Saturday, July 3, 2010

Gaza's Joyous Beaches

This will be my final blog post from Gaza—at least for a while. Next week, I’m headed back to Chicago in my other role as the program director of a dialogue camp for Israeli, Palestinian and American teenagers. After that, I’ll begin my search for a full-time position at a newspaper, magazine, think tank or international non-governmental organization.

Before coming to Gaza five months ago, I chatted with Swedish journalist Catrin Ormestad, who reported from Gaza before and after last year’s war. Ormestad offered some wise advice. “Especially when I write for Israeli audiences,” she said, “I try to write in a way that shows Palestinians’ humanity.”

As I look back at my articles and blog posts, I realize I have focused on the more controversial and “newsworthy” aspects of life in Gaza. I wrote about Gazan families living in half-destroyed homes. I wrote about peaceful protesters getting shot in the no-go zone. I wrote about a women's rights activist who advocates the murder of Israeli civilians. I wrote about desperate Gazans who crawled through the smuggling tunnels for Egyptian medical treatment. I wrote about Hamas’s post-flotilla raids on Gazan charities. I wrote about the connection between electricity shortages and sewage tsunamis. And I wrote about grassroots community leaders— filmmakers, aid workers, psychologists, political analysts and a refugee camp comedian.

However, I didn’t write much about the universal stories of people living their ordinary lives—fretting over school exams, dancing at weddings, joking with friends, empowering children, celebrating birthdays, and mourning the passing of loved ones. Despite the trauma and destruction wrought by war and the daily indignities of the siege, life goes on in Gaza.

I’ve therefore peppered this final blog post with pictures of one beautiful expression of Gaza's enduring humanity: family outings to the beach. Every summer, thousands of people from diverse political factions and socio-economic backgrounds converge on the 25-mile coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. They fly homemade kites. They build sandcastles. They swim. They chitchat. They catch minnows. They play soccer. They watch the sunset. Like families around the world, they seek out simple moments of pure joy and plant special memories in the impressionable minds of their children.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Chocolate and Mayonnaise—But No Cement

The young boys pictured on the right are holding Israeli chocolate and mayonnaise—items which, until two weeks ago, were banned under the blockade. According to Gazan traders, many new items are now flowing in from Israel, including: assorted foods, shoes, clothing, thin aluminum (used for doors), and miscellaneous kitchen supplies. Israel’s easing of the blockade has been cautiously celebrated by traders, shop keepers and civilians, yet lamented by smuggling tunnel owners whose expensive goods are now in lower demand.

However, many civilians are disappointed that, just as the blockade has eased, the electricity crisis has dramatically deepened—this past week, most Gazans got only eight hours of electricity per day. Previously, Gazans were sometimes getting 16 hours of electricity per day. Gazans are also disappointed by Israel's continued prohibition on the most desperately needed supplies: cement, iron, construction-grade wood, and gravel. Israel argues that these items pose a security threat because they could be used to make weapons or fortify smuggling tunnels.

Yet the tunnel smuggling industry has proliferated under the blockade, despite feeble Israeli and Egyptian efforts to stop it. Most items prohibited by Israel are already widely available in Gaza. Egyptian chocolate and mayonnaise, for example, could be found in shops across Gaza before Israel eased the blockade. The refrigerator and electric generator in my upscale Gaza City apartment came through the tunnels. Brand new 2009 Mercedes cars have come into Gaza through the tunnels. The lion at the Rafah City Zoo (pictured on right) came through the tunnels.

Cement, iron, wood, and gravel likewise come into Gaza through the tunnels. They also get scavenged and recycled from Gaza's destroyed buildings. These supplies are of dangerously low quality and they are expensive—affordable only to the Hamas government, to westerners living in Gaza, and to Gaza’s minority of wealthy elites. Just last week, Hamas used these materials to finish construction of a new jail (pictured above) capable of housing 800 prisoners. Gaza's largest prison was destroyed during last year's war.

Meanwhile, thousands of families remain unable to rebuild their homes. They live in unstable, partially destroyed houses, they rent apartments that they cannot afford, they bunk up with relatives in cramped quarters, or, in rare cases, they live in tents. The United Nations (UN) could help these families, but is prohibited by law from purchasing black market materials.

Earlier this year, the UN launched a small pilot project in the southern district of Khan Younis to construct 150 new homes. (Some of these new homes are pictured on the right.) After months of high-level diplomatic wrangling, Israel permitted the UN to bring in these materials on the condition that Hamas have no involvement. It remains to be seen if Israel will permit a larger-scale home reconstruction program.

More flotillas, including a boat full of leftwing Jewish activists, are planning to challenge the blockade, and building materials will likely constitute some of their cargo. Nujud Hamad (pictured on the right with her children outside their half-destroyed home) is grateful to these flotilla “heroes,” but doesn’t believe her family will be able to access the flotillas' “symbolic” gifts.

“The flotillas can’t possibly bring enough cement for everyone,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and smiling warmly. “Plus, my family doesn’t have connections [with powerful people].”