Writing by Patrick Keddie
As we stood at the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, a high-pitched bleep barely preceded the booms and the pressure drop as Israeli artillery targeting tunnels exploded half a kilometre away. I always knew our trip to Gaza would be no ‘jolly’ but this added a whole new dimension of fear.
In the end the Egyptians wouldn’t let us through and we returned to Cairo to await a new permit. Four days later, two days after the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel had been signed, we were back at the crossing and this time we made it through Egyptian customs. We boarded the bus to take us a couple of hundred metres – driving under an arch welcoming us to Palestine – and disembarked into Gaza’s immaculate border post, replete with polished, patterned tile and an air-conditioned chill.
It was a pleasant surprise to be welcomed warmly by the Gazan custom officials as we waited for our fixer Yousef to arrive to meet us. Foreign visitors to Gaza usually need a ‘guide’ to accept responsibility for them during their stay and Yousef informed us with a smile that, if we misbehave, he gets thrown in jail.
Soon enough we were through customs and out into the black Gaza evening. Electricity is intermittent here and the blackouts have been exacerbated by destruction during Pillar of Defence. Working street lights are rare. We made our way north through muddy roads filling with rainwater towards Gaza City. Quite naturally, Yousef was relieved that the bombings had finally ended – “I have now survived Cast Lead and Pillar of Defence. That’s something I can put on my CV.”
Over the next few days, in lukewarm November sun, we started to survey some of the aftermath from the 8-day Israeli bombardment. The damage was not hard to find. We found Hamas officials picking through the detritus of their leveled police station. Several Hamas buildings have been destroyed by Israel, including the ministry of the interior which had been targeted 13 times by missiles, though one F16 strike is generally enough to level a huge building.
We came across a house reduced to rubble, with a photo album showing a family celebrating a birthday party gazing up from amongst the smashed masonry. We discovered missile craters in open ground, whose intended targets apparently baffled locals. The missiles had sprayed earth and shattered windows high up nearby apartment blocks.
We visited the coastal road bridge crossing Wadi Gaza that has been blown in half and we found a bridge further down the river which had been targeted, rupturing a water pipe that serves 10,000 people. We saw a large complex on the outskirts of Gaza smashed to pieces by an F16 missile; its front torn off to reveal gaping cavities of destruction. On one of the walls a bright, tiled landscape of the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem remained intact, standing out amid the pallid grays and browns of smashed concrete and hurled earth.
According to the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council, at least 162 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, the majority of whom were civilians – including 37 children. The catalogue of damage in Gaza includes 963 houses, 10 health centres, 35 schools, 2 universities, 8 governmental buildings and a UNRWA food distribution centre. Three Israeli civilians were killed when a rocket hit their homes in Southern Israel.
Despite the obvious destruction, the damage pales in contrast to the chaos wrought during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in late 2008/early 2009 when over 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis died.
The clear up of the damage caused during Pillar of Defence has begun in earnest. Much of the speed of repairs will depend on securing funds from donors and further stretching chastened budgets. However, the physical and psychological wounds will be harder to heal and the prospect of conflict returning is ever-present. Most people I’ve spoken to here seem to think that the ceasefire will hold for some time but all are resigned to further conflict in the future.
A Gazan friend in the UK told me that, in spite of its tiny dimensions, “Gaza is big.” He meant that not only can you go astray in the haphazard urban terrain but that you can get lost in the huge range of stories and characters which encompass a wide spectrum of life. He was telling me to be prepared to have my expectations confounded; that Gaza is a place where wealth and the latest technology contrasts with refugee camp squalor and where the cosmopolitan mingle with those who have never left the enclave.
Yet these voices and stories rarely emerge. Israel’s blockade is a collective punishment of Palestinians they regard as a de-facto security threat. By punishing them collectively, Israel objectifies Gazans by removing their right to be treated as diverse individuals and denying political context.
Our trip is a small attempt to address this problem. We have around a month to try to get beyond conflict and suffering and to show insights into how ordinary Gazans live, struggle and thrive. Our aim is to help re-assert subjectivity and portray the lives of a wide range of individuals who have aspirations, emotions, relationships, talents and a political consciousness.
Hopefully our reportage can ‘complicate’ in the best way possible by drawing out nuance, shade, and contradictions from this under-reported territory – whilst attempting to find some coherence in the complexity and chaos.