The Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip always reminds me of a time machine. Only a few hundred meters of roofed passage divide Israel from the Palestinian Authority, but the contrast between the two is so striking that it seems as though even the air and sky are different.
You register your name, passport number and position with the clerk (there are two counters available - one for men and one for women), take an old taxi and wait until the boom gate is lifted with the help of the rope attached to its base: Welcome to planet Gaza.
Broken roads and shattered houses fill the landscape. Everywhere you look are the green flags of Hamas and armed men - the members of a new Hamas militia - who guard the road that leads to Gaza City. The tension is always palpable.
The drive between Erez and downtown Gaza City should only take 15 minutes, but it often takes an hour or more. Here, even the traffic jams are different - alongside Peugeots and Fiats, some of which are so old they belong in a museum, there are donkey carts slowly making their way, often against the flow of traffic.
These days the locals gloomily joke that the donkey's owner is in fact the shater, the smart one, since he will not be affected by the fuel crisis and doesn't need spare parts for a car, which have become a rare commodity in Gaza. And yet, when driving through the cities and camps of this tiny piece of land, you can't miss the shiny flash of brand new cars that look as if they just came out of the factory, some still without license plates.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Audis and Mercedes, Volkswagens and 4x4s ply the broken roads of Gaza, where portraits of local martyrs on the electric poles outnumber the traffic lights. The view of a glossy 4x4 trying to make a U-turn in the center of the Shati refugee camp is completely surreal: The streets are so narrow that the houses almost touch, and yet the vehicle succeeds in making its way through the crowd of children and retreats fast, leaving only fumes in its wake.
NOT FAR from the camp is the As-Sudaniya neighborhood - Gaza's answer to Ramat Aviv Gimel or Kfar Shmaryahu. The owner of a shiny jeep might very well live here, where Nabil Shaath, Rashid Abu-Shbek and many other Fatah officials' villas are situated.
Designer homes, well secured and often surrounded by thick walls, look as if they were taken out of the movies. If you don't turn around and see the gray labyrinth of the camp, you might even forget you are in Gaza. The sea is just around the corner, the wind is playing in the palm trees and the security cameras are closely watching those who pass.
Just like anywhere in the Middle East, the switch from rich to poor and back is sharp, unpredictable and shocking. Those who have it all live in close proximity to those who cannot afford the most basic commodities, such as flour and sugar, and yet they somehow manage to co-exist.
Sam Bahor, a Palestinian-American businessman, says the class gap has always existed in Palestinian society.
"Even in the pre-Oslo period, we always had people who benefited from the occupation and made quite a large fortune opposite those who were living in refugee camps and had nothing," he says. "After 1993, we had two kinds of multimillionaires that emerged in Palestine. There were the expats who made their fortune abroad, such as the Al-Masri family, who did really well in Saudi Arabia, and others like them, and there were also homemade millionaires, who benefited from their ties with the occupation and perhaps succeeded much more than they normally would, were it not for these circumstances. So there is a feeling in the Palestinian street that the occupation facilitated the rise of a certain social class and its prosperity."
Every child here knows what kind of car former security chief Muhammad Dahlan owns and which vehicles the new cabinet members drive. The same goes for luxury houses, with private pools and fountains. Not surprisingly, these particular homes seem to be immune to the frequent Israeli air strikes, since their owners know how to deal with those who fire Kassams and keep them away from their dolce vita. They are no strangers to the decision-makers on the Israeli side either.
"One of the few buildings close to the beach that wasn't hit by the Israelis during the intifada is the Al-Waha resort, owned by Muhammad Dahlan," says my taxi driver, Omar, as we drive along the coastal highway.
THE SIZE and source of personal fortunes of ex-Fatah officials are common knowledge here. Every time corruption is discussed, certain names are always mentioned - Shaath, Dahlan, Masharawi. Yasser Arafat and his bank accounts almost never come up in conversation.
