Letter from Gaza: Keep off the grass

My following article appears in today’s edition of Crikey:

Freelance journalist and author Antony Loewenstein writes from inside Gaza:

The American International School in Gaza was bombed on 3 January, completely destroying the institution. Today it is a twisted wreck of concrete, metal and burnt vans. Surreally, when I visited a few days ago I found two green, grass ovals being watered by a highly effective sprinkler system. Sheep were grazing on the unused land.

Two students of the school, Mohammed Samhadane and Walid Abuzaid, both 13, are like many pimply faced kids all over the world; addicted to violent video games and smoking cigarettes. They told me that like their friends they wanted peace with Israel but believed the state had no desire to negotiate honestly with the Palestinians, especially after the recent Gaza massacre. Politically aware, sceptical towards the claims of Hamas to represent the Palestinian people (they came from Fatah families) and Western-friendly, they resigned themselves to the idea that things might change soon. Maybe.

This attitude has followed me across the Strip. From farmers to Hamas spokespeople and militants to academics, there is a little hope, but only because the alternative is despair and extremism. In a land such as this, where daily life is consumed with finding petrol, a job and respite from the searing heat, politics seeps into every facet of life. I’m yet to meet anybody who doesn’t want to share opinions on the Hamas/Fatah split or President Barack Obama (usually a positive comment that he’s not George W. Bush then dismissal of his chances to change the equation here.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may believe that the people of Gaza despise the Hamas leadership and want to overthrow its rule but the picture is not that simple. The growing Islamisation of society concerns many Gazans — today I was given a list Hamas is distributing that urges parents not to allow children to wear t-shirts that contain words such as, “Madonna” and “Hussy” — but security has greatly improved since the group took over in 2007.

During Friday prayers in Khan Younis last week, I witnessed thousands of Hamas supporters cheer Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and embrace his message of a devout Islamic society (though he also talked about a Palestinian state along 1967 borders, the internationally acceptable solution to the conflict.) Young men and boys, some devout and some more liberal, clearly found meaning in a movement that deftly melded faith with politics. I was nearly crushed in a push by the crowd to get close to Haniyeh as he departed the mosque.

Unemployment now defines the Gazan population; tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority staff still pull a regular income from the West Bank but are directed by Fatah not to work in Gaza under Hamas. I’ve lost count… of the number of men who tell me their wives are begging them to leave home during the day. “1500 people were killed during the war”, one man, Nafez Aldabba, told me, “but more babies than that have been born since because there is nothing to do except sleep, eat and have s-x.”

People like Nafez and his son Mohammed confounded my expectations about attitudes in the Strip and indicated a deep desire in Gaza for some kind of normalised relations with Israel. Mohammed, a militant who fires rockets into Israel and treats all Israeli civilians as legitimate targets, told me that he still supported a two-state solution, the right of return and enforcement of 1967 borders.

He rejected the “extremism” of Hamas. But like his father, he had no faith that Israel would ever end settlement building “and now is even telling America to get lost.”

I rarely hear any hateful comments towards Jews. A few have asked whether public opinion in Australia was supportive of the Palestinians (I replied that recent polls suggest that they are.)

Even farmers with little education stressed their embrace of “all religions” but opposition to Zionism. Hazem Balousha, a Gazan-based journalist who strings for the London Guardian, told me that he believes Israel doesn’t want to overthrow Hamas but merely strangle the economy.

“Most people are fed-up”, he said. “They don’t really care too much about politics but have to focus on getting electricity, cooking gas and how to feed the family every day. They only care about themselves.”

Gaza’s biggest rap group, Darg Team, were a breath of fresh air (their latest single, 23 Days, details the carnage during January’s war.) Six twenty-somethings, with matching white trainers, riff on religion, culture, honour, occupation and the right of return. I asked manager Fadi Srour whether they would perform in Israel.

“We’d like to”, he responded. “Every society has good and bad and we want to reach people directly. We’d love to perform in the Knesset.”

Under Hamas, the band has been unofficially banned but they say they’ll continue performing anyway, going underground, if necessary.

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist and the author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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