(October 25, 2018 / MECRA)
In October, Laura Kelly spent several days in the Gaza Strip. She spoke to local NGOs, the United Nations and Gazans about the issues they face in 2018. This comes after six months of clashes and riots along the border with Israel in which more than 200 have been killed and thousands injured. Kelly spoke with Doctors Without Borders about the injuries they are seeing.
She also saw how daily life in Gaza, including the economy, has been struggling after more than a decade of Hamas rule. This includes locals who once worked abroad or studied for degrees that now seem impossible to use. With Gaza facing growing isolation from the Palestinian Authority and U.S. cuts to UNRWA funding, as well as constant fuel shortages, Kelly describes the internal situation, including stores stocked with goods but often empty of customers.
What follows are some of Kelly’s exclusive photos and an interview about her trip.
Tell me about Gaza
One of the most surreal moments happened when my fixer brought me to an office run by Hamas that issues permits for foreigners. I didn’t expect to have to talk to anyone, and in the end I didn’t because the Hamas official behind the desk launched into a 45-minute lecture about the Palestinian struggle, pointing to a map behind him that shows Gaza, Israel and the West Bank but marked as all of Palestine with all the villages written in Arabic.
Hamas is everywhere and outside nearly every U.N. and UNRWA building in Gaza City that I saw. I didn’t have an official Hamas minder with me on my trip. My fixer was not Hamas, but he was approved by them.
I was happy to get out of Gaza before anything went down—more rockets fired to Israel, more retaliatory strikes in the Strip. I didn’t trust that I would be safe and was at the full mercy of my fixer and driver.
Where I stayed in Gaza was the typical area for foreigners and foreign journalists, a strip along the beach with a handful of hotels that cost upwards of $100 a night. I was trying to save expenses on the trip and my fixer organized for me to stay in a half-finished hotel, across from the beach for about half the price. The room was great, with a balcony overlooking the sea, and the staff welcomed me with balloons, fake roses and flower petals around the room. Each morning I received a tray of food to my room with more bread and cheese than I could possibly eat. I tried to tell them to not send so much food, especially because everyone kept talking about food insecurity in the strip, but the staff said it was meant to be special and treat me well.
Were there many foreign faces?
I didn’t see that many foreigners except when I was interacting specifically with international agencies and of course U.N. vehicles are everywhere. Nearly all of my interviews were in English — the Palestinians I spoke with in English headed medical clinics, UNRWA distribution centers, NGO umbrella groups and worked for international NGOs. All the staff of the hotel and most restaurant and cafe workers I interacted with didn’t speak English with me.
Everyone who depends on UNRWA, which is about 1.3 million people, are being affected by the U.S. aid cuts, although increasing donations from international donors have helped slightly stabilize the issue.
After five months of clashes with Israeli forces along the border how is Gaza today?
My reporting focused on UNRWA facilities and the people working in them and the NGOs. Of course the protests were at the front of everyone’s mind. But the answer was always the same, these are desperate people in a desperate situation, what do you expect? To ask more follow-up questions would mean the people starting to talk about politics, and it didn’t seem anyone wanted to address that. They would obfuscate and say they don’t know what the solution should be, but that there should be a dignified solution to the refugee crises. What it comes down to for them is the refugee crisis and the right of return.
So, for instance, I asked a doctor who runs an UNRWA health clinic what should be done about the refugees. She was born in Jerusalem but her family came from Ramla; technically, she is a refugee. I asked her what is the solution for the refugees, and if there is a solution, UNRWA disappears and she is out of a job. She said the answer is for “us to return to our lands,” and so I asked what that means. What is “her land”? Could she expect to go back to her home? She acknowledged that she it would be difficult to go directly back, but that there should be some compensation and there should be freedom of movement.
She said that if we return, that the refugee problem will end by returning. She said she hoped that would happen but didn’t discuss having any power in the political situation to make such a decision. “I can’t think of anything else,” she said. “I can’t think of any solutions. The only solution we believe in is in return.”
I didn’t see any violence. I stayed most of the time in the city center where life seemed to work as any other place.
One shocking event was passing by a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders [Medicine Sans Frontiers]. I saw maybe 12 men on crutches and it was clear these were people who had been shot at the border. We went and talked to one of the public information officers from the organization and he said how much they had to scale up their operations with the Ministry of Health to deal with all these gunshot wounds. Every week they receive hundreds of patients. Last week it was 200 injured. He said that of 5,300 gunshot wounds, they treated 2,200 of those and with that treatment comes one or three surgeries each and then months of follow-up appointments, rehab and possibly life long crippling. So I asked him, that these people gather and know they will be shot and he knows they [MSF] will be overwhelmed. He called it a phenomenon he had never seen. I asked him if he has a responsibility to tell the government not to send kids to be shot, but as an apolitical organization, their mission is to help. In my opinion, he looked frustrated.
