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A Visit to Gaza – the World's Largest Open-Air Prison Camp

Hamas caps, Yassar Arafat mugs and an Israeli security procedure that would have made the Nazis proud. Poor Gaza.

An open-air prison. No one I know has been to the Gaza strip since the Hamas takeover, and I admit that I’m a bit scared. I lived in Jerusalem during the worst part of the second intifada and I have dodged my share of bullets, but I’ve never been to Gaza. The kidnapping of BBC journalist Alan Johnston is still fresh in the collective memory. But I am going, both to monitor the cash distribution that my organization has funded, and to see what else we can do to help the community cope since the Israelis closed off the strip since Hamas took over.

The night before I leave I put my glasses in my laptop bag. I reckon that if I’m kidnapped, I’ll need them when my contact lenses dry out. I try to remember what I once read about hostage survival: never speak unless spoken to. Do not joke with your captor. Eat whatever is given to you. Always face your captor. Learn a method to tell the time. Do not lose hope.

I send the official entry request to the civil liaison of the Israeli military from Denmark several weeks before we arrive, including a copy of my passport and the reasons for the trip. A couple days later I verify on the phone that my request is approved, and then I speak with the Major in charge the day before I arrive, and again a third time the morning of my departure for Israel, just to make sure.

When I arrive in Israel it’s almost impossible to find the Eretz crossing checkpoint, as there are almost no road signs to indicate the direction of the Gaza strip; though I’m just a few kilometers away it’s as if the place doesn’t exist. And despite my preparations, when I arrive, none of the Israeli guards has heard of me.

The Eretz crossing into Gaza has recently been rebuilt from a low shabby building into an enormous futuristic hangar, a sleek modern structure that could rival many a small international airport, and indeed, is meant to look and act like one.

My taxi leaves me at the small parking lot, and I approach the first guard post on foot. The young woman in civilian clothing behind the glass looks briefly at my passport and asks why I am going to Gaza – ‘to visit the Council of Churches, they run health clinics’ – and lets me through the gate. Once inside the hangar I enter a glass-paneled room with a 40 foot ceiling. High up two brown sparrows dart two and fro amongst the steel beams that support an arching corrugated steel roof.

A man in uniform waves me through a pair of glass doors toward a long row of bulletproof, glass-enclosed vestibules like the immigration counter at an airport. There are about 10 of them, though there could be more on the other side of the glass partition; it’s too far away to see through to the other side clearly. What is clear is that this massive structure, designed to herd thousands of Palestinians through the gates to and from Israel every day, is completely and utterly empty. The only other people there are a dozen or so Israeli security officers. Some are in uniform, some are not, but they’re all armed. It’s a bit spooky.

I enter the enclosed space in front of the vestibule and give my passport for inspection to a chubby, olive-skinned girl in uniform on the other side of tinted bullet proof glass. I notice her cell phone on the empty desktop, a bright pink Nokia adorned with a tiny stuffed animal hanging from a chain. She asks us why I am going to Gaza and then tells me to step back outside the door again, refusing to listen either to my assertion that I’m approved by the civil liaison, or to the Israeli Major I reach on my cell phone and try to pass to her under the slot. I go back into the main room and wait.

After about twenty minutes journalists of various nationalities start to arrive in groups of twos and threes carrying professional video cameras. I learn that they have been invited by Hamas to attend a press conference, a good will gesture to demonstrate, amongst other things, that Alan Johnston’s kidnapping was an anomaly: they are now all safe and welcome.

For me, this is a godsend. If Hamas has invited so many foreigners, they surely won’t let any come to harm that day. And since the Israelis know that the journalists are there en masse, it would be a particularly bad day for any attacks or incursions. I reckon I’ll be safe, for sure.

A short, young, unshaven Israeli in uniform with a short-barrel M16 slung over his shoulder shows up from nowhere and approaches me where I’m sitting behind a little desk in the middle of the room. He asks me who I am looking so official, and when I retort with: ‘show me your papers!’ I find myself returning his high five while he laughs at my joke. I explain that I’m approved, but can’t get across. He promises to help, and then disappears.

