The drive from Gaza City to Khan Younis takes around 40 minutes. The roads are rocky and the landscape barren, with destroyed houses and factories along the way. Cars and donkey-drawn carts populate the road. Last Friday I rode in a battered taxi towards the city to hear Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh address Friday prayers at the main mosque. Palm trees refused to sway. It was one of Haniyeh’s first public appearances since the end of Israel’s December/January bombardment.
Hamas security services and policemen dotted the highway every 100 metres. My fixer, Ahmed, told me this was to protect him from possible Fatah assassins more than an Israeli air strike. He also said that Hamas used to criticise Fatah and Abu Mazen for their excessive security detail and now they were even worse.
The sight of armed men was oddly normal, as one sees countless, similarly dressed individuals across Gaza at checkpoints and on street corners. Often they looked bored and incredibly young. When Hamas took over the Strip they stole both uniforms and cars from Fatah. This reality could easily be reversed in years to come.
Ever since my arrival in Gaza, the blockaded strip has confounded my expectations, provoked me in ways I have rarely felt, angered and frustrated me and also given me hope (a large collection of my photos are here).
The Strip is nothing like the occupied West Bank, where I have spent much time over the last month. There, every Palestinian I spoke to wanted the occupation to end and largely supported resistance to Israel, but there was at least a modicum of free movement.
Crossing the Erez border into Gaza after visiting the nearby town of Sderot – a depressing little place with overbearing heat and thankfully no rockets now landing on its poor citizens – was a timely reminder that Gaza is an area Israel and the world would rather forget.
The Israeli officials on the border constantly quizzed me about my Judaism, demanded to know why I didn’t speak Hebrew, asked if I was seriously considering moving permanently to Israel and couldn’t understand why I would want to enter Gaza. The handful of Palestinians waiting to return to the Strip were treated with disdain, told to wait or shooed away. Armed Israeli men paced the warehouse-like building.
Emerging through the many levels of checks – the process is deliberately disorientating, as it’s impossible to know how many more metal gates and grills you have to pass through – is a strange affair. An Israeli voice behind a massive metal gate told me to wait, it then opened, and I found myself face to face with a Palestinian porter, keen to carry my bags. He did so for around 500 metres until another porter took my belongings through the searing heat, across the no-man’s land between Israel and Gaza and the Hamas checkpoint. Passports are checked and details noted by Hamas and their security men are supposed to search bags for contraband, such as alcohol. The bearded Hamas official casually looked across and waved us on.
I was in Gaza.
Bombed buildings littered the ground just across the border into the Strip. The sandy desert soon gave way to small towns and scattered villages and Islamic graffiti daubed many homes and walls. The Hamas flag flapped enthusiastically from power lines. Photos of Palestinian martyrs were posted on billboards.
The reality of daily life in Gaza is what fascinates me, though the politics is unavoidable. Many restaurant owners have told me that their livelihoods have been devastated due to the Western-backed siege. The director of the Laterna Restaurant, Abu Khaled Yaghi, an establishment that specialises in Western and Lebanese food, told me that virtually all his essentials arrives via the tunnels operating from Egypt. They are a lifeline to the world. He buys food from merchants who smuggle as a way to survive. 30 percent of what he needs he finds this way. He scoffed at the fact that Israel refuses the importation of many items into the Strip, including ashtrays. “For security reasons”, he laughed. “Israel only means to destroy us”, he said. The recent Gaza war proved that, he told me.
The owner of the famous fish restaurant, Moneer, explained that the inability of Palestinian fishermen to fish very far from the shore due to Israel restrictions was an outrage. As we talked, his staff served us calamari, shrimps and fresh fish with a delicious selection of salads. It was of a quality that suited the finest Western restaurant. I’m constantly being reminded of what has been lost here in Gaza: the ability to truly enjoy life. This doesn’t mean that the high levels of education and fine cuisine are forgotten, however, and Gazans are keen to remind me that they used to be a popular tourist destination.
