A portrait of Gaza

by Yaniv Reich on November 3, 2009

Gaza Devastation(Photo credit: Christian Als / New Yorker)

Leave it to the New Yorker to provide such a haunting portrait of Gaza. One aspect of the article that I think is excellent is that because its filled with so much ugly detail about Israeli and Hamas’ actions, it seems to jar deeply and offend every ideologue that reads it, as evidenced by the extensive online discussions.

In my view, the article is one of the sensitive and unashamed portraits of the open-air prison that is Gaza. I will provide just a few excerpts here, but I encourage everyone to read the whole thing:

Gaza is a place that Israel wishes it could ignore: the territory has long had the highest concentration of poverty, extremism, and hopelessness in the region. Gaza makes a mess of the idealized two-state solution because it is separated from the West Bank, the much larger Palestinian territory, not just physically but also culturally and politically.
[…]
The Hamas attacks derailed the peace process initiated by the Oslo accords and hardened many Israelis against the Palestinian cause. Photographs of Gazans celebrating the Moment bombing confirmed the dehumanized state of affairs. Gaza became “Hamastan” in the Israeli newspapers. In 2007, after Hamas solidified its control of Gaza, the Israeli government declared Gaza a “hostile entity,” and began enforcing a blockade on a population that was already impoverished, isolated, and traumatized by years of occupation.

Hamas was not weakened by the blockade. Instead, the collective punishment strengthened its argument that Israel wanted to eliminate the Palestinians. The only thing that Gaza has that Israel wants is Gilad Shalit, but Hamas says that it will not free him until Israel releases fourteen hundred individuals, four hundred and fifty of whom have been convicted of terrorist killings, including the men who planned the Moment bombing.
[…]
Gaza is a sea of children. The average woman there has 5.1 children, one of the highest birth rates in the world. More than half the population is eighteen or younger. “We love to reproduce,” Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, told me on a searingly hot July day, as hundreds of young boys in green caps shouted slogans at a Hamas summer camp. Hayya, a former professor of Islamic law, has six children; a seventh was killed by an Israeli bomb.

There is very little for children to do in Gaza. The Israeli blockade includes a ban on toys, so the only playthings available have been smuggled, at a premium, through tunnels from Egypt. Islamists have shut down all the movie theatres. Music is rare, except at weddings. Many of Gaza’s sports facilities have been destroyed by Israeli bombings, including the headquarters for the Palestinian Olympic team. Only one television station broadcasts from Gaza, Al Aqsa—a Hamas-backed channel that gained notice last year for a children’s show featuring a Mickey Mouse-like figure who was stabbed to death by an Israeli interrogator. The mouse was replaced by a talking bee, who died after being unable to cross into Egypt for medical treatment. The rabbit who followed the bee passed away in January, after being struck by shrapnel from an Israeli attack.
[…]
Israeli authorities maintain a list of about three dozen items that they permit into Gaza, but the list is closely kept and subject to change. Almost no construction materials—such as cement, glass, steel, or plastic pipe—have been allowed in, on the ground that such items could be used for building rockets or bunkers. While Hamas rocket builders and bomb-makers can smuggle everything they need through the secret tunnels, international aid organizations have to account for every brick or sack of flour. Operation Cast Lead—a three-week-long Israeli attack on Gaza, which began in December, 2008—has left Gaza in ruins. “Half a year after the conflict, we don’t have a single bag of cement and not a pane of glass,” John Ging, the director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees, told me in July.
[…]
“For the last two school years, Israeli officials have withheld paper for textbooks because, hypothetically, the paper might be hijacked by Hamas to print seditious materials,” Ging complained. (Paper was finally delivered this fall.) When John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Gaza in February of this year, he asked why pasta wasn’t allowed in. Soon, macaroni was passing through the checkpoints, but jam was taken off the list.
[…]
According to Haaretz, the I.D.F. has calculated that a hundred and six truckloads of humanitarian relief are needed every day to sustain life for a million and a half people. But the number of trucks coming into Gaza has fallen as low as thirty-seven. Israeli government officials have told international aid officials that the aim is “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.”
[…]
Although the new Prime Minister of Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, emphasized that Hamas had no intention of making Gaza an Islamic state, it took over the judiciary, appointing Islamist judges who impose Sharia on the court system. I was repeatedly assured by Hamas officials, such as Khalil al-Hayya, that they stood for “moderate Islam, the Islam of tolerance and justice and equality,” but Gazans who are not in the Party worry. “The whole place is becoming a mosque,” a young female reporter, Asma al-Ghoul, complained. She had recently been hassled on the beach by self-appointed morality police, even though she was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Jawdat al-Khoudary, a businessman, who is a native Gazan, said that since the Hamas takeover he feels like “a refugee in my own country.” An economist, Omar Shaban, said, “The siege has left Hamas with no competition. Secular people are punished. The future is frightening.”
[…]
“The term ‘economy’ is no longer valid in the Gaza Strip,” Omar Shaban, the economist, told me. In 1994, the poverty rate in Gaza was sixteen per cent. (In the U.S., it was 14.5.) But by 1996 the Israelis had virtually shut out Palestinian labor. And the second intifada, four years later, ended tourism in Gaza; before then, Shaban said, more than ten thousand people a month had visited the territory, many of them Israelis who enjoyed the beaches and the seafood. Most economic activity came to a halt in 2007, with the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Now, according to the U.N., about seventy per cent of Gazans live on less than a dollar a day, and seventy-five per cent rely on international food assistance. In 1994, Shaban said, one wage earner supported six people in Gaza; the dependency rate is now one earner for every eighteen people.
[…]
Just outside Rafah, the smuggling capital of Gaza, there is a billboard with a portrait of Shalit, behind bars, juxtaposed with a photograph of a masked Hamas fighter. The Arabic text declares, “Your prisoner will not have safety and security until our prisoners have safety and security.” In a place where commercial advertising scarcely exists, the billboard is especially jarring.

