A land rich in history and in archaeological finds (often hidden under the sand or under the refugee camps), Gaza used to be one of the busiest crossroads in the Near East. The al-Aqsa Intifada has marked a new development in the struggle against occupation. As usual, the repression has been brutal, the violence daily and of all types. One extremely serious consequence of the Israeli reaction is that more than 70% of the working population of the Gaza Strip has been prevented from working.
On September 12, 2005, Israeli troops concluded the much-anticipated process of evacuating their soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip. The so-called ‘disengagement’ took place under the sympathetic lens of some 5000 journalists from around the world and adorned then prime minister Ariel Sharon with the title ‘man of peace.’ Palestinians argued it had only Israeli interests in mind and was part of a larger plan aimed at consolidating the Israeli government’s grip over the West Bank and Jerusalem while divesting itself of its responsibility for Gaza. Prior to the disengagement, while much of the Western world lauded Sharon’s ‘brave’ move, Palestinian economic experts cautioned that unless access was guaranteed by Israel for people and goods in and out of the Gaza Strip, the disengagement was doomed to fail and catastrophe would reign over the Palestinian economy and society. The initial days following the Israeli pull-out saw an atmosphere of euphoria throughout Gaza. Tearful reunions could be seen all along the Rafah border to the south, where families had been divided by the Israeli barrier dividing the city in two since 1967, drawing comparisons with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Palestinians basked in a short-lived freedom they had been denied for so long, taking the day off to tour the remains of the evacuated colonies, which were up until that point off-limits to them, and the bane of their existence. But as predicted, the aftermath was utterly disastrous for Palestinians. It soon became clear that Gaza had become nothing more than the world’s largest open-air prison. Though internal checkpoints had been lifted, and the settlements evacuated, all of Gaza’s borders, air space, offshore maritime access, and population and birth registry – and thus identification and travel permits – remained under Israeli control. Thus, despite its claim that it was no longer occupying Gaza, Israel did not relinquish control over the territory, but rather removed some elements of control while tightening others. The occupation simply became more advanced and the control more invisible.
However, by maintaining that it was no longer occupying Gaza, Israel effectively evaded its responsibilities (as prescribed under international law) for the welfare of the occupied population. To aggravate matters, attempts to facilitate Palestinian trade and movement after the disengagement (the Agreement on Movement and Access – AMA) were never fully implemented, with Israelis continuing to deny Palestinians control over the Rafah crossing and shutting down Gaza’s commercial crossings the majority of the time, despite promises not to do so. In January 2006, Hamas’ “Change and Reform Party” swept the legislative polls in a stunning election victory, changing the face of Palestinian politics for the first time in decades. The polls were hailed worldwide as the first truly democratic elections in the Arab Middle East, and judged to be fair and transparent by local, regional and international monitoring bodies. Nevertheless, the US-led Middle East Quartet announced a boycott of the nascent government and the Government of Israel stopped the transfer of Palestinian tax revenues amounting to some $52 million a month, leaving over a quarter of the population employed by the public sector without a source of income. In addition, a number of donor countries, including the USA, the European Union, Canada and Japan, halted financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor John Dugard, it was the first time in history that economic sanctions had been imposed on an occupied people (Report of the Special Rapporteur, 5 September 2006). The situation further deteriorated when Israel hermetically sealed the Gaza Strip, and bombed its only power plant after the capture of one of its soldiers by Palestinian gunmen. Human rights groups condemned the attack as an act of war. Since that time power has remained intermittent in Gaza, with each neighbourhood given a ration of power for only a few hours at a time. In June 2007, after numerous attempts at creating a unity government were sabotaged, Hamas consolidated its grip on the Gaza Strip, driving out forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party in a pre-emptive strike aimed at averting an American financed and armed coup. Details of the US involvement in what were dubbed ”the Palestinian contras” were revealed gradually in various Middle Eastern newspapers and conclusively in leaked classified US documents and an American magazine (“the Palestine Papers”) in early 2008. Since that time, Israel and the international community has attempted to isolate Hamas. The Israeli government has declared Gaza a “hostile entity,” clearing the way for it to take extreme measures against it, such as preventing the shipment of fuel, preventing fishermen from fishing further than two nautical miles from the Gazan shore and cutting off electricity. It has been the people of Gaza, not the Hamas government, who have suffered the most at the hands of this bankrupt policy. These policies reached a climax in December 2008, when Israel launched “Operation Cast Lead” which was universally condemned as being totally disproportionate to any attacks by crude rockets launched at the Negev by Gazan militants. Various commissions of inquiry, including the damning Goldstone Report, reported on the many war crimes committed, including use of white phosphorus, collective punishment of an entire community, and incidents where entire families were killed in extremely dubious circumstances.
