Everywhere in the Gaza Strip, one sees and hears the sounds of reconstruction.
The whizzing of electric saws and the thumping of hammers lasts long into the night; in the streets cars must drive around large piles of rebar and gravel that sit in front of construction sites. In the area that was once the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif, a dozen brand-new residential towers, built with Qatari funding, now glitter in the sun.
Visiting Gaza, in early September, for my first time, I was surprised at how difficult it was to see evidence of the 2014 war, which saw Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, fire thousands of rockets and mortar-bombs into Israeli territory and Israel’s military respond by unleashing thousands of airstrikes (and a ground invasion) in Gaza. In the end, 73 Israelis and more than 2,200 Gazans were dead.
I had the impression, mostly from the media, that Gaza was more or less destroyed. The images of bombed-out buildings and piles of rubble I saw in the news looked apocalyptic, Syria-esque. The reports from human rights groups and NGOs that I’d read were equally horrifying, in particular one published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development last September that said Gaza’s infrastructure had been “ravaged” by the three wars that have occurred there since 2008. The report predicted that the Strip would become “uninhabitable” in five years if current trends persisted.
But, as my taxi brought me south from the Erez Border Crossing toward the heart of Gaza, I was struck by how normal it seemed.
Groups of schoolchildren in crisp blue uniforms walked home from class. Hijab-clad women shopped for shoes and purses. Hotels and restaurants were open for business; some of them looked rather comfortable. Sure, the streets were more chaotic than they were in Israel. There was more garbage on the ground.
But as I entered the outskirts of Gaza City, disembarking at last in the bustling commercial center of Al-Rimal, I wondered where are all the destroyed buildings? On my first two days in Gaza, I didn’t see a single one.
The Gaza Strip, which is roughly the size of Philadelphia, was captured by Israel from Egypt during the Six Day War in1967. Over the next four decades, it was occupied by Israel and settled by thousands of Israeli citizens.
All that changed in 2005, when some 9,000 Jewish-Israeli settlers in Gaza were forcibly evacuated from their homes by the Israeli government. The next year, in 2006, Palestinians cast their ballots in legislative elections and Hamas won an easy majority of seats in the parliament, overtaking Yasser Arafat’s Fatah faction, which had dominated Palestinian politics for decades. Hamas asserted its power in Gaza in 2007 by violently expelling Fatah in a six-day battle that left more than 100 people dead.
HAMAS WAS founded in Gaza in 1987, at the beginning of the first intifada, with the stated aim of “protecting the resistance to the occupation.” During the course of two intifadas and beyond, the group was responsible for the deaths of many Israeli civilians and, as such, is considered a terrorist entity by Israel, the US and the European Union. Hamas has said it’s committed to creating an Islamic-based Palestinian state in present-day Israel.
All of this meant that, when Hamas rose to power in Gaza in 2006, Israel refused to recognize its legitimacy and began to put in place an air, land and sea blockade of the Strip as a security measure against the group. Since the blockade was put in place, everyone and everything that goes in or out of Gaza has been tightly restricted, with the exception of the goods, people and weapons that get smuggled in via tunnels beneath its short border with Egypt. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi closed the Gaza-Egypt border shortly after coming to power. As a result, Gaza is one of the only places on earth that is almost completely sealed off from the rest of the world. The Strip’s gross domestic product has dropped 50 percent since the siege was introduced in 2006.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza was partly intended to undermine support for Hamas. The thinking was that when the people of Gaza saw how their support for Hamas had resulted in a siege, they would stop supporting the group.
That may be working to some extent, but the blockade is clearly also creating hostility toward Israel.
Longing to dismantle the Jewish state is baked into seemingly every aspect of Gazan life. Massive rockets are on display at traffic roundabouts. Images of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock are everywhere, from billboards and keychains to the belt buckles of police officers.
In barber shops, restaurants and residents’ living rooms, Hamas TV runs endless loops of Israeli crimes against Palestinians; in the corner of the screen is the channel’s ever-present watermark, an animated graphic that flashes thousands of revolving portraits of Palestinian “martyrs” above the phrase #intifada_alquds (“Jerusalem intifada”).
One might expect anti-Israeli sentiment from the uneducated classes of Gazan society, but hearing it from privileged Gazans is more disturbing.
