By Kris Petersen
Special to PalestineChronicle.com
Khalil laughs and shakes head as we dine along the seaside terrace of Gaza’s luxurious al-Deira Hotel.
“This is not Gaza,” he says, dismissively gesturing towards the hotel’s maroon exterior and the tables of dining European journalists. “The real Gaza is just down the street, where 1,000 people are living on a single street block.” He chuckles ironically and slaps me on the back.
“And here, we can’t even drink a whiskey to drown our sorrows!”
I had only been in Gaza for two days, yet I immediately appreciated the locals’ uniquely fatalistic humor. Perhaps it’s almost a reflection on Gaza’s manifest resilience and remarkable ability to shrug off the tragedy of an environment in perpetual crisis.
I arrived in the Gaza Strip on the morning of Friday, August 31st eager to begin work with the Palestinian Center For Human Rights (PCHR). It was my first trip to the occupied territories, despite having studied the situation for so long, and as I approached the Eretz Military Checkpoint, I felt the excitement of finally getting into this tiny piece of land. In early 2007, I had begun inquiring about traveling to Gaza with various Israeli embassy officials, mostly unfamiliar with the process of acquiring proper security clearance and one of whom flatly hung up when I asked. Undaunted and clearly in need of additional for additional help, I contacted academics, journalists, Palestinian bloggers, aid workers and the Israel Defense Force (IDF) only to receive different explanations from each source.
As I discovered, getting into Gaza is a convoluted, Kafkaesque process and is virtually impossible if you are unable to provide a “good” reason to the Israel Defense Force; indeed, many qualified people are barred from entry without explanation almost as a matter of routine. Under the terms of the 2005 Disengagement Plan, Israel retains total control over Gaza’s borders (including surveillance of the Rafah crossing at the Egyptian border), Gaza’s coastline and airspace. This means that the final say over an individual’s entrance into the Strip, Palestinian or not, is in Israel’s hands.
Inevitably my choice of destination led to some special treatment from Israeli officials. When I arrived at Ben Gurion airport, for example, I was immediately flagged by customs officials and questioned extensively about my intentions and contacts in Gaza.
“Why are you interested in going to Gaza? Were you coerced into coming? Do you hate Israel? Are you planning to criticize the Israeli military? Were you coerced into coming? Haven’t you packed a little light for your stay? Do you support Hamas?”
And once again for good luck:
“So you were you coerced into coming?”
After roughly an hour of this, during which my passport was briefly taken into another room by a security official, I was finally free to go about my business. The following Friday I had arranged for coordination with the IDF across the border into Gaza. Once at Eretz, I waited for only a short while being allowed to pass. I was shocked! After hearing stories of day-long waits and strip-searches, my experience lasted a little over an hour. Looking back across the hall, through the barriers of bulletproof glass, and uzi-toting soldiers I could see dozens of Palestinians waiting patiently to enter Israel. It would take them much longer.
I passed through multiple one-way metal doors with some difficulty and when I was through the last door, I finally left the enclosed structure on the Israeli side of Eretz and entered a partially enclosed barbed-wire “tunnel”. When Hamas took over the Gaza Strip last June, hundreds of Fatah supporters attempted to flee by seeking refuge in these halls.
A Palestinian man wearing a reflective orange vest appeared and quickly placed my bag onto a push-cart. I introduced myself and asked where he came from. The answer, as it turned out, was Beit Hanoun—the crumbling, bombed out town at the very north of the Gaza Strip, which could be seen to our left as we walked through the endless expanse of barbed-wire and fencing.
Continuing, I noticed the concrete walkway gradually disappear beneath my feet, shifting to gravel and dirt; the ceiling followed suit and transformed from corrugated aluminum into twisted shards of bullet-holed rust. The transition was complete upon exiting the checkpoint. Despite having left the lofty skyscrapers of Tel Aviv barely two hours earlier, I may as well have been on the other side of the moon. Since the second Intifada, the economic conditions in Gaza have declined to all-time lows, manifested physically as the widespread deterioration observable anywhere in Gaza. Bombed-out buildings and cars lined the road. In the distance I saw Beit Hanoun, the ghost city under almost constant Israel attack because of the militant rocket-fire coming from the area. I thought of the children killed by an Israeli tank shell last Tuesday as they were playing "tag" too close to the Israeli border.
Putting these thought aside I asked one of the local taxi drivers to take me into the city. I was scheduled to meet with Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights later that afternoon. The 20-minute journey from Eretz to Gaza City was a harrowing experience. If Sara Roy’s term “de-development” had a physical image
We passed dilapidated buildings, broken billboards, skinny children skipping along crumbling sidewalks, a young boy playing near the maggot-infested carcass of a rotting mule. Garbage dumpsters were buried in overflowing piles of filth—are often ablaze to clear more space for Gaza’s waste.
