With the siege of Gaza showing no signs of abating, life — or a semblance of — goes on in the world’s sunniest open prison.
Hatem was telling me about his friend Abdullah Zarandah, a 22-year-old cancer sufferer. He needed drugs… treatment… something that required permission and coordination to travel to Israel or Egypt for medicine. Hatem said he last saw Abdullah a year ago… health deteriorating. The treatment he usually got from an Israeli hospital had stopped due to the continuous closure of the Erez crossing.
Travel permission. Travel coordination. As a Gazan, this is what you need to leave and return to the 25-mile strip of land on which you live. If you are approved for coordination to travel via Erez into Israel, the Israelis don’t think, in principle, you would pose a “security risk”. But they will make sure that you go back.
To gain coordination for travel to Israel, a Gazan has to be sponsored and vouched for by a high-level organization… say, the UN. Depending on who you know, you may be able to get it in a week… or you might get it in three months. To go to other countries via Israel, you need coordination to leave the Strip to travel to the West Bank to get permission. Then you need separate bit of paper that allows you to enter Jordan. Can’t have one without the other.
This, however, is for the elite of Gazan society… the ones who have jobs that require business cards. Positions that may require them to interact with Westerners who slope in and out bearing innumerable boxes of “goodwill” chocolate, cigarettes, Coca-Cola and contraband booze.
Plan your terminal diseases carefully, don’t over-complicate your pregnancies, and for your sake don’t be too old, too young or too fucking Arab.
One of these fucking Arabs is Abdullah. Hatem stopped visiting him at the Al Shifa hospital. Couldn’t bear to see his friend slip away day to day… or one of those other reasons people give for not seeing the ill. This week, Hatem decided to pay Abdullah a visit. He found an empty bed. Abdullah had died two days previously.
“When you face illness and poverty, it’s bad. When solutions to this illness and poverty lie behind a blockade, it’s a catastrophe,” Hatem tells me. “A lot is said about Gazan resilience, the way we cope. I’m sick of coping.”
“A father of a friend needs to be transferred urgently to get a catheterization abroad. He can’t because of the borders,” he continues. “Even the aid agency I work for can’t help. We (Islamic Relief) provided the only catheterization unit in Gaza by providing disposables…but that can only help diagnostic operations, not the more urgent surgical ones. This makes me feel helpless.”
This week, Israeli forces were seen holding drills near the Gazan border. Video shot by Reuters shows Israeli tanks and soldiers climbing a hill and treating mock injured.
In the spirit of the primary gifting season and under pressure from the international community, border crossings were opened for the transfer of “essential humanitarian supplies”. Around 90 trucks loaded with grain, commercial goods, and things that fall under that ubiquitous phrase “humanitarian aid” were due to arrive. This includes much needed fuel for Gaza’s main power plant and medical supplies. Some light relief for 1.5 million people, half of whom rely on food aid.
This comes one day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert issued a “last minute” warning to Hamas militants to stop firing rockets or face a counter attack. He appeared on al-Arabiya television to urge Gazans to turn against Hamas and stop firing into Israel. Olmert also dangled the inevitable “military might of Israel” penis. On Christmas Eve, up to 80 rockets and mortar shells were reported fired from Gaza. On Boxing Day, when the borders were opened to transfer aid, at least a dozen rockets flung their way towards Israel and the Erez border corssing was closed due to two mortar bombs set off in the area.
Hamas has said its six-month truce with Israel is over. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni – the one tipped to become the next Prime Minister if she can keep Benjamin Netanyahu at bay – has said there never really was a cease-fire. A mounting feeling among journalists and commentators is that as Israel heads towards a new election season, significant military action is on the cards to “deal with the situation”.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who brokered the now-expired truce, is urging “restraint” on both sides…. Why do I sense a feeling I have been here before? Because I, like many other journalists, have written these self-same lines countless times. Each time inserting a new name, a new leader, a new victim, fresh flesh to replace the old meat. We watch news feeds of minor incursions in the West Bank and don’t bat an eyelid. We listen to flashes of sabre rattling, hear of suffering, bullying, horror. We nod. We smile. We feign sympathy while all the while thinking, “You’re fucked mate”. What matters most seems to be getting an edge on the umpteen other news operations working the same patch, telling the same stories, speaking to the same sources. And if you can find that golden egg bargaining chip, Gilad Shalit, you win the prize….
The last time I was in Gaza, the animals were revolting. Outside the UN’s compound in Gaza City hundreds of animals from donkeys, horses, sheep and camels once held a four-legged protest against the continuing lockdown of the Gaza Strip.
Sami Akkila, one of the two-legged organizers of the protest said that the Animal Appeal for Human Rights was a “protest against international silence over the miserable situation in Gaza. Animals around the world are fed while the children of Gaza go to bed hungry.”
A recent report compiled by eight British charities claimed that the humanitarian crisis affecting Gaza’s 1.5 million residents is at its worst since 1967. The report states that of that number, around a million are registered UN refugees and nearly 70 percent are jobless.