I was a little nervous before arriving. Those fears were understandable but unnecessary. The travails of daily living are exhausting for the locals. Journalist and academic Rami Almeghari told me that, “nobody suffers like the Palestinians.” The streets are strewn with rubbish but people say that Hamas has improved security and reduced corruption. Abeer Abu Shawish, 17, who achieved the highest score on the humanities exam in all of Gaza this year – Almeghari’s latest report for the Electronic Intifada reveals the story – said to me that Hamas has also tortured Fatah people, shelled Fatah buildings and withheld salaries from those who work for the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority. Both sides have blood on their hands, and I’ve heard compelling and disturbing stories from ideologues of all stripes.
Living in the Maghazi refugee camp, Abeer wore a hijab, her mother the niqab, and she flashed a gentle smile. She would wait to marry until after her university studies and could pick a man herself, as long as the family approved. Her mother nodded in agreement.
Their home had mostly bare walls but rainbow-coloured carpets and cushions. We had a highly stimulating conversation about the role of Islam in society. Although there is a noticeable increase in the Islamisation of the West Bank – many more women are wearing the hijab since my last visit in 2005 – this trend is heightened in Gaza. It’s rare to see a woman with an uncovered head (something likely to increase). It’s very hard for me to speak to women openly. I haven’t seen any women driving, though I’m told I’ve simply missed them in the traffic. Today I went to a men’s only smoking club. I asked what would happen if a local woman tried to enter. “She’d be asked to leave”, the owner said.
I had lunch yesterday at a family home and the wife of the owner prepared the meal but could not sit with us to eat it. Only men allowed. When I thanked her afterwards for the delicious rice, potatoes and salad, she smiled nervously, said “thank you” and scurried away. Lunch today with my fixer’s family was little different, with the mother cooking in the kitchen and only emerging later for a brief conversation.
Abu Shawish Abeer was moderate but couldn’t understand especially women who didn’t wear the hijab. “The traditional Palestinian way of life is best for us”, she said. I told her about my Muslim friends in the West who drink, smoke and have sex before marriage and still call themselves proud Muslims. “Western women who are not covering themselves should know that there are Koranic verses to back it up”, she responded. I asked if she believed there would be common ground if my friends and her sat together to discuss Islam. “Yes”, she confidently said.
We arrived in Khan Younis for Friday prayers. Most shops were closed. Fruit-sellers were offering massive watermelons for sale. The town looked exhausted. My fixer said to me that the people there were “simple” but kind.
My passport was checked by Hamas security, as they swarmed near the mosque for Haniyeh’s arrival. We entered, removed our shoes and found thousands of male followers waiting patiently for the Hamas leader. Young and old, bearded and clean-shaven, some wore the white cap and some were bald.
I stood alongside the television cameras, ensuring a clear view of Haniyeh. And then he arrived. Seriously tough looking security personnel surrounded him as he waved to the crowd. He washed his feet. He wore a white cap and white thobe and ascended a small staircase. He wiped his brow constantly, even with the powerful fans blowing overheard. His greying beard was perfectly manicured.
His oratory was impressive. Like Barack Obama, he gives a good speech. His words shimmered and swayed, gradually but clearly increasing in volume and passion. He spoke with no notes. After around 30 minutes, he sat down briefly, was brought some bottled water from a Hamas official, took a few sips and then resumed speaking. I was later told that he called for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, the right of return and East Jerusalem as the capital.
It clearly still remained unacceptable to Israel though the movement has moved rhetorically and practically by leaps and bounds in the last years, a position confirmed when I spoke to the Deputy Foreign Minister and former Haniyeh adviser Dr Ahmed Yousef. The group wants Western support and legitimacy (a point reinforced in the New York Times last week).
After Haniyeh’s speech, he led the prayers. It was hypnotic to watch a sea of men pray to Mecca and recite the Koran. The speech was clearly the highlight of the proceedings, as the prayers themselves lasted for no more than 20 minutes.
