On Sunday, May 8, I walked into Gaza, a place I have never been before, through no man’s land, alone. I had not planned to go alone, but the two journalists I was going with were, for various reasons, not able immediately to enter. Arrangements had been made for the three of us to meet Hamas officials and spokespeople on the other side in Gaza City, a few minutes’ ride from the end of the security zone. If the meetings were to take place at all, I had to go alone.
Gaza seems scary and exotic. The Erez Station, a vast facility that is the only entry point for people entering from Israel, is, owing to severe restrictions, empty. It was busy once; there are at least a dozen booths for border-crossing officials, but now few are manned, which causes no bottleneck. At 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, the Israeli Monday, the three in my party were the only ones in the whole place seeking to cross.
Once one’s documents are found to be in order, the rest of the journey to the other side is exactly like entering a prison. Just past the first gate, there is a lone little sign that says “To Gaza” (no choices except, I suppose, turning back, which I can assure you I considered). The mile or so walk from the first booth to open space (all by foot—no trams or moving sidewalks or golf carts), you are surrounded by metal bars and concertina wire. Doors clang behind you. There are several places where the door in front of you does not open until the door behind you closes. After a few hundred yards, you leave the structure but remain in a cage—a chain-link tunnel–to the end. (And by the way, the security is even stricter going back.)
The whole way, I saw only a few people, likely Gazan medical patients, going to Israel. I learned later from a Gazan doctor that Israel is generous in admitting Gazans for medical treatment—but less so with their families. But the Gaza authorities sometimes refuse to grant permission to Gazans who wish to go to the West Bank, even when the proposed traveler has permission from Israel to pass through, according to Sari Bashi of the Israeli human rights organization Gisha. “There have been a number of instances in which the Hamas authorities, who maintain a police checkpoint at the approach to the Erez Crossing between Israel and Gaza, have prevented Palestinians from traveling to Israel and the West Bank,” she said in an e-mail last week. “These incidents include denying exit to activists or politically affiliated individuals and preventing students and professionals from accessing training opportunities in the West Bank sponsored by the Palestinian Authority or foreign donors, including the United States. In some cases, the police said that the travel must be ‘coordinated’ with various governmental ministries—effectively blocking it.”
Once the cage was behind me and I was about to get into the waiting car, I got a call from my colleagues that they were being admitted after all and were on their way to meet up with me. Good. Now there would be three pairs of eyes and ears to process the hasbara (“spin”) of the Hamasniks.
My tour of Gaza City was brief—not much more than what we could see from the car on the way to the meeting site and then back again at the end of the day. But, for what it’s worth, what I saw was not devastation, although I was assured it exists elsewhere. Poor and crowded in places, for sure, but not more than that. And thick with politics. Posters of various leaders and a lot of political flags: green for Hamas; black for Islamic Jihad; red for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, often referred to as the communists; and, newly permitted as of last week, yellow for Fatah (in the wake of the Fatah–Hamas reconciliation agreement). A notable site was what is called the “holy tree,” in the midst of a crowded neighborhood. The tree is said to have been repeatedly bulldozed by Israel, and yet it has survived.