The Middle East Channel
Everyday life in Gaza
It’s Thursday night in downtown Gaza. The schools and offices are closed. The Muslim weekend starts here. In the broad green space that is the city’s Unknown Soldier Square, groups of friends and families sit and chat beneath the palm trees, nibbling snacks and drinking tea. It’s not very peaceful, for around the square’s perimeter ...
It’s Thursday night in downtown Gaza. The schools and offices are closed. The Muslim weekend starts here.
In the broad green space that is the city’s Unknown Soldier Square, groups of friends and families sit and chat beneath the palm trees, nibbling snacks and drinking tea. It’s not very peaceful, for around the square’s perimeter a big truck is making laps, an improbable number of young men rocking its flatbed by dancing wildly to the Egyptian pop that booms from a mobile sound system. Behind it, in a Mercedes bedecked with ribbons, the explanation for their gaiety rides more demurely: a beaming pair of newlyweds.
As darkness falls over the beach, students are holding impromptu parties by the phosphorescent Mediterranean. Above them, on the decks of the waterfront restaurants, men and women sit and talk far into the night, sucking on endless narguileh waterpipes. Most of the women are wearing headscarves – but strikingly, by no means all.
Reporting from Gaza usually consists of two well worn tropes, and conveys little of the realities of life there. Liberals tend to focus on the story of Israel’s blockade, and the economic hardship it continues to engender, despite its partial easing. Running such coverage a close second come ritual denunciations of Hamas, whose relationship with facts observable on the ground sometimes seems shaky. Hamas, one is invited to believe, is close to creating an authoritarian Islamic emirate that will require all women to wear burqas and govern through Sharia law. After spending a week in Gaza City and other parts of the Strip, however, all I can say is that I found little evidence for such a project.
The blockade has made Gaza a global symbol of hardship. To be sure, it has reduced much of its economy to ruins: with exports to the outside world impossible, the factories and workshops are closed, and unemployment is perhaps as high as 80 percent. Moreover, it is only 18 months since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli attack conducted to stop a rain of Gazan rockets, which reduced thousands of buildings to rubble and killed close to 1,500 civilians.
Yet tough as most Gazans’ lives are, they are getting on with them. And the often unspoken truth is that while the blockade has imposed a comprehensive block to Gazan productivity, it has become completely ineffective as a means of preventing imports. Moreover, not everyone is on welfare. The Palestinian Authority continues to pay the salaries of some 55,000 workers. There are NGOs, and the UN. In the teeming refugee camps, there is poverty and deprivation, but the blockade’s worst consequence is the frustration of potential and productive energy.
The place also feels secure. When I was last in Gaza in 2007, in the wake of the bloody Hamas takeover, the tension on the streets was palpable. Now it seems to have gone. In place of the feared ‘Executive Force,’ Hamas’s militia that once fought pitched battles against its rivals, is a large, well-trained police force that patrols in smart blue uniforms.
These cops are highly visible, and the crime rate has plummeted. One night, returning late to my hotel, they stopped me in the streets. As they sent me on my way, they could not have been more polite.
I spent some time with my friend Hassan Jaber, a local journalist. 18 months ago, when Cast Lead was at its height, we had spoken by mobile phone: I was standing on a sand dune on the Israeli side of the wall along the border, watching airstrikes land in the city where Hassan and his family were cowering in their apartment, praying that they might survive.
The hardest moment, he told me then, had been when he found that his son, then 14, had written a will, thanking his parents for bringing him up and leaving them all his possessions.
I asked how he was now. ‘He’s done really well in his exams this year,’ Hassan said without hesitation, ‘overall he got more than 93 percent. We’re proud of him. My dream is to send him to university in England.’
So no more talk of wills and death? ‘Look, people here are suffering. But they are also cultivating any chance they get to move away from politics and conflict.’ Like London during the German bombing Blitz in World War Two, Hassan said, ‘there is a stronger sense of community. If someone has a job, he will give money not just to feed his family, but his brother’s family and his daughter’s. There are thousands of us in this position.’
Strolling down towards the seafront, next to the flattened bomb site that was once the Palestinian parliament, we reached the Shawwa arts centre. It was the opening night of ‘Creative Ladies of Palestine,’ an exhibition of works by 32 local female photography students. As striking as the evident quality was their choice of subjects: images not of war and deprivation, but beauty and hope – of sunsets over the harbor; brilliant spring flowers; above all, of Gaza’s children. ‘We just didn’t want to make gloomy photos of suffering,’ said one of the women, dressed, like her classmates, in an exquisite, hand-embroidered dress. ‘We wanted to show there is another side to life in Gaza, too.’
