To walk through Gaza is to penetrate the heart of the Palestinian uprising, to realize why it happened and why, sporadically, it endures. This is not simply because you sometimes have to enter Israel’s vast, fortress-like Erez crossing into Gaza under fire from Palestinian guerrillas or stones thrown by Palestinian children. Or even because a trek along the Strip’s 45-kilometer length can take three hours on a good day and eight on a bad one. Rather, it’s because in Gaza you come up against the vast, omnipresent system of control Israel has created — in and through the Oslo accords — over every facet of Palestinian life, from work to walking. Here you understand why Palestinians are fighting to death to destroy every last vestige of that system.
Israel’s economic control is evidenced by a stroll through the deserted streets of Gaza City. Eighty percent of Gaza’s trade is with Israel, with 95 percent of its exports going to or through Israeli markets. Gaza’s economic dependency has been made more — not less — acute through agreements signed with Israel under the promise of “turning Gaza into Singapore.” In time of conflict, these protocols become Israel’s most lethal weapon of mass destruction.
The first four months of the uprising resulted in a 13 percent decline in the Palestinian gross domestic product, due to Israel’s activation of a calibrated regime of “external,” “internal,” “full” and “partial” blockades. “That’s the economic impact of a natural disaster or a prolonged civil war,” comments Salem Ajluni, a UN economist based in Gaza. The only difference is that earthquakes and wars do not happen as frequently as Israeli “closures.”
In October 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak banned 25,000 Gazans from their jobs in Israel, denying at a stroke 63 percent of revenues for the Palestinian Authority (PA), the largest employer in the Strip. Then he closed all of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt except the commercial outlet of al-Mentar (Karni). In December and again in January, he prohibited all imports into Gaza excluding food and medicine but including cooking fuel and gas. The political purpose is to squeeze the PA so hard that it will desist from “violence,” which is how Israel describes the uprising. If that fails, the aim is to so demoralize Gaza’s Palestinians that they will give up the fight “out of despair,” in the phrase of former Palestinian delegation head Haidar Abd al-Shafi. That has not happened yet, though some Gazans are getting perilously close to it. What has happened is a “severe humanitarian crisis,” in the view of Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for the welfare of Palestinian refugees, who make up around 700,000 of Gaza’s 1.2 million inhabitants.
In the first two months of the uprising those in need of food assistance from the agency rose from eight to 85 percent of the overall refugee population in Gaza, or some 127,000 families. Unemployment hit 45 percent and the poverty rate is on a rising curve that could reach 50 percent if the blockades continue into the middle of next year, and sooner if UNRWA does not get a cash injection of $40 million before February. The World Bank is already predicting that 2001 will see Palestinian income per capita decrease by 27 percent across the Occupied Territories as a whole, with a greater fall in Gaza.
But you don’t need fine print to witness this thoroughly planned impoverishment, this wholly political economy. You need only walk through Gaza City’s Fares market, where idle men gather with nothing in their pockets except their hands. One man who used to work in Israel barters an old TV set for a sack of flour to feed his 12 children. Women hock the family silver with gold merchants in Gaza’s Old City to get their hands on some ready cash. Around the back of a donkey cart there is a scramble for kerosene bottles being offloaded at knockdown prices. “There is no cooking gas left in Gaza other than what we have in our homes. So people are starting to stock up on kerosene,” says Imad Heikal, a worker with an international NGO. “We expect the kerosene will run out at some point.”
Salah al-Din Street North and South
But the siege is not simply economic. It is territorial, colonial in the classic sense and enabled under Oslo through the army’s control of Gaza’s stretch of borders with Egypt and Israel and over the three “south,” “middle” and “north” lateral roads that connect the Strip’s 17 Jewish settlements to Israel.
Throughout the uprising, the army has “secured” these bridgeheads by razing nearly 5,000 dunams of Palestinian land, and annexing some 468 extra dunams to the settlements proper. For most Gazans, this is beyond collective punishment, and far beyond what is required for “security.” It is the future: readying the infrastructure for a unilaterally imposed Israeli demarcation of Gaza’s borders, one, naturally, that will leave the settlements and their 6,000 inhabitants in place.
