Gaza is one of the most populous cities between the Jordan River Valley and the Mediterranean sea, but there are no passable roads connecting it with Ashkelon, the tranquil Israeli beach town less than 10 miles up the coast, or El Arish, the nearest port city in the Egyptian Sinai.
Part of no recognised sovereign state, Gaza has been ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas since its 2007 seizure from the Palestinian Authority. The city and surrounding coastal strip are home to 1.6 million people. It’s all but off-limits to tourists; journalists only visit with the aid of an Israeli Government Press Office card and permission from a media office closely overseen by Hamas.
NGOs, foreign donors, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which had a $US238 million budget for Gaza in 2013, provide nearly all of the Strip’s basic services, and more than half of the youth population is unemployed. There’s no real postal delivery; such is Gaza’s isolation that it is likely among the largest cities on earth without a Chinese-owned restaurant. The air is tangy with burning trash.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The $US35 million Israeli border terminal at Erez looks like an international airport, with a soaring wave-like dome reaching over an inviting glass facade. When it opened in 2005, Israel was about to withdraw its soldiers and civilian settlers from the Gaza Strip, formerly Egyptian-occupied land which it had held since the Six-Day War in 1967. Each day more than 15,000 Palestinians were expected to use the terminal — not an unreasonable assumption, given that more than 110,000 Palestinians from both Gaza and the West Bank crossed into Israel for work every day in the late 1990s.
But since the takeover by Hamas, a US and EU-listed terror organisation, traffic has precipitously declined. Erez now sees only a few hundred users a day, mostly aid workers and journalists along with Palestinians with rare permission to enter Israel for passage to the West Bank or Jordan or to visit relatives in Israeli hospitals.
Israel has subjected Gaza to tight trade, border, and maritime restrictions out of concerns that Hamas could accumulate weapons, dual-use materials, and foreign currency. After all, the group is constitutionally committed to Israel’s violent destruction and has used Gaza as a base for thousands of rocket and suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. Israel and Hamas have had three armed face-offs since 2008, including one this past summer in which around 2,200 Palestinians and 74 Israelis were killed (the UN initially claimed that around 70% per cent of Palestinians killed were civilians, although a Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center analysis of 1,165 war fatalities found that 52% were militants).
The Erez terminal is flanked by a military base where the white marshmallow puff of a resting surveillance blimp pokes out over a concrete barrier. There’s a high wall that runs along the border, ahead of a second layer of wall that protects the nearby town of Netiv HaAsara, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Gazan borderlands, from rocket and mortar attacks.
When I crossed the border at 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in mid-November, the only other travellers in a gaping and empty departure hall were a trio of Swedish aid workers. There was only one desk open out of 15, and no one lined up behind me.
On one side of the border, marked by a sealed and probably blast-proof metal sliding door cut into a 15-foot-high-wall, is Israel, a place with smooth highways and traffic signals, plentiful western products, potable running water, 24-hour electricity, postal service, cinemas, rule of law, and regular garbage collection.
On the other is a place with frequent power outages and other signs of state collapse, where regional strife and internal disorder keep people cut off from the rest of the world and from each other as well.
Authority in Gaza, theoretically shared between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, remains a tenuous concept. Although the PA is withholding salaries from Hamas civil servants in the Strip and Hamas was weakened after the summer war, it’s the Islamists who have the guns and rockets, control the borders and security checkpoints, run both the police and secret police, and collect taxes and protection money.
The road leading to Gaza City is scattered with destroyed and collapsed buildings, with nearby structures often left remarkably untouched. Much of the destruction comes from this summer, ruins of a war that Hamas unwisely started and waged with no resulting improvement in the lives of Gazans or relief from the Strip’s desperate isolation. Inside the city is more of the same.
“When TV or internet are down you feel lost in a big desert,” one Gazan, a western-educated engineer, told me. “No one is around you, no one hears you. People don’t even visit each other. You can’t invite friends to have a meal with you. It’s a boring life. We don’t have appointments to go to. Even sleeping you just keep thinking, thinking.”
The Strip’s other passenger border is the Rafah crossing with Egypt, which is located in the south-western corner of the Strip — as far as you can get from the Erez crossing, even though it’s only a 90-minute drive away.
Rafah had been sealed to all freight and human traffic for more than 20 days when I visited. The only people on hand were a couple of bored uniformed Hamas men sitting on beat-up plastic chairs.
At an adjacent terminal processing freight traffic, a line of trucks carrying goods that had entered the Strip from Israel went through two sets of inspections: one from Palestinian Authority men and another round from Hamas. Hamas reportedly taxes every truck, even if it’s carrying goods for the UN. And I observed one truck travelling under escort from a UN-labelled vehicle, in case its payload (metal construction rods) was redirected to Hamas or some other armed group.
