To most people reading the news, Gaza seems distant and unknowable — in many ways a faraway place. This is true even within Israel, where the ritsua, the strip, seemed forever like a festering outlier: something to speed past on the way to someplace better. And those of us who had the hapless luck of serving knew well the silence that followed when answering the ubiquitous Israeli conversation starter, “Where are you serving?” Why talk about what nobody wants to hear?
I once reported there daily for duty as the clerk/translator/assumed coffee maker for the liaison office of the military government of Gaza, located at the former Egyptian prison. It was still a prison, as well as the Israel Defense Forces’ administrative offices, clinic, mess hall, classroom and snack bar. Housed above all manner of detainees both criminal and security, conveniently overlooking their prison courtyard, were our sleeping quarters. When the prison rioted on Land Day, a traditional day of Palestinian protest, and the soldiers stormed in, the wind gently blew tear gas over us, too, and we felt the sting of our conjoined lives.
Somewhere near Ashkelon and the final stop for Israel’s Egged bus line there was a hitchhiking stand, a trempiyada, for the military and civil servants on duty ” “administering” the military government of Gaza. From there, a few more dusty kilometers past the sand-encrusted Erez security barrier of a few soldiers and a couple of empty metal barrels, there was Aza.
Fresh out of basic training in early August 1980, I joined the grim-looking gang, waiting for a ride. From my perch in the back of an army truck that picked us up, squeezed between the tiny old man clerk from the maps office who sidled up next to me on the bench with every bump in the road, and the male soldiers required to ride with their guns locked, loaded and aimed out at the passing scenery, I watched the ritsua unfold.
Speeding down Omar Al Mukhtar — the bustling main street — I saw sheep and donkey on their way to market, and intrepid Israelis shopping for auto parts, produce bargains and a schmear of some of the best hummus outside Jerusalem. Kids in “Bionic Man” T-shirts ran around to the sound of Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum, and the muezzin’s call to prayer punctuated the commercial chaos and cars honking. Women and working children carried their loads on their heads.
The main drag hid behind it squat housing units lining networks of alleyways and narrow, unpaved streets with waste water draining down them. The dismal brown hue of the houses was broken only by the colored signage of the United Nations Relief Works Agency food distribution storehouses. Later I would learn about high rates of electrocution accidents in the refugee camps, where in winter water rained down the walls. You could lose your life just switching on the light.