You get a sense of the future by approaching Gaza’s Netzarim junction, at the northern end of Gaza’s arterial road, Salah al-Din Street. The junction — known to the Palestinians as Shuhada (Martyrs) — was immortalized on September 30, 2000, when 12-year old Mohammed al-Durra was filmed being killed in his father’s arms by Israeli fire. Prior to the uprising, it was a small residential and industrial neighborhood. It had 32 apartments, an iron-processing factory and five acres of orange groves. Today all are buried under a mound of brick, glass and splintered wood topped by an Israeli flag and an army eyrie bristling with machine guns. The three-kilometer long road connecting the junction to the Israeli border was “swept” on October 23, demolishing olive trees, a brick factory, three greenhouses and almost everything else that fell within 40 meters of the road. The army’s purpose was to “clear” the land because “violence” had “disrupted the daily life” of the 291 residents of Netzarim settlement. Secure the concrete and sandbagged homestead now is: a step too far on the scorched earth around it and an Israeli tank fires at you.
“I can’t be precise but I’d say between six or seven people have been killed by the army on this street alone and maybe 200 wounded,” says Ibrahim Shatat.
Another new demarcation can be seen in the south, at Rafah’s Salah al-Din border gate to Egypt. This was once the road that led to Rafah’s Canada refugee camp, before it was cut in two by a border made permanent by the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement. Today it is a lethal cul-de-sac of seared houses, boarded-up shops and a white mosque scarred with bullet holes and the occasional crater from Israeli tank shells. The gate has been one of the flashpoints in the uprising, with scores of schoolchildren ritualistically trying with stones to prise open a door Israel and Egypt has slammed shut on them.
“I can’t be precise but I’d say between six or seven people have been killed by the army on this street alone and maybe 200 wounded,” says Ibrahim Shatat, who lives beside the gate. He and his 13 children live in a two-story house barely 20 meters below an Israeli military observation post that sprays the gate with machine gun fire whenever the children get too close or Palestinian snipers take up position in one or other of the abandoned houses. One of the fatalities was a neighbor of Ibrahim, Eyad Abu Jazzar. “Small clashes” were happening at the gate at the time, he remembers. But Abu Jazzar was not involved in them. He was sitting outside his house, some 150 meters from the post. Nor could he have been involved, says Ibrahim. “He was mentally and physically disabled.”
A walk east along the sand dunes that spill through the fence and you see the same “buffer” policy of pushing Rafah back from the border. We trudge through furrowed fields where scores of olive striplings have been uprooted. We visit the land of Omar Jaber Dhier. To connect a “secure road” between the border and the Moraj settlement, in November the army tore down his house and levelled 17 of his greenhouses. His house cost $50,000 to build, each greenhouse $7,000. At the end of one last blasted grove, we come across three tents, home now of Saha Abu Rish and her three children. The tents sit on the crushed roof of her house. “The army didn’t give any reason for the demolition,” she says. “They simply came one morning with two bulldozers and a tank and said we had five minutes to leave. They destroyed all the furniture, all our papers, everything.” She berates the fact that the only thing she receives is “delegations” from the Red Cross and UN but no material to rebuild her house or money to purchase it. She doesn’t even have blankets. “And what about my children? It’s winter, and they’re already catching eye infections because of the desert.”
According to the mayor of Rafah, Said Zaroub, Saha’s is just one of the 289 families made homeless due to Israel’s destruction of 784 houses within his municipal borders. Around 130,000 Palestinians live in the district, 83,000 of them refugees. According to the World Bank, it is the poorest area in the Occupied Territories, with a poverty rate five percent above the mean. The average family size is eight. That means 2,000 more people are now without permanent shelter in Rafah, he calculates.
The al-Fara family owns 76 dunams of land squeezed between the minuscule Kfar Darom settlement in the center of Gaza and the vast Gush Katif settlement bloc along its southwestern finger. On November 21, army bulldozers swept away their guava trees. One week later, armored pile drivers pulled down the family house, well and water pump. In December, both arrived again to raze the remaining land of all woods, fences and gates. “We suspect the army is clearing the land to lay a new road, linking Gush Katif to Kfar Darom and both to the Kissufim eastern road,” says Mushir al-Fara. He runs through his and his family’s losses. “Apart from the land, there’s the well, pump engines, irrigation systems, water tanks, the reservoir, fertilisers, furniture and family documents. At a conservative guess, I’d say we lost $200,000 in less than a month.” Still, he admits, he, his 79-year old mother, five brothers and six sisters are “lucky.” The al-Faras are comparatively wealthy and have “alternative addresses” in Khan Younis, Gaza City, Saudi Arabia and England. Others have no other address.