Nothing was coming over the Egyptian border that day. Since the overthrow of Egypt’s Hamas-friendly Muslim Brotherhood government in the summer of 2013, former general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had turned the border into a closed military zone, greatly curtailing traffic in both directions and destroying thousands of smuggling tunnels linking Sinai to Gaza. An ongoing jihadist insurgency in the Egyptian Sinai has also sharpened Cairo’s concerns over the militancy stewing in the neighbouring Gaza Strip and given Sisi’s anti-Islamist and anti-Hamas government even more of a reason to keep the frontier sealed.
Still, Rafah remains the average Gazan’s most practical gateway to the outside world — at least when it’s open. And even then Palestinians can be delayed at the border for days before being issued a transit visa, sometimes to the point of missing their flights out of Egypt. When let through, they are typically escorted to the Cairo airport in armed convoys, riding on buses with surly Egyptian soldiers onboard.
“We’re treated like prisoners,” one Gazan who had been through the ordeal explained to me.
Israel may have bitter relations with Gaza, but only Egypt is willing to keep the Strip totally sealed off.
I asked the clerk at an empty café next to the entrance to Rafah crossing if his shop stocked any Egyptian-made items. He said that cigarettes were the only products coming through the few smuggling tunnels that still remained open. The rest of his products had arrived through Israel.
“This time is different,” he said of the border closure, which he estimated had caused an 80% plunge in business at his shop. “It’s longer than before. They’re clearing the border area and demolishing houses. We can hear the bombing and can see the smoke.”
The Egyptians, he reckoned, would never fully tolerate Hamas’s control of the Rafah crossing.
“Inshallah, the Palestinian Authority will control the border,” he told me. “When the PA comes back to this place, things will be totally different. The Egyptians will let people leave.”
Back in Gaza City, Al Azhar University professor Mkhaimar Abusada couldn’t even summon that little bit of optimism.
“The Egyptian are saying the PA has to deploy within Rafah. But even if that will happen tomorrow, Egypt won’t open Rafah because they are facing a war within Sinai with extremists and radicals,” he explained. “We are in the middle of a big mess here.”
The border was reopened on Nov. 26 after a month-long closure — but only for Gazans returning to the Strip.
Until the early 2000s — prior to the beginning of a partly Hamas-led campaign of terrorist attacks inside of Israel, often planned from Gaza — it was possible for Gazans to fly out of the territory.
Between 1998 and 2001, they could leave Gaza on Palestinian Airlines, which operated out of Yasser Arafat International Airport, just a short drive up a now-sleepy and unpaved road from the Rafah crossing. Like the Erez terminal, it was a sign that both Israelis and Gazans once envisioned a much different future together.
Today, the terminals and outbuildings are dust-blown shells, pounded over the years by Israeli fighter jets attempting to collapse the entrances to smuggling tunnels leading between the former runway and the Egyptian Sinai, visible just a few hundred yards away.
The runway itself was destroyed in military operations in the early 2000s, when Israel moved against militants in the Strip in response to a wave of suicide bombings.
The shattered tarmac has since been picked clean for building materials, leaving a ghostly rectangular imprint etched into an expanse of dead grass.
My guide explained that the wreckage of what was the only airport ever to operate within Palestinian Authority-administered areas was now one of the more dangerous places in the Strip, withunexploded ordnance littering the site, as well as slags of concrete threatening to cascade from the upper stories.
High overhead was an unmanned surveillance balloon perched over rolling Israeli farmland, looking for smugglers or militants gathered at tunnel exits. Hamas was probably watching as well, for roughly similar reasons.
“You can’t see them,” he cautioned, “but they can see you.”
The grey streak of the Egyptian border zone, trafficked by the occasional tan-coloured troop transport, ran along one side of the former airport. The Israel border is less than a mile away on the other side of the site. Despite their proximity, both neighbouring countries feel impossibly distant and mirage-like.
The outlook for Gaza is bleak.
Hamas’s summer hostilities failed to coerce Israel into lifting its border restrictions and likely convinced Egypt to tighter theirs. Palestinian political gridlock and Hamas’s weapons arsenal leave little optimism that the root causes of Gaza’s isolation — Hamas’s empowerment, the Palestinian Authority’s collapse, and the chaos and radicalism that each have given rise to — can be resolved peacefully either. And there’s almost no possibility of a negotiated resolution to the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict if Gaza remains outside the full control of the PA, which is the only entity that the peace process empowers to make a deal on the Palestinian people’s behalf.
Meanwhile, more than 1.6 million people will be caught in a deadening limbo.
“Nobody’s optimistic,” a doctor, farmer, and former civil servant based in Gaza City told me. “There isn’t any vision to break the siege. People are very tired and exhausted.”
In the 1990s, when the PA was in decisive control of Gaza, “we never heard about any big attacks,” he explained. “The borders were open. Seventy-thousand people worked in Israel. Farmers would export products abroad. All they were thinking was how to develop farms and factories and improve their lives.”
A return to those conditions now seems inconceivable, but the doctor, a first-hand witness to the Strip’s tumultuous recent history, didn’t dare to think in such optimistic terms.
“The best solution is to take some of the pressure out of the way and make it easier for people,” he said. “Or else there is no difference between death and life.”
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