Letter From Gaza

The Land of Cabin Fever

GAZA—“I would dig a tunnel to get to Moshe,” sighed my friend Gaynelle Kanafani, a stunning and vibrant American from Kentucky.

A lull in the cycle of violence provided an opportunity to dash down to Gaza to see Gaynelle and other friends, who are trapped inside by the Israeli closure. The Erez checkpoint, the only gate through the security fence that separates Israel from Gaza, was deserted.

“Palestinians can only exit Gaza at Erez if they are a humanitarian case with a medical problem,” said Captain Joseph Levy, an Israeli officer from New York. Exceptions include up to 8000 Palestinians who have permission to work inside Israel or at the industrial park just outside the checkpoint.

“Everyone else has to use Rafah to exit,” he said.

The problem with the dirty, stinky Rafah crossing at Gaza’s southern tip is: The lines are six hours long, and it goes straight into Egypt. Moshe is not in Egypt, he is a hairdresser in Jerusalem.

Israeli bureaucrats stubbornly refuse to accept that Gaynelle’s need of a haircut should qualify for a “humanitarian” exemption.

Gaynelle, 43, is married to Marwan Kanafani, a prominent Palestinian lawmaker and one of the leaders of the reform process. She moved to Gaza four days before the second Intifada began in September 2000. She had barely settled in when the gates slammed shut.

Today, Gaynelle, like several hundred other foreigners who hold Palestinian identity papers, has a bad case of cabin fever.

No wonder. Gaza, a narrow strip of land 26 miles long and about five miles wide, has a 1.2 million people—making it one of the most densely populated places on earth.

“I’m not working and the power failures make things hard,” Gaynelle said. “The restaurants used to be full and now they’re depressingly empty. The supermarkets used to be well stocked. No more.

“A big outing here is going down the street to smoke a water pipe,” she quipped. “And, how can you be bored when Israeli helicopters hover over you while you’re having dinner? That will give you an adrenaline rush!”

Ex-Chicagoan Geraldine Shawa, 59, has lived in Gaza for 31 years. The widow of a Palestinian, she has three kids in North America and one at home.

“After my husband died, I never considered going back to America,” she said. “This is my home; I’ve lived here longer than I lived in the U.S. I miss my children, but it’s important to do something meaningful with your life. Here, the needs are enormous.”

In 1992, Geraldine founded the Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children to help the unusually large number of Gazans suffering hearing loss.

“An estimated 20,000 people here have hearing loss,” she said. “Some of it is genetic, some stemS from middle-ear infections that were poorly treated, some cases were caused by meningitis.

“We have 200 kids in our academic school and 65 adults in vocational training,” she said.

“There is nothing to do in Gaza other than work,” she said. “If you want to take a walk or go for a drive, there is literally no place to go. I used to go to Tel Aviv once a month with a group of women. I could get out with my U.S. passport. We’d go shopping, have a nice lunch, go to bookshops or even see a movie. We would come back feeling refreshed and normal. That has all stopped.

“Those who could afford it have left for the U.S., Canada, or Jordan,” Geraldine added. “You don’t find a lot of people to visit these days.”

Gaynelle and Geraldine are not complaining. They know they’re much better off than the thousands of people who have been stuck in Gaza for the past 54 years. In 1948, 106,000 people, heeding the call of Arab leaders like Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said, fled to Gaza as invading Arab armies entered the new state of Israel.

“We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter,” Said promised. “The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.”

Most of those 1948 refugees expected to be back in their homes within a week. They are still waiting. Their numbers have swollen to 800,000. More than half live in the eight camps that UNRWA, the UN agency charged with caring for Palestinian refugees, runs in Gaza.

Salah Mousa, 67, is a muktar or elder at the Deir Al Balah refugee camp. He came to Gaza in 1948 with 10 members of his family. Today, that family group numbers more than 500. Salah Mousa’s contribution was 11 children and 56 grandchildren.

Huge families are the norm here. There are TV antennas on almost every house, but obviously the programming isn’t riveting.

Deir Al Balah is not your typical refugee camp. It is a town of 19,000 people with schools, clinics, cinderblock houses, markets, and even a bird shop. The nicest buildings are the mosques.

But the poverty is heart-wrenching. In some homes, 12 people sleep in the same room. Unemployment has skyrocketed to nearly 70 percent and UNRWA is feeding 127,000 families, or 630,000 people, more than half Gaza’s population.

“We used to feed only hardship cases,” said an UNRWA official. “That was about 6 percent of the refugee population. These days we have to feed 78 percent.”

Marwan Kanafani is 64 and bubbling with anger. A striking presence with his shock of white hair, he is a reform-minded member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

“We are sick and tired of the Israelis running our lives,” he said. “If I want to travel, I need their permission. Even the Legislative Council cannot meet in plenary because of the travel restrictions. The Intifada was caused by the daily humiliation the Israelis subject us to.”

Marwan said many Palestinians have lost “hope that we will ever have peace and live like normal people.”

“You say the Intifada has killed the left in Israel,” he said, sitting in his office courtyard to receive an endless line of needy constituents. “Well, Israeli policies have killed the Palestinian forces of moderation. Now, when I talk about moderation, no one wants to listen.”

Gazans point out that Palestinian militants and Islamic fundamentalists thrive on every Israeli act of cruelty—just as the Israeli right-wing is strengthened by every suicide bombing.

“People are getting reckless because they don’t have a lot to live for,” Geraldine said. “People are desperately poor, many are hungry. There’s no work here. No one can do business. People blame Israel, not Hamas, for their suffering.”

Islamic fundamentalists are becoming more dominant. Nearly every woman in Gaza is now veiled. And women, whether Arab or foreign, no longer dare to appear on the beach in a bathing suit.

“When things get tough people turn to God,” explained one Gaza resident. “Here, Hamas is God.”

“The big and powerful state of Israel has to take the initiative,” Geraldine insisted. “Israel has to show some good will.”

But Marwan Kanafani believes that Israelis and Palestinians have both “lost the ability to solve this ourselves.

“We need outside help,” he said. “We need the international community to do whatever it takes.”

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