One hears a great deal about how the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is trying to ‘build institutions’ fit for statehood on the West Bank. It seemed evident to me that Hamas is trying to do exactly the same thing in Gaza. ‘There was nothing wrong with the laws we inherited from the Palestinian Authority,’ Fathih Hamad, the Hamas interior minister, told me. ‘But they weren’t being enforced. Now they are.’ The International Committee of the Red Cross regularly visits Gaza’s prisons.
Did Hamad and his colleagues intend to introduce Islamic Sharia law? He denied it, saying: ‘The people of Gaza are conservative, and most of them support the principles of Sharia anyway. They don’t need or want their state to be governed by it.’ Meanwhile, in an attempt to make Gazans’ lives more enjoyable, this year his government is promoting ‘internal tourism’ – development of the miles of white beaches south of Gaza City. There the water is clean. Along the sand is a line of new cafes serving kebabs, ice cream and salads.
At the end of May, as part of Israel’s public relations campaign to convince the world that the attack on the Turkish aid flotilla was neither a crime nor a fiasco, a senior government spokesman emailed foreign reporters with details of Roots, Gaza’s finest restaurant.
If, as Roots’s menu website stated, one could eat beef stroganoff in Gaza, the spokesman suggested, then there couldn’t be much wrong with the blockade.
I have to report that Roots is indeed excellent. The steak au poivre on which I dined, in its fragrant garden while watching World Cup soccer on a giant projected screen, was one of the best I’ve eaten.
It was also evidence that the blockade – thanks to the hundreds of smugglers’ tunnels beneath the Egyptian border – has become almost meaningless: the days when even items such as baby milk were completely unavailable had long gone. Some of these tunnels are so wide they can now admit cars: according to Hassan Jabber, at least 1,000 new models have been imported so far this year. I couldn’t help thinking that a tunnel big enough for a car could also admit an awful lot of weapons.
On the other hand, my steak cost $20, a sum ten times Gaza’s average per capita daily income. Roots is lovely. Not surprisingly, it was far from full.
‘To be sure, if you do have money, things have gotten easier,’ said another locally-based reporter. ‘I’ve travelled all over Europe and America. But until a few months ago, as a Gazan, I couldn’t get a permit to leave. The Israelis have no security issues with me, but I was stuck inside the Gaza Strip for almost three years. They can do with you what they want, and that’s what makes the blockade so unbearable – not the shortages, but the total restriction of people’s movement and opportunities.’
There certainly aren’t many in the Strip, 25 miles long and four to seven miles wide. Yet in the face of this, I came across unexpected inspiration.
One night on the seaside terrace of my hotel I watched the class of 2010 graduate from Gaza’s American International School – American not because it has any foreign staff or influence, but because it teaches the US high school curriculum. This, as assistant principal Mohammed Owdae explained, was something of a miracle: during Cast Lead the school’s former buildings were totally destroyed, along with every book and piece of equipment.
‘Luckily, it happened during the winter holidays,’ he said. ‘But we had to decide: do we give up or continue? We went to the donors and we lobbied everywhere we could. Two months later we got a grant of £500,000. That meant we could rent a small place, and we got our books back.’ Now, he added, pupil enrolment has reached a new record, while further foreign help has allowed the school to move to new, bigger premises with a science lab and sports facilities: ‘All of a sudden, we are back in business.’
More than 200 Gazan families, both Muslim and Christian, had assembled for a gala dinner while the class, dressed in gowns and mortar boards, accepted their certificates and made short speeches. Some of them had achieved ‘SAT’ exam scores above 600 – enough to win scholarships to America’s best universities. Many of the female staff, parents and students were not wearing head coverings.
I found their words extraordinarily moving. ‘Last year was a dramatic year for my school after the attacks it went through,’ said Yousif Jamal, 19. ‘I thought we wouldn’t be able to complete our education, and this ceremony was a dream we wouldn’t reach. However, we are ready to face any obstacle and to complete our lives as if nothing happened. Here we are wearing our gowns and ready to climb our separate mountains. Good luck to everyone.’
Another girl began: ‘My name is Leila Heilou and I am not a terrorist. I am a student.’
This is not the place to debate the politics of Israel, Hamas and the blockade. But I left Gaza humbled by the fact that people who have been through hell have managed to preserve their hopes, dreams and ambitions. I was also convinced that somehow, they deserve better.
David Rose is a contributing editor with Vanity Fair magazine. He is currently making a documentary for Aljazeera International about the impact of US policy in the Palestinian territories.