From Irish Political Review: February 2008

Reflections On Palestine:—Part Six
A Visit To Gaza

The checkpoint for people entering Gaza is at Erez on its Northern border. Checkpoint comes nowhere near describing the place. It is the size of an airport terminal with lots more security and without all the shops—so it wasn't all bad! At a security kiosk in the car park I was asked if I was carrying any weapons. A bit like "did you pack your own bag, sir". You don't even dream of getting funny. In the main building my passport was taken and returned after about ten minutes. After that I walked through various doors which opened and closed without me ever again seeing a human being.

My visit to Gaza was arranged by Irish diplomatic staff. I had a gruesome account of the things that were likely to happen to me in Gaza delivered to me when I applied and when that application was accepted. Being kidnapped seemed to be the least of it. On the very large number of times I spoke to Arab soldiers there, the first question I was always asked, after my nationality, was did I feel safe. Leaving aside the obvious danger from the Israelis I was always able to honestly answer, yes. The gangsterism and banditry which had previously flourished was nowhere in evidence. Hamas had seen to that.

The Gaza side of Erez is a strip of land churned up by tanks and bulldozers. Most of the buildings have been flattened. Those that survive are ruins, many of them destroyed while still in the course of being built. At the time I was the only one crossing and that 500 metres or so felt like something out of a John le Carre novel. You know that the Israelis are watching and pointing guns but you cannot see anything. The checkpoint at the Palestinian side, welcome as it was, is a sorry looking affair. A hut and a wooden barrier which you walk around, Well, there's nothing for miles on either side. I was simply waved through and took a taxi to where I was staying in Gaza city.

On the journey I was surprised to find buildings everywhere flying the yellow flag of Fatah and the red flag of the PFLP. The green flag of Hamas and the black flag of Islamic Jihad I expected, but not the others. Flying a Hamas flag in the West Bank would get you arrested and very likely shot. Fatah and the PFLP are politically tolerated in Gaza but they are not supposed to carry weapons in public, unless they are still in the Palestinian police. There are tensions but these seldom go beyond the odd fist fight.

All over Gaza are the portraits of martyrs. This was also the case in the West Bank until a few months ago. But Abbas and the Americans are determined to abolish any symbols of the liberation struggle.

The takeover of Gaza by Hamas was very much a pre-emptive strike. Strongpoints had been established by Rashid Abu Shabak's Preventive Security Service which was really under the control of Mohammad Dahlan. This force was supplied with weapons by America and Britain, partially via Israel. There were also American and British advisers attached to it in a compound which a FATAH member laughingly told me they called the Dahlan Hotel. I was taken to see both American and British armoured cars—vehicles utterly useless against Israeli tanks or aircraft, but the perfect tool against local opposition.

Dahlan was in Tunis after his release from prison during the First Intafada and became close to Arafat's people, becoming his military chief in 2001. He was soon sacked. When Abbas first became Prime Minister in 2003, he appointed Dahlan Security Minister against Arafat's wishes. Even by the standards of the Palestinian Authority of the time, which to say the least, weren't all that high, Dahlan was considered bent. He was also a brutal man. He has built businesses abroad, especially in London. The boy from the Khan Yunis refugee camp did very well for himself.

He was involved in the negotiations at Camp David, Oslo, and elsewhere where he built up a strong rapport with the Israeli military and security apparatus and especially with the former Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz. When Israel decided to shut down its settlements in Gaza he promised that he would put down any opposition in the Strip.

It should be said that although the Israeli settlements and military areas in Gaza comprised about a third of the area, they were never of a kind with those in the West Bank. They were mostly prefabricated houses and their destruction took no time at all. Settlements in the West Bank are large towns and cities—the one I am most familiar with near Bethlehem has 40,000 residents and is building apartments for another 30,000.

The Israelis withdrew from Gaza in September 2005. Palestinian elections were held less than four months later, in January 2006. Much to everyone's surprise, not least the surprise of Hamas, Hamas won them. Dahlan began small-scale attacks on Hamas until he believed he had a large enough arsenal to take over Gaza completely. He was accused even back then of targeting senior Hamas figures for Israeli assassination and that he himself organised car bomb assassinations—especially the killing of Hamas military leader, Abu Youssef Al Qouqa in March 2006.

Readers may remember in an early instalment of this series that I took the Abbas/Hamas Mecca Agreement on the formation of a coalition government at face value. Ishmail Haniyeh of Hamas was Prime Minister. A majority of the Government were Hamas but with a proportional representation of Fatah or anyone else. The Finance and Security portfolios were to be given to people connected with no particular faction. I believed Mohmad Abbas to have been sincere about getting this Government up and running, I was wrong. The publicly available evidence as well as many private conversations I have had in Palestine point to Abbas being determined from the time of, or immediately after, the Agreement to destroy the Government and replace it with an unelected body with American encouragement and support. And most of the people I know in Palestine belong to one wing or other of Fatah.