He returns after a while with a stamped and signed Hebrew document. I get his name – Leo – and his mobile number so that I can inform him when I return to Israel. The guys at the UN radio room recommended that I do this so that the Israelis don’t shoot as I approach the crossing. I go through a number of additional security doors and one-way turnstiles until I emerge from the hangar into a long open-air tunnel of steel mesh. I walk for about 500 meters in the steamy air before I enter another dimly lit steel room that ends in a gate.

There are no instructions where to go or what to do, and no Israeli personnel anywhere in sight. Only a camera in the far corner lets me know they’re watching. After a few moments I find a small intercom on the wall. I push the button and ask them to open the door, and after a few minutes, the big gate swings open automatically: I am now in Gaza.

I walk another five hundred meters on a gutted gravel road. An urban wasteland of bombed out buildings is on my right, several acres of gutted concrete buildings bearing the scars of war that give way to some low hills in the near distance. To my left there’s a broad valley of dry scrub, a former orange grove bulldozed by the Israelis to clear the are before the massive concrete wall, topped with machine gun towers, that seals off the strip. A large white observation blimp hovers a few hundred feet overhead.

At the end of the gravel track a flock of taxis waits for the journalists. I find the ambulance of our own partner organization waiting and I’m soon zooming through the northern outskirts of Gaza city. It looks like any other Mediterranean city in this part of the Arab world; 4 and 5 story concrete and white stone apartment blocks covered with Arabic graffiti at street level, punctuated with a smattering of trees on the sidewalks and medians.

Everywhere we go billboards, posters, and signs show pictures of the ‘martyrs,’ a term that refers to anyone killed by the Israelis. Many of them hold weapons in the photographs and paintings, though some appear unarmed and in civilian clothes. They all wear the same placid, resolute expression.

The Gaza strip is among the most densely populated land on the planet, yet there aren’t many people on the street, and it’s unusually quiet. We pass under neon yellow banners hanging over the street that read:

No Threat To Foreigners Or Journalists. All Are Welcome! in Arabic and English. Hamas has no doubt prepared them for the journalists arriving today as part of their attempt at PR damage control after the release of the kidnapped journalist Alan Johnston, unaware of the implicit irony of such a message.

I spend the morning drinking cup after cup of Arabic coffee, discussing the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the medical program implemented by our partner organization, the Church Council. My counterparts at the Church Council are all men, mostly doctors and medical administrators in their 50’s, all well-traveled and fluent in English. We talk about the conflict and the state of Gaza after Hamas routed Fatah, and about the humanitarian situation and the prospects for the future. The closure is heavy on their minds. I am the first foreigner to visit them since Hamas took over. Attending a medical training in Jerusalem used to entail applying for Israeli permits weeks in advance and crossing one’s fingers; now they can’t leave at all, stuck in an open air prison for the foreseeable future.

They tell me that public services have not yet deteriorated significantly, even though most of the international community and Israel have agreed on a policy of economic strangulation of the government. But after a general tax amnesty following Fatah’s ouster, it’s not quite clear how revenue will be collected for the payment of public services. While armed Hamas policemen in blue fatigues direct traffic in an orderly fashion, some of the official stamps required to authenticate certain official documents can now be obtained only with a fee; they fear that problems are looming.

We step outside the Church Council offices to witness the cash distribution. About 50 men sit sullenly waiting on plastic chairs on a covered patio. Handing out cash is not as crazy as it sounds. Humanitarian relief organizations, historically reliant on food distributions, are increasingly distributing cash.

In Gaza the problem is not yet a lack of food, but of the money to buy it; with no imports of raw materials, all construction, manufacturing, and industry have ground to a halt. With no imports of fertilizers and seeds, all new planting has stopped. With no exports of agricultural produce, the vast quantities of fruits and vegetables normally sold in Israel can only be sold in Gaza, and there’s almost no work.

While Fatah used to communicate with the Israelis, Hamas considers them the enemy, and refuses to talk to them at all. Consequently, the trickle of food currently being allowed in, the doctors tell me, ‘is a bit like feeding time at the zoo. They open the gate, drive in the food, then drive out, and close the gate. Then the lions come.’

