The view from Gaza

My latest column for New Matilda features on the ground reporting from Gaza:

Six months after the Israeli offensive in Gaza, Antony Loewenstein went to see how its people are coping under Israel’s continuing blockade

The no-man’s land you must cross to get from Israel into Gaza is a 500-metre stretch of sand. We — myself and the porter helping with my bags — walked along it, between bombed buildings on both sides of the road. When I reached the Hamas checkpoint, my passport was briefly checked and my cases looked over, and I was inside. Compared to this, Israel felt like another planet.

The drive from the checkpoint into Gaza City, a relatively short distance, quickly reminded me that I was in Hamas-controlled territory. The group’s flags flapped in the wind. Buildings had Arabic writings spray-painted across their fronts. The rubble-strewn roads were littered with rubbish and broken up by speed humps. The place looked old and broken (photos of my visit are here, and a mini-documentary is here).

There are good reasons for this disrepair. Ever since Hamas pre-empted a US-backed Fatah coup in 2007 and violently assumed control in Gaza, the Western powers have backed Israel’s blockade of the Strip. Although small amounts of cement will soon be allowed to enter, the lack of raw materials, especially since the December-January onslaught, has left the territory in a state of decay.

I met an engineer who was building the area’s first clay school for disabled children because cement, smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, was prohibitively expensive. He was defiant. “If Israel destroys this again next year, we will rebuild, as long as Jerusalem is occupied.”

Scenes of destruction are common. The Parliament building was bombed during the war and sits idle in the centre of the city. Israeli missiles struck the interior ministry and the huge structure has yet to be repaired.

While many suburbs feature pulverised homes, in places like Jabaliya entire neighbourhoods are flattened, their families living in tents and in their ruined homes. As we sat sheltering from the searing heat, one father, Majed Alathamma, told me that he used to live and work with Israelis in the years before 2000, but now he hated them for what they did to his livelihood and to his house. This wasn’t a visceral, irrational hatred, but a response to a war which was — despite attempts by the Zionist community to deflect attention from serious allegations about the conduct of Israel’s attack — vicious.

It was impossible to avoid discussion of the Fatah-Hamas split. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said last week in Rafah that any further negotiations with Fatah would stall while the US-backed Ramallah government continued to support the ongoing siege of Gaza.

Many people I spoke to hoped that ideologues on both sides would stop stalling and reconcile as quickly as possible. The Palestinian cause is being undeniably harmed by the Ramallah-Gaza separation, although right now it’s hard to imagine a unity government while the sides are actively working against each other.

Although I heard about bombings and shootings almost every day in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas, I didn’t feel personally threatened. Most people I met were welcoming, generous, kind, fairly despondent but sometimes a little hopeful. Although farmers still experience regular Israeli incursions into their territory, I noted little generalised hatred towards Jews. One resident of East Maghazi, Jamal, told me how the Israelis had first destroyed his home in January then stolen the roots of a 100-year-old sycamore tree his grandfather used to value for the shade it cast. He was sure that the tree would soon appear in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

I wanted to investigate claims that Hamas was imposing an increasingly intolerant form of Islam in Gaza. There is growing evidence that roving groups of Hamas supporters are launching an Islamic “virtue” campaign to convince women to dress more modestly and shopkeepers to remove female mannequins from their windows. An honour killing last week was a worrying development in fundamentalism.

Except in expensive hotels on the beachfront, it is rare to see a woman not wearing some version of hijab, and some go as far as wearing the more concealing niqab. But many women with whom I spoke were not particularly concerned with the current Hamas campaign. This isn’t to say they might not be in time, but Gazans are highly educated, though conservative, and do not want their community to resemble Tehran or Riyadh.

Discussion about possible political solutions often seemed oddly irrelevant in a time and place where finding cooking oil and petrol are far more important priorities. I was surprised with the number of people, including Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister and former adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Dr Ahmed Yousef, who talked about a two-state future and couldn’t imagine living in the same nation as Jews after so many years of conflict. In other words, a future country designed along the 1967 borders.

It should be noted, however, that when I met Dr Haider Eid, a leading proponent of a one-state solution, he assured me that public support for such a move was steadily increasing. He had just spoken to a packed auditorium in Rafah a few days before we met and said Hamas officials, students and general public were receptive to thinking past the “Oslo-izing” of the Palestinian mind, and the paralysis brought on by years of fruitless negotiations between Fatah and Israel and absolutely nothing to show for it except an ever-deeper occupation.

Support for Hamas in Gaza is impossible to measure accurately (and countless people told me that opinion polls were notoriously unreliable) but the faithful certainly heaped praise on Prime Minister Haniyeh when I saw him lead Friday prayers in the city of Khan Yunis. He was greeted with cheers, surrounded by beefy and bearded Hamas security officers, and launched into a 50-minute tirade against the occupation, arguing for a two-state solution with the right of return. He left the mosque as a crush of supporters screamed praise for him in Arabic. The response was similar at another rally in the city later that day, which was one of the first public Hamas rallies since Israel’s attack, where Haniyeh spoke before thousands of men, women and children, as Haniyeh addressed a Khan Yunis crowd.

The overwhelming sense of visiting a place that had been forgotten by the outside world haunted my entire visit. One afternoon I lectured at the Islamic University in Gaza City for students of journalism and English. They asked me why the world had allowed Israel’s bombardment in January and why Palestinians were so demonised in the Western world. I said that public debate was shifting and Palestinian voices were increasingly heard in the media. Palestinians still needed to improve their public relations, I said, especially when competing in the public arena against Israel’s well-funded spin. The lecturer, journalist and academic Rami Almagheri, agreed and later argued with the students to try and convince them that partisan reporting by their own side was not helping their cause, and was in fact the enemy of the Palestinian people.

From what I saw, Hamas has not been weakened. Meanwhile the people of Gaza are relying even more heavily on the tunnels that snake their way from Egypt into Gaza to bring in all manner of essential products to get past Israel’s criminal blockade. Exactly how people can survive under those conditions is now turning into a kind of horrible experiment.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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