Across the way from Mushir’s there is a lunar landscape of craters and twisted metal. This was the western edge of Qarrara, a small Palestinian village of 16,000. As the army was ploughed through the al-Fara land, it destroyed 20 houses in Qarrara, damaged another 40 and uprooted 5,000 of its olive and citrus trees, all to “defend” the 242 residents of Kfar Darom. There are at least 100 displaced Palestinians, squatting in three makeshift tent camps. Hayat Musallim Abu Azan is one of them. “No, there was no warning from the army,” she recalls. “In fact, I was scared to death that my 18-month daughter was under the rubble. She wasn’t, thank God.” She is utterly “black” about the future. “Once the Israelis extend their colonies, that’s it,” she says. “They’ll never let you back.” But she and the other displaced do return, every night and under fire, if only to “assert their presence” on the land. On November 29, the army shot and wounded three Qarrara residents for that assertion.
There are other kinds of resistance. Due west of Qarrara there are five tents decked with a Palestinian flag. The protest has been organised by Gaza’s farmers union. “We want to show the world what Israel has done to the land and protest our economic situation,” says Salah Abu Houli, a union leader. His venom is not directed solely at the Israelis. “The Authority hasn’t lifted a finger to protect or compensate us,” he snorts. “We estimate the agricultural damage to be $127 million in Gaza. In the middle area, some farmers have lost 90 percent of their lands. The Authority says it only has a fund of $5 million for compensation. “$5 million!” scoffs another farmer. “That’s less than was in Hisham Mekki’s bank account.” (Mekki, former head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, was shot dead by masked gunmen in a Gaza hotel on January 17, 2001. He was rumored to have embezzled $17 million of public funds.)
From the ridge of the camp, you can see a three-story house now commandeered by the Israeli army and a bypass road occasionally used by speeding army jeeps and heavily armoured settler coaches. Other than that there is a wasteland stretching all the way to Kfar Darom. This had been the al-Fara land. “Don’t ask me where anything was,” says Muna al-Fara, a doctor. “I can no longer recognize the place. When the army destroyed the house, the bulldozers collected all the wreckage and dumped it somewhere. But I will fight the Israelis over this. I will get my land back and receive compensation. I will take it to the Israeli Supreme Court if I have to.”
Like her brother, Muna feels a patriotic as well as personal need to “rebuild my house, replant my land and re-dig my well.” In the meantime, she draws sustenance from memory. She remembers her joy as a young girl in 1969 when her father divined a fresh water source on the land and dug the well. She remembers playing with her brothers and sisters beneath the ancient jomaz trees, thick-trunked giants with creepers that touched the earth, brought to Gaza from Kenya by the British during the Mandate. Some were 70 years old. “The Israelis felled those too,” she says.
“For me those trees were a little bit of paradise.” She bites hard on her lip. “I wonder who the Israelis think we are. We cannot possibly be human to them. They cannot see us as people with feelings, with love. Insects perhaps. Numbers.”
How do people survive? “We don’t have a choice,” answers Imad, with a smile. He is right in a way, for survival has long and tenacious roots in Gaza. In 1948 — like the new refugees of Qarrara in 2001 — his parents and grandparents lived in tents in Gaza after they fled from their villages on the southern coast. In 1967, they took squatting rights in the homes of relatives after Israel occupied Gaza for the second time in ten years — just as thousands of other Palestinians are doing today.
“We pulled through the seven years of the first intifada. We’ll pull through this one too,” says Imad. Since they are prevented from launching their boats on the sea, Palestinian fishermen cast their nets from the shore. Since there is no fuel, women chop branches from broken olive trees in readiness for the winter. “Between 1948 and 1967 we lived on three things in Gaza — fish, oranges and UNRWA,” recalls Jamal Zaqout, a leading figure in the 1987 intifada and in this one. “And, believe me, the first two were more important than the third.”
There is only one thing Palestinians in Gaza will never do. They will not leave their homes, lest Israel’s “new borders” in fact become permanent. Following the armed attack on a settler school bus near the Kfar Darom Jewish settlement on November 21, and again after a car bomb in the Israeli town of Netanya on January 1, the army sliced Gaza into four separate cantons. At such times, the only way Palestinians can reach the south, north, middle and west of the Strip is via a mud track east of Qarrara.
They walk across fields, edge carefully along tree-lined avenues and stream over the Kissufim road guarded by two Israeli tanks. Occasionally — when the crowd gets too close or too dense — the tanks fire a shell. The Palestinians neither duck nor flee. They barely blink. They simply walk, from their homes in the north to their homes in the south to their homes in the middle and west. “It’s a form of resistance, like the way we used to walk to our villages in Israel,” says Imad. “We know Israel has cut us up into a thousand pieces for sake of the settlers. So we will walk for the sake of the Palestinians who live here and whose land this is. As long as we walk, we feel we are winning.”