Things to see
The Old City
Although nothing antique remains of the city, the layout of Gaza gives you a good idea of what it was like. The centre of Gaza City is located on an enormous mound from which you can easily see the Old City’s defined limits. Still, the Old City holds some surprises even if its remains often seem lost today in the middle of poor, run-down constructions.
The er-Radwan Fortress
Although there is no inscription indicating the date that this fortress was built, the ornaments on the main entrance are definitely in the style of Mameluke architecture.
The al-Omari Mosque or Great Mosque
Local tradition has it that this was the site of the Temple of Dagon which Samson, tied to its columns, pulled down on the faithful Philistines and himself. Other places of worship were built on the spot; one of these was the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This cathedral was converted into a mosque after the victory of Saladin in the late 10th century. Its library, at the time of Mameluke Sultan Baybar, contained more than 20,000 volumes, a precious cultural heritage. In 1917, the mosque was damaged by British shelling, to be restored by the Islamic High Council in 1926.
St. Porphyrius Church
This church was built in the 5th century by order of Bishop Porphyrius, then Bishop of Maioumas (the port of Gaza), and later Bishop of Gaza itself, between 395 AD and 420 AD. The plan and foundations of the church date from this time. The western entrance, cross-vaults and flying buttresses date from the Crusader period and the most recent restorations date from the 19th century. The bilingual Greek and Arabic inscriptions, above the north entrance, dates back to restoration work undertaken in March 1856. The church belongs to the small Christian community of the Greek Orthodox Church. Saint Porphyrius, buried in the cemetery next to the church, was a staunch supporter of the decision of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius to forbid pagan religious worship. Bishop Porphyrius closed Gaza’s pagan holy sites and ordered the destruction of the Temple to Zeus Marnas (Marneion), the revered god of Gaza, which put an end to pagan Graeco-Roman worship in Gaza. The Temple to Zeus is thought to have been on the site of the Great Mosque, and not under St. Porphyrius Church. Next to the church you will find the Khatib al-Wilaya Mosque, dating from the Mameluke dynasty.
Thanks to its beautiful, polished marble floors, the Hammam, or Turkish baths, may be dated to the end of the Mameluke period. The entrance to these public baths is three metres below the present street level.
The Said Hashem Mosque
This mosque was erected in 1850 (on the site of a 12th century edifice) near the tomb of Hashem Ibn Abd al-Munaf, grandfather of the prophet Mohammed. It is a reminder of the ancient ties between Arabia and Gaza, the Mediterranean outlet for products from the Arabian Peninsula. Bombed by British forces, the mosque was restored by the Islamic High Council at the beginning of the 1920s.
Wadi Gaza Nature Reserve
Seven kilometres south of Gaza City and bordered by two refugee camps, Wadi Gaza is the only natural wetlands area in the Gaza Strip. It is also a resting place for rare species of migratory and non-migratory birds. An internationally supported, locally-based project has been launched in an effort to protect this area of outstanding natural beauty and create the first Palestinian nature reserve. There are already bird viewing stations and walking paths set up. Unfortunately, the project has been temporarily suspended since Hamas’ election to power in 2006. And with many sewage treatment plans no longer working as a result of the economic boycott and Israeli blockade, the wadi has become something of a sewage dump, pouring directly into the sea.
The Byzantine site of Umm Amir
The ruins here cover some two acres, constituting a group of church buildings and a monastery, which includes a chapel, baptistery, burial crypt and the monk’s cells. To the north, a steam bath (hammam) and its annexes complete the site. At the periphery, an encircling wall protected the monastery from all intrusion. Several figurative and geometrical mosaics decorate the floors. The finds are presumed to date from the fourth to the eighth century AD, while construction of the monastery is attributed to St. Hilarion. Following an earthquake, the site was abandoned and used as a stone quarry by the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages.