Shalit’s pale features and meek expression haunt the imagination of Gazans. Though it may seem perverse, a powerful sense of identification has arisen between the shy soldier and the people whose government holds him hostage. Gazans see themselves as like Shalit: confined, mistreated, and despairing.

At the same time, the sense of specialness that surrounds Shalit rankles many Gazans. “Everybody talks about Shalit as if he’s a holy man,” Ahmed Yousuf, the deputy minister, complained. “The whole world is showing such concern about a soldier who is still young and unmarried.” Meanwhile, Israel is holding more than seven thousand Palestinians, nearly nine hundred of them from Gaza, who, like Shalit, are cut off from their families and are sometimes held without charge. “People say, ‘What’s the difference between their Shalit and our Shalits?’ ” Yousuf remarked. “We are all Shalits.”
[…]
The I.D.F. won’t say whether Shalit had been involved in military actions against Gaza, but the tanks that line the border do lob shells into the territory, causing many random casualties. While I was there, a teen-age girl was killed, and her young brother injured, in such an incident. The Israelis maintain a buffer zone along the border about half a mile deep, which places at least thirty per cent of the Strip’s arable land off limits. In practice, the zone is even wider, according to Mohammed Ali Abu Najela, the Oxfam researcher. “Nearly every week, there are reported cases of farmers being shot at,” he told me. He said that Gazans understand the rule to be this: “If I can see you, I will shoot you.”
[…]
The stated goal for Operation Cast Lead was to “destroy the terrorist infrastructure,” but there were larger aims. “We cannot allow Gaza to remain under Hamas control,” Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister at the time, said. Six months before the operation began, Israel and Hamas had agreed to a truce. The Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Vilnai, warned that Gazans were “bringing upon themselves a greater Shoah, because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate.” Such charged language revealed the degree to which anger permeated the thinking of Israel’s military planners.
[…]
It was one of the deadliest days of conflict between Israel and its neighbors since 1967. That night, the teacher and his family stayed in the house. “The bombing started again—it felt like an earthquake, our home was shaking,” he recalls. He was afraid that the windows would shatter, so he removed them. It was freezing weather and the utilities in his home had been shut off. The next day, he went foraging for food and fuel. A mosque near his house had been destroyed. Also nearby was Beit Lehia Elementary School, which the U.N.R.W.A. had turned into an emergency shelter for fifteen hundred people. It was hit by white-phosphorous artillery shells. Such munitions are usually employed to produce smoke screens, but they are also powerful incendiaries. The teacher recalls, “The smoke was very white, and when it comes on the ground it doesn’t explode—it just burns.” The tentacles of fire that enveloped the school reminded him of a giant octopus. Two children burned to death. An I.D.F. investigation found that white phosphorous was used in accordance with international law.
[…]
On December 30th, the Air Force began demolishing government buildings and cultural institutions. “The Israeli authorities said they were going to destroy the infrastructure of terror,” John Ging, the U.N.R.W.A. director, told me. But they also attacked what he called “the infrastructure of peace,” such as the American International School in Gaza, the premier educational institution in the Strip. “It was attacked on two occasions by the extremists,” Ging said. “They did not succeed in destroying it. It took an F-16 for that.” The caretaker of the school was killed in the attack. The Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, the Presidential Palace, and the parliament were also struck. “These are the buildings of democracy,” Ging said. “We in the international community have been building these for a decade, for a future state of Palestine, and they now lie in ruins.”
[…]
Most of Israel’s immediate military objectives were achieved within hours of the ground invasion. What followed was the systematic destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure.

There is a lot more excellent prose in the original article. It is well worth the time to read.

Related Posts:

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: