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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

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Abeja Journeys Into the Prison-Like
World of Gaza City

January 29, 2000

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Somewhere between a rock and a hard place... walking in Nomansland at the border

OK, I admit, I was a little bit nervous this time. I've crossed 25 borders since the Odyssey began a year ago, but this one was weird and surreal. I wished that someone else had come along with me. For such a small piece of land-only 40 kilometers long and as thin as 6 kilometers wide in places-the Gaza Strip has a big reputation for poverty and violence. Despite the complete kindness of all the Palestinians I've met so far, the TV images of men with their faces hidden by kafiyyah, the traditional headscarf worn by Palestinian men, and throwing molatov cocktails still weighs heavy in my mind. This is where the uprising, the intifada, began in 1987.

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The black and white Kafiyyah is the traditional headdress for Palestinian men.
The black and white Kafiyyah is the traditional headdress for Palestinian men.

Gaza City has been an important crossroads for travelers and traders between the Levant, The Negev desert, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Mediterranean, ever since the times of the Pharaohs. But it was 1948, when 200,000 Palestinian refugees flooded into this tiny strip of land, that its current situation began, and the border became defined by armies and razor wire. The West Bank was annexed by Jordan in 1948, and the Gaza Strip became part of Egypt. As you know because you read the Odyssey webpage, the 1967 War brought the Gaza Strip, the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights under the control of Israel.


Since then, instead of being a place where people passed through on their travels, the Gaza Strip has become more like an overcrowded prison, whose inmates, sentenced without trial, cannot come or go as they please. Until very recently, most people born in the Gaza after 1967 - which is about 1/2 the population - had never left this tiny strip of land. That's over 30 years, trapped in an area of 146 square miles - three times smaller than, say, the city of Los Angeles, which is 466 square miles. With one of the largest birthrates in the world, and a population that is sixty-five percent refugees; the Gaza Strip is bursting at the seams, and, without opportunities for commerce, it is extremely poor.

It was the kind of grey, overcast day when time seems to be stopped. After waiting hours for the shared "service taxi" to fill up in Arab East Jerusalem, I finally made the journey down, out of the hills, across the barren plains of the Northern Negev desert, and to the Erez checkpoint into the Gaza Strip.


aesthetically - having a sense of the beautiful; characterized by the love of beauty
burgeoning - growing
intifada - Arabic for "shaking off," the intifada is the name given to the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli population that began in 1987 in the Gaza Strip.
Levant - the lands bordering the eastern shores of the Maditerranean and Aegean seas, esp. Syria, Lebanon, and Israel
menial - basic work pertaining to manual labor proper to domestic servants; servile; boring and degrading work
surreal - like a dream

The taxi dropped me, alone, near the entrance marked "VIPs and foreigners," and continued on to the section reserved for Palestinians, marked "Safe Passage." I walked down the road to the first Israel guards, who checked my passports and pointed me on to the little building further down the desolate roadway. In every direction were barren wasteland, guards, and concrete walls. I felt like I was entering a prison.

Even though the Gaza Strip was the first piece of land given over to control by the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the checkpoint is still controlled by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). After having my passport checked - and getting commments on what a tattered state it is in, after so much Trekker-style travel - I was sent on my way.

It was a little confusing at first, so I just kept walking down the wide, nearly empty road between two huge concrete walls. It's not as if the Gaza gets many foreign visitors, I guess, and few of them are probably on foot like me. Behind the wall on my left side, in the direction where all the Palestinians went, I could hear people talking.

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The Palestinian guard checks my passport before I enter the Gaza strip

It was a relief to reach the other side and see people again. I got my passport checked by a man in a Palestinian uniform, with the Palestinian flag and a picture of Yasir Arafat behind the desk; then I found a shared taxi into Gaza City. From where I was, I could already look down towards the ocean and see a concrete jungle that stretched on forever.

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Who knew you could buy a pinata of Yassir Arafat in Gaza City?!

The Gaza Strip has three main towns, eight refugee camps, and twenty Israeli settlements (with a total of 4,000 Israelis). In the North, near the Erez checkpoint and Gaza City, the refugee camps and the city have sprawled out in every direction, and there is nothing to mark their boundaries. I sat in the front seat and stared in wonder at how different Gaza is. The streets are dirty and crowded, and there are donkey carts carrying everything from people to lumber. The concrete buildings look like they were thrown up quickly, and many don't have the top levels finished. They are not designed to be aesthetically pleasing, only functional.

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The children of Gaza strike a pose for the camera.

Walking through the crowded streets, I saw children everywhere: Playing soccer on one side street, driving a donkey cart over there, and crammed into taxis with their parents. It's one thing to know that a place has a high birth rate, it's another to actually see a dirty, crowded city packed full of children. Where are the parks? Where are the playgrounds?

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The old and the new blend together in Gaza City

Well, the Gaza does have a beach with a few nice hotels, but the tourist industry hasn't really taken off yet. There is not enough paid work for the burgeoning population. I've been told unemployment rates that range from twenty-five to sixty percent. That's a huge amount of the population sitting around with nothing to do. Most Gazans who do work are bussed into Israel proper, where they do menial labor for little pay. They are required to be back in the Gaza Strip by evening.

