Gaza is more desperate than I have ever seen it. Vast stretches are ruined, trashy, derelict, little work, few consumer goods, much idleness. Construction projects half finished for lack of building materials and fuel. A huge cement factory, former employer of 114 workers, gathering dust. Geographically separated from the rest of Palestine by Israel and ideologically separated from it by deep animosity between the two Palestinian governments.
For the last two weeks, since Israel discovered that Hamas was building a tunnel to the Israeli border, presumably to try to kidnap the next Shalit, the siege of Gaza (as Gazans call it) has tightened. There is no electricity most of the day (blame for that goes also to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority) — 6 hours of electricity on and 12 hours off. Women are baking and ironing at 3 am. If you don’t time things right, you will miss the up elevator and have to walk. If you are an older American woman on the ground floor and public power is off and you have to go to the 14th floor, they might power up their generator for a few minutes if you say you need a bathroom. One cab driver saved gas by rolling down a hill rather than use the starter. People carry their car batteries into their homes to power the lights during some of the hours of darkness. I saw a man trying to power his cell phone from a car battery still in the car. Sewage treatment has been more or less halted because of lack of fuel for transport and pumping. Water from the tap is too disgusting even to use for brushing your teeth.
But worse than material deprivation is imprisonment: There is no exit from Gaza. Egypt controls one border and Israel controls the other, including the sea. Some business people and United Nations diplomats have permits allowing them to go in and out of Gaza but most have little hope of leaving. I talked to a number of talented ambitious young people who feel they might never be able to leave. Getting out even to study is hard and permission from Israel can take years and still never come — though an Israeli NGO called Gisha works to help them every day.
And then there is boredom. There are no movie theaters; books are hard to come by, few cafes.
They do not know what they have done to deserve this. Everyone blames the Occupation (Israel) though I heard this stated with resignation, not defiance, contrasted with previous visits. Some are mystified by the ferocity of the punishment of Gaza by Egypt’s Army — led by the anti-Muslim Brotherhood military government, which has closed hundreds of Egypt/Gaza smuggling tunnels. For Gaza this was like closing all of the malls and Wall Street at the same time.
Why is everyone trying to destroy Gaza, they ask. When I mention rockets and the Hamas Charter and the division with Fatah, they explain that those things are too trivial to be the real reason. I ask whether they think Hamas was reckless in building the new tunnel because its discovery would inevitably (and did) bring harsh reprisals. “Tunnels are our technology, our only weapon of war, no different from tanks or drones,” said Ahmed Yousef of a dialogue-promoting NGO called House of Wisdom for Conflict Resolution and Governance. “The only thing we do that gets any notice or respect.” And anyway, he adds, “Whether we build tunnels or don’t build tunnels, it is the same suffering. What has the Palestinian Authority gotten for all its compromises?”
Hamas is hated and feared not for building tunnels but for its reign of terror against Gazans. I talked to a man who works (or rather hangs around — there is little work for anyone) at the House of Wisdom who said he used to lay tile in Israel and never thought of politics. Now he says he cannot feed his children and he thinks of nothing but politics. Would he turn out for a protest against Hamas? Not a chance. Two human rights activists said the same thing. They are sure they would be shot.
The question on everyone’s lips is how long can it last? How long before there is an explosion, a barrage of rockets into Israel which Hamas perpetrates or tolerates? There is no doubt where that goes — massive retaliation from Israel, and another devastating war in which they the civilians will suffer more than anyone. Gazans are out of ideas. Yet they cope. They smile and smoke and play cards. They are resilient. They get used to each new deprivation.
I was there on my own, legally, as a journalist, as I have done three times before. As before, some of the conversations were intense. This time, I spent hours one-on-one with several highly educated, ambitious young women — one of whom, Isra al-Modallal (23 and educated in England), is the new spokesperson and liaison to the English-speaking press for what she calls “the government of Palestine in Gaza.” She is charming, especially her Midlands British accent, has a lot to learn and I wonder how long a learning curve Hamas is going to allow her. Another, Ayah Bashar, works for a consulting firm PalThink and helped organize the (tiny) BDS Movement here. (Note: boycotting Israel when you are in Gaza is absolutely ridiculous since almost all staples of everyday life here now come from there.) Another, Yasmeen El Khoudary, is working on a book fair for Gaza and a cultural center — hoping to break that cycle of nothing to do. By the way, nearly everyone I speak to by now knows I am Jewish and they are not one bit disconcerted. It actually fascinates them.
These young women and, tops, one or two others I spoke to, refuse to be hopeless. One in particular, Eyad Sarraj, an older man I have known since I started coming to Gaza two years ago, a physician and activist who is now very ill and who is unbelievably dear and inspiring, is a cockeyed optimist. Highly respected here and of independent political affiliation, he acknowledges Hamas’s weakness and Gaza’s international isolation and he has a plan. He expects to be joined next week by at least two prominent Hamas officials for a bedside public statement unequivocally renouncing violence and offering unification with Fatah on any terms set by Fatah. This would have been unthinkable two years ago or even last year, would be perceived as bitter surrender to Israel and to the despised Fatah. To Sarraj, though, it is the high road and more important — and he is probably right — at this point, it is the only road.
Kathleen Peratis is a partner in the New York law firm Outten & Golden LLP.