and our diplomatic vehicle was allowed to cross the border.
Once around the concrete barriers, we had to make an immediate detour as a bomb crater had destroyed the road. Gaza City was its usual crowded self, the wintry January weather making its grey streets even greyer. 16th century travellers had described Gaza as being “shady and full of fruit trees”. Now a damp concrete jungle sprouted from its sands.
Previously, there had been fears that we would be kidnapped by “militants”. The Israeli administration, nervously monitoring (and sometimes hampering) the election process, had issued warnings to foreigners.
It was reminiscent of Apartheid when the authorities would always advise against visiting the Black townships. In Israel, much of the same paranoia endures, but in the West Bank and Gaza I’d never been met with anything other than hospitality. I’ve always felt welcome in Gaza.
And in spite of its water shortages, frequent power outages, chronic unemployment, rampant hunger (80% of Gazans are reliant upon food aid), political instability and Israeli incursions, it does cling tenaciously to a quaint and alluring charm. I have experienced places and witnessed landscapes in Gaza that defy all the odds of war and siege.
Shaikh Ahmed Yasin, the assassinated spiritual leader of Hamas, once remarked that for a Palestinian to exist he had to resist. For Israelis, who have a borrowed culture, even Palestinian beauty can signify resistance. From its creaking donkey carts to the smell of freshly baked bread in its alleys and brightly painted wooden fishing boats, there are certain things that no amount of tyranny can ever take away from Gaza.
Of course, I speak about locked-down Gaza as a visitor, and with the comforting knowledge that I’m not Palestinian and can leave at any time.
For those who are resident in Gaza it’s entirely different. Regarded as hostile territory by Israel due to a Hamas government being elected, Gaza is paying a heavy price for the world’s refusal to acknowledge the results of a free and fair election. Deliberately drained of financial resources, and completely fenced-in and totally cut-off from the West Bank, Gaza has become the world’s biggest detention centre.
Besieged by the fourth strongest army in the world, Gazans are the 21sst century’s prime victims of disproportionate, state-sponsored violence. In 2006, Israel fired 14, 000 artillery shells into the Gaza Strip compared to just over a thousand al-Qassam rockets being launched into Israel from Gaza.
Those who complain about al-Qassam rockets raining down upon the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, forget when Israeli forces kill the innocent in Bait Hanoun and Rafah that only a dozen or so Israelis have perished in the primitive al-Qassam attacks – compared to nearly a thousand Gazans in the same period.
Of course, all human life is sacred (there can never be any justification for the taking of civilian lives anywhere) but the truth is that without the al-Qassam rockets, the Israeli administration has nothing to beat Hamas with. Peaceful, Qassam-less Palestinians in Gaza is exactly what the Zionist lobby does not want. Jewish victims are as precious to the Zionist cause as they are to the Palestinian one.
Today, Gazans are being collectively punished for the “sins” of previous Israeli administrations that meddled in Palestinian politics. If Israelis have regrets about the rise of Hamas, they have only themselves to blame. It was Israeli intelligence, after all, that secretly nurtured the nascence of the Palestinian Islamic Movement in the 1980’s to erode support for the PLO.
Israeli Minister Matan Vilnai’s statement that a “Holocaust” would be visited upon Gaza in the latest of Israel’s many onslaughts is nothing less than a gross violation of international law. What else could Palestinians read from Mr. Vilnai’s obscene rhetoric other than intentions of genocide?
And what about the children, witnesses to their parent’s constant humiliation by Israeli violence, but ultimately its worst victims? Walkabout in Gaza for me has always meant being trailed by hordes of children. They are all beautiful kids, yes, but they are not normal; their lives are not normal. I’m a curiosity because I’m a fair-skinned stranger with a camera, and not a gun.
In Gaza’s primary schools the young do not draw happy family groups behind picket fences. Here the infant mind depicts helicopter gunships, exploding ordinance and young Jewish men with flaming assault rifles.
Or as Bishop Desmond Tutu pleaded the other day: “Please, please for God’s sake stop this carnage; for the sake of the Israel’s children, for the sake of Palestinian children, for the sake of all our children.”
Indeed, for the sake of all our children, let Gaza rest in peace.
-Shafiq Morton is a Cape Town based photo-journalist, author and radio show host. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com