30 hours in Gaza

A street scene in Gaza City. (Haya Al-Shatti)

One of my first glimpses of the Gaza Strip was a youth on a motorcycle who threw me his red kuffiyeh. “Remember me!” he shouted, before disappearing in a sea of flags. With a certain irony, it was the members of the Viva Palestina aid convoy who ended up playing the role of war victims as we finally rolled into Gaza on 6 January. We were still reeling from a clash with Egyptian police that left 60 injured the night before. The thousands who braved the night cold to greet us provided the perfect tonic for the cracked heads and stitched faces.

What seemed like a swarm of a thousand motorcycles, each with two, sometimes three people on the back, raced alongside us, colliding in their eagerness to keep up as we drove from Rafah to Gaza City.

We were allowed only 30 hours in the Strip, an Egyptian-imposed time limit that meant we could only really catch a glimpse of Gaza. With such limited time, getting the aid we had brought to the right people became the overwhelming concern. It wasn’t a small undertaking, as the convoy consisted of 148 vehicles filled with medicine, clothing, power generators, atmospheric water extractors and medical equipment like dialysis machines. Eighty of the vehicles were ambulances destined for Gaza’s beleaguered hospitals and clinics. There’s more to any aid effort than simply bringing stuff, as Moheeb Abu al-Qumboz, a manager at the Islamic University and a volunteer who helps receive humanitarian delegations, pointed out.

“Proper needs assessment needs to be undertaken before sending medical supplies such as equipment or disposables,” he said. “If the machines don’t fit the existing system or the staff aren’t trained in their use, then they’re not much use.” He noted that often, health officials were too embarrassed to tell donors these details for fear of offending or disappointing them.

Moheeb also stressed that while direct aid is welcome, what’s really needed in the Gaza Strip are income-generation projects. One of the projects he’s involved with is Work Without Borders, a remote-outsourcing scheme offering services such as website design and translation from Gaza or other offices in Palestine. The work gets done by the many highly-skilled graduates who live there, and provides them with a vital link to the outside world, as well as income.

You could find many of those young graduates loitering shyly around the convoy, eager to help out. Almost all had embarrassingly good English. Despite the conditions, you sense that education is a top priority. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, as one student pithily put it, “the only way to get out of Gaza is on a stretcher or on a scholarship.”

Another student, Abdul Moniem, beams with pride as he tells me that the Islamic University is the top-ranked university in all of Palestine, and the 14th best in the Arab world. It’s a remarkable achievement considering the conditions under which it operates. The university’s science and engineering buildings were destroyed in Israel’s most recent wide-scale assault on Gaza, allegedly for being used as weapons workshops.

“If it weren’t for the blockade it would be the most beautiful place,” was a sentiment I heard uttered at least 10 times — and it’s true. The weather in Gaza is beautiful, even in January. The pristine coastline which runs along the Strip rivals the best Mediterranean beaches, and the people possess the typical Palestinian generosity and cheer.

But the beach is blighted by an Israeli gunboat that loiters menacingly on the horizon. Further up the coast, raw sewage flows relentlessly into the sea — overflow from Gaza’s creaking sewage system — so that even the environment suffers. Surveillance balloons and the constant low buzz of drones complete the panopticon effect.

And the bombing continues. As the convoy was distributing the aid, you could just make out the faint boom of artillery. In Gaza, people talk about air strikes as though they were a meteorological phenomenon. “You have good weeks and bad weeks,” Moheeb said, matter-of-factly. “Sometimes the situation is OK, and sometimes it’s tense, like now.” The attacks come in waves, lingering for a few days before the sick rain of phosphorus and hellfire missiles abates. And like the weather, the type of attack vehicle forms the topic of casual conversation: “That was an Apache … and that was an F-16.”

Another unlikely feature of Gaza’s twisted weather system is the leaflets. Back in the hotel, someone handed me one to translate. In Arabic, it read “The IDF [Israeli army] warns you against coming within 300 meters of the Israeli border. The IDF will take the necessary action against those who do so, which includes the possibility of opening fire. You have been warned!” On the reverse was an email address and telephone number for those with any information on the Hamas government or the tunnel industry to contact.

The leaflets had been dropped from the air earlier that day; the woman who gave me a copy said they had rained down on a children’s party.

Gaza City’s main avenue is named after Omar al-Mukhtar, the legendary Libyan resistance leader who fought against Italian occupation. Here, young couples stroll hand-in-hand among the trees and soft-yellow street lights, a scene that could easily be from Amman or Damascus. The shops and markets are busy now, a far cry from the ghost town Gaza was a year ago. I asked about the consumer electronics and the shiny sequined clothes that hung in the store windows — wasn’t there supposed to be a siege?

The answer is the tunnels. They provide everything from cement, which is still banned by Israel because it could be used to construct rocket launching pads, to the can of Coca-Cola that came with my falafel sandwich. Even the motorcycles that accompanied us into town had been disassembled, passed underground, then remade on the other side. It’s the tunnels that lend Gaza any semblance of normality.

Fuel, Moheeb explained, is now less of a problem. It’s pumped in through under ground pipes that go down to 80 meters, and comes out of taps on the other side. You can get Egyptian and Libyan diesel, the latter being less likely to ruin your engine. At the time of the attack in December 2008, petrol was $5 a liter; now it’s 75 cents because of the new tunnel technology.

