Visiting Gaza

16. May 2010 - 26. May 2010

A report by Peter Voss

This is a report on a visit to Gaza that took place between May 16 and May 26, 2010. I reached Gaza through Egypt via the Rafah crossing. Due to delays during entering and leaving and to one day of sickness, the effective time I spent in Gaza was only five days.

Initially this trip was to take place as part of the Gaza Freedom March activity initiated by Codepink at the end of Dec. 2009, where 1400 people were to meet in Cairo to travel to Gaza in order to participate in the Freedom March in the Northern end of the Gaza strip. The whole group was expected to stay in Gaza for four days, during which various visits and activities were planned. A group of about hundred participants applied for an extension of one week. These people were intended to be free in their activities, one day a school visit was suggested. I was part of this group and had made up my mind that I would just travel around and film the Gaza strip from one end to the other and leave other activities to decide about as they came up during the meetings with the other participants.

Unfortunately the Gaza Freedom March fell through. Only a few could enter Gaza under rather unpleasant circumstances, being very restricted in their movements.

Completely unexpectedly, though, my trip to Gaza was initiated during my stay in Cairo.

Before I start describing my trip I would like to give some basic description on the

Geography, the political conditions and the living conditions in the Gaza strip.

The Gaza strip is a narrow piece of land on the Mediterranian with an area of 360 square kilometers. During the summer of 2010 the German Wikipedia listed about 2,045,000 inhabitants for 2010, but later reduced to 1,482,000, i.e. about 1.5 million, a figure that is probably to low. It corresponds to about 240 square meters per person and 4200 persons per square kilometer, respectively. For comparison I would like to mention the respective statistics for Munich. Munich has an area of 310 square kilometers with approximately 1,330,000 citizens, i.e. there are about 230 square meters per person and 4300 persons per sqaure kilometer, respectively. When one compares the satellite images of both places one notices significant differences. Munich has a densely build up center city. Further outside there are some densely populated areas, also industrial sections, but largely residential areas with gardens, and at the city limits there are also some fields. Gaza has several cities and towns and a number of refugee camps that show up due to their smaller and more densely packed houses. Between these are spaces of agricultural land and empty spaces where the Israeli settlements used to be. The often quoted high population density is not so obvious. It takes place in the living quarters where many inhabitants must often virtually sit on top of each other.

In 2005 Israel removed the settlements from the Gaza strip, but installed a tight control on Gaza. It signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority called the Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) that, e.g., was to regulate the traffic between Gaza and the Westbank and  between Gaza and Egypt at the Rafah crossing, where a European police force was installed (see evaluated data). The AMA also stipulated that by the end of 2006 the crossings should be able to handle an export from Gaza of 4000 trucks during a two week period, i.e. of approximately 330 trucks per day. These numbers were never reached. Today they are close to zero. Up until the end of 2009 the UN published AMA reports, but stopped because they had become pretty meaningless. Israel installed a blockade of the Gaza strip as the violent exchange across the border increased with the years, incursions and bombings from the Israeli side, rockets and mortar grenades from the Palestinian side (rockets).

A one and a half year one-sided cease-fire by Hamas was not honored by Israel. The relations deteriorated when Hamas won the democratic elections in 2006, when the Israeli soldier Shalit was captured by militant groups the same year and in particular when Hamas after a long period of violence expelled the security forces controlled by Fatah from Gaza and became the sole ruling party in Gaza. An alternative government under prime minister Fayyad was installed in the Westbank. The supply to Gaza from Israel was reduced to the absolute minimum, even pasta and potatoes were not allowed in for a long time. At the same time the violent exchanges increased, incursions and bombings from the Israeli side, rockets and mortar grenades from the Palestinian side, but with very different results. In March 2008 one Palestinian was killed for every rocket flying into Israel, one hundred in total. Almost 400 Palestinian were killed in Gaza in the first half of 2008, whereas there were no fatilities on the Israeli side (rockets and dead 2008), pdf).

