Writing by Patrick Keddie
Our month in Gaza passed in a blur and my friend was right – in spite of its tiny dimensions Gaza is ‘big’. We didn’t cover half of things we wanted to. Happily, this means we will have to return soon.
As we left, Gazans were in the process of returning to what passes as ‘normal’ a month after ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’, the name given to the 8-day Israeli bombardment of Gaza in November. Families buried and mourned their dead. Those lucky enough to have jobs returned to work and children returned to school. Workers began clearing away rubble and repairing broken infrastructure.
Most people seemed relieved they had survived the onslaught but were resigned to future violence. No one I spoke to thought that the ceasefire would last for long and many people claimed it had already been broken, with Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinians in the borderlands several times. Most people claim they are subject to the whims of Israeli politics, where taking a hard-line on Gaza can win votes for a faltering election campaign.
This is a lull in the fighting, rather than the emergence of peace, and what is ‘normal’ in Gaza is distinctly ‘abnormal’ in any rational sense. Normalcy in Gaza is where Israeli fighter jets cease bombing and are instead content with triggering sonic booms close to shore as they break the speed of sound. F16’s write contrail loops in the sky as they circle; flourishes that underline the potential of imminent destruction. Observation balloons hang motionless in the sky, close to the border. In times of heightened tension, drones emit a robotic-insect buzz high above.
Out at sea, normalcy has resumed. Israeli warships are no longer shelling the enclave but their lights are still regularly visible a few miles from shore, as are the flares of the Israeli rigs which are extracting Gazan gas. Fishermen venture back out to sea and frequently return to shore with stories of harassment and violence.
Unlike the West Bank, which has Israeli troops on the ground, Gaza is occupied by Israel at arm’s-length. When the Israeli settlements in Gaza were disbanded in 2005, Israel removed its forces (although they mounted a large-scale incursion during ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in late 2008/early 2009). Israeli forces do still regularly venture onto Palestinian land near the border, as demonstrated to me by a farmer in Jahar Al-Deek who pointed out fresh tracks on his land made by an armoured vehicle.
In Gaza, Israeli power is typically exerted by remote control. The blockade restricts the free movement of people and allows passage for only a limited amount of goods deemed essential for survival by Israel. A lifeline – and a lucrative trading operation – comes through goods transferred via the hundreds of illicit tunnels running between Gaza and Egypt.
One of the most obvious, quotidian sign of the blockade is the frequent, lengthy power cuts. Gaza has just one power station and it is spluttering along, hugely stretched to over-capacity; lacking fuel and spare parts. When the power cuts out – as it does on a daily basis – many businesses and homes switch on their noxious and expensive diesel-fuelled generators that fill dense streets with a whirring racket.
The amount of sand, mud and trash in the streets is further evidence that Gaza is not functioning normally. Dead animals lie uncollected in the streets, baking to putrefaction under the sun. Even the beach, which should be a source of freedom and joy for Gazans, is scattered with plastic refuse, and the sea has become a cesspit for a daily dumping of tens of thousands of cubic metres of raw sewage, pumped in by Gaza’s overloaded, failing sanitation system.
Ashraf Abu Shamala, from the UNDP’s Infrastructure and Environment Unit, showed me the pipeline that gushes 60,000m3 a day of Gaza City’s raw and partially-treated sewage directly into the sea. “When I was a kid I grew in Khan Younis and I always used to swim. There was no pollution and it was fantastic. Now it is very sad” he said, gesturing to the pipe as it churned out endless frothing sewage, “Basically, you should not swim in Gaza.”
“We want to make a living – that is our political affiliation”
Many people in Gaza credit Hamas with effectively resisting Israel in the latest confrontation and believe that Hamas’s improved arsenal of weapons had discouraged Israel from launching a ground invasion. Hamas’s rule is underlined by the significant armed presence their police maintain in the street.
