Sleepless in Gaza

Tank fire, machine gun fire, and roosters crowing; explosions, more tank fire, more gun fire, and those stupid all-night roosters with no sense of timing: How Not to Sleep in the Refugee Camp at Rafah-at least if you’re a visitor and listening to the “low intensity war” rage on the borders of the Gaza Strip all night still frays your nerves. Two year-old Haia and 4-year-old Sharaf sleep peacefully, unperturbed. “They got used to it,” their father says. “And anyway, this is nothing.”

Nothing? Any school child can tell you which noise is the tank, which is the gun, what type of gun, whether the explosion was serious or just loud, how to tell the difference between the sound of Apache and Cobra helicopters, and which planes are F-16s and which are not. I remember war novels and war movies where the seasoned soldiers would teach the new recruits how to tell what noise was what and when to worry, when to run. Kids growing up in the Gaza strip would make excellent trainers.

In addition to the military expertise of the average Gazan comes the street-wise know-how of refugee camp living: where to walk or when Not to walk in certain areas; where the latest tent-city can be found, thanks to UN help for the families whose homes are heaps of stone and twisted metals thanks to Israeli home demolition experts; which families are most in need of community help so they can eat or get medical care. Poverty is increasing everywhere. Unemployment has reached 75%. Human traffic at the weekly Saturday market in Rafah has declined noticeably because fewer goods from Egypt are allowed in causing the prices of those items that make it to rise. Fewer and fewer people can afford to buy the lowest priced goods around.

Much like the refugee camps in Beirut, the camps in the Gaza Strip host their own ecosystems. Competition for the garbage rages between the chickens, the goats, the sheep, the cats, and the rats. Rats are the boldest, helping themselves to anything digestible, including the bony-thin cats that slink away from the garbage pits when the rats are out in force. In a dark alleyway on the way back to my hosts’ home a huge brown rat races out in front of us. Worried that I’ll shriek in terror, Mahmud attempts to chase the rat down an alternate pathway, but she’s undeterred and comes tearing towards me. He kicks her with his foot and she squeals grotesquely, irritated that her evening stroll has been disrupted. The rats come into people’s homes, invading their kitchens, crawling over sleeping children on their bed mats. Nothing keeps them away. They are a real problem, he says. The flies and crawling bugs don’t merit much attention as a result. I wake up with bites on my face and ankles so from now on I’ll wear socks to sleep and keep the blanket over my head. Or so that’s the plan. Rafah’s fairly warm at night.

It’s time to return to the office in Gaza City, so I’ll have to wake up at 6am -early enough to make sure I arrive at the checkpoint south of Deir al-Balah in time to get through. It’ll stay open for an hour or so today. The usual convoy of taxis, cars, trucks, carts crowd at the entrance. Tempers flare. The smell of rotting produce permeates the hot taxi I’m stuffed into, which is idling behind a diesel-fuming truck. But the traffic starts to move, slowly, evenly and we pass the checkpoint in 30 minutes. A good day. The only tense moment coming when the driver of an IDF jeep escorting a bus from the Gush Katif settlement slams his hand down on the horn warning us to get out of his way so his privileged passengers can get on to their exclusive road without delay; without having to plug their noses as they cross the path of the human garbage they’re hoping to eventually completely displace.