I did another interview with the head of UNRWA operations in Gaza and he was critical of Israel for using military force when they should use police force.
But why go to the border if you’ll be shot? OK, they are frustrated and vent it at the border, but are their frustrations with Israel? Yes, and it’s due to the blockade. But if you ask why there is the blockade, there is no answer.
One man I asked this to said that Israel claims the blockade is for security but since Israel has the most advanced technology that can secure it’s safety, what does a blockade achieve other than to torture Gazans?
How did the city look?
I was surprised that the people in the city weren’t that conservative, or at least what I saw. My hotel had a coffee shop attached, and in the morning I would see couples, young men and women, smoking sheesha and drinking coffee. Most women cover their hair but I also saw women wearing jeans and regular shirts, but still with their hair covered. From there, I also saw women wearing a full dress and head covering and some in a niqab. In the cafes and restaurants I visited, there were family areas and male-only areas, but the family areas seemed to have girls and guys mixed; they looked like students. That was surprising to me.
Another interesting thing I found were that a lot of the toilets were western. I’ve been in a few Arab places both in Israel and the region where there are eastern and western toilets.
Did it feel incredibly poor?
When I entered I was not surprised by how it looked, I wasn’t overwhelmed by poverty compared to other cities like Amman or Ramallah or Erbil. There was a downtown area that reminded me of Ramallah. Streets are dirty and people throw trash everywhere. But there are a lot of stores, coffee shops, schwarma and falafel places. A new mall opened in 2017, it’s three floors with upscale clothing and shoe stores—I found it surprising given what we hear about Gaza. There are hotels along the beach and rooms run upwards of $100— but almost everything runs on generator power. The hotel I stayed in was half-finished, and I was able to get a room for about half the regular price. It wasn’t even typical for them to rent out a room, mostly using the hotels for weddings, parties or for foreign journalists or international NGO workers. Everything is available, but not available for everyone and not at full capacity.
Everyone pays in shekels. I heard sometimes they use Jordanian dinars. Most food was from Egypt, Turkey and UAE.
We went to a a restaurant with a garden courtyard that had canopies covered by vines. A friend wanted to take me for sheesha. There are beachfront restaurants where it’s really beautiful to sit and watch the sunset. One Hamas guy told me to enjoy the nightclubs during my visit.
I met that man on my second full day when my fixer said he had to check in with Hamas at an office bureau that distributes foreign permits and sits right across from the UNRWA headquarters.
At first my fixer said he would go in himself, and it would just take two minutes but when he came back out of the car he said I should come in. This was the most frightened I felt and thought I’d be interrogated.
We went into an office that had two men with two desks. One didn’t look at me, but the other one spoke to me. He was a man in his early 40s, with strong features, good-looking, graying hair but a bit pale and a little overweight. Behind him was a large poster showing the Dome of the Rock and Muslims praying in the snow. There was also a large map that showed Gaza, Israel and the West Bank but labeled as all of Palestine, with all the villages, cities and towns identified in Arabic. He launched into a 30- to 40-minute lecture about the history of the Palestinian people, and their struggle in Gaza and wanting to return to all of Palestine. Towards the end he said “I hope you have a good trip and experience the things here and visit some nightclubs.” My fixer said this was a change for them, to be so nice.
Was there a lot of political propaganda on the streets?
I didn’t notice, I was told not to take photos of Hamas members or police. So I saw some graffiti with Arafat and Sheikh Yassin and other “martyrs.” There was graffiti of Ahed Tamimi with her flowing hair. I saw some kids wearing shirts that had Hebrew writing on it that they most likely bought cheaply from a second-hand shop. I thought it totally ironic, to be antagonistic to Israel and Jews but wearing something so blatantly Israeli. It was just another example of the contradictions, complexity and interactions between the two sides.
One office I visited had a “visit Palestine” poster which was created in the 1930’s by a Jewish graphic designer to encourage tourism and immigration to British Mandate Palestine. A faded and destroyed billboard in the city center showed a Hamas sniper with a helmet with a Star of David on it and there were some martyr posters. In the Hamas office there was a poster of Yasser Murtaja, a Gazan journalist killed by Israeli sniper fire during the border protests.
It didn’t feel oppressive?
I did feel that I had no autonomy, but I think that was because I didn’t speak any Arabic and also that my movement was only at the discretion of my fixer and driver. One time we drove through Shati refugee camp, quickly, which is near the UNRWA Beach Distribution Center. I was told it would be better if I didn’t take photos.
I didn’t really hear how people felt about the marches. On one hand, they have to support it and it’s message of ending the siege and the right of return for refugees. But one woman said that she and her siblings were forbidden from going.
Even due to the tensions it doesn’t seem that it was that interesting?