Hamas celebrated its 25th anniversary and its performance during the confrontation with a rally attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The stage set featured an enormous fake M75 rocket; lauding the new weaponry that allowed them to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the conflict. A new perfume and aftershave called ‘M75’ is selling like crazy.
Given the scale of the death and destruction and the problems that Gaza endures, Hamas’s triumphalism was a little hollow. Many people said they were sick of politics, fighting and the factional nature of Palestinian resistance – they were more concerned with finding peace and employment. Now that people have survived Pillar of Defence, they have returned to the everyday grind of struggling to make ends meet.
Unemployment is around 30% in Gaza and there is a huge divide between rich and poor Gaza, which soon becomes obvious. In Gaza City there are exclusive coffee shops where the fruity aroma of nargileh smoke hangs heavily in the air and the food is sold at London prices. When you venture out of Gaza City, especially in places like Wadi Gaza and Al-Malalha, a Bedouin camp, the deprivation is stark. People here don’t have enough to eat or enough fresh water. Sanitation is poor, with sewage flooding the streets.
Anwar Farajalla, 50, lives in Wadi Gaza. The river was once a nature reserve, now it is sluggish with rubbish and raw sewage. Israel dams the river further upstream to use the water – if the water levels get too high they open gates of the dam and the river floods the valley with waste. The inhabitants are forced to live there because there is nowhere else for them to go.
Anwar blamed politicians for their predicament. “No one cares about workers – neither Fatah nor Hamas, yellow or green – end of the story.”
He told me that during the recent conflict he felt caught in the middle of missiles launched by Israel and rockets fired by Palestinian fighters. Like a lot of people, he was sick of politics and factions in Gaza. The day I spoke to him he had made 5 shekels from driving a taxi – not enough to cover the petrol. “We want to make a living” he told me, “that is our political affiliation.”
Like Anwar, most people in Gaza depend on food distribution from the UN. Few people can afford to extend their crowded family homes or to buy land, which is scarce in the overcrowded strip and costs $100’s/square metre. Many young people can no longer afford to pay a dowry to get married.
It is not uncommon for parents to have more than ten children. Although people are now having fewer children as life becomes more crowded and expensive in the strip, the population will soon reach two million in an area that is roughly the size of the Isle of Wight. The increased population will put more stress on creaking services and the fragile ecosystem and will mean that more people are fighting for scarce employment opportunities.
Before the second intifada, Gazans could go and work in Israel. Fishermen could sail down to Egypt and Libya and up to Israel making money freely. Now the opportunities for work have dwindled and the only contact most Gazans have with Israelis is martial – at the receiving end of a bullet or bomb. Older generations often speak Hebrew and talk of former Israeli friends. The young see them only as occupiers and murderers.
The mental toll
Despite all the problems it is a pleasure to visit Gaza, mainly because the people are so welcoming and hospitable. Gazans are quick to laugh and eager to talk – it is an easy place to make friends. We enjoyed many epic eating feats round friends’ houses, stuffing our faces with delicious malfoof (stuffed cabbage leaves) and drinking sweet tea, infused with cardamom.
Gazans are curious about the world outside the borders but many are concerned with how they’re perceived abroad. In a friend’s English class, we were talking to his students. One pupil, dressed in traditional attire, asked us “if I go to your country, will they think I’m a terrorist?”
Most conversations come back to occupation, resistance, the blockade and the bombardments. There is palpable relief at having survived another assault but the missiles take a mental toll. During the bombings there was nowhere to hide. Wealth, status or connections mattered little as everyone was a potential target. Ashraf Abu Shamala, a worker with the UN, summed it up when he described his experiences. He lives near the seafront in Gaza City and several nearby buildings were bombed.
“It was very loud, the house was shaking” he recounted, “There was dust everywhere. All the windows were broken. Each bombing was like an earthquake. It was very hard for my children – the fear they witnessed. During the attacks my daughter kept screaming ‘khallas kassif!’ [‘enough bombing’] It is easier to fix infrastructure than the psychological wounds.”
[See here for David Shaw’s photography during our month in Gaza]