The argument that Israel bear no responsibility for Gaza’s crisis post-disengagement is disingenuous and lacks a basic understanding of the situation; conditions on the ground here are a direct consequence of a brutal 40-year occupation and virtual isolation from the outside world, notwithstanding the clear military dominance Israel continues to wield in the Strip. From Gaza’s shoreline, Israeli naval vessels are clearly visible and are known to frequently fire upon fishermen straying too far from shore.
The Strip lies somewhere around extreme underdevelopment, lacking basic infrastructure and any basis to jump-start a desperate economy. While certainly at crisis level, however, Gaza is not allowed to sink so low that that international community will take notice and perhaps do something about it. Raji Sourani later described Gaza to me as a bottle which Israel keeps plugged until the people inside begin to suffocate; when this happens, enough air is let in to keep the people from dying.
Smiling oddly, Raji added to his analysis, “And this is our life.”
While in the taxi, I spoke with a teenage boy name Khaled. He came from the Jabalia refugee camp North of Gaza City, which he pointed out to me as we passed. One of the most densely populated places on earth, the Jabalia refugee camp houses over 74,000 people per square kilometer—about three times the population density of central Manhattan. Passing the endless rows of apartments, I observed that the expanse of concrete behemoths stretched all the way to Gaza’s coastline.
I asked Khaled about Hamas and the situation since the Islamist group took over. He was enthusiastic about Hamas, hailing the decline in Gaza’s crime, much to the chagrin of the driver, Mahmud, who complained about Hamas’ over-zealous methods. Since their seizure of power last June, teenagers with Kalashnikovs now regularly patrol Gaza’s Omar al-Mukhtar St. The lingering opposition to Hamas still remaining in Gaza stages occasional indignant demonstrations, to which Hamas often responds violently; one such incident in September put some 20 people in the hospital, including two French journalists.
In general the people here exude typical Palestinian sarcasm when discussing politics. Many of the Gazans I have met resent Hamas orthodoxies and casually laugh when they consider having to hide during Ramadan so they can avoid being spotted while eating or smoking. Others have taken to shouting “Allahu Akhbar!” to express their excitement, satirically referencing the religiosity of Gaza’s new order.
Speaking with the head of the women’s rights unit at PCHR, Mona Ahmad al-Shawa, I was interested to discover that Hamas has steered clear of their operations (which include free legal defense for women brought before Shari’a courts).
“They’re scared to interfere with us because we are so popular in Gaza,” she told me. “If they try to obstruct our work, they will lose the people’s support.”
“Besides, Hamas uses our reports to point out human rights violations committed by Fatah. Of course they conveniently overlook our criticism of their own practices, but this is Gaza! It’s crazy here!”
My new flat lies in the Rimal quarter of Gaza, a quaint district of enclosed gardens, narrow streets. Each day I am taken to work via taxi at 8.00 am and back home again by 4.00 pm. When shopping for groceries, I am accompanied by a member of the PCHR staff. Though restricted in my movement, I try to discuss with the locals as much as possible.
Samir, my taxi driver, ritually avoids discussing politics with me, instead choosing to ask why I am not yet married.
“When I was your age, I already had a son!” he has informed me.
One day, I managed to extract bit of information and he explained his views on the situation.
“Before the (2005) election, I supported Hamas with all my heart, but they are LIARS! They have dragged Gaza from bad to… more bad!”
He shook his head sadly declared, “I have no hope for Gaza.”
One afternoon, while reading a book in Gaza’s Square of the Unknown Soldier, a group of teenage schoolgirls passed me, clearly aware of my foreign disposition and giggling in unison as I waved at them. I wondered if they were old enough to grasp the gravity of the situation in which they were presently trapped. There seemed to be a general nonchalance—perhaps an awareness that politics is not everything among Gaza’s young adults. After all, despite the trials of occupation, it is clear that life continues with gusto in Gaza. Even among Palestinian adults, ever-conscious of Gaza’s deteriorating circumstances, consistently declare "Welcome to my country! My beautiful country!" followed by an overly enthusiastic handshake.
At first glance it may seem that the uncertainty of a life without freedom, the bleakness Gaza’s future and the future of its 1.4 million people leaves Gazans emotionally unfazed, but as I settle into my new life here as a human rights activist, I can’t shake the feeling that an identifiable recognition of something sinister lurks beneath the smiles and hospitality of my new friends. Whenever Mona shrugs and says, “This is Gaza!”, whenever Raji offers a wry smile, whenever Khalil laughs sarcastically.. Indeed, whenever I speak with anyone here, I detect an ounce of some profound melancholy lingering in the eyes of my colleagues. Sitting with Khalil on another humid Gazan evening, I asked about this. His response was somehow predictable:
“Welcome to Gaza!” he said laughing.