Like Water In a Dry Land

Among the sheathes of razor wire, the mud and the litter, where a torn piece of fencing could be pushed aside we entered the area of newly-established `limited' Palestinian autonomy. Bill parked our car and we were ushered over to a much rougher vehicle which had Gazan registration plates and which was driven by Bill's Palestinian helper, Yassir. Bill has been trying for well over a year to get this young man a pass to enable him to come to Jerusalem for meetings and day-training but without success. No reason is given for the refusal, and it means hours and hours of Bill's time is wasted having to come and deal with everything personally.

The muddy trampled space where we had entered was full of people waiting hopelessly for passes to travel to other parts of the Occupied Territories. Some were special cases, awaiting permission to attend hospital or a funeral or visit a sick family member. Most had already been waiting for hours. Some who had been granted passes were now waiting on the whim of the soldiers who manned the wire to let them through; many of these had also been waiting for hours

The system for people like Yassir needing a pass to make regular journeys, perhaps to work, to university, or for training courses, can take months, or even years of applying and re-applying and even then achieve nothing. Everyone has to turn up in person to see if his or her application has been granted, and the reports of the high level of gratuitous cruelty and harassment at these sessions are too consistent to dismiss; they make disturbing reading. Israeli female army personnel are usually in charge and one favourite ploy is to call the applicant by name and say `Congratulations, Mr So-and-So, your application has been turned down.' Another is to drop the card when handing it over and then simulate anger at the `abuse' of Israeli property. As the person bends down to retrieve the card a knee smashes into his face. This is also a frequent ploy with ID cards at checkpoints. Wealthy Gazan families with sophisticated children educated in the States are treated no differently. Mothers of such families confess their fear of sons snapping under such treatment, and reacting in a way that will result in their being shot on the spot or permanently maimed. Plastic surgery to remedy facial injuries is one of Gaza's greatest needs.

Restriction of movement seriously affects the Gazan economy; the extended curfew system even more so, and both have added to the desperate poverty that now afflicts Gaza. It runs on a shoe-string economy, and when teachers can't get to their schools, folk can't get to work, supplies can't get in, the complex business of daily life breaks down and what little people have is wasted.

Bill and I, stepping past the razor wire littered with a thousand bits of blown detritus, were aliens from another world. What did we know of ghetto life? How could anyone who has not lived like this appreciate the thousand and one pinpricks; the endless difficulties and complications, large and small, that grind one down, all multiplied and blown out of proportion by a terrifyingly punitive bureaucracy operating outside the wire? Even from the perimeter I was in a sweat of claustrophobia, but at least I knew I could turn and run whenever I chose.Jabalia Camp was far worse. As we drove through its streets I thought that if the rest of the caring world could have just half an hour here, support for Israel's position would collapse instantly. Possibly Israel realizes this too, which is why visits here are made so difficult. One line from Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth rang through my head all day. It is when at the Battle of Agincourt the King finds that French soldiers have wantonly slain the unarmed young boys among the baggage train - `I was not angry since I came to France, until this instant.' I too was angry, sick with it. I cannot see how anyone can visit Jabalia Camp and not be angry. The shock of seeing it was similar to what I had felt as a child of eleven when, after World War Two, the pictures and the first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities began to fill the pages of the newspapers. The sense of impotence, shame and anger that I felt then I now realize comes from a simple acceptance of a shared humanity. In the words of Christ, `Inasmuch as you do it unto these the least of my brethren you do it unto me.'

Conditions were appalling. We drove through lakes of sewage, between housing that was shacks cobbled together with disparate scrap materials, while little children, the third generation of refugees who had been forced to live here, picked a cautious, painful route on bare feet through the ravaged littered ground that passed for streets. The dust and dirt were terrible causing all sorts of eye infections and health problems. I found it all far worse than refugee camps I had visited in Africa and the poorer parts of India, mainly because civilization had advanced so much further here that the destruction of it made for a greater degradation. Nor was it drought or any natural calamity that had brought about these conditions but the deliberate policy of an occupying force.

