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Gaza Diary

People jostle in line for bread.

Palestinians jostle in line to buy bread.

Editor's note: With Israeli forces escalating their attacks on Gaza, few reports have explored at length how it feels from inside this isolated and impoverished strip of land. We asked veteran Palestinian journalist and producer Mariam Shahin to send us her personal perspective. In another of our series of Direct Voice Dispatches, Shahin talks about the buildup of the current political and military crisis since the Israeli "disengagement" from Gaza last year and the election of Hamas in January, while also describing what it's like to be living in Gaza as Israel steps up its assault. We've set off Shahin's diary entries in italics.

For an Israeli perspective on the situation, we asked Tel Aviv-based journalist and regular FRONTLINE/World correspondent Hadas Ragolsky to send us her assessment.

* * *

The best thing about Gaza is the sea. Looking out toward the waves allows me to think of happy things...

When I first came to the Gaza Strip 13 years ago, two things struck me immediately. One was the beauty of the bougainvillea that lined the streets of Gaza City, making simple homes look exquisite. The other was the inescapable stench of garbage. At that time, Israel ruled this narrow, crowded strip of sand, orange groves, and refugee camps with an iron military fist, while refusing municipal services to the occupied population.

When I first came to the Gaza Strip 13 years ago, two things struck me. One was the beauty of the bougainvillea that lined the streets of Gaza City. The other was the inescapable stench of garbage.

On the surface a lot has changed for the nearly 1.5 million Palestinians who live in this once prosperous corner of the southern Mediterranean. In 1994, following a 1993 agreement with Israel (the Oslo accords), the Palestinians were allowed limited self-rule.

Last year the Israeli government forced nearly 8,000 Jewish settlers, who had squatted on 40 percent of Gaza, to return to Israel, and give back the land to the Palestinians, as gallons of elephant tears were shed in front of the world's television cameras.

Early this year, free elections, perhaps the first truly democratic elections to ever take place in the Arab world, were conducted peacefully and succeeded in installing a new government, which vowed not to recognize Israel's right to exist in Palestine, until Israel made equally monumental recognitions of the rights of the Palestinians.

Child by a makeshift fire.

In Rafah, a child stokes a makeshift fire.

Having insisted that the Palestinians make a democratic choice, the world was horrified when it was made. Total isolation, a tight economic embargo by the international community, which also forced embargo policies on the many dependent Arab regimes, has led to critical shortages of food and medical supplies, and a total collapse of the economy.

My cleaning lady, Nisreen, from the Beach Camp comes in. She has no running water at home. The refugee camps receive less government electricity rations than the rest of us. Even in war, the class struggle continues. I tell her to take a shower when she is finished with her work -- my small contribution to easing the pressures of camp life.

I have lived in Gaza for nearly two years. I came to witness the birth of a new Gaza, the "free" Gaza after the "disengagement" from Israel.

Unfortunately the "disengagement" was one-sided, unilateral and without a sense of a quest for real "peace." Following the settlers' departure, Gaza was turned into an open-air prison, controlled by Israeli "jailers." The borders are closed to travelers unless Israel wills it otherwise. The commercial crossing -- Gaza's lifeline to the wider world -- is regularly closed on Israeli whim. Israel denied Gaza the right to reopen its airport. Gaza's proposed seaport is a dream on hold until Israel allows it. Under the previous government it was no different, but now Israel argues it has no choice but to continue to impose these punitive measures, because "terrorists" run the new Palestinian government.

A young woman smiles for a photograph at a cemetery in Gaza City.

Nisreen's kids are very nervous, especially the three-year-old. She screams whenever there are sonic booms. Nisreen is the only wage earner in her family. I ask her to take all the ice cream still in my freezer home to her four children. Soon the fridge won't be working any more anyway, and I have no desire left for ice cream -- cherry, peach, mango, fruits of the summer, fruits of a happy fresh summer, but not in Gaza. The ice cream goes to the kids in the beach camp.

President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine's grandfatherly head of "state," tried to impart a solution to the devastating effects of the embargo engineered by Israel and the United States on the new government, but to no effect. No money comes in, Gaza entry and exit permits are denied to nearly all Palestinians, all development projects are stopped; all bank activity has frozen to a halt. It is a stillbirth of the Palestinian economy here. In Gaza, that means the people have only the sea.

Today Gaza is more cut off and isolated than before the Israeli disengagement. The bougainvilleas are still here and they still smell sweet. For a while, public services improved and the fragrance of flowers began to outweigh the smell of garbage. But Gaza remained a cage, and an Israeli free-fire zone, not a liberated land.

The ever expectant noise, the drones, the sound of helicopter gun ships, slowly grow louder as they hover above us. The sonic booms are the worst. Worse than the bombings, they last for only a few seconds, but seem to last forever; one is always running away from windows, lest they break into a thousand pieces and insert themselves in our person to stay and scar forever.

Damaged bridge.

The bridge over Wadi Gaza is damaged after Israeli air attacks.

Palestinians do hit back at all these wideranging Israeli actions, with crude homemade missiles that rarely hit their destination. For every rocket launched against Israel from Gaza, F16 and helicopter gun ships respond. In the last month or so, hundreds of tanks have surrounded the 215-square-mile strip to pound Gaza with hundreds of shells a day.