Other Gazans used to work for the Israeli settlers within the Gaza Strip, itself. Gazans are desperate for work, and the settlers took advantage of this cheap labor source to build their settlements, often paying the Palestinians $8-$12 a day for 8 hour days. Now, the Palestinian Authority is enforcing a boycott of all settlement work. It makes sense from a political standpoint - the Palestinians can't be insisting that the settlements stop expanding and, at the same time, be the ones building the new houses. But, when you have a big family and a lot of mouths to feed, any work is preferable to unemployment. Gaza really is stuck between a rock and a hard place!

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My front row view of the broken-down streets of Gaza

Seeing the realities of the Gaza Strip helps me understand WHY the intifada started here. In 1987, four Palestinians were killed by an Israeli settler in a car accident - which the Palestinians say was no accident. The funeral turned into a protest, which spread throughout the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Palestinians, by that time, had been cooped up in the Gaza Strip for 30 years, with almost no chance of leaving (even Egypt didn't allow them in), poor living conditions, few rights, and being the citizens of no legitimate state. They were fed up with Israeli occupation, and the protest took on a life of its own.

The City of Rafeh

When my parents and I first came to Israel from Egypt, we crossed on a bus full of Palestinians. We were the only people who spoke English at all! Everyone else was returning from Egypt bringing things like cigarettes and olive oil, and other things that are expensive in Israel and Palestine. But the main reason for their journey wasn't shopping, it was visiting their families.

As if being separated from the rest of the Palestinians in the West Bank weren't enough, residents of the town of Rafeh, in the Southern Gaza Strip, are separated from the rest of their own town! In 1982, when the Sinai peninsula was returned to Egypt, half of the town of Rafeh ended up on the Egyptian side of the border! For years, families could only speak by going to the fence and screaming across!

I guess with the peace process moving along, more Palestinians are being allowed to cross into Egypt to visit their families. The woman who sat next to me proudly showed off her Palestinian passport-something that didn't exist as little as 5 years ago! That was when I first realized that the Palestine I am visiting now has changed dramatically from the Palestine I visited during the intifada. Now, as we're preparing to leave this area, I hope that my next visit will show even more positive and peaceful change. Insha'allah (God willing)!

The uprising took Palestinian leaders, such as the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), by surprise, as much as it did the Israelis. The international media took notice of "the children of the stones" - young boys who had grown up under occupation, throwing stones at the heavily armed IDF. After years of being seen only as terrorists, the Palestinians now were being seen by the world in a new light, as victims rather than attackers.

In part because of the intifada, great advances have been made in the peace process and in the Palestinians achieving rights within their homeland. They still have a long way to go, but the change is evident now. When I visited the West Bank 10 years ago, during the intifada, there was a feeling of fear in the air. IDF soldiers were on every street corner, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian graffiti was sprayed on all the walls, and everyone I met had a father or brother in jail.

Today, everyone I meet tells me stories about "when I was in jail." They talk about classes that they either took or taught, such as English, French, Business, or the Koran. During the intifada, the Israeli jails were full of Palestinian intellectuals and students, and the schools and universities were often closed because the IDF thought they were organizing the intifada there. So the Palestinians spent their time in jail going to school!

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Waiting to cross into the holy land... but holy for whom?

Last October, Israel and the Palestinian Authority worked out something called the "Safe Passage," which allows Palestinians with a good security record to cross Israel to the West Bank during the day on special buses. They have to return in the evenings, and many men can't go, because they were in jail during the intifada. But, for many others, it has allowed them to leave the tiny Gaza Strip for the very first time in their lives! For the first 3 days, 1,200 Gazans a day went to the West Bank. Every day, 600-700 Gazans still make the trip. It's not a like a trip to New York or anything, but it's a step.

After a day of meeting people and wandering around Gaza City, I took a taxi back to the Erez crossing. Walking back through the no-mans-land, I could hear a huge crowd on the other side of the wall. On the Israeli side, I realized that what I heard was the busloads of Palestinians returning to Gaza across the safe passage at the end of the day, as well as workers who had day jobs within Israel. The buses and minivans just kept coming, and I watched hundred of Palestinians, (mostly men) arrive and enter the long corridor to go through the checkpoint.

Relevant Links
(from National Geographic; first person account with photos)
(factual and statistical information)
(describes the geography and climate of the West Bank and Gaza)

One of the mini-bus drivers offered me a ride into town, where I could catch a bus back to Jerusalem. "Hmm, I hadn't thought of how I'd get out of here!" I realized, and took him up on the offer. As the sun set and I rode away from the dreary Erez checkpoint, I realized how fortunate I am to be able to just leave the Gaza Strip, to have a US passport that is welcomed in most countries around the world. Alhumdillalah! (A common Arabic expression, the equivalent of "Hallelujah!" or "Praise be to God!")


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kevin - The Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier Part III: The War of Uncertainty
Kevin - Tomb of the Well-Known Soldier Part IV: Days of Reckoning
Team - The Politics of Thirst
Kavitha - Kavi Gets MAD With Art

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