A well-off Palestinian woman I met on my third day, who works for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, corrected me when I referred to Israel as “Israel.” “It’s Palestine,” she said. “At UNRWA, we call it ‘Israel’ in emails, but only because we have to deal with them a lot [for our work].”
Similarly, a Palestinian Muslim journalist I met told me he didn’t believe there was ever a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and that the idea that there was is merely “Israeli propaganda.” This was a guy who was university-educated, fluent in English and someone who had told me he had “no problems with Judaism.” So I told him there was a preponderance of archeological and historical evidence showing with near certainty that an ancient Jewish temple existed on that site, but he shook his head no and said, “Even Natorei Karta says there was no temple there.”
Natorei Karta is a fringe ultra-Orthodox Jewish group that wants to abolish the State of Israel, but to my knowledge has never denied the existence of a temple on the site of the Noble Sanctuary. When I said this to the Palestinian journalist, he would not be convinced. Later in the week, I was very interested to hear him tell me that his family used to be Jewish – that his ancestors were Yemeni Jews who had fled to Palestine 200-300 years ago and converted to Islam upon their arrival. I was shocked that someone with Jewish ancestry could so easily swallow the Palestinian myth that there was never a Jewish temple on the Temple Mount.
One afternoon in a park in Gaza City, I met a former Fatah government employee named Abdulaziz, who was chain-smoking cigarettes at a small table under a fig tree. Abdulaziz, 54, told me he’d been wounded in both his legs – he’d been shot in his left leg by Hamas 10 years ago and in his right by the Israelis 10 years before that. As a result, he hated both governments. As he puffed away on his Royal cigarette, listing the reasons why, it occurred to me that this man is a perfect metaphor for most of the people I met in Gaza who’d been effectively shot in one leg by Israel and in the other by Hamas.
Hamas once enjoyed broad popular support in Gaza. Part of the group’s appeal was that it cast itself as the cleaner, more disciplined alternative to an increasingly corrupt and impotent Fatah. But these days, Hamas’s support in Gaza is waning.
In formal interviews and casual conversations with dozens of Palestinians over the course of seven days there, I rarely heard someone say they supported Hamas. One afternoon, I did an informal survey of 16 people on the streets of Gaza City and found only three who said they’d vote for Hamas in the upcoming Palestinian elections, which were scheduled for October 8. That is about 18 percent, which is the exact figure the Arab World for Research and Development, a Palestinian consultancy, found during polling in February when they asked Gazans the same question. After I left Gaza, the Palestinian Authority’s High Court of Justice suspended the elections, citing the exclusion of Jerusalem from the electoral process, and concerns about the legality of local courts in Gaza.
Eighteen percent is not a lot. Hamas’s support in Gaza is low for several reasons, I soon found out by talking to people on the streets.
One gripe people have with Hamas, perhaps understandably, is the recent wars with Israel.
“The wars created big problems here, and that’s Hamas’s fault,” said a 23-year-old university student named Leila, who said she might vote for Fatah in October. “I want to send a message to Hamas: You need to be quiet and stop shooting rockets.”
But most of the Gazans who told me they didn’t like Hamas spoke about the Islamist party’s inability to fix the battered economy.
“Things have gotten so much worse since 2006, in terms of the economy,” said Umm Fadi, a 30-year-old mother from Rafah, a city in south Gaza. “There’s such high poverty and unemployment in Gaza. Combined with the borders being closed, it’s like we’re being strangled.”
The World Bank said in a report last year that Gaza’s unemployment stood at 43 percent, the highest rate anywhere in the world.
Eissa, a 56-year-old man from Gaza City, told me he had six sons with university degrees, but not one had a job.
“HAMAS HASN’T done anything good here in Gaza. We need change,” he said, speaking longingly of the days when he could earn relatively high wages working construction jobs in Israel, something that became impossible after the 2006 blockade.
In addition to the perception that Hamas is inept at creating economic opportunity for the citizens it claims to serve, there’s also a perception that the group has become more corrupt and callous in recent years.
“Hamas doesn’t care about the people here,” said Amir, a 17-year-old from Gaza City. “Look at them – they have a lot of money and cars, but the rest of the population doesn’t.”
Indeed, just outside the al-Shati refugee camp, where poor families crowd together in small houses, stand the giant, garish seaside villas of top Hamas officials.
