“Gaza is Israel’s Soweto.” With those four words, Joan Mandell led her dispatch for Middle East Report in 1985.
Visitors to Gaza cannot help but draw grim parallels. The place urges it upon them. Julie Peteet prefaced her 2009 piece for us with a quote from Alice Walker, the gifted author of The Color Purple. “Rolling into Gaza I had a feeling of homecoming. There is a flavor to the ghetto. To the bantustan. To the ‘rez.’ To the ‘colored section.’”
Apartheid, though not Soweto’s pain, is gone from South Africa. The bantustan and the “colored section,” though not the ghetto and the “rez,” are bad memories. Hafrada, as Israel calls its policy of “us here, them there” toward the Palestinians, is in full force, and nowhere more so than in the Gaza Strip. Browsing our archive as Israel yet again pounds Gazans for the crime of being “there,” where Israel put them, it is striking how closely, how cruelly, today resembles yesterday.
Read the rest of Mandell’s lead: “As in Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, there are two divides between Israel and the Gaza Strip: the ‘physical divide of clean streets’ that become the urban slums and dense camps, and the ‘other divide’: between the possessors and the dispossessed, those ‘for whom others have made all the decisions.’ As in Soweto, only when ‘the other divide’ is crossed violently in either direction — in mass uprisings or army crackdowns — does Gaza merit notice in the press.”
How many times, indeed, have Gazans been compelled to cry out for the world’s attention?
In 1988, well into the first Palestinian intifada, Melissa Baumann sent us her “Gaza Diary.” She started her travels in Jabalya, the refugee camp outside Gaza City where the uprising began, and ended in Nusayrat, a smaller camp on the road south that formerly abutted the Jewish settlement of Netzarim (evacuated in 2005).
“We drive farther into the camp, zigzagging around gaping holes,” Baumann wrote from Nusayrat. “Everywhere we go people stare, and children begin to follow the car, slowed as it is by the construction. ‘PLO! Israel no!’ they shout, or ‘We give our blood to Palestine!’ Soon, 50 or more are in our wake, laughing, skipping, running. I wonder if ten years from now, five, three or one, they will find such an audience — or will need one.”
Those children are now well into their thirties, mothers and fathers of broods of their own.
More than 55 percent of the population of Gaza, the “crowded enclave” of so many news stories, is under the age of 15. These people don’t figure in most accounts, except sometimes after they have died. As Omar Karmi reminded us in 2006, amid Operation Summer Rains, the first pummeling of Gaza after Israel removed its soldiers and settlers from the strip, the concerns of the living are the main preoccupation of the mass of Gazans who have nothing to do with Hamas.
Five-year-old Layan cupped her hands over her ears and screwed her eyes shut when she tried to describe the effect of a sonic boom. She said the sound scares her, even though her father, Muntasir Bahja, 32, a translator, has told her “a small lie to calm her” — that the boom is nothing more than a big balloon released by a plane and then popped.
Muntasir said he illustrated the balloon-popping principle to his daughter, but his explanation has not stopped her from fearing the massively loud thunderclap caused when Israeli fighter jets break the sound barrier over the Gaza Strip, as they did 25 times (mostly in the wee hours of the morning) between June 25 and July 4, and as they continue to do. Layan’s mother, Arish, 28, said her eldest child has also started wetting her bed again, something she had outgrown two years earlier. All three of her young children “are very frightened lately,” she continued. “They are very tired and very upset and they get sick and vomit. They’ve lost a lot of their appetite. They are a little wild and I’m finding it more difficult to control them.”
In the distance, from the direction of Beit Hanoun, a town slightly to the north of the home of the Bahja family in the Jabalya refugee camp, the sound of intermittent artillery fire can be heard. “That’s the sound of a bomb,” said Layan, somewhat dismissively, when asked. “That doesn’t scare me.”
Again, the compulsion to compare — our coverage of Gaza is full of words like ghetto and open-air prison. In 2008, one month after Hamas blew a hole in the metal wall separating Gaza from Egypt, and Israel locked the strip down in retaliation, Darryl Li suggested that “zoo” or “animal pen” might be the more appropriate term.
Israel and its defenders insist that in 2005 they left Gaza behind. That “disengagement” was to be the end of Israel’s occupation of Gaza, the end of its international legal obligation (routinely dishonored) to safeguard the strip’s inhabitants from harm. But, though the corporate media didn’t get the memo, the occupation did not end. (Israel itself dropped an effort to have the UN rule the occupation over.) Israel controls exit and entry; Israel controls the airspace and the seacoast; Israel controls most of the electricity and water supply; and on and on. As Li wrote, Israel wants all the authority, but none of the responsibility.
“‘Disengagement’ is, of course, the name Israel gave to its 2005 removal of colonies and military bases from the Gaza Strip. But rather than a one-time abandonment of control, disengagement is better understood as an ongoing process of controlled abandonment, by which Israel is severing the ties forged with Gaza over 40 years of domination without allowing any viable alternatives to emerge, all while leaving the international donor community to subsidize what remains. The effect is to treat the Strip as an animal pen whose denizens cannot be domesticated and so must be quarantined.”
There were few keener observers of Gaza than Graham Usher, the long-time Palestine correspondent for The Economist and our late, great contributing editor. In February 2001, he wrote a piece for us called “Gaza Agonistes.” The introductory paragraph is both of its time and wrenchingly timeless.
To walk through Gaza is to penetrate the heart of the Palestinian uprising, to realize why it happened and why, sporadically, it endures…. [I]n 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.
In the meantime, Gaza needs your help.
In the meantime, Gaza is here and there. It is a place of grim parallels and a place of its own.
In the meantime, Gaza is.