However, while more goods may be available on the market, meager incomes mean many remain prohibitively expensive.

An estimated 50,000 people work directly or indirectly to keep the tunnel industry running. It’s one of Gaza’s most dangerous jobs, as the tunnels are often the target of Israeli bombardment, and now Egyptian obstruction. Shop owners say they’ll just dig deeper.

One of Gaza’s more macabre attractions is Yasser Arafat’s shot-out Russian helicopter. Bombed in 2001, it now looks like it sprouted organically from the concrete, its punctured tires fused into the ground as it languishes in a half-destroyed hangar.

You can sit inside the cockpit and pretend to be a pilot, or play statesman in the cabin, where you can press the red emergency eject button reserved for the man still respectfully referred to as al-raees, the leader. The words used to describe the current Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, are not so kind. In Gaza he is widely regarded as a traitor who sold them out for a few dollars. In the same boat as Abbas are Hosni Mubarak and his regime, especially since construction started last year on the underground “wall of shame,” a barrier on Egypt’s border with Gaza. A youth on a motorcycle sums up the general sentiment by simply calling them “dogs.” The near-unanimous judgment is that they’re “worse than the Israelis” — no small insult coming from Gazans.

Inside the Gaza Strip, brand Hamas is everywhere. The green flag of the Islamic Resistance Movement adorns all the main streets and avenues, along with posters of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi. On every corner in the city center is a bearded policeman or soldier with an AK-47 in hand.

In a huge conference hall on Omar al-Mukhtar street, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh came to welcome the convoy and celebrate its arrival. He arrived with a heavy security detail that held back the crowds who surged forward to greet him. The atmosphere was like a rock concert, with George Galloway as the headline act.

They embraced each other like brothers, Galloway probably the only British MP who would be seen in the same room as the Gazan prime minister. Later we watched a Hamas experimental performing arts troupe attempt to express the armed struggle through the medium of dance. Who says resistance can’t be fun? Later that night I met up with Adnan Rashid, a history lecturer whose aid came in the form of thousands of pounds in cash collected in the UK. With us was Mohamed al-Akluk, the volunteer director of the Zaytoun charitable foundation. Together we visited the Zaytoun district, in the southern outskirts of Gaza city, one of the worst affected areas in last year’s war. It was here the Samouni family lost 49 members. Some of the American delegation went to visit them, while I went with Adnan, Mohamed and Moheeb to distribute the cash, now converted into shekels.

With Mohamed’s help we visited 18 of the district’s poorest families that night. Not all were made destitute by the Israeli attack. As Mohamed pointed out, the survivors of the war who had lost their homes were the most obvious recipients of aid, and so were often the first to receive it. It was the less obvious, but equally needy families we went to that night, down winding streets and up dingy apartment blocks in a whistle-stop tour of tragedy.

The first house we were taken to was Abu Muhammad al-Lowh’s. The picture of the handsome teenager on the wall didn’t square with the paralyzed, wheelchair-bound man before us. An Israeli rocket attack during the first intifada had left him brain damaged and needing round-the-clock care.

Then there was Raida Abdalaal, a young Egyptian whose divorce had left her with three children and no source of income. The amount handed to her would pay for three months rent on the squalid flat where she lived. Then there was Jamal Baba, who had to provide for a family of 24 but couldn’t work because of a slipped disc. Samir Fathi Delloul, another Zaytoun resident, lived in one of the worst houses of all, yet still had four sons studying at university. There was no living room, so we sat down on creaking beds that you could tell had been hastily tidied. We couldn’t spend more than a couple of minutes in each household, despite the universal exhortation to stay for coffee or tea. It was a little after midnight when we finally finished and were driving back to hotel. Suddenly there was a loud crash and the ground shook, followed by another deep boom. Without a word, Moheeb turned off the engine and car lights, and instructed us to switch off our mobiles.

The explosions were close, about 700 meters away, in Moheeb’s estimation. Information about the airstrike started to come through the radio almost instantly. Israeli warplanes had bombed the Tal al-Islam area east of Gaza City. Adnan and I were uneasy, which Moheeb and Mohamed found amusing. “We’ve all seen bombs and flying body parts,” Moheeb said coolly. “Nothing scares us now.”

The 30-hour time limit ensured that the convoy was out of Gaza almost as soon as it entered. In 30 hours you barely begin to build up a picture of what life is really like in the Strip. Only snatched glimpses and intense vignettes are possible, like the worker in the hotel whom I saw scooping uneaten dollops of jam from breakfast plates back into a jar for use the next day. Or the boys playing on top of a hill of rubble in Jabaliya, a hill that could once have been their house.

In that short time, though, you can get a good idea of what Gaza isn’t. It’s not the broken, dilapidated hole some think it is. It’s a place that strives to be normal, and while the airstrikes and the drones and the blockade are daily reminders of how fragile the peace is, there’s nothing fragile about Gaza’s will to carry on.

All images courtesy of JO Magazine.

Mohamed grew up in the UK and is of Libyan descent. Fresh out of a philosophy, politics and economics degree, he was editor of embox, a student lifestyle magazine in London, before coming to Jordan work as a freelance writer. This article originally appeared in JO Magazine and is republished with permission.