The Gaza Strip faces an uncertain future four months after the conclusion of a war in which 2200 people were killed there.
The Strip remains deeply isolated, while the Islamist terrorist group Hamas’s continued control over the territory has dissuaded donors from aiding in the area’s post-conflict reconstruction. Last week, two rockets were fired at Israel from the Strip; the Israelis responded by destroying a Hamas training camp. But today, material for the construction of a Coca Cola plant was allowed to enter the territory, signaling that economic opportunities might slowly rebound as wartime tensions recede.
Business Insider visited the coastal Strip in November. While it’s hard to view anything there outside the context of the region’s ceaseless and often violent state of flux, Gaza offers signs of both a rich history and its own, resilient version of normal life.
The Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt after the 1948 Middle East War, until Israel seized the territory during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel unilaterally pulled all of its soldiers and civilian settlers from the Strip in 2005.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007. It's a US-listed and Iranian-supported terrorist group whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, so the takeover soon triggered a policy of Israeli and Egyptian border, maritime, and airspace restrictions that continues until now. Despite these hurdles, Hamas has built up enough of a weapons and cash stockpile to launch thousands of rocket attacks on Israel and fight three wars with their powerful neighbour -- most recently this past summer.
Gaza City sits along an idyllic stretch of Mediterranean coast. Despite the violence of that had gripped the area just a few months ago, a tense calm prevails through much of the Strip. This was the calming view of the Gaza City port from my room at the Roots Hotel.
Across the street, high-rise buildings lined the half-paved road running along the Gaza City waterfront.
Although this mosque along the waterfront is only partially built, its minarets still broadcast the call to prayer five times each day.
Near it was another half-built structure -- a common sight, even in the city's more prosperous areas.
At the nearby port, a crew of fishermen prepare to depart the port at sunset. Israeli-enforced restrictions meant to prevent weapons smuggling limit the fishing area to six miles from shore. The boats run on antiquated diesel engines and have no radar or communications equipment onboard.
Much of the Gaza Strip looks like this: dusty and jam-packed, with late-model cars crowding the beat-up streets.
In downtown Gaza City, blocks of improvised-looking cinder-block structures almost threaten to crash in to one another.
Rubble from the summer conflict is everywhere. These are some of the remains of the Italian Tower on the outskirts of Gaza City, a high-rise building heavily damaged in an airstrike during the closing days of the conflict.
Downtown Gaza is dotted with isolated piles of rubble from buildings that the Israelis individually targeted over the summer -- often with surrounding buildings appearing largely untouched.
In a place so isolated and constricting, the calm and breathing-space that the beach provides can be crucial.
A disused lifeguard stand sits on the beach in Nuseirat, a few kilometers down the coast from Gaza City.
In Deir al-Balah, the town's cramped warren of narrow streets goes all the way up to the beach itself.
Although 1.6 million people live in Gaza's 139 square miles, the Strip isn't totally devoid of open space. Here are date palms and agricultural greenhouses outside of Khan Younis.
Gaza has a single major highway: the Saladin Road, which connects the Rafah crossing in the south with the Erez crossing, on the Strip's northern end. It takes about 90 minutes to drive the entire thing.
Parts of the road were damaged during the war over the summer. The road is supposed to be rebuilt with Qatari assistance in what is one of the largest development projects currently underway in the Strip. Thanks to border restrictions and Hamas's diversion of building materials, progress has been slow.
You can't go far in Gaza without seeing posters or billboards from various militant groups. The bottom left-hand corner of this poster includes an image of right-wing Israeli activist Yehuda Glick in rifle crosshair -- he survived an October assassination attempt.
The billboards are often dedicated to fighters killed in hostilities with Israel, though some feature generic scenes of militants firing heavy weaponry.
This image of five men -- founding leaders of Hamas, Fatah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other hardline Palestinian militant factions -- is ubiquitous throughout the Strip.
This Hamas billboard in Gaza City has a model of a Qassam rocket perched on top. Thousands of Qassams have been fired into Israel from the Strip over the past decade.
