My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:
During a conversation last night in Gaza with a group of 20-something male students, the issue of homosexuality came up. These were university-educated, Muslim men with relatively liberal attitudes but accepting a gay lifestyle was a complete anathema to them. “It’s disgusting,” one said, a Fatah loyalist and opponent of Hamas.
We sat and talked alongside Gaza City’s beach, a beautifully peaceful place with a Hamas wedding being celebrated nearby to the MC-led, Western soundtrack. “Jump”, “jump”, “jump”, screamed the music.
The Gaza Strip, under siege for over three years by Israel and the Western powers, is utterly unlike anywhere I’ve ever visited. Over 70% unemployment, garbage strewn across many streets and in abandoned buildings, a thriving tunnel business from Egypt that brings in the essentials of life and Hamas gunmen on most street corners directing traffic and keeping cool in the searing heat.
The main image in the West of Gaza is of a fundamentalist Islamic regime bent on Israel’s destruction. Although there are worrying signs of an increasing intolerance of difference — witness the news that sharia law and a kind of Muslim code of conduct may soon be implemented here — Hamas is a broad church. The reality on the ground is removed from virtually everything I read before crossing the border.
The Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister and former adviser to Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Dr Ahmed Yousef, told me in his high-rise office building, overlooking an Israeli-destroyed, Hamas home and the deep blue ocean, that his group was becoming more pragmatic and now embraced the two-state solution with Israel. He was pessimistic that the Jewish state would ever agree to completely cease and reverse the illegal settlements in the West Bank. If not, he explained, “resistance” had to continue.
I came principally to talk to the Gazan people. Yesterday I spent time at El-Wafa hospital, the only rehabilitation centre in Gaza and situated very close to the Israeli border. During the recent war, Israeli missiles struck two, unfinished wards. Akram al-Sattari, the head of planning, told me that officials there received countless requests of assistance from poor and needy families on a daily basis. Some need therapeutic work and others orthopaedic surgeries. I saw a man in a coma, his legs missing and stomach mangled, lying in a bed with his eyes and mouth wide open. There were literally thousands of similar patients across Gaza, mostly refused entry to Israel or Egypt to receive essential care.
The effects of Israel’s December/January bombardment are pervasive. The town of Jabaliya was flattened in parts by Israeli missiles and shells. It’s a ghost town, with a few families living in tents and the ruins of their homes and donkeys and young boys carrying rubble piece by piece to be sold or re-used.
Majed Alathanma, a 60-year-old father, lost his well-appointed home and taxi business in a barrage one day. He told me that he had personally seen Israeli troops open fire on civilians and drivers carrying dead bodies to be buried. These allegations are borne out in the recent report by IDF soldiers of the “Breaking the Silence” group. I have heard so many similar stories, all completely unverifiable, but consistent in their detail and callousness.
Homes cannot be re-built with cement because Israel bans its import. The Strip’s first clay building for disabled children is the first of many experiments in this now necessary skill. The engineer said that the Palestinians could keep on re-building as long as the Israelis continued destroying. Such despondency wasn’t uncommon, though surprising was the hope that co-existence with Israel wasn’t only important but essential. I’ve heard very few comments against Jews themselves.
Despair, depression, sexual dysfunction, bed-wetting (for children and adults) and lethargy are common complaints, a number of psychologists have told me. Students are refused exit permits to study abroad. Teachers can’t improve their skills with native English speakers. Journalists are trapped between dedication to truth-telling and battles with Hamas officials over what version of events should be published.
In the small village of East Maghazi, near the Israeli border, a farmer told me a story that seemed to encapsulate the sense of humiliation that infects this conflict. After the Israelis bulldozed his home without warning in early January, along with killing some of his live-stock, they returned to steal the roots of a 100 year-old sycamore tree, a shady covering used by his grandfather in decades past. The roots would undoubtedly be re-planted in Israel as a way to eradicate the Palestinian connection to the land.
This is the real meaning of occupation.