But everyone seems to realize the media isn’t paying attention. Hamas said if we have to send 1,000 or 2,000 to die for the world to notice we will do that. And that’s the way they have thought from the beginning. The lack of media attention on these protests, I think, represents how the media and world aren’t paying attention. This violence isn’t working. People are starting to realize that, after six months with hundreds of young men going to get shot, with nothing changing and the services they rely on starting to be taken away. One statistic I heard was that Gaza and the West Bank was only funded up to 29 or 30 percent through the Humanitarian Response Program run by the United Nations, where typically funding is around 42 percent for any territory considered in critical need.
I think it’s a few factors why the funding is so low and other people echoed this. The US is one factor. Donor fatigue is another issue due to Syria, Yemen and the world. And on top of that, some mention political issues. So with the United States pulling out some countries are joining them.
What about the Qatari fuel and PA cutting salaries?
In the list of grievances the Israeli siege was always first, followed by lack of international aid and political pressure on Israel; then the animosity between Hamas and the P.A. Many people complain about [Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud] Abbas.
They won’t speak about changes on their side to end the siege.
But it’s not as bad as Puerto Rico after the hurricane?
It’s not. I think the Hamas guy said the he knew “we don’t have it as bad as other places,” and he mentioned Syria, Yemen, all of Africa, Cambodia, Venezuela—it was a long list.
So how to explain that?
You look at it and it looks like they have everything but it’s not for everyone. Cafes and shops are open but they are empty. People are losing money or have no money. Buildings look beautiful but they are unfinished. They might be empty inside. In my hotel, when I came down in the morning there was a guy sleeping on a pull out mattress in front of the check-in desk.
The inconsistency with electricity is a big issue, but there is Wi-FI. Their cell service is Jawwal, but it doesn’t seem to have any data plan. So you go to places that have a router. On my hotel’s third floor I seemed to have 3G from Israel.
The shops will use the generator to keep the lights on. We went to a coffee shop and they had a giant generator out front. I asked for a latte and they tried so long to steam the milk but there wasn’t enough power to do it. One night my street had electricity for about eight hours or so but when I woke up in the morning, it was off.
Was there sewage?
I went to the beach, it smelled but when I asked if it was from the hundreds of gallons of untreated sewage flowing into the sea I was instead told it was from the fish market. The people I was with said I should try Gazan seafood but I said I didn’t really want to eat fish that was swimming in sewage. They admitted this was a problem. I felt bad flushing the toilet because I didn’t know where it went. We drank bottled water all the time, but that’s similar to the region—Jordan, Egypt, Iraq. I used water from the tap for showering and brushing my teeth, and so far I haven’t gotten sick.
You stayed around Gaza city?
I asked if we could drive to the middle or the south but was told it wasn’t a good idea to leave the city. I was there to report on health so my fixer indicated Hamas would find it suspicious for me to go outside the city.
When you were leaving who was there also?
NGO workers, mostly. There were two Italian women leaving who worked for an NGO. And one guy from Doctors Without Borders. There were two people from an NGO dealing with food insecurity. I saw a few more people from Doctors without Borders come through as well.
So that sounds like a big footprint for the doctors
They have expanded their resources exponentially to treat the kids being shot, from three clinics when they had 70% burn patients, mostly domestic injuries from generators or lighting fires in their homes. But now its 70% horrendous gunshot wounds. They’ve added more clinics but are also dealing with a lack of space for needed therapies like rehabilitation.
What a waste, these people are just going to be shot every week.
How was the food?
They gave me so much food. I had heard they had food insecurity. My breakfast in the morning was more than enough for two people, and I tried to tell them I didn’t need that much, but it was their way of showing appreciation.
You visited some NGOs?
The need is great and the funding is small. I met a man who deals with different NGOs. He said they have groups that deal with women’s issues, special needs. He said they have 70 NGOs in Gaza and 80 others in the West Bank.
I spoke to one that works with Israelis on Skype. It is a project where Gazans can speak with Israelis. From that he has been able to get a following of some people. They try to do all these different events, raising the conversation about speaking with Israelis. Many seemed to support the one state solution, but no recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.
People think Gaza is a center of conflict …
It seemed so overblown and that was frustrating. The UNRWA details are interesting. What was impressed upon me the most, especially with the workers who were laid off and are striking for job security, that they are fighting for permanency in a temporary institution. Its mandate was supposed to be temporary but it shows how entrenched it is in society and you can’t just get rid of it through funding cuts or saying it shouldn’t be there, because they support so many people. Whether or not one agrees with the refugee agenda.
So, thoughts on the future?
The only way is a political solution with the P.A. and then to rebuild the situation. There’s a U.N. program that helps distribute micro-finance loans so people can start businesses or whatever they need money for. But since the funding cuts, since the rise in unemployment, the department has distributed fewer loans and has had to expend more energy on investigating people applying for loans to make sure they can pay them back. People with degrees can’t get jobs. P.A. officials that got paid for years sit at home and their salaries are now being cut. UNRWA’s emergency appeal ran out of money in June. People at the age of 20 have nothing to do.
This article was originally posted at the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.