It’s a foggy day, bleak almost. I am driven an hour south of Jerusalem, past the old Philistine city of Ashkelon, which now houses Russian émigrés and Ethiopians, and past the kibbutz of Yad Mordecai. We hang a right into something that looks like an airport terminal, surrounded by concrete blast walls, concertina wire, bullet-proof guard towers and barking dogs.
I arrive in Gaza with five cases of equipment and my new Israeli government press ID, expedited in Jerusalem by a woman who lost her mother and five-year-old son when a suicide bomber blew himself up. The ID will get me through the Erez Gate, the only crossing into Gaza from Israel.
Cars aren't allowed in or out. I load my cases onto a cart, which is missing one wheel, and like everybody else march past four Israeli checkpoints, a couple dozen video cameras, a high tech scanner, revolving metal gates, a maze of crowd control dividers, and down a long urine-scented tunnel. Gaza awaits at the end.
I meet up with reporter Kate Seelye, and we take a quick tour of the strip. We pass through Rimal, a wealthy neighborhood of high-rises and parked Mercedes. Many of the city’s bourgeoisie live here, including a handful of corrupt politicians from Fatah who were recently booted out of office. In contrast, there’s the chaotic neighborhood of Beit Lahia with its mélange of hooka shops, Internet cafes, hand-painted posters