A billboard trumpeting the wartime accomplishments of Hamas's Izzedin al-Qassam Brigades stands in the center of Gaza City. Hamas exacted no concessions out of Israel after nearly two months of fighting this summer. Given the devastation that parts of Gaza suffered during the war, propaganda like this is especially important for the group.
A poster of a fallen Hamas fighter is tacked to a ruined facade in Shujaiah, a neighbourhood in eastern Gaza City that was the site of the heaviest combat of the war.
Hamas stays in power partly because no one knows who would fill the power vacuum in the Strip if the group were ever overthrown. For instance, here's the flag of the Islamic State scrawled on the walls of a UN school between Gaza City and Khan Younis.
In certain places, Gaza doesn't look or feel all that different from any number of other cities in the region. The marketplace in the Old City of Gaza feels removed from the destruction and deprivation evident in more peripheral areas.
The market has no shortage of goods -- it's the customers that are lacking. The war over the summer has convinced Gazans to save whatever scarce funds they have and the uncertainty of the post-conflict period has cratered consumer demand.
The suffering demand side is apparent everywhere. One night we briefly popped in to the Salam Restaurant on the Gaza waterfront, one of the fancier spots in town. There were Arabic music videos being projected on a back wall -- and almost no customers.
At Gaza's famous gold market, families have been selling jewelry in order to make ends meet. In Gaza, transactions are usually performed in Israeli shekels or Jordanian dinars. In a place where economic conditions are largely imposed from the outside, gold is one of the only certain holders of value.
According to tradition, the mosque was built on the site of the ancient Philistine temple to Dagon, which Samson destroyed in the biblical Book of Judges.
Gaza City's church of Saint Porphyrius is one of the oldest in the Middle East and traces its origins to the 5th century.
Saint Porphyrius, who helped Christianize Gaza in the 5th century, was buried under under this stone slab in to the left of the church's main altar, although his body was later relocated.
Gaza City is home to a large and well-maintained British war cemetery. The city came under heavy bombardment during the British campaign against the Ottomans during World War I and was the site of some of the most intense fighting in the war's Middle Eastern theatre.
Still, life goes on in Gaza. At this bakery, members of the same family have been serving baklava, kanafeh, and other regional sweets for generations.
Cafe Majaj in Gaza City's upscale Rimal neighbourhood is one of the best places in town to grab a latte.
There's hand-made traditional clothing for sale in Rimal as well, shimmering and colourful robes woven in villages outside of the city.
Here's the center of Rimal. The fact that this is what the most upscale commercial area in Gaza City looks like is a reminder of just how cut off the Strip is -- finding anything from a big-name foreign brand is difficult, and the district is full of shops selling old electronics and bootleg computer games.
One of the more memorable culinary experiences in the region is on offer at the Moneer Restaurant and Fish Market, just a couple of blocks from the port.
At Moneer, you pick a fresh-caught fish from a cooler and watch as it's filleted right in front of you.
It's then battered in a combination of local spices and grilled so that the skin is perfectly crisp. The local custom is to rip the fish apart by hand. Several fish, a seafood stew, soup, and about a half-dozen salads came out to around $20 a person.
The newly opened Roots Hotel on the Gaza City waterfront has card-controlled locks on every door, a terrace overlooking the sea, and electricity 24 hours a day -- a rarity in Gaza. It's a multi-million dollar undertaking and a reminder that even if development capital is scarce in the Strip, it isn't totally non-existent.
Here's what my room looked like. The rates were $100 a night, a super-affordable rate considering the high level of service. But there was also a pretty substantial sales tax that I was told would likely go to Hamas.
Although the hotel was hosting a business conference and both locals and expat workers gather to drink tea on the hotel's seaside terrace, I got the sense I was one of the only actual guests.
From the end of the pier at the Gaza port, the city looks like a tranquil, normal place. With its coastal access and proximity to the Suez Canal and Israel's lucrative consumer market, there's reason to believe the Strip could prosper one day -- assuming the militancy and radicalism that's kept the place so isolated can ever be solved.
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