They walk me through the system they’ve devised to avoid fraud and we watch the men go one by one into another room for an interview. A number of Islamists stand out with their long beards, and I ask the staff if they think these families will give the usual 2.5 percent contribution to the Hamas. Hamas has enough money from the Gulf and Iran, they say, not to request two dollar contributions from their own needy families.

On the drive to visit the medical clinics I notice that nearly all the shops are closed due to lack of business. The clinic is small, clean, well organized and well stocked. A generator roars in the courtyard to make up for the lack of municipal power. The patients have all gone home for the afternoon, and the clinic staffs are catching up on paperwork.

Gaza is not only among the mostly densely populated places on earth, it also has an age distribution that is a demographer’s nightmare; 19 percent of the population is under the age of five, meaning that the population is set to double in about twenty years. The focus at the clinics is therefore on maternal and child health.

I talk to the doctor and head nurse over the cacophony of the generator. They say that anemia is over 60% for children under 5, and the number of moderately malnourished children is around 5 percent. The causes of the malnourishment are political; Israeli children just a few kilometers on the other side of the wall live in relative luxury. What’s more worrying is the length of time required to restore a child from moderately malnourished back to normal; up to a year. For a child under the age of two, this means that stunting and other irreversible developmental problems will already have kicked in, and have left their effects for the rest of the child’s life.

But the Church Council simply doesn’t have the resources to distribute food to all the children that need it. Since Israel and the international community have agreed to ‘starve’ the Hamas government in order to undermine its public support, the situation is likely to get worse.

The bottom line for the average family living in Gaza is simple; no work, no money, and therefore less food. If the Israelis and the Quartet (Russia, the EU, the US, and France) are right, and this undermines public support for Hamas, it will be the first time in history that such a tactic has resulted in strengthening the moderates. In Gaza such tactics have typically served to foment extremism; Hamas only grew to significant power during the massive Israeli incursions that started after the Intifada in 2001 and 2002.

But for a stunted child with life long developmental disabilities, whether the strategy works in the end, or not, is a moot point.

From the clinic we meet more doctors for lunch at a seaside restaurant. Children play in the waves crashing on the beach outside the Gaza port, and it’s a bit hard to enjoy the feast of dishes laid out for us after our visit to the clinic. One of the doctors arrives from the main hospital in Gaza city, where a feud has been going on all morning between the two hospital directors; one has been appointed by Fatah, another by Hamas. They are arguing and trashing each other’s offices, he reports, each man asserting his right as the legitimate director.

After lunch we head back to the office to develop a plan to address the household food security and the malnourished children. On the way back we stop at a souvenir store stocked with flags, key chains, plates, T-shirts, hats, pens, and other souvenirs, all of them political. There are hundreds of different items with many logos and parties, including the Iranian president Ahmedinejad, Arafat, and Hamas president Haniyah. For kicks I buy a Yassir Arafat coffee mug and a green Hamas baseball cap.

At 5 o’clock it’s time for us to leave Gaza. I call Leo to let him know that we are making our way toward Eretz. He tells me that several hundred of the Palestinians who have been trapped for weeks in Egypt are crossing through Eretz today, and no one else is allowed to cross. We talk on the phone several times over the next two and a half hours before he tells me to come to the crossing.

Our ambulance arrives at the concrete road block where I’ve been picked up that morning to a crowd of a hundred or so Palestinians waiting to receive their relatives as well as a handful of armed Hamas policemen in blue camouflage fatigues trying to keep them from approaching the wall to Israel.

I say goodbye to my hosts in the ambulance and walk 200 meters or so towards two massive Israeli Merkava tanks parked on the road. With their turrets pointed in my direction I have no idea if they can see me, no idea if they will allow me to cross just because I look, hopefully, like a foreigner and not a Palestinian. The sound of the tanks’ engines is deafening. But with no other choice I simply walk toward them with my hands in plain sight, and then continue walking past them toward the tunnel.

I enter and make my way back toward the gate, where we meet three Reuters journalists waiting smoking cigarettes waiting for the gate to open. A bright white light shines overhead to illuminate the space for a camera on the wall. We wait in vain, showing our passports to the camera, and shouting hopelessly to the empty tunnel. I call Leo, who fails to answer his phone for the first time all day. We wait a while longer before a Palestinian being pushed along in a wheelchair approaches from the other side. When the gate opens to let him out we go in.