Since Hamas won parliamentary majority in 2006 and took control of the Gaza strip in 2007, Gaza has been under a form of lockdown on its borders with Israel and Egypt. Aid trickles in but not at any sustainable levels. Medical emergency cases are allowed through the Rafah crossing into Egypt but only intermittently. External supplies, goods and imports are unheard of unless you proactively hunt for them on the black market. Being a coastal part of the world straddling the sea, fishing is limited to a 10-mile barrier – if you don’t mind eating fish caught in one of the most polluted waters of the Mediterranean. Gaza City alone pumps roughly 40m litres per day of raw sewage into the sea. Israel has declared Gaza a “hostile entity”, barring its citizens entry into the strip – these days the only foreigners allowed in either work for charities, are registered journalists or come driving an Israeli Army tank.
As you come in to Gaza via Israel conveniently guided by road signs pointing to Erez, you’re slapped by the contrast of lush greenery and prosperity (Israel) to the hulks of concrete rubble and mountains of trash that greet you upon entry into (North Gaza). It smells different here. Like a caged animal who has outgrown its quarters.
You enter on foot via a concrete barrier tunnel that intermittently shields you from the sun with patchy tarpaulin. You come out into what seems like the smash and burn ruins of war. Greeted by taxi drivers who run their cars either on diesel (petrol is an unattainable commodity here) or on potentially explosive domestic calor gas canisters, you cruise into Gaza City past long-closed shops, houses teetering on their foundations, and mountains of rubbish. You’ll find the odd family trawling though the rubbish for something useful or edible and the odd scrap metal merchant gathering rusty springs or corrugated iron in the hopes he can sell them when/if the borders open. Around 4,000 factories have been forced to close due to the lack of raw materials.
“Welcome to our open air prison!” Ramzi greets me with a smile tinged with that “Palestinian resilience” often spoken about and often seen. “This man here makes the best foustouk and simsimiya in all of Gaza!” Foustouk is a sticky peanut snack joined together with generous amounts of syrupy sugar. Simsimiya is its sesame-based cousin. Staple food items such flour, sugar and rice are allowed into Gaza – but only enough to ensure that Gazans don’t completely starve. Ramzi works for Save the Children. With nearly half the population of Gaza under the age of 15, he’s a busy man. I get the usual VIP treatment – tours of sewage lakes where three boys drowned, a zip past the raw sewage pipe flowing into the sea, a show and tell of where four boys in Jabaliya were killed by an Israeli airstrike while they were playing football…. Come. See. Look at the shit in which we live. My taps at home, they have no water. The children in these schools, they’re beaten by their teachers. The food we eat, it all tastes the same because it is always the same.
The father of one of the boys killed in Jabaliya has become a local media celebrity. Every news camera pounded their way to his door in the days after the death of his son. He keeps a t-shirt with him to remind him of his boy. It has long since lost his son’s scent but the father still buries his face into it to smell the memories.
I caught the woman making my coffee scraping the bottom of a tin. She’ll find some more when the next foreigner comes in bearing chocolates and the like. She shows me a picture of her grandson…he’s wearing a shahada bandanna and posing with a toy gun looking no different to any other boy photographed wearing his best cowboy outfit. In a place where a hunt for constructive and educational toys led only to the odd colouring book featuring Little Bo Peep and red marker pens, its hardly surprising. Gaza’s a marketing disaster – the adverts on show are old, faded by the sun or blasted by dirt and airstrikes. The images kids have to look at are either contained in a black plastic box filled with moving pictures (tuned to a Pan-Arab cable provider that’s all too happy to whore the “plight of poor Palestine” alongside what appears to be Lebanese Pop Idol) or the paste-ups of martyrs in the street. Oh. And the Islamic graffiti featuring such uplifting sayings as “Death to America” and “Palestine: Our Sons Are Born To Die For You”.
Somebody tells me of a song a Gazan band has written in English about “the situation”. It’s always “the situation”. And the aforementioned “resilience”. However hard it is for an idiot like me to grasp, daily life goes on. Not in spite “the situation” but because it has to. The longer you spend there the more normal everything becomes. The saline taste in the tap water, the high value a packet of cigarettes holds. I receive a copy of the song. It sucks. It gives you the twin feelings of discomfort and empathy.
Perhaps the animals of Gaza had a point to make. They eat, sleep and breed in the happy knowledge their interests are being looked after. Israel has said it harbors no interest in reoccupying the Gaza Strip and that no decision has been made on a major ground offensive which would involve an incursion, high casualties, more fathers like the father in Jabaliya. What is more likely is an “incremental response”… phased offensives that could start with targeted killings.
A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that if Hamas “continues its aggression then there will be no choice, but it is not too late for the Palestinians to call on Hamas to stop their violence”.
Hatem draws in his breath. He is 24. He speaks with the weariness of a soul who has dealt with more in a day than most men handle in a lifetime. “This incursion. This war. It is not as bad as what we live with. Every day it is grey. Incursions make things worse but we’ll deal with it like we’ve been dealing with it for years and years and years. We will find a way to see ourselves through another day.”
This article was originally published on The Comment Factory on 27 December 2008. All rights reserved.