24 Hours in Gaza

December 17, 2008

The Gaza Strip is a small land of strange contradictions. Where else can a rocket explosion be the sound of a ceasefire, or donkey carts be a sign of progress? Israel has restricted access across its border for foreign journalists but I was able to get in to spend 24 hours there this week. As the “calm” agreed between Israel and Gaza Hamas Islamist rulers six months ago draws to a possible end this week, let me share some notes on a day in one of the oddest places on earth.

0800 – A sunny morning drive down from Jerusalem, just over an hour on the well-maintained road network that makes travel in Israel feel as fast and easy as Europe. Just beyond Ashkelon, the main highway running south parallel to the Mediterranean coast swings sharply inland. I carry on straight for another couple of kilometres on what seems a quiet back road.

0930 – In quiet rolling countryside, sits the Erez Terminal, several hectares of airport-style transit hall opened in 2006, expecting to handle thousands of Palestinian workers coming to jobs in Israel after Israel pulled out troops and settlers. Sitting along the line of the more than 50-km of fortified wall that separates the enclave from Israel, traffic is in the dozens most days —diplomats, journalists, aid workers and small numbers of Palestinians, many having medical treatment in Israel.

1000 – Passport duly stamped, I trudge over the scarred kilometre of ground that divides the terminal from where Palestinians can wait. There are still traces of a suicide truck bomb from last April. On the one side, the fertile fields that are Gaza’s economic blessing. On the other, acres of rubble, all that remains of an frontier industrial park destroyed in 2005. The walk can be unnerving, though since the truce declared in June there is less chance of random mortar and rocket fire. And it is curiously peaceful. I always enjoy watching the birds and the lizards which seem to thrive in no man’s land.

1100 – A bumpy ride on relatively empty roads with my colleagues from the Reuters bureau in Gaza and the first stop is the bank. We’ve had a call from the manager that if we don’t come quick, there may be no cash for some time to pay our bills. Attempts by Israel and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to freeze out Hamas mean cash is in short supply.

1130 – Over spiced coffee with the bank manager, we reflect on the laboratory for economic theory that Gaza has become. Sure, cash comes in by the truckload to pay civil service salaries, says the manager. “But it goes right out again,” he adds. “Through the tunnels.” These proliferating smuggling routes across the border into Egypt, which like Israel generally keeps its frontier posts closed, have become the lifeline for Gazans, keeping shops stocked and cars on the road. But, as the bank manager points out, what comes in must be paid for—banknotes being dragged out through the same tunnels. We learn he is about to have new competition—the first bank set up under Hamas, to address the disruption to cashflow in the enclave.

1200 – Routine chores and story discussions in the Reuters bureau, which sits on the 12th floor of a downtown block with views stretching from the sea to one side to the Israeli border 5 km inland. It’s a good vantage point for our busy cameramen, but a heck of walk up when the lifts are shut down by ever more frequent power cuts.

1500 – Lunch of chicken and rice in the office. The chicken is, we reckon, home produced. Gaza was long a foodbasket for Israel and beyond, but cannot now export. The soft drinks probably came in through the tunnels from Egypt, though.

1600 – Back to Erez Terminal, past the Hamas-policed passport control point -just out of sight of the Israeli forces at Erez who have fired on Hamas men here in the past. Problem. Erez is shut for the rest of the day.  It’s mainly irritating because there’s no certainty it will be open tomorrow. Israel has taken to shutting it to foreign journalists for “security reasons”, something media organisations are protesting about. At the hut which serves as a point of coordination between Palestinian officials, we share tea and make some patient calls to see if I can cross as a special case. A day-old baby on life support is taken out by ambulance for emergency treatment in Israel. I don’t feel that special.

1800 – As we prepare to head back, an explosion. A “Kassam” rocket – explosives stuffed into a piece of construction pipe with fins welded on in a garage – has hit close to an Israeli village on the other side of the wall, perhaps a kilometre from us. There may be a ceasefire, but since early November, there have been almost daily exchanges of fire. We listen for an Israeli response or more rockets. Nothing.

1830 – We drive back to Gaza, where large sections of the city are in the almost total darkness that comes with power cuts. One patch of light shows at “The Chairman Arafat Shop”. Souvenirs. The late secular PLO and Fatah leader Yasser Arafat remains an inviolable icon in Hamas-run Gaza. But next to his poster, one of many such products on sale, is not that of his successor, the West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas but the image of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader assassinated in an Israeli missile strike in Gaza in 2004. By contrast, Abbas is persona non grata.

1900 – At an elegant, traditionally built beachfront hotel, we sip drinks – strictly non-alcoholic in Gaza – and are deafened by a party for the children of those well-off enough to share the restaurant. Clowns and men in cartoon mouse costume lead the kids in dancing the conga and, thanks to the rumbling private generator outside, it is hard to recall that we are, in local parlance, “under siege”.

2000 – A fellow journalist is teased about his new beard. “Hey, it’s my key!” he replies. “It opens doors…” Bearded Islamists rule this enclave of 1.5 million and it has its advantages if they see you as a fellow spirit. There’s also 10 minutes devoted to George W. Bush and the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at him—a topic of conversation that has enthralled the entire Middle East this week.

2100 – Conversation in Gaza rarely strays far from the blockade and the violence between Hamas and Israel. But it’s an ill wind that blows no good. One friend recounts how acquaintances of his, well-off professionals, are investing in the tunnel trade. A $10,000 share in one of the tunnels racked up a $6,000 profit just last month alone, he said – thanks to Israel’s tightening of its embargo.

2200 – Sleep to the gentle sound of the sea. Close your eyes and you could be in one of the many tourist hot spots that ring the Mediterranean. Many, including the builders of this hotel, had that hope for Gaza. It seems a long way off.

0630 – Driving back through the dawn, petrol-starved streets are occupied almost solely by donkey carts laden with farm produce and smiling schoolgirls in white headscarves. The grubby greyness of a city where electricity and paint are scarce is broken by bright images of “martyred” guerrillas.

0700 – Back at Erez and more talk of Bush and boots among the waiting porters and taxi drivers. A cup of strong Turkish coffee from an enterprising vendor as the mist rises from the wasteland. Also we talk of the frustrations of people who cannot make the short trip I will to the wider world beyond, of resentments and powerlessness in the face of both Hamas and Israel, and of the fears of a father for Gaza’s youngsters as drugs also make their way through the tunnels for cash. The drug of choice at the moment it seems is tramadol – a common painkiller which, if taken in dangerously high and addictive dosages, can produce highs similar to morphine.

0800 – Out of Erez after a typical progress through its maze of remote controlled doorways and scanners, speaking to invisible guards who remain protected from the risk of suicide bombings.

1000 – Back to Jerusalem, where I attend a briefing by a senior Israeli military officials who explains Israel’s dilemmas. He is irritated by foreign journalists who note criticisms of Israel’s “collective punishment” of Gazans. “The Palestinians in Gaza are not divided into a majority of innocent people and the bad guys in Hamas,” he says. “They elected Hamas.” Egypt could do more to help he said. “You cannot expect us to be shot by Palestinians, by a hostile entity in the Gaza Strip, and at the same time put all the responsibility on us for the well-being of the population in Gaza.”

The contradictions and conundrums for all concerned go on.

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Good Article, nice to see real life of everyday people apart from all the sensationalism and slanted rhetoric.

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