As we left and made our way back to the entrance to find our shoes piled together in an almost bon-fire size collection, I felt a massive push in my back. Haniyeh was leaving and his security detail simply pushed everybody aside. I lost my footing and crashed forward. I grabbed my fixer’s arm and we both teetered amongst a surging crowd. People were screaming, children were crying and babies were held high by worried parents. I felt myself falling to the ground then shoved towards a wall. I tried to stand my ground. Haniyeh passed me by, stood briefly on a raised position, waved and smiled to the supportive masses and was almost lifted out the door by his Hamas men. The faithful raised their hands in appreciation of his presence. As he departed the mosque, a Muslim chant roared and enveloped the crowd. It was a powerful moment, where politics and religion collided head-on and thrived. This is the appeal of Hamas to many in Gaza. Resistance through faith.
We emerged in the bright sunlight to find Haniyeh gone and Hamas men in pick-up trucks milled around before speeding off. They looked as well groomed, with pressed suits, as the US secret service.
Haniyeh, we were told, was having lunch somewhere in Khan Younis before he addressed the public, so a number of local journalists headed to the nearby beach, where in 2005 Israeli troops removed Jewish settlers from the land. It was a beautiful coastline, slightly marred by recently destroyed bombed buildings. Sand dunes sat near unused tennis courts left by the settlers. Seemingly abandoned restaurants looked at small, Palestinian villages.
Families enjoyed the good weather and sunshine. Makeshift tents dotted the beach – like the mass of people I saw along Gaza City’s beach a few nights ago as the sun set over them – and hijab-covered women took shelter from the heat. A Palestinian journalist lamented the fact that since Hamas assumed control of the Strip more children were covering up when entering the water.
Co-educational schooling was now less common. I’m spending time with the head of a language school in Gaza City who told me that soon after Hamas beat Fatah he decided to pre-empt potential problems by establishing separate boy’s and girl’s classrooms.
A few hours later we drove in a beaten-up car to a sportsground in Khan Younis to await the arrival of Haniyeh. It was political theatre. Hundreds of Hamas security men wielding weapons poured into the area, appearing on rooftops, and mostly men walked in and sat down. A few women and children sat at the back of the stadium. A collection of supposedly important men stood in a line and shook the hand of virtually everybody who entered.
Posters showing Haniyeh and killed Hamas leaders Sheik Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantisi covered the wall behind the stage, where two strategically placed fans sat aside the raised platform and table to await the arrival of the Dear Leader. Music soon started booming out of the two large speakers, a distorted mess of Islamic singing. The mainly young Hamas recruits discussed who should hold the microphone and make some announcements.
Haniyeh appeared, covered by an adoring crowd. He sat on the stage, wiped his forehead, and was soon speaking, remaining seated (photo left). Like his speech at Friday prayers a few hours before, his verbal rhythms were similar. He was received well.
It was surreal looking around and seeing thousands of Hamas backers in one place. Being in Gaza hasn’t clarified the current direction of the Hamas/Fatah split. It’s real. Reconciliation between Ramallah and Gaza seems distant at the moment. Ahed Shawa, a shawarma maker near Gaza’s main beach, told me that he sold much more meat during Fatah’s rule. “Hamas doesn’t just affect me”, he said. “It affects all Palestinians.”
I’ve also met Hamas supporters who praise the group’s discipline and resistance.
The Jabaliyah area near the Israel/Gaza border looks like a nuclear bomb has wiped out any signs of life. In particular pockets, all the houses are flattened. I’ve never seen so much destruction in my life. Twisted concrete, computer keyboards, teddy bears, mattresses, plates and toys thrown randomly as if by an act of God. The Israeli God. Tunnel diggers on the Rafah border told me that obtaining cement for re-building is slowly coming into Gaza at heavily inflated prices. By necessity, however, clay buildings are in development.
The effects of the recent war were all too apparent there. The eerie quiet was sometimes punctured by the sound of a slow donkey or Hamas jeep driving past. Israel could be seen in the distance. Majed Alathanma, 60, a father and grandfather, used to be a relatively wealthy man, owing a $300,000 home and six large Mercedes Benz taxis. Now he is living in a tent with his entire family. He told me about seeing Israeli soldiers shooting unarmed women and children in front of him. He said he witnessed IDF troops killing drivers who were carrying dead bodies to be buried. “The first Nazis are Israel, not Germany”, he spat. Tears welled in the eyes of journalist Rami Almeghari when I asked him how he coped with the Demember/January onslaught. It was a war that shocked even the unfazed Gazans with its indiscriminate nature.
