The checkpoint at the north end of Gaza - where you can (if you’re lucky) spend a couple of hot hours waiting to be let through - was manned last Tuesday by a collection of very young Israeli men and women. The boys resembled people I had shared classrooms with in north London, the girls beautiful sixth-formers from my daughter’s school. Eventually - along with the woman from Unicef, two Swedes and an ostentatiously world-weary film crew - the three of us (myself, a producer and a Channel 4 cameraman, making a documentary) were waved politely through and made our way across the walled no man’s land and into the strip.
There is no real distance between Gaza City and the checkpoint: the journey takes only a few minutes. Yet you would hardly situate the dusty, chaotic, governmentless jumble of concrete and rubbish on the same continent as the fields and woods through which you drive from Jerusalem to the border. I saw the camps in Lebanon in the old days, and Gaza is worse. It is becoming like Beirut used to be, except they don’t kidnap foreigners in Gaza. Instead the Gazans surround them, smile at them, yell at them, accuse them of being Israelis, shake their hands and, above all, demand to be heard. Men with guns but without uniforms walk the streets.
We went to a school. Unbelievably, most of the kids in Gaza still dress up in neat school uniforms, and in our school - recently built with money from the Gulf - the boys wore shorts and a kind of sailor shirt in navy and white. The headmaster showed me round. We saw his office, the classrooms where they were teaching dental hygiene and geography, and the makeshift museum in which the head displays the remains of his safe and the computer destroyed in an Israeli raid two weeks earlier.
In the English class, we found a boy who had been educated in Chesterfield and somehow been plonked down here in hell, and we asked him what he and the other 12-year-olds felt about “the situation”. For himself, he said, he was always frightened. Every noise became a tank, or a helicopter, and might mean death or injury for him, his family or his friends. His class-mates, however, were too well-schooled to admit to fear. Death was welcome, said one exceptionally handsome, tall boy. His teachers nodded approvingly.
Several of the boys in the class had witnessed the Israeli incursion six days earlier, in which 12 people were killed. The target had been a Hamas militant, but he and his brothers had refused to surrender, and they and several of their neighbours (including a two-year old boy) had died in the subsequent fire-fight. One of the dead brothers had been a respected teacher at the school, and his portrait decorated the notice boards. Almost all the children had some experience of violence or coercion. They had been stopped at checkpoints, watched helicopters fire rockets, seen the wreckage of cars in the aftermath of attacks, looked on at the resulting funeral processions, lost relatives. They might have been the nephew of the farmer maimed on his donkey cart last week, after he got too close to the limousine that was carrying the Hamas man. Or they were the grandson of the unfortunate bystander who stopped a tank round. Possibly their cousins owned the house blown up by the IDF this week because it stood alongside one that housed an Islamic jihad activist.
Some of this Israeli action is aimed theoretically at stopping terrorist attacks (like the recent bombing in Tel Aviv); some at protecting the 3,000-odd settlers whose pointless and (for Israel) hugely expensive scattered colonies in Gaza cause so much trouble. The result is that, while Israel claims to be hitting at the “terrorist infrastructure”, the consequence last week was a two-mile funeral procession through Gaza City, in which mourners chanted “no to Abu Mazen”, the new pro-roadmap Palestinian prime minister. In Gaza, as in the other Palestinian territories, the space for moderation gets smaller with every minor humiliation and every death.
You don’t have to be a peace activist to understand that this is a kind of madness. If ordinary Israelis and their friends in other countries were to spend even a few hours in Gaza, or talking to people on the West Bank, then it is difficult to imagine them supporting the policies of the present Israeli government. They might instead see that the seeds of the present intifada were sown in the way the last intifada was handled. At random, I met several Palestinian men who had, as youngsters, been imprisoned and tortured in the 80s. It is hard to talk to them about peace. And tomorrow’s harvest will (if nothing stops it) become the killing of one group of the flawless young people I encountered last week by the other.