But if Hamas and Fatah are dishonest, several Gazans told me it’s better to have Fatah, because they can make peace with Israel, win some international recognition for Gaza, and (most importantly) end the blockade.
“Fatah was corrupt, but at least we had jobs, at least we had electricity then,” said Leila, the university student.
“I blame Hamas for the bad economy here,” said Abdulaziz, the man who’d been shot in both legs. “If we had Fatah, they could make peace with Israel, they could make Gaza beautiful, maybe turn Gaza into Singapore,” a tiny island nation that was once poor but is now booming, and which Gazans often talk about as a model for their own future country.
Loathing of Hamas is so strong in Gaza that even Hamas members may vote against their own party in October, Hani Habib, a political analyst I met there, told me before the court decision to postpone the elections. Hamas likely senses that it stands to lose power if it allows a democratic vote next month, and may cancel the election as a result, said Habib, who’s also a columnist for the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayaam. “They’re looking for an excuse to call off the election and blame it on Fatah,” he said. “Likewise, Fatah is looking for an excuse to call off the election and blame it on Hamas.”
This bizarre situation is a perfect example of why people have lost faith in both parties to govern effectively. Most of the people I spoke to said they wanted some kind of third party or independent list to win control of their territory because Fatah and Hamas were too consumed in bickering with each other to affect real change. The prospect of a third party winning power and ending the blockade is promising but, in practice, Habib said, Hamas will not let go of power easily.
No one I spoke to in Gaza took responsibility for having elected Hamas in the first place.
I’ll admit, I was afraid to come to Gaza.
Not because of Hamas, but because of the other factions that are active here such as Islamic Jihad, or (worse) the Salafi groups that might see a white (non-Jewish) American as an opportunity for a depraved public-relations stunt. But, except for a couple minor incidents, I felt very safe. And not just safe, but welcome. I thought Gazans would be anti- American, but I found them to be, almost without exception, friendly, generous and almost absurdly hospitable. Sure, most of them dislike the US government, but that didn’t stop them from inviting me into their homes for tea, lunch or dinner, time and time again.
For ordinary Gazans, though, life in the Strip is not so safe. Numerous residents complained to me of rising criminal activity.
“The rates of crime and robbery are increasing day by day,” my fixer told me.
“It seems that Hamas cannot control the situation.”
AT NIGHT, police set up roadblocks in the streets and check drivers’ cars with flashlights.
In an interview, a Hamas police official complained to me of family feuds that often ended in shootings, and particularly of the increase in drug activity.
“Almost everyone in our prisons is there because of drugs,” he lamented, noting that hashish and the pain reliever Tramadol, in particular, are on the rise.
The fact that more of Gaza’s citizens are seeking refuge in drugs may suggest how badly they wish to escape their lot. It’s not hard to see why. The longer I stayed, the more I became aware of its misery. I saw an entire neighborhood in Shujaya and another in the village of Jaharal-Deik that were still destroyed from the last war. There was rubble everywhere and families were living in containers while they waited for funds with which to rebuild their houses.
I began to be disgusted by the smell of all the burning garbage (there’s a scarcity of land on which to dump it) and how much the sea stank in some places, sometimes so bad you could taste it. (As much as 90 million liters of sewage from Gaza ends up in the sea every day, according to UNICEF, because the wastewater treatment plant malfunctions due to insufficient electricity to run it.) I began to get irritated at how the traffic lights didn’t work, which made every intersection a free-for-all. The fact that every fruit seller seemed to have his own megaphone started to drive me mad. And, I thought, if these things are annoying me after five days, imagine what it’s like for the 2 million people who are trapped here for their whole lives, most of whom have never left and will never have a chance to leave this 25-mile-long ribbon of land.
In my last couple of days in Gaza, I found myself yearning to return to Israel.
Baha, a 30-year-old father in Gaza City, told me that in Israel, “people respect the land, they respect the streets, everything is so clean.” The note of longing in his voice was not lost on me. Being stuck in this chaotic and uncertain place, sealed in by a wall, makes one claustrophobic. I began to notice stress on peoples’ faces, to hear the strain in their voices. They’re anxious about what their future holds.
So, in the end, I realized that, even if Gaza has nice places at which to eat, even though most of the buildings have been rebuilt and the streets have been repaved, Gaza’s suffering is deeper than these material things. Its suffering is existential.