Khan Younis is the second largest urban centre after Gaza City. The town, including Khan Younis and al-Amal refugee camps, has more than 130,000 residents. It received its name from Emir Younis Ibn Ala’en-Nawruzi, who in 1387 AD built a huge caravanserai or khan (inn for caravans) here on the route between Cairo and Damascus; its southern façade is still preserved, 60 metres long and 10 metres high. This fortified town was also an important commercial centre, with a post office and military barracks, earning it the name “Qala’a” (fortress).
The gateway between Egypt and Asia, Rafah has always been a busy commercial centre but also a strategic point for armies. Antony and Cleopatra were married here in the 1st Century BC. Ruins are numerous here, but buried deep under the sand dunes. Today, the town (or, to be exact, the Rafah Refugee Camp) extends along both sides of the border with Egypt. When the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Sinai were occupied in 1967, several thousand Palestinian refugees were deported to Sinai and the camp was enlarged on the Egyptian side. In 1978, the Camp David agreements returned the Sinai, occupied since 1967, back to Egypt. The re-establishment of this border imposed a new separation on the Palestinian population, with thousands more people again cut off from their relatives.
People to meet
The French Cultural Centre: it is a place for cultural exchange and social gatherings. There are regular photography and painting exhibitions as well as conferences, seminars or talks. There is also a cafeteria where one may meet francophone Palestinians as well as non- French speakers. People are eager for news of the outside world and happy to answer your questions about life in the Gaza Strip.
The Artists and Crafts Village: The centre contains an art gallery and handicraft workshops, which offer high quality articles for sale. Don’t miss the highly agreeable Café Abu Nawwas in the complex.
Al-Mat’haf: For years, archaeology in Palestine has been mostly ignored because the government and the people have had bigger issues to deal with. Al Mat’haf (Arabic for ‘museum’) is a newly-built restaurant on Gaza’s seafront, housing the first museum in the Palestinian territories. Located in the north-west part of Gaza, the restaurant/museum is built on an area of 4500 square metres, including the museum, restaurant, coffee shop, and children’s playground. The owners say that, in the context of competing claims of ownership to the land, archaeological evidence is vital in proving that Palestinians historically belong to this region. The museum thus displays ancient Palestinian and Gazan artefacts that stress the Palestinian identity of Gaza and Palestine.
Rashad Shawwa Cultural Centre: The first cultural centre to be built in Palestine, the Rashad Shawwa Cultural Centre is one of Gaza City’s most prominent structures. The design’s commissioning was initiated by the late Rashad Shawa (1909-1988), Mayor of Gaza, in his capacity as president and founder of the Benevolent Society for the Gaza Strip which acted as patron to the project. The centre has facilities for seminars, lectures, conferences, art exhibitions, as well as theatre performances and a cinema. It also houses Gaza City’s largest library, the Diana Tamari Sabbagh library, hosting an impressive collection of some 100,000 books, videos, and CDs, including historical texts of local importance. The Centre was originally designed to cater to the cultural needs of the population of Gaza, in the words of Rashad Shawwa himself: “because they suffered total isolation from the world community and endured an occupation designed to erode their cultural heritage and national identity.” Sadly, almost two decades on, not enough has changed in this regard.
The Islamic University: The Islamic University was the first higher education institution to be established in Gaza. It began with just three faculties in 1978 and has since expanded to include eight, including Masters programmes. All other higher education, particularly medical school, must be done via video-conferencing in conjunction with West Bank and Jerusalem universities, since there is an Israeli-imposed travel ban on students from Gaza. In its chaotic surroundings, the University is an oasis of calm and order: complete with marble flooring, polished pillars, impeccable offices, and state-of-the art technology, this is Gaza’s premier educational institution. Unfortunately, it has for the most part been boycotted by donor agencies, NGOs, and even other educational institutions abroad, following Hamas’ electoral victory.
