Life in Gaza, Week 1, Feb 28, 2002

So far Gaza life has been rather uneventful. The entry was still intimidating, as passing through the Erez Checkpoint is like entering a maximum security jail. I was a little shaken as I walked up to the Israeli guardpost, noticing at my feet one of the telltale “Sarajevo Roses” - a shell hit that peels pavement in the shape of a flower. A glass booth next to it had a bullethole square through the window. However, as in the past, I felt safer once I reached the Palestinian side. They tend to be less trigger happy, as this past weekends’ two shootings of pregnant Palestinian women made evident. Probably the most spectacular thing that has happened thus far though was today as I stepped outside my door this afternoon and saw a large plume of black smoke rising from down the street.

As I approached, it turned out to be a giant dumpster fire, most likely started by some delinquent kids. For just as I passed it by, a fire engine came screaming by, rushing to put it out. whoo. Gaza City is little different than I remember it from last year. Its still a large, mostly flat city with numerous incomplete 20-story apartment buildings left unfinished probably due to the fighting. As I walk down Sharia Nasser a lexus passes in front of two children herding their goats through the sandy lots.

I feel somewhat removed, having my apartment situated in the nicer neighborhood near the foreign councils. The Brits and the Americans pulled out when the Intifada began, but the plucky French have stuck around. If I choose, I can take a course in their classes or perhaps watch “Blanc” with Arabic subtitles. Other than that, there is absolutely no entertainment or anything going on at night. My options are usually sitting at an Internet cafe, getting ice cream, or watching Kojack dubbed on TV Polanda on sattellite TV. The Polish dubbings are actually quite amusing as in every movie and every show, it consists of a husky Polish man speaking in absolute monotone for each character.

By 9pm the streets begin to empty and the only people out off the main street are small bands of Palestinian police, puffing on cigarettes into the night. As these are indeed Palestinian police, each carries a loaded AK-47 from his sholders. They are found not only guarding notable sites like Arafat’s Mansion and the Egyptian consulate, but also Fashion City Center and the Dry Cleaners down the street from me.

My job at al-Mezan presently has me working in their Gaza City office, as their main branch is in the heart of the Jabalia refugee camp the next town north. Jabalia is far more in misery than here. With over 100,000 refugees crammed into a tiny town, its the most densely packed place on earth, in terms of rooms per person. Donkey carts compete with aged taxis in rubbish filled streets. The people are chipper and kind, but the gaping missile hole in the building across the street from al-Mezan (and next to an UNRWA Girls School) tells of other stories.

So far there is not much for me to do at the office. Today I just took the opportunity to read the 1949 Geneva Conventions and other UN Resolutions. It was basically to pass the time as they had no English for me to edit. Otherwise, I can aid them in their website layout ( which isnt the sharpest thing on the planet. My home is nice enough, as an efficiency with a small kitchenette (no oven) that includes an emergency light for when the Israelis shut off the power. At first I didnt have hot water and tried to boil pots full of water to make a warm bath. I spent a good hour heating up a total of 6 pots of boiling water to counter the cold water.

It sort of worked, but now I’ve found I have hot water anyhow. So I sit, plow through books and periodically check BBC World’s hourly reports incase anything new happened. Sometimes I hear a loud bang, and get all excited, but more often than not it’s just the front gate slamming shut. Israeli jets do frequently fly over with sonic booms too though.

So tomorrow I head to Rafah at the south end of Gaza, right on the Egyptian border. This is the place that has seen over 200 families have their homes bulldozed by the Israelis in the past year. Gunbattles are quite frequent. Last year kids goaded me into peering into sight of no-mans’ land at the border then laughed as they pushed me in. There was no shooting that time, but in the past few days there have been some firefights. Yesterday 5 kids were injured from an Israeli tank shell, and just this afternoon 3 Palestinian gunmen were mowed down nearby. Im spending 2 nights with my sort-of boss, Mahmud, who
lives with his wife and 2 kids about 700m from the Israeli positions. Eh, it cant be worse than being woken by Muezzin calls from the nearby mosque.