A Gaza diary

My memorable visit to the hotbed of the uprising three decades ago.

Three Palestinian children walk down a dirt road in the Burjeij refugee camp in Gaza (photo credit: HOWARD KAPLAN)
Three Palestinian children walk down a dirt road in the Burjeij refugee camp in Gaza
(photo credit: HOWARD KAPLAN)
In the summer of 1988 during the first intifada, I entered Gaza, the hotbed of the uprising. Then, no day passed without Palestinian violence. In Gaza, Palestinian license plates were appropriately the color gray and Israeli plates yellow. The system, intended to identify Arab plates to Israeli authorities, instead distinguished the settlers’ cars for the shebab, the children hurling rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails. Israel had controlled Gaza since the 1967 Six Day War and would remain there until the 2005 unilateral withdrawal.
My novel, Bullets of Palestine, had just been published and in addition to praise from the Jewish press, the Jerusalem Palestinian weekly Al Fajr wrote:
“In a conflict where both sides have tended to dehumanize the other, Kaplan has created two extremely human characters – one Palestinian, the other Israeli. In observing such a fictional relationship I found myself looking at the Israelis that I came across this week in a slightly different manner. I found I wanted to try and shed some of the stereotypes that living on one side of the conflict had given me. Maybe this is the purpose of fiction in the first place – to break down barriers.”
With good relationships everywhere, I hired a car for the day with gray plates and a driver from east Jerusalem. I had prearranged with one of the American pro-Arab relief agencies in Gaza City to provide me a Palestinian English-speaking guide for which there was no charge. The highly disciplined intifada had brought political sophistication to the Palestinian cause. For writers and journalists the door was wide open. Welcome.
Greatly due to what I saw, in an effort to help, since 2017, I’ve mentored young women writers in Gaza over Facebook and Skype, but today I am afraid to return to Hamas-controlled Gaza.
I was surprised that Gaza was only 90 minutes from Jerusalem; in my mind a world away, it had to be farther. In my many trips to Israel, I’d never been to Gaza, pretty much ignored by most until the intifada broke the seams there wide open. I expected difficulties entering the barbed wire surrounded strip, but my car was waved through the checkpoint without being stopped. On the side of the road, Israeli soldiers searched the full loads of several gray-plated trucks. A red Israeli bus passed, windows boarded over for safety.
At the American aid office, I met my guide, a 25-year-old Palestinian woman who had spent four years at a British university. She divided her time between Gaza and a European wire service in Jerusalem. Protected by gray license plates, we headed out to the Al-Shati Beach Camp adjacent to Gaza City.
Stench rose in the heat, whole pools of waste gathered in large stagnant ponds. Some 40,000 people crowded into small huts, sleeping ten to fifteen to a floor. Small Palestinian tri-colored flags with a red triangle weighted with stones by the shebab fluttered from electrical wires. When Israeli soldiers spotted this defiance, they directed the nearest boy to climb and remove the symbol. Injuries, sometimes severe, resulted. Through the interpreter young people who had never left Gaza told me about their uncrowded villages of Jaffa and Haifa, where there is tremendous space and the scent of orange groves. Their fanciful dreams ignored the decades of construction. In 2006, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics put the population of Al-Shati at 87,000, the third largest Palestinian refugee camp.
South of there, another 50,000 people lived in the Nuseirat, Bureij, and Maghazi camps. Gaza stretched on and on. The cities of Deir el-Balah, Khan Younis, Rafah were almost indistinguishable from the camps jutting from each of them like unwanted appendages.
In 1988, 600,000 people were jammed into two-thirds of the 120-square-mile strip. No buildings rose above a single story in the teeming camps. Sixty percent of the population was under 19, 50 percent under 15. From high points in the road, the low faraway camps and cities stretched endlessly covering the hills like swarms of brown insects. Everywhere seemed dusty.
Occasionally, in the refugee camps, a small patch near a hut threw up a few tomato plants, some stalks of corn. Beyond bales of shiny barbed wire and tall fences, the clean yellow-white dunes adjacent to the sea offered bountiful varieties of fruits and vegetables. This remaining land, most of it along the southern beachfront, has been settled by Jews.
Twenty-five hundred Jews had cordoned off one-third of Gaza for settlements. They lived in individual homes with sculpted walkways and colorful flowers winding between the villot – villas in Hebrew.
At the Khatif Beach Hotel, small boats rested on the spotless sand and individual cabins overlooked the variegated blues of the Mediterrean. At the hotel, I offered to buy cold drinks in the café. My guide thanked me but explained she would rather not drink anything from the settlement. We returned to Gaza City.
After four years studying in England, my guide said she felt a stranger in her own land: in Gaza, as a Westernized woman; in Jerusalem as a Muslim. She told me the conservative social pressure in Gaza suffocated her and that she would return to Europe if a Palestinian state was not established. She was disappointed that she could not show me the Shifa Hospital on one of its worse days.
A Palestinian-escorted Gaza tour always included a stop at the Israeli-government funded hospital, one of only two Arab hospitals there (the other is private.)
Inside, cats roam the halls, the facilities are unsanitary, toilets filthy. Nurses trot out the victims: children with multiple fractures from beatings, a man with burns over 60% of his body. I expect many more such cases and am surprised that there are not more. Military occupation is by definition brutal; fear rises, tempers flare.
I am taking detailed notes for a novel of catastrophe in the Middle East. My closest friend in Jerusalem is surprised after my last novel of reconciliation. However, it will be a very long time before I will actually bring myself to write that novel set during the first intifada, and To Destroy Jerusalem was published in October 2018.
In 2017, I found an organization on Facebook called “We Are Not Numbers: Palestinian youth tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news.” The numbers – how many killed, injured, homeless, on aid. This mentor program funded for young writers under 29 encourages them to express their daily life, the struggles, tears, the laughter of living in Gaza. I volunteer. They tell me I have to be a BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – supporter. I tell them I am not. They accept me anyway.
I’ve passed drafts back and forth with a half dozen mentees, worked on a story with Enas Faras Ghannan about her and her best friend’s longing to visit Jerusalem, where they’ve never been. Her friend contracts an illness that lifts her to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and Enas is left alone. It is so touching that, with her permission, I wove it into my novel, The Spy’s Gamble.
Howard Kaplan’s novel, The Damascus Cover, has been turned into a film starring Sir John Hurt, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and the Israeli actors Aki Avni and Tsahi HaLevy. It is available now on Hulu in the US and Netflix in Europe and Israel.