I could see little difference in principle between the thieving of property, the disregard of life and rights that had been practised on the Jews of Europe by the Nazi regime, and what Israeli Jews themselves had done and were continuing to do here to a people whose land they had taken and occupied and whose livelihoods they had wrecked.

The streets of Jabalia merged into the outskirts of Gaza city where the same breakdown of the infrastructure was apparent everywhere. There was even a football field about a foot deep in sewage and debris. At the Isolation Hospital the sewage had begun to seep up through the floorboards, but here at least outside aid had got to work and a new complex of septic tanks was nearing completion. One of the volunteer engineers working on this scheme came from a former Eastern Bloc country. `In my country we know something about oppression, which is why I am here to help' he told me, pointing out another Jewish settlement on nearby high ground, whose sewage discharge would apparently constitute a further threat to the Palestinian hospital.

We had visits to make to all sorts of small-scale aid schemes funded by World Vision. One was a club for children with abnormal behaviour, where structured play was used as therapy. Trauma is unnaturally high in a society where scarcely a family is without at least one member in prison, and where death, injury and beatings inflicted by soldiers have been a part of every day life. That Rabin's instruction to the Israeli army to break the bones of children caught throwing stones was made quite openly without fear of international censure should give us pause. Palestinian adults are equally traumatized by conditions and this often results in them beating their children, thus adding to the level of behavioural difficulties.

Now that limited self-rule has begun, everyone agrees that an oppressive weight has been lifted off Gaza simply by the absence of Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets. But the scars inflicted by a heavy, confrontational military presence are still very fresh, and since material conditions have not improved at all, the difference is not as great as it might be. It is one thing to be granted a degree of autonomy but without funds to administer it, what does it amount to? It leads to the question of whether it is an inevitable failure of the new Palestinian administration for which Israel hopes. One little boy playing at the centre made us aware of a fresh difficulty, for he was equally fearful of Arafat's police force who are dressed almost identically to the Israeli soldiers. For this child the terror was still present.

We visited a Palestinian family in one of the Gaza camps who had just been rehoused through international aid in a simple single-roomed structure. Amongst so much desperate need this case had been singled out; many are in a similar plight but there is just not aid enough to go around. The family had six children and no visible means of support. The oldest child was about twelve and the youngest still a baby. Most of them had racking coughs and were clearly in need of the clothes we had brought them. But somehow in the one room an impressive level of cleanliness had been maintained and the older children were eager and intelligent looking. One doe-eyed boy of ten lay on the floor on a mattress, permanently paralysed, having been shot in the spine by an Israeli soldier when he was climbing onto a building to fly a Palestinian flag from the roof. The family are very proud of this little victim of gratuitous savagery, and refer to him as their `martyr'. One of the few acts of resistance left to these people is to breed children to become `martyrs' to the Palestinian cause and most families proudly display photographs of their dead or imprisoned sons.

Unemployment is reckoned at 90 per cent in Gaza and it gets worse with each closing of the checkpoints which is accompanied by further importation of foreign labour to replace the Palestinians. No jobs, no present, no hope of a future, what remains but anger and despair?

And yet this terrible place is also a triumph of the human spirit. Even the degree of normality which is maintained under such conditions is in itself wonderful. With no money, no budget, no salaries, there were so many people, Muslims and Christians working together to tackle the problems of the wider community, not only with commitment but with love. And love and commitment had often to suffice, because supplies were so scarce and the training of personnel was so often disrupted by the closures of the territories.

In the streets, at even the humblest level, there was a creativity that came from having to make do. They might lack shoes but the children were as clean and as tidy as the contaminated water could make them. Where there were schools they were taught. A certain black humour was pressed into service to keep despair at bay, and of the majority I would say the spirit was certainly not broken.

We saw schools for the deaf operating in shacks where, with a minimum of anything other than goodwill, small Muslim children were breaking out of their cocoon of isolation and beginning to communicate. How much more could have been done with an adequacy of materials and fully-trained teachers was clear, but the dedication was something very special. These teachers, both Muslim and Christian reminded me of the passage in Acts about Stephen's face `shining like an angel'. They too shone; and because of them Gaza was bearable.

This extract is from 'Like Water in a Dry Land' a Mountain House paperback

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