Unlike previous wars against Gaza, this recent round affected the rich and the poor, including factory owners and merchants. Nour Salah, a 29-year-old psychologist, said that the sexual, physiological and spiritual damage caused by the battle runs deep in the community. UNRWA head John Ging explained to me calmly about administering aid and legal readdress to the people of Gaza. I’ve rarely been so inspired by anybody as hearing Ging talk about not indulging in the personal challenges of missing his family and focusing on the Gazan people. His rationality in the face of such carnage was almost incomprehensible.
Visiting the El-Wafa hospital, shelled during the war, showed me that humiliation remained a key objective of the Israelis. Two, nearly completed wards were shelled in January, rendering them unusable for the foreseeable future. I saw a man in a coma, with no legs and mangled stomach, keeping his eyes and mouth permanently open. Thousands of similar cases were across the Strip, and this rehabilitation hospital was one of the few places to receive treatment. Israel and Egypt rarely opened their borders to let them through.
The war may be over but the battle is ongoing. Farmers in Johr al-Deek village near the Israel border, living in unfinished homes without proper material to complete them, showed me where an errant shell landed three weeks ago and killed a young girl. We sat and talked in a window-less ground floor with sand and dirt beneath our feet. Women were nowhere to be seen. Men all sported beards but remained strong Fatah supporters. Young children brought Coke, water and hot coffee and tea.
Other farmers in East Maghazi told me how the buffer zone that Israel demands near its border is supposed to be only 300 metres deep but in fact the IDF fires shells that reach further than 700 metres. A few weeks ago the Israelis fired arrows into the area with attached signs that read, “Be Warned of Death”, if they didn’t pull back even further from the border.
During the war, Jamal said, Israel uprooted a 100-year-old sycamore tree, where his grandfather used to shelter, and took the root itself into Israel. I was reminded of seeing olive trees in the Jewish settlement of Ma’ale Adumim near Jerusalem, in all likelihood also taken from a Palestinian farm. Jamal even watched his home being destroyed without warning by the Israelis in early January.
One family in Beit Lahiya, in the northern Gaza Strip, told me how they had seen their son shot dead by invading Israeli troops and been shot themselves in the leg and arm. Hours before, their daughter woke the parents to tell them their house was being bulldozed and they escaped with little more than a few items. Today, they live in a Hamas and Islamic NGO tent city with a few salvaged cement bricks from their house (photo right). They’ve tried to create a sense of normality for the children – a vegetable patch and plastic swimming pool – but the conditions are basic. The children played in the sand and dirty dishes and pans were being washed from water in the small tank.
The father, Kamal Awaja, said that he still believed in a two-state solution because he wanted the parties to, “sign a peace treaty [with Israel] and then fuck off.” He couldn’t imagine living in the same neighbourhood as Israelis who had killed his son. He denounced Muslims who spewed hatred against Jews in their public pronouncements. His lack of visible anger was extraordinary.
While the devastation, desperation and anger permeates every level of existence here and the siege is the topic of every second conversation, hope lives. Although many have said they would love to leave and go somewhere else, there’s a spark of proud survival. It is clear that the Palestinians here are victims of an insane experiment that aims to overthrow Hamas but in fact only strengthens the hatred towards Israel. I’m hearing it every day. Dislike of Jews has only been occasionally expressed. Rampant homophobia is sadly common. In the main, this is not a religious conflict. I even heard from my hotel tonight, situated right on Gaza’s beach promenade, a Hamas wedding with a DJ and cheesy, Western pop music. Sometimes, dancing comes before faith.
The streets, alleys and laneways are cluttered, dusty, often smelly and crowded. Cracked windshields can’t be replaced because the right size of glass is unavailable. Criss-crossing the Strip in countless battered cars, I’ve met drivers who live on a few shekels per ride. Yesterday I tried to give one younger man my change as a tip, but he insisted I take back the less than two shekels. It was humbling from a man who soon after was stopped and verbally abused by a Hamas policeman.
We are all complicit in this madness.