Mary Wakefield takes a postwar tour through Gaza and surveys a psychological landscape warped by conflict and suffering — and hear whispers of a further Israeli incursion
The border control at Erez, separating Israel from Gaza, was built in a happier age. It looks more like an airport than a checkpoint, a vast glass hangar designed with streams of Palestinian commuters in mind. Only a handful have made it through in the two years since Hamas took over. Now, two months after Israel’s 22-day war (Operation Cast Lead), there’s barely a soul in sight. One vicar outside, perspiring in the car park; one girl soldier inside checking passports. After that, just an eerie unmanned security process. Wait. Proceed to a steel holding pen. Wait. Walk down to a revolving zoo-style gate. Wait. Wait. Despair. Yell: ‘Hello?! Anybody?’ Then another door, another corridor, through a warehouse to a turnstile then out, abruptly, into no-man’s-land.
It takes a few seconds to adjust to what looks like the aftermath of apocalypse — Lego-lumps of broken concrete, pylons, a deserted, bomb-pocked track. It’s like a metaphor for the whole peace process: abandoned by Israel, whose Prime Minister designate, Bibi Netanyahu, sees no need for a separate Palestinian state; shunned by the Islamists, whose guru Osama reinforced the party line last week: ‘We must not tolerate the Gaza holocaust or collaborate with the Crusader–Zionist alliance.’ Ignored even by America, who finds it easiest now to throw hush money at both sides. As I reach the Palestinian checkpoint (three men drinking mint tea) and meet Hamada, my guide for the day, I think about a conversation with an Israeli official in a dark bar in Jerusalem: ‘The truth is, we can live with Gaza like this. It doesn’t have to be a one-state or a two-state solution, there’s a third state: occupation. Realistically, why would we want anything else?’
Can Gaza City be left to stew indefinitely? This seems to be Israel’s secret plan, but is it feasible? I peer at it around the frosted punch of a bullet-hole in Hamada’s windscreen. It seems at first cheerier than I’d imagined: donkeys trot along pulling carts, children scamper, young thugs loaf and stare. What looks like it might be a rally for some vituperative mullah turns out to be an audience for George Galloway, Gaza’s answer to Bono.
But above the hubbub, a warning: bright banners printed with the pictures of suicide bombers, strung like bunting from street-lamps. We pass the police academy where 15 cops were killed. ‘But they were employed by Hamas, right?’ I say. ‘Everyone here is employed by Hamas’, explains Hamada. ‘There’s no other industry because of the blockade.’ The further we drive, the more claustrophobic it gets: no jobs, no infrastructure, no escape, not even by sea — which Israel controls. And one of the fastest-growing populations in the world.
Because this is a postwar tour we drive through the areas worst hit during Operation Cast Lead. ‘They’re lucky to have Gaza, it’s an important part of Jewish history,’ said the same Israeli official. ‘It’s where Samson pulled down the temple on the Philistines.’ It looks like it too. Concrete lies in layers like collapsed cake, the metal struts skewer the sky. Some families live in precarious little lean-tos, balanced on top of the ruins of their former houses. We meet a farmer called Himli and stand in what was his bedroom looking out over a large lake of sewage. ‘When they first arrived, the soldiers started firing at my house through the windows,’ he said. Did you ask them why? I ask, always keen to clear up a misunderstanding. Himli looks amazed, then starts to laugh. He thinks I’m joking. He continues: ‘What happened next was that my wife went to the door, carrying our six-month-old baby. A gunman shot the baby, then he shot my wife. My brother was also killed.’ Himli falls silent. Hamada says, ‘Over there, a man bled to death in the street because the soldiers would not let the ambulance reach him.’ As we drive away, there are children standing in the mud, not quite behaving as children should. Too quiet, too still.
Next stop, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme. ‘We always see the worst effects after the war, after the soldiers and the journalists leave,’ says Dr Hasan Zeyada. ‘There is a lot of depression here. I am treating children who can’t sleep, who can’t concentrate and who have horrible nightmares. They are restless and easily provoked. You see, they feel completely unprotected and I’m afraid we will observe, in the future, that they become violent.’ This then is surely one good reason why Gaza can’t just be left as is: it is becoming a lab where Israel creates what it fears most.
And Israel suffers psychologically too. Richard Ben Cramer’s excellent book, How Israel Lost, puts it like this: ‘On the Palestinian side the conflict has more or less replaced life — or cooked it to a standstill. Among the Jews, the effects are harder to pinpoint, or more insidious — because the whole point of Israel was to create a place where Jews could live the best life — and liveliest — in accordance with their values.’ What has happened to values when Jewish children are inured to the idea of collective punishment, to the effects of white phosphorous and dime bombs? What has happened to Israel’s admirable ‘Purity of Arms’ when young Israelis fighting for the side we think of as right leave graffiti in Gaza like this: ‘We came to annihilate you’; ‘Death to the Arabs’; ‘Kahane was right’; ‘No tolerance’; ‘We came to liquidate’.
It’s not just the soldiers who are warped by the war. Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, reports this week that 68 per cent of Israeli Jews would refuse to live in the same apartment building as an Israeli Arab.
‘Twenty years ago I would have called Israel a nice little socialist country, with one problem,’ writes Ben Cramer. ‘Now I’d say the “one problem” has eaten up the rest of the country.’ It eats up the rest of the world too. Everyone’s got an opinion; everyone’s flushed with useless outrage one way or the other.
‘Oh, I wish the rest of the world would butt out,’ says Robbie Damelin. Robbie’s not in Gaza, she was in her flat in Tel Aviv when I met her a few days ago, but she’s as close to a sane voice on the subject as I’ve found. Robbie’s an Israeli from South Africa, and her son David was doing his national service in the IDF when he was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper at a checkpoint. But instead of being consumed by the need for vengeance, Robbie has devoted herself to encouraging grieving parents from both sides to meet and to try to understand each other. Robbie’s proud of being Israeli: ‘I hope you guys in England didn’t use the war as an excuse for anti-Semitism,’ she says with a beady look. But also: ‘We’ve got to get out of the occupied territories, especially Gaza. OK it’s risky, but it’s right. Occupation is ruining our national identity.’
But Israelis claim there’s no partner for peace, I say to Robbie. She says: ‘What they mean is there’s no will for peace. That’s different. What they mean is that they would rather be right than try to see the other side.’
Robbie’s lesson for Israel and Gaza is that even implacable enemies can come to terms if they want. ‘I remember talking at a school, about David and his death,’ she says, ‘and this Palestinian girl shouted out: “I’m glad he died. He deserved to die.” I could have been furious,’ says Rob
bie. ‘But then I stopped and said: “What happened to you? What happened to your family?” and the whole thing came out — all her suffering. After she finished talking she started crying, then she apologised. You know,’ says Robbie, ‘it’s always those who’ve suffered least who compromise least.’
Back to Erez. Hamada is driving like an Israeli: beeping, arguing, laughing. As the border building looms into sight I think of everything Israelis and Palestinians have in common: their love of the land; their willingness to sacrifice their children to protect it. As I write, there’s talk of Operation Cast Lead II (because, no surprise, Hamas is still firing rockets into Israel; because last week’s attempt to free the kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit, collapsed). It’ll be a great day when either Israel or Palestine realise that it’s their children, not the land, which defines them.