On June 18, 2008, an inofficial cease fire went into effect between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza. The agreement was that the militant groups in Gaza would stop the rocket attacks while Israel would ease the blockade. The number of rockets went down to one in October 2008, however, except for some deliveries of gravel and bulk cement there was no change in the blockade(see AMA evaluation). As was very recently mentioned in the Israeli press, missing attacks on Israel pose a "propaganda problem" for Israel. Probably for that reason Israel started a military excursion into the Gaza strip, killing six Palestinians on Nov. 4, 2008, the day of the U.S.-American elections, presumably in order to destroy a tunnel that could have been used for a raid into Israeli territory. As could be predicted, a shower of rockets rained down on Israel the next day, which in turn gave Israel the justification for further attacks and a reduction of the supplies into Gaza to a level below 7 % of the normal level for basic supplies (see diagram, pdf).

On Dec. 18, 2008, the cease fire ran out officially. For a continuation Israel offered to raise the supply level again to 20 % of the normal level, an offer that was inacceptable for the Hamas government and therefore the hostilities continued. On Dec. 27 Israel started the operation 'Cast Lead' that lasted for three weeks and was claimed to be aimed at stopping the rocket attacks from Gaza. 1400 Gazans, mostly civilians, were killed, thousands of houses destroyed or damaged (13 Israelis were killed, 3 civilians and 10 soldiers, four of them by one 'friendly fire'-tank shell). After the attack for more than a year no glass was allowed in for the reconstruction. There is still only a fraction of the supply of glass that is needed. Some cement has reached Gaza under the supervision of the UN, but even if all the transport capacities could be used it will take years to bring what is needed to rebuild what was destroyed (Washington Post).

For a long time the number of items that Israel would allow into Gaza was limited to 40, about 1 % of  what used to be normal. Only lately pasta and potatoes were allowed in. A recent article in the Washington Post reports that margarine is brought in only in small household packages. Larger buckets of margarine could be used for commercial purposes, would lead to employment and therefore have to be prevented.
Eighty percent of the population in Gaza are dependent on external help which is supplied when their income level falls below the $ 2/per person and day limit. The UN supplies food packages that are high on carbohydrates: flour, rice, legumes, sugar, as well as oil and some canned meat.

Virtually everything that is not supplied from Israel, from cigarettes to new cars, can be obtained through the tunnel economy from Egypt, though. The supermarkets are well stocked, but hardly anybody can buy the basic supplies (I collected prices only for very few items; see part 2 (there also an interview with a shopkeeper) and part 6). Naturally these items cause extra costs. Building the tunnels is very expensive, work in the tunnels is very dangerous (Israel bombs them regularly), one of the major sources of income for the Hamas government apparently is the customs dues levelled on everything coming in this way. It also seems to be a very profitable business for a small group of enterpreneurs. Gasoline from Egypt is significantly cheaper (but of lesser quality) than gasoline from Israel and – judging from the traffic density - seems to be available in sufficient amounts.

There is, however, a very significant undersupply of fuel for the power stations, which in turn also affects the water works (This undersupply is apparently at least partly due to an internal Palestinian quarrel about who is going to pay the bill for the fuel; AP, Karin Laub, "Longer blackouts for Gaza, as politicians quarrel"). Power shortages of 12 hours per day are not unusual, there may be no water supply for days.
The water situation in Gaza is particularly severe also with respect to the quality of the water.
I was fortunate to obtain a video interview with one of the head managers of the water works in Gaza. I also had interviews with experts on the building sector and on the health sector (see main page). As I will elaborate further on, in my eyes the water problem is the worst of all the problems Gaza has.

A fairy tale
My trip to Gaza started out like a fairy tale. So if you have retained some belief in fairy tales you can follow me into my story which goes like this:
Once there was a little old lady in a far away country called Egypt. She had retreated from the world and lived on a small artifical oasis in the desert outside the big city of Cairo. There she spent her days being pretty bored since she was pretty much cut off from the outside world. She had little elf messengers. But these days elves are extremely small, talk only with high-pitched voices that hardly anybody can hear and most people don't even see them. She had not mentioned their existence to me, but when one of them landed on my thumb I immediately realized what it was.
I had not seen the lady for more than 40 years and when I happened to be in Cairo at the turn of the year I decided to visit her. She was very delighted. And when I told her how difficult it was get into Gaza, she decided to help me.
The support of a lady with elves is nice to have, but in these days one also needs helpers from the real world. My helper was not very eager to have this role, because he felt my expedition was utterly ridiculous under the given circumstances. But when it turned out that he was not the only one who felt that way he apparently took that as a challenge and managed to get me in and out of Gaza and he was even willing to have me visit him afterwards.

