Imagine a piece of land: sandy, roughly rectangular, and about the size of the Isle of Wight. It is surrounded on three sides by desert and hostile neighbours, and on the fourth by the sea. Although almost 1.7 million live in this space, nothing except essentials is allowed in or out. It’s under blockade. By sea, even its fishing boats are sprayed with sewage or gunfire and, around its land border, there’s a ‘free-fire zone’ a kilometre wide. Meanwhile, its buildings have been so enthusiastically shelled that, sometimes, whole ceilings just suddenly give way. Although this dystopia isn’t part of anywhere else, it’s not — officially — a country either. Even its name sounds utterly ravaged. This is the Gaza Strip.
For the Palestinians who live here, it’s been a cruel century. Much of it has been spent under military rule. After the Ottomans came the British (1920), the Egyptians (1949), the Israelis (1967), and then, eventually, Hamas (2006). Since then, the Gazans have been caught in the middle, home-made rockets going one way and the full might of Israel pouring in from the other. In the most punishing assault, in 2009, the Israelis killed about 1,400 people, and left even the most basic facilities utterly smashed. After that, the shelling was intermittent; buildings suddenly exploding or young men vaporised out in the fields. Worse, there was no escape. To leave the Strip, Gazans needed permission not only from the obdurate Hamas but also from their most bitter enemies.
By mid-2011, it took some courage to visit Gaza. Fortunately for us, Dervla Murphy has that in spades. At the age of 80, she braved a truly psychopathic bureaucracy, 38°C heat, sinister militias, and rock-lobbing Salafists (not to mention the threat of shells) in order to bring us her account of this traumatised land, A Month by the Sea. Nothing is too much for her; she ventures into slums and refugee camps; she does the round of bombed families (‘Misery tours’, she says grimly); she spars with politicians, and she comes face to face with a squad of bearded, black-clad militants, off to launch a rocket. Best of all, however, is her description of scrambling through a mile-long tunnel under the Egyptian border. Due to the blockade, she says, two thirds of Gaza’s imports were coming through secret tunnels, including cars.
But make no mistake, this is no mere travelogue. It’s also Murphy’s declamation. Even before she arrives, she has Israel in her sights, and the book is a fierce indictment of Zionism. Here, Israel (‘a pseudo-democracy’) is guilty of atrocity, and its army is criminal. In fairness, this literary bombardment finds other targets too. The Americans are complicit in the slaughter; the Europeans are cowardly; the NGOs are too deferential; the Palestine National Authority is a quisling, and Tony Blair is a peacock. Even Hamas takes a few hits, emerging as a nasty, misogynist body, intent on crushing the human spirit (particularly unendearing is its burning of sports facilities built for girls).
But the author’s all-guns approach isn’t wholly successful. The polemic sections sometimes emerge in an angry rush, and aren’t always necessarily fair. For example, Murphy omits to mention that –– much to Israel’s fury — David Cameron was very publicly denouncing Gaza as ‘a prison’ in June 2010, almost a year before she does.
For my money Murphy is still at her best as a travel writer, not a pamphleteer. Her account of her journey stands by itself as compelling and eloquent testimony to the iniquity of Gaza. It will be hard to forget her descriptions of Israel’s monstrous military apparatus, or of the wounds caused by white phosphorus (still smouldering, and sickly-smelling). We should all read this book, and remind ourselves that, between the brutal, faceless factions there are people, battered and bullied but otherwise just like us.
Not everyone will appreciate this book, although if it ever reaches the corridors of power Murphy will enjoy the irritation it causes. She, after all, now sees herself as predominantly an activist. Meanwhile, for those who love her travels (like me), it’s thrilling to hear that she’ll soon be on the road again, sniffing out injustice and keeping just one step ahead of trouble.