Al-Tawfiq Co-operative Society of Fishermen: There are 5,000 members of the co-operative including 2,700 fishermen and 450 boat owners. The association offers several services to its members, including provision of nets, gas, ice, refrigerated vehicles and boat maintenance. Before the al-Aqsa Intifada, the co-operative took care of 30% of its members’ living expenses and offered loans for boat maintenance. Today, families earn less than $100 a month, compared to around $450 in the year 2000, before the Intifada. Occupation authorities have forbidden deep-sea fishing in international waters, so catches are small. Now, fishermen cannot go out further than two nautical miles and have seen the area they can fish much reduced since the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada. Israeli naval aggressions are numerous and often take the form of stopping fishing boats at sea, arrests of fishermen under the pretext that they have gone out too far, and confiscation of boats and destruction of equipment.
Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC): Here, one can go on an organised visit to discover rural Gaza and learn about the problems specific to farming: water scarcity, both in quantity and quality, difficulties related to export of produce, and destruction of infrastructure.
Democracy & Workers Rights Centre in Palestine (DWRC): The centre is an important source of information on labour law adopted by the Palestinian Authority and on violations of the rights of Palestinian workers in the Occupied Territories and in Israel, where they are the most vulnerable. The most frequent violations concern non-payment of job dismissal compensation and the practical impossibility for workers to collect the social benefits deducted from their salaries. The DWRC provides support for Palestinian workers, providing legal assistance in the case of court actions made against Israeli employers, and helps to obtain permits to enable workers to attend court hearings in Israel. The DWRC is also waging a general campaign on the issue of the infringement of workers’ rights.
Atfaluna Society for Deaf Children: The society offers academic education in their school for over 250 deaf children, vocational training and literacy for deaf adults, community hearing screening, and clinical audiology, among other services. They also have one of the most unique crafts workshops in the Gaza Strip, specialising in hand-crafted products, such as hand-painted mugs, embroidered handbags, and wooden key holders, all made by deaf women and men. Purchases (in store or on their website) help provide jobs and much needed hope for hundreds of needy deaf persons and their families.
Qattan Centre for the Child: Most of Gaza’s children are raised in extremely difficult conditions that affect their well-being and upbringing, and often prevent them from pursuing any meaningful process of individual self-development. The Qattan Centre for the Child in Gaza City aims to change that. An independent children’s library and information centre, it aims to improve the cultural, social, educational, and psychological environment for a large section of the Gaza Strip’s child population. Built by the philanthropic Palestinian Qattan Foundation on a piece of land contributed by the city’s municipality, the centre includes a comprehensive library featuring more than 82,000 volumes (available free of charge), children’s learning materials, an information technology unit, an exhibition centre, and halls for training and recreational events.
Places to Eat
There are a number of café-restaurants along the beach. Some have straw roofs, which make them particularly charming. Almost all serve fish and have water pipes (nargilas or shishas) for their customers. Popular restaurants are numerous and inexpensive.
For an excellent eat-in or take-away hummus and food restaurant, try Akeela on al-Wihda Street, not far from the intersection of al-Jalaa Street, and parallel to Omar al-Moukhtar.
Ma’touq Restaurant: Near the Square of the Unknown Soldier, on Omar al-Moukhtar Street, one can eat excellent traditional food.
Al-Deira: Built on the seashore in traditional sun-dried brick, is a first class hotel and restaurant, and its prices correspond. Its cuisine is amongst the best in Gaza: its fish, squid and fresh shrimp are highly recommended.
Haifa Restaurant: While they specialize in Italian food, their seafood is equally delicious – particularly their calamari and shrimp dishes.
Abu Nawwas café
Kathem’s Booza (ice cream café). Located on one of Gaza City’s busiest intersections on Omar al-Mukhtar Street, Kathem’s has been a local favourite since its opening in 1953. Its traditional Arabic ice cream is available in basic flavours such as cream, chocolate, berry, and mixed fruit.
Where to Sleep
There are several hotels in the three-star category on the beachfront in Rima.
Adam Hotel er-Rashid Street
Palestine Hotel er-Rashid Street,
Al-Quds International Hotel er-Rashid Street
Hotel al-Deira er-Rashid Street
Marna House Ahmed Abdel Aziz Street
Dana Motel in central Gaza City, Omar al-Mukhtar Street