Responding to various opinion polls during the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, more than 55 percent of the people said corruption within Fatah was one of their most important considerations. The villas of Fatah officials in As-Sudaniya are the cause of the "green revolution" of Hamas, a local journalist told me.
Bahor believes the socio-economic factor enormously affected the outcome of the parliamentary elections in the PA.
"The people felt that the old leadership of Fatah not only benefits from the ties with the occupation, but that it also enjoys VIP treatment at the checkpoints, at the borders, when traveling, etc.," he explains. "As for the Hamas leaders, they were closer to the common Palestinian than leaders of Fatah, for they felt the hardship of the people on their own flesh, they had the reputation of non-corrupted politicians and they also facilitated a very powerful charitable system that supported thousands of poor Palestinians."
It's also a popular belief in the streets of Gaza that the recent clashes between Fatah and Hamas and the unwillingness of Fatah people to share their experience and instruct the new rulers of the PA could be explained by the fear of losing all the money that comes from the outside if the path of Oslo is neglected.
An article in Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper perhaps summarizes the attitude toward this struggle in the PA and the Arab world. "The real rift in Palestinian society is between those fighting to preserve the class privileges of Oslo and their opponents who uphold the essentials of the Palestinian cause," wrote Joseph Massad, associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. He counted at least five classes which benefited tremendously from the Oslo peace process and therefore would be interested in keeping it alive and maintaining their financial and social status.
Bahor asserts that the international boycott of the Hamas-led government will not cause an immediate decline of Hamas's popularity with the Palestinian public.
"The interference in our internal affairs is a very negative development," he explains, "since Hamas is basically getting a free ride. The people can't really estimate whether the government is able to perform well, as it is currently paralyzed by the boycott."
BUT NOT only politicians enjoy the good life in Gaza. There are quite a few businessmen who made their fortunes during the Oslo years handling the construction of Gaza infrastructure, government buildings and roads. Back then, the money was pouring into Gaza like golden rain, and those who succeeded in seizing the opportunity can afford not to worry much about a few months' salary delay or the halt of humanitarian aid.
Jawdat al-Khoudary, chairman of Saqqa and Khoudary Co. Ltd., says the economic crisis badly affected his business, but today he is preoccupied with a completely different matter.
Khoudary just met with representatives of the Geneva Museum, who are interested in the unique collection of artifacts that adorn his tremendous garden. Next April, 300 artifacts will be taken from his residence in Gaza and exhibited in the museum for the "Under the Sands of Gaza" exposition.
Strolling around the immense garden, Khoudary proudly shows off his collection - there are Hellenistic pillars, Roman mosaics and precious fragments of Mameluke-period tombs and building ornaments.
"The world has to know that Gaza is a civilized city and has deep historical roots. Usually there is only one face of Gaza shown in mass media - the face of destruction and horror - but this is a different face to be discovered as well," says Khoudary.
Indeed, there is a very different face of Gaza that is almost never shown on the evening news, because who wants to hear about fancy weddings and engagement parties when there are gun battles in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council building?
In spite of the chaos and anarchy, Gaza's rich succeed in maintaining their lifestyle. Social life occurs mainly inside the home, since there are no cinemas and no concert halls in Hamas-dominated Gaza, where a young Palestinian rapper was recently kidnapped by Islamists who threatened to beat him up if he continued to perform.
Family occasions, weddings and private parties are almost the only way for young people to have fun. For these special occasions, everyone tries to look his best and impress the others. Evening gowns cost NIS 450-NIS 1,200. The colors are bright, the neck lines are low and the backs are open.
"WHERE CAN one wear such a gown?" I ask Ashraf, whose sister recently got engaged.
"Most of the events are sex-segregated, and mostly girls dress up to impress other girls," he says, laughing.
At his sister's engagement party, there was no segregation between the sexes and the couples could dance cheek-to-cheek - quite an unlikely scene in Gaza.