At the end of the tunnel are five sliding steel doors, an overhead camera, and an intercom. I push the button and ask them to please open the door. After about five minutes a female voice asks if we are all internationals. Yes, that’s right, I say, three journalists and myself from a non government organization. ‘No Palestinians?’ she asks. ‘No,’ I say. We wait a couple more minutes before the light above one of the doors turns from red to green, and we pass through one by one into the hangar.

We emerge into another room, this one with five identical steel doors in a steel-walled room; no intercom, just an overhead camera. The air conditioners are on full blast. After waiting here for a few minutes, a light turns from red to green above one of the doors and it slides open and we enter another room. This one is smaller, and there are four glass doors set in a glass wall, but the ceiling is open so that we can see, from a distance, a set of offices in a block about fifteen meters up hanging from the ceiling. There are half a dozen men and women in uniforms and civilian clothes sitting at computers, watching us through the windows, but no staff whatsoever on the ground floor.

A voice over a loud speaker announces in heavily accented English that we should go through the doors one by one. The doors open onto a small area where we encounter the first, and only human, a gruff, mustachioed Palestinian in an orange jumpsuit who instructs us to empty our bags into large white bins and load them on a conveyor for X-ray. The lack of any human contact until now, the absence of any instructions on how to proceed whatsoever, of being herded through this futuristic machine by lights and intercoms and cameras, has been surreal and utterly dehumanizing, like being body-cavity searched by a robot. This first contact with a person is less than reassuring.

From there we each go through another glass door leading to a small cubicle. ‘What do you have in your pockets?’ the voice says over the speaker, and now I can see him, a brown-haired guy in his twenties, standing watching me from the high glass office overhead. ‘Coins,’ I say, ‘my passport, and my wallet,’ my voice picked up by an invisible microphone. ‘Show me,’ he says, and so I show him, emptying my pockets and holding the items above my head. He orders me through.

We enter a smaller area, the only exit from which is a single glass cylinder in the center of the wall, not unlike a small revolving door. One of the journalists enters before me, and it’s clear that she’s receiving commands from a microphone inside the cylinder after the door closes behind her: she spreads her legs to place her feet on two white footprints painted on the ground, and raises her hands high above her head. After a few moments the door opens on the other side and she exits, and now it’s my turn. I do exactly as she did without any prompting, stepping into the glass tube while the door closes behind me, spreading my legs and raising my hands as I hear a whirring, rotating device spin 360 degrees around me on both sides. It’s more than a little bit creepy. Then the doors only slide open and I exit to the other side.

In the next chamber we wait for some time. We can see the staff through the overhead windows watching us and talking. I start to worry about my seemingly innocuous souvenirs. Will the Israelis take an Arafat coffee mug and a Hamas baseball cap for the kitsch that I do, or as threats to national security? I mentally rehearse my explanation that they’re just gag souvenirs. We wait for about fifteen minutes. I grow increasingly nervous as I imagine them going through my stuff. After a while the light turns from red to green above a one way steel turnstile on the far side of the room, and we go through without any prompting from the loud speaker.

On the other side two women are swabbing our bags and the items inside them with little black plastic wands fastened with tissue. They go through everything. One is an Ethiopian and the other is a black-haired white girl, and both are under 25. The black-haired girl takes out my Arafat mug and shows it to her colleague, who just shrugs her shoulders and shakes her head. Then she slides her hand down the side pocket of my laptop bag to where the Hamas hat is, and I cannot bear to look.

About fifteen minutes later they tell us to gather our bags and go. Once again we pass through the glass vestibules that we entered that morning, and once again a young girl in uniform asks me who I am, who I work for, and why did I go to Gaza.

A wall of moist warm air heavy with the smell of manure slams into me as I walk through the door of the hangar; I am back in Israel. The bright orange moon hangs enormous above the edge of the horizon. I find my taxi driver, who’s been waiting for two hours. He asks me with eager curiosity, as do all the Palestinians I talk with in the coming days: ‘How is Gaza?’

Erik Johnson