Before this current crisis, entire families, including those lunching on the beach, were killed; members of the resistance movements were assassinated. Every day the Israeli army killed Palestinians as Israeli leaders declared in world capitals that they were in search of peace and appealed to the civilized international community to help.

Then, an operation by The Popular Resistance Committee, a coalition of Palestinian fighting forces, stormed an Israeli military post to avenge the assassination of their leader by the Israeli army two weeks earlier. They killed two, wounded many and captured one, Galit Shalit. He became a prisoner of war.

Israel masses troops on all sides of Gaza and pounds the Strip with an average of 300 to 500 high-explosive shells a day. Sonic booms terrorize the public in the dead still of night. People are stoic if incapacitated by the constant threat of an explosion or the sounds of one. The Israeli army has bombed Gaza's main electrical station, which was built with U.S. money and insured by a U.S. company. The insurance company won't pay, however: It considers the new government an "enemy," and insurance is not paid to the enemy. Meanwhile Israel threatens to invade. Israeli politicians and Western commentators scold the Palestinian resistance to "free" the soldier.

Buildings marked by shell fire attacks.

Buildings in Gaza City are riddled with holes from mortar attacks.

It is summer and the humidity and heat have brought special meaning to most Gazans, who now live without electricity and water. The "operation" that the Israeli army has dubbed "summer rain" will undoubtedly bring no relief to those who languish in the concrete huts of Gaza without access to clean water or the relief of a fan.

But they are resilient, these Palestinians of Gaza. They are mostly downtrodden camp dwellers whose families were expelled from their homes more than 50 years ago from coastal cities and villages like Jaffa, Askelan and Asdoud. They have urged the Palestinian leadership not to release the Israeli corporal. They want their own prisoners freed. Nearly 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners and detainees languish in Israel jails. The mothers of the prisoners make a plea to the government to pressure those that have captured the Israeli soldier. "Don't give him back until our sons are home," they say. This has become de facto Palestinian policy. The Popular Resistance Committee is demanding that the Israelis release all female prisoners, and those under 18 years old, but Israel refuses.

Friends and family write "urgent" messages about safety and supplies. "We have enough supplies," I write back. People eat lentils and onions if they have nothing else. I eat cheese sandwiches and endless amounts of Italian pastas.

The Israelis have locked everyone in. Even journalists have trouble getting in and out. "It could be hours, or days," said the Israeli army spokesman to the Western journalist wishing to leave. The Israelis have now changed their tune. From talk of a "limited campaign" to free their soldier, they now speak of a protracted war.

The electricity? Yes, it goes off and on and off and on. Do we care? Not really. The email does not really work all the time anymore. I CANNOT get into my account. Please know that I probably won't be able to log in. I hope this will suffice. Things here are getting worse...

Mariam Shahin, journalist and author, has been living and working in the Arab world for two decades. She is co-author of "Unheard Voices: Iraqi Women on Sanctions and War" as well as guidebooks to Egypt and Jordan. Her work frequently appears on both television documentaries and special news programs for ABC News, ZDF and the BBC.

PHOTOS: George Azar

REACTIONS

Linda Evans - Seattle, WA
It's too bad Ross knows nothing about Gaza. Ask Rachel Corry's parents about Gaza. The USA furnishes armaments to one of the best armies in the Middle East, yet no matter what is done to the Palestinians, they survive. Maybe the Jews should look at their own Holocaust and learn a lesson. Is it do unto others as it has been done unto you?

Siham Alfred - Somerset, NJ
When I studied at a young age the Lawmaker Hamurabi who lived 2500 B.C., I thought his laws were barbaric because they reeked of vengance: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now, with the heavy-handed uncontrolled Israeli bombardment of Lebanon and Gaza in Palestine I realize how humane Hamurabi's laws were in comparison to the Israeli bombing. Hamurabi set a limit on the damage one can inflict. It had to be in equal measure to the damage inflicted on you. If only Israel would abide by Hamurabi's laws, never mind International Laws. The irony of it all is that Hamurabi's laws were more humane and civilized than the Israelis' indiscriminate and intensive bombing of Lebanon and Gaza egged by Bush's proclamation of "Israel has the right to defend itself."

Valerie Spain - Watertown, MA
It always breaks my heart to read such journals but then to read comments like the one Ross posted is excruciating. How can such events even be compared? The residents of Gaza are literal prisoners and sitting ducks for the Israeli army. An army, the most powerful in the Middle East, ranged against unarmed civilians. Terrorizing them. Even if every militia fighter were to give up, would Israel stop what they're doing? They're as tied into terrorism as the people they fight. You become what you hate. It's a terribly one-sided fight. It would be wonderful if leaders of vision were able to bring a vision of peace to the Palestinians. Their stoicism would work well with the kind of resistance advocated by King and Gandhi.

Dana - Kona, Hawaii
Thank god for news sources such as Frontline [World]. There is a humanitarian crisis in the making in Palestine that cannot be marginalized, as our corporate owned media does. An entire population of people is being terrorized at once. How wrong of us to continue to aid the Israeli government.

Ross - Seattle, wa
Hmmm...I'm sure it's incredibly difficult in Gaza right now, but it sure sounds like the author is a tad one-sided. Didn't hear any mention of the ongoing terror campaign against the Israeli citizens. "One is always running away from windows, lest they break into a thousand pieces and insert themselves in our person to stay and scar forever"...Now you know how Israeli bus passengers feel, huh?