Many of the wedding dresses could hardly be called "decent," even by western standards. The cost - $500-$1,500 - is less than in Israel but is still almost an unreal sum for the vast majority of Gazans who live below the poverty line, according to World Bank data.
But until recently, some shops continued to prosper. There are no shopping malls in Gaza, but a few dozen shops on the main street and surrounding lanes provide dresses, costumes and shoes for fashionable Gazans.
Prior to the elections in January, the owner of a high-class men's shop made the deal of his life. The leaders of Hamas were advised by their image consultant to purchase decent suits to enhance their on-camera appearance, so dozens of suits were ordered from one of the most expensive shops.
According to Ola al-Haick, owner of the La Moda boutique in Gaza City, there is rarely a shortage of customers at her shop. Despite the high price, Haick only imports clothes from France.
"Of course, not everyone can afford this type of clothing, although we do have sales and discounts and special credit offers. But some of our clients do not really care about the price, they just want the quality and style," she says. "At private parties, in clubs and at homes, the girls wear everything - tight, short, whatever. They want to be fashionable just like anybody else, if not more."
Pink dresses with low necks at La Moda cost $400, jeans strap dresses NIS 450, a gold bag NIS 370. Haick says she works with a well-to-do clientele which is after the quality, not the discount, but admits that the recent economic crisis has also affected her sales.
"The only things people buy today are bridal and engagement dresses. Crisis or no crisis - a bride needs to look gorgeous," she says.
Fancy weddings are usually celebrated at hotel banquet halls or posh restaurants, such as Roots, one of the spots most fancied by foreign journalists and non-governmental organization staff. Though the place is elegant and stylish, no alcohol is available (the ban on alcohol in Gaza existed long before Hamas won the elections).
IT'S A Thursday evening and Roots is crawling with people. The semi-Arabic, semi-European menu makes you forget you are in Gaza, and the prices here resemble those of restaurants in Tel Aviv or Herzliya. A "No Weapons Allowed" sign at the door is the only reminder of the surrounding reality.
In the parking lot, you can usually find a variety of Gaza's finest vehicles. All the cars are brought in via Ashdod's seaport and are usually purchased in the United Arab Emirates, says Jihad, an owner of a car agency in Gaza City. A $50,000 Cadillac is waiting to be purchased by a lucky buyer, and normally, if it were not for the latest crisis, it would have already sold, Jihad says.
"Of course, only dozens of people in Gaza can afford this kind of car, but these days even they are cautious, since they do not know what can happen to them tomorrow," he explains.
Only nine months ago, after Israel pulled out of Gaza, the atmosphere was completely different. It seemed as if Gaza was about to experience some kind of economic recovery, if not an economic boom. Rich Palestinians based in Cairo, Dubai and Lebanon, who were unable to visit Gaza for decades, came back through the newly-opened Rafah crossing, bringing with them large sums in cash.
Some bought apartments in the newly built towers in Rimal (the other posh neighborhood of Gaza City), others were looking to invest in local enterprises and businesses, expecting European and American aid to follow. In the fall of 2005, apartments in Rimal sold quickly for $50,000-$60,000.
Needless to say, the economic boom didn't happen. Instead came the economic crisis - one of the worst in the history of Gaza - which was devastating for the refugee camps, the impoverished middle class of governmental employees and the small business owners. And when you add violence and anarchy to sharp social inequality, the outcome is simply unpredictable.
"Today's severe economic crisis negatively affected not only the poor, but also the rich," says Khaled Abd al-Shafee, head of the United Nations Development Program's Gaza office. "A lot of businesses collapsed, since there are no more buyers. In this situation, no investor from abroad will take his money to Gaza, no matter how interested he is.
"In fact, for the first time in many years, businessmen who had already invested in local enterprises are taking their money out of Gaza; they simply run away because nobody can predict what will happen next."
In today's Gaza, there are still a few islands of the good life in the sea of poverty and scarcity, but those who thought that after disengagement these spots could grow bigger proved to be wrong.