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.
Gaza City has its pockets of wealth. The site of our meeting was a gorgeous villa and gardens that might have been in Tuscany. Built in 1941, it was the home of Dr. Eyad Sarraj, whose father, he said, was born in what is now the Israeli city of Be’er Sheva. Sarraj is a multilingual, urbane and charming psychiatrist, educated in England and Egypt, and now head of Gaza’s official human rights organization (it was he who told me that Fatah falsely blames Israel for blocking the entry of sick Gazans for treatment in Israel). His nine brothers and sisters now all live abroad. His grown children live abroad. He too could leave, but he stays.
The star of the conversation was Dr. Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, a veterinarian, born in Jaffa, who lived for many years in a Rafah refugee camp. Hamad is a fluent Hebrew speaker (a common byproduct of spending time in Israeli prisons), extraordinarily well-spoken in English and, by Hamas standards, a moderate–except when it comes to Fatah, for which he has no use whatsoever. In August 2006, at a time when Hamas wanted to consolidate its recent electoral victory with peace and quiet, and law and order, he was quoted on the Israeli website Ynet criticizing Palestinian (Fatah) violence and rocket fire launched into Israel: “When we speak about a truce, there is always someone who fires another rocket…. The land is full with corruption, thuggery and gang killings. Isn’t building the homeland part of the resistance?”
I saw him interviewed on the BBC a few days before meeting him, and to me he seemed quite evasive. But face to face, he pretty nearly convinced me that he has a vision for peace. “So condemn violence,” I said. “If I condemn it, what do I get?” he responded. “Americans will be shocked,” I said. “How can I trust you?” he countered. His deep mistrust of both Israel and the United States came up approximately once every minute—about as often as it does in any conversation with Israeli officials regarding the Palestinians.
For most of this intense, nearly three-hour conversation, we Jewish visitors were both comfortable and chutzpadik (audacious)—we rejected his claim to a Palestinian Right of Return, for example, because, we said, you rejected partition in 1947 and attacked us; you lost the war, and for that there are consequences.
The British journalist who arranged the meeting told us afterward that Dr. Hamad rarely sees American Jews, especially not in Gaza City, and that he seemed quite disarmed and charmed by us. About Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006, and with whom all Israel is utterly preoccupied, I asked, “Why is a Palestinian worth only one nine-hundredth of a Jew? If their worth is the same, why not swap one Shalit for one Palestinian?” No answer except, “You have 11,000 and we have one.” But the conversation had become so affable, I had fantasies that he would release Shalit to us.
We are told that Dr. Hamad has been ostracized for his liberalism. Both he and Dr. Sarraj say they want to influence Hamas to change and that they believe Hamas can do so. Their vision is an open, democratic, Turkish-style Islamic society. To which I said, “Baloney. No equality for women, no modern open society.” The five men present, Muslim and Jewish alike, smiled indulgently.
Things are black-and-white when you don’t know much. This extraordinary meeting has made things a lot grayer for me.