Planning the trip
Originally the planning of the trip was relatively simple. I would have been part of the Gaza Freedom March where everything was planned by the organisation for the first four days and where about one hundred people were to stay a week longer, who certainly would have had unlimited ideas on how the time could be spent in Gaza, e.g. spending a day in a school as was suggested already ahead of time.

Now I suddenly was all by myself and had to arrange everything alone. I should mention at this point that I am 71 years old; I am a physicist by profession. From my active days I am well accustomed to work with computers, and from my work within the Munich peace movement I am also accustomed to editing video documentations and to putting them into the internet.

Already during the preparation for the Gaza Freedom March I had made up my mind that I would try to stay alone most of the time and just travel through the Gaza strip from one end to the other and document what the landscape of Gaza actually looks like.
This time I stuck to this intention. I was told by the Egytian authorities that I had a permit for one week (though I did not get anything in writing), from a Sunday until a Saturday and I was so naive to assume that this would give me more than five days to spend in Gaza.

At some time during the preparation I got the idea to take a folding bicycle along. Distances in Gaza are such that one should be able to travel from one end to the other in one day. However, since there would probably be many stops in between this was not the goal.
I took a small video camera plus a 'single'-pod and a small normal camera along, also as a last minute acquisition, a new mobile phone with a strong battery and GPS-capability. There are, however, no GPS maps for Gaza, but I could write down the coordinates of the locations where I was. With one exception this worked quite well, though I could only check afterwards, whether I had been at the places were I had intended to be, which was not always the case. But at least I knew.

As far as I know there exists no detailed map of the Gaza strip. When in Gaza I learned that there is a map of Gaza City, but I never saw it. Already for the first trip I had prepared myself a map from five individual UN- (UNOSAT-) maps showing the locations of the destroyed or heavily damaged buildings. It was pretty detailed and quite useful. It did not do me much good, though, when I lost my orientation, because most Palestinians, including taxi drivers, are not accustomed to reading a map and therefore were not of much help.

For the report on my trip I will also use another UN-Map that has a better overview of the no-go zones enforced by the Israeli military in Gaza (s. also additional information: high risk area) and a satellite map adapted from Google maps.
All these maps are turned by about 42 degrees, so that the shore line which was the main orientation reference for me, was more or less vertical. The 'north'-direction hence was actually north-east.
  GazaDestruct GazaMap2GazaSatSatellite map has 28 MB! 

My description of the trip will branch out in several directions. The basic line will be a day by day description of my activities. Whenever appropriate I will include some photos. Since I was using the video camera almost exclusively, these photos were taken from video clips and therefore are of relatively mediocre quality (1280x720 pixels, unfortunately not the maximum possible resolution, often not the optimum focussing setting and too much movement), but many of these shots I would have missed with a normal camera.
Whenever the video seems to transmit additional information, I will link the video. At particular points of interest I will also have links to 'destruction' maps and/or satellite maps showing that area.

Travel conditions
As mentioned before I had counted on having a block of more than 5 days to travel around in Gaza. This assumption did not work out, because I lost one day during entrance and another day because I got very sick at my stomach the second day. Therefore I had to rearrange my plans for a three-day-stay which meant that instead of discovering the landscape by bike I had to use taxis. In some cases this had the advantage that the taxi drivers indicated points of interest to me that I otherwise would have missed. Even when one taxi driver got lost, this turned out to provide some unexpected information.
I then learned that I could not leave the day I had planned (Saturday) and not the next day either, but that I had two full extra days. Thus, I basically had my five days at the end, but with a completely mixed up schedule. On the last day I actually went on a three hour bike ride.

In the following I will give a day by day account of  my undertakings, but will also have special topics backed by the interviews and/or video material.

Continuation in part 2        Back to contents page