June 7, 2007

Welcome to Gaza

It was a two-hour journey from Jerusalem to the Gaza Strip.

My driver was an Arab-Israeli named Haithem. Because of this status, he was free to move about the West Bank and Israeli territory; however he would not be permitted to enter Gaza. He tried to deter me from my insane itinerary the whole way.

When we arrived at the border, the Israelis informed us that the computers were down and the border would be closed for an indefinite period. Haithem said if we had to wait more than an hour he was taking me back to Jerusalem. Forty-five minutes later, I was allowed to cross.
After Israeli passport control, I walked a gauntlet of bunkers and concrete barricades in the no-man’s land between Israel proper and the Gaza strip. It was pitch black and I was completely alone.

Momentarily, I saw headlights approaching. A dilapidated yellow taxi pulled up, the window lowered. An old Palestinian man stared at me in disbelief, then his chubby face broke into a broad grin.

"Welcome to Gaza," he beamed.

The conversation during the brief ride into Gaza City was jovial and he brought me to one of the many brand new beachfront hotels. They were built in anticipation of a tourist boom when peace between Israelis and Palestinians seemed eminent. Things were not so optimistic now, and the posh hotels stood empty.

The glossy wood furniture in my room smelled new; it was possible it had never been slept in. I dozed off despite excitement from the trip and the incessant crowing of a rooster.
The phone rang early.

"Miss, your breakfast is ready."

My breakfast? I went downstairs and stared in amazement. A table was set for me; a spread of eggs, sliced fruits, bread and jam arranged expertly. The hotel had pulled out all the stops for its lone guest.

Walking around Gaza City, I found I had attained a sort of celebrity status. Many locals invited me to join them as I walked by outdoor cafes, vying for who would buy me tea or a sandwich. Two men asked where I wanted to go and offered me a ride. One wore an olive drab uniform and cap bearing the Fateh insignia. I went with them to use the Internet and then down to a shelter on the beach where we drank coffee.

The fleeting worry they might be kidnappers was dismissed during the ride; an AK-47 was lying across the backseat at my disposal. I posed for a picture with their sidearms and went to wade in the Mediterranean. It is a crime that this stretch of powdered sandy beach cannot be enjoyed by more tourists. It is one of the softest, whitest and most pristine I have visited.

That evening I found a small pizza parlor, much like those in the U.S., except for everyone was carrying a weapon. I was enjoying my snack when an Israeli F-16 flew over. The locals warned me to leave the area because "you never know when they’re going to bomb." I returned to my hotel and heard the F-16 flying back and forth all night, sometimes lower and louder, other times more distant. Luckily, it never dropped anything; just gave a lot of children a fearful and sleepless night.

The next day I met Hiba and two of her young children. They were on the beach eating baked flatbread with zattar, a common regional spice. They invited me to join them. Although they spoke as much English as I did Arabic, we shared the meal, laughing and talking somehow. She implored me to come home with her to meet the rest of her large family. Her brother-in-law, Mohammad, spoke fluent English, breaking the language barrier. I accompanied them to an ice cream stand; judging from the children’s reactions it was a rare treat.

Mohammad picked me up at my hotel the following day for lunch with his friends in Beit Hanoon, a village around five miles from Gaza City. I was shocked when we arrived; the roads were unpaved, pock-marked from gunfire and heavier weapons. The buildings were hollow shells, uninhabitable as a result of almost daily Israeli missile attacks.

A group of men met us and led us through an enormous orange grove. A scene from 1001 Arabian Nights materialized among the trees: cushions were laid out on the perimeter of a feast including rabbit, doves stuffed with rice; vegetables, fruits and nuts were piled high on shiny metal trays.

I wondered how they had the money for all this, then remembered everything before me was harvested from the land. Elsewhere, succulent oranges lay rotting on the ground. The men explained they were required to export them to Israel exclusively, for a fraction of their actual value.

It was the same principle with the fished-out port. Israel prohibits fisherman from sailing beyond two kilometers from shore. Not a good selection of fish in Gaza seafood markets.
I was completely relaxed as I indulged in the elaborate feast even though most of the men wore pistols. Frequently, they would break from their conversation to offer me more food and ask how I was doing.

This peaceful interlude in the middle of a war-torn land ended all too soon. We bid farewell with warm handshakes and promises to return.

I left Gaza City that evening for Khan Younis Refugee Camp. From there it would be on to Egypt, then back to the States with my world view irrevocably altered.

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