On the Ground in Gaza

Palestinians wait for coupons to receive monthly food supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency at a warehouse in the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City.
AP Photo

Crossing from Israel into Gaza at the first Hamas checkpoint - where a guard takes my picture and thumbs through my passport - a notice hangs on the wall, more prominent than the "No Smoking" signs next to it:

Ministry of Interior

To prevent all forms of liquor are confiscated immediately and destroyed and poured out in front of their owners.

Thank you for cooperation

It hadn't been there the last time I visited more than three years ago before the Islamic movement Hamas was elected to govern. Despite the fractured syntax, the general point was clear: alcohol is unwelcome. But the missing word or words left some ambiguity. Precisely what is being prevented? An insult to religious custom? A legal infraction? Drunkenness? And what's the point of the "poured out in front of their owners" part? A demonstration of the guard's integrity? Humiliation of the alcohol-bearing infidel?

Visiting Gaza requires a certain tolerance for ambiguity.

I crossed the border a few days ago with an articulate and well-informed Norwegian aid worker who gave me some context for my visit. I asked him about Israel's claim, backed up by a stack of statistics, that its blockade of Gaza has not created a "humanitarian crisis" in the Palestinian enclave. He said the phrase is an inaccurate description of Gaza's troubles, and that "human crisis" better describes them: There aren't starving children with swollen bellies and primary medical care is adequate, but there's a whole economy that's being strangled, he said, and Gaza is being "undeveloped."

My visit was on Friday, the Sabbath, so in the short window allowed me by Israel's limited opening of the border crossing, I found the streets weren't traffic-jammed and it was easy to move around. The black-uniformed Hamas police seemed relaxed. My Gazan colleague and guide said I didn't have to worry about crime and I could leave just about anything in the car; it wouldn't be stolen. What about physical security, I asked, kidnapping or gun battles or even rocket fire from Israel?

"I think there's no problem," he told me, then qualified that. "I think there's no problem today." That gave me the impression it's a little like the weather, best understood by locals, and I'd stumbled on a good day.

The Feras Market was certainly booming. Locally grown produce is abundant and cheap. A kilo of the most beautiful ripe tomatoes cost 2 shekels, about fifty cents. A dollar buys 15 ears of corn. I couldn't help but think it's great to be a vegetarian in Gaza. However the U.N. calculates that some 70 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million people earn only about a dollar a day.

There's evidence supporting Israel's claim it has relaxed some restrictions on the passage of goods. On the street there were stacks of timber from Finland. There's glass to replace shattered windows. But cement and iron building materials to repair bomb-damaged housing and hospitals are still strictly limited, or banned. Israel's explanation is that those materials could be used to make bombs and rockets.

I saw kids on a donkey cart collecting rubble from bombed buildings. They sell it to be reprocessed into cinderblock. As building materials, they're not very durable, and crumble easily. But apparently building codes aren't too strict.

One section of a market was full of used shoes. A merchant told me that tons of used shoes from Israel have recently poured into Gaza, though an Israeli Defense Forces spokesman I later contacted could not explain why. He said there's never been a ban on exporting used shoes to Gaza.

In any case, the going price for a pair of previously owned Nikes was about $20. New shoes were available, too, for about four times that price. They come from Egypt.

The network of tunnels under the Egyptian border at Rafah keeps Gaza going and everyone knows it. They certainly carry all the stuff industrial society uses and with money there's not much you can't get in Gaza.

Even cars. I met a man with a 2010 Skoda sedan who did the math for me. His new car would've cost him $18,000 in Germany or $30,000 if he bought it on the West Bank. Delivered to him by tunnel from Egypt, he paid $50,000 for it plus a $10,000 licensing fee imposed by Hamas. It's understood the tunnels supply Hamas with at least some of the weapons that Israel's naval blockade is supposed to keep out. The business through the tunnels also provides Hamas with a revenue stream.

There are so many diesel generators on the streets, their din is the national music of Gaza. And the fuels from Egypt are smuggled in, partly because any fuel that does come in from Israel tends to be more expensive.

I met a 36-year-old Gaza-born woman who lived in New Jersey for several years and moved back to Gaza in 2005 when the Israelis moved out. She explained she wanted her four children to know about life where she grew up. She works as a translator and schoolteacher.

Her house has running water, though it's undrinkable. When the electricity stops, which is every day, the water runs only until a tank on the roof runs dry. The Mazola oil and Kellogg's Corn Flakes in her kitchen come from Egypt via the tunnels. The propane gas for her stove comes from Israel but the tanks needed to store it are smuggled in from Egypt.

She can buy shampoo (she pointed out Israelis ban the export to Gaza of shampoo with conditioner; no one seems able to explain this). She can find deodorant and other familiar cosmetics. After sitting in the sun for six days or six weeks at Egypt's border or Israel's while smugglers or bureaucrats decide its fate, it doesn't smell the way it should, she says.

We chatted in the garden outside her Gaza home and imagined an Israeli woman who could be sitting a few miles away in her garden, angry and in fear of rockets from Gaza. She was sympathetic but unimpressed. She said the Israeli rockets and missile fire she'd endured were probably a lot more powerful and frightening. Anyway, she felt she had no power to influence events on either side of the border. And the flotilla of aid ships, she said, wasn't carrying enough aid to make a difference in the lives of most Gazans; she said it was simply carrying a message.

What would be her own message, I asked, about what you need to survive in Gaza? "Ingenuity," she said. "And hope."