Hamas militias were strongest in Gaza. Haniyeh's efforts to incorporate them into the army/police of the Palestinian Authority were rebuffed as Dahlan set about creating the sort of chaos in Gaza that would give him the excuse for a coup. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Haniyeh, ordered the Hamas militias against him at the end of May 2007 but their success was limited and they retreated before Israeli airstrikes. These airstrikes, by the way, accidentally caused casualties only among Dahlan's men. Unknown to Hamas most of the Preventive Security Service leaders and all their foreign advisers left Gaza shortly after. (This flight almost certainly included Dahlan himself—though Israeli propaganda says he escaped by sea in the final battle.) Hamas attacked again in mid-June and destroyed Dahlan's base completely. An amnesty was given to his foot soldiers.

When I wasn't alone, I was driven around by a member of Fatah. (That I met up with him was chance, but I liked and trusted the man.) He was nervous about the fact that I was forever stopping and chatting to Hamas people. "I know they won't shoot me but one of them might hit me", he said. Well, they didn't. Most of them seemed to know him and took the mickey out of him sometimes. Soon he relaxed, perhaps too much. Through him I visited more families than would have been possible on my own. Many homes tend to be in courtyards and behind compound walls. The impression I got was one of a tense boredom and sheer poverty.

Cigarettes cost more than they do in London and they are as necessary as bread to most Gazans. I met many people in their thirties who were never outside this small concentration camp in their lives. (I hope that most of them had the chance to visit Egypt recently!) Sweets were a huge luxury. But the absence of money was the big problem. Inflation itself is only a problem if you have any money at all. Most people sat all day outside their homes doing nothing. I asked about reading to this most literate of people. I was told that concentrating on a book was impossible.

(I remembered that when in jail, though I read a lot, it took about ten times as long to read a book as it normally does. I'm now sure that this is a form of depression. And these people had the added problem of never knowing when they might become "collateral Damage". One man said: "if the Israelis want to kill someone and know where he is, it doesn't matter if he is visiting a children's hospital, they'll still fire a rocket".)

Motor transport is beyond the means of most people and the donkey is everywhere.

I was surprised by how fertile Gaza is. The whole area is very flat, very overcrowded, by the sea, yet covered in ploughed fields or fields full of crops. I hope that Arabs like cabbage, because there seemed to be an awful lot of it about! There was an unexpectedly large number of trees though any woods within a mile of the Israelis had been cut down by them.

Yet there are rich people in Gaza. Nowhere like as many as in the West Bank, but plenty. They assembled in the beautiful garden of the Marna Hotel, and similar places, each evening, dining fairly well and smoking hubble bubble. Some of them drove very nice cars. I tried to keep my inherited class prejudices under control as they are completely irrelevant in the Middle East.

I have visited several refugee camps in the West Bank. Thousands of people crowded together and a generation or more from their mostly farming roots. They are viewed with some suspicion by other Palestinians because they don't belong and in case they decide to take a part of the land that surrounds them—something that has never happened. But by now they have well-constructed buildings and spotless streets and alleyways. They have good schools, medical facilities, social facilities and a reasonable general infrastructure. Often the Israelis come and smash things up or lay siege, but the refugees have systems and structures to cope with this. Supplies from UNWRA and other institutions are very good. It is not a good existence but it is not a terrible one either.

The existence in the refugee camps in Gaza IS a terrible one. Structures that have not been destroyed or damaged are falling down for want of the means to keep them in repair. Rusting corrugated iron is everywhere. There are many buildings, and in one case a whole new city, which are standing uncompleted because of the blockade on materials by the US, the EU and Israel. One small city was completed by one of the Gulf States and is quite beautiful. Gazans don't like living in dilapidation and are, like most Arabs, excellent builders. But they have nothing to build with. (By contrast, even swanky areas in Tel Aviv look like slums, and no one seems to care—certainly no one in authority.)

I said I was alone entering the place. No Arab is allowed in or out. There are supposed to be exceptions for medical reasons. I saw no sick people coming or going though I was told that a few get through. But many do not. And some have died at the border.

But even tighter than the border at Erez was the border and former crossing point manned by the Egyptians at Rafah. (Happily that was recently breached, if only for the moment.) This is a great puzzle to Gazans. Rafah is the largest city in Gaza and spans the border. Families have been divided. Fiances were unable to marry. While I was there Egyptian border guards fired on some African refugees trying to enter Israel "proper". So they are even guarding Israel's border for the Israelis.

David Morrison tells me that there is some kind of EU police force which can operate at Rafah and let people and goods through. That was news to me and I heard no one in Gaza mention it, Such a Force has taken some trouble to make itself unknown and has certainly not turned up in Rafah.

I left Gaza again through Erez. This time I was checked on the Palestinian side by men in civilian clothes who appeared to be Fatah and were in radio contact with the Israelis to let them know I was coming and presumably not to shoot. The exit was bizarre. This time there were a few other people leaving. I was ordered from one cubicle to another by an indistinct voice over small speakers, having deposited my bags and coat and the contents of my pockets as I entered with an Arab man operating a conveyor belt. For the rest of the process I was moved only by the voices on the speakers. Various scanning machines operated in some of the cubicles, including one that can see you as if you had no clothes on.

I have not here dealt with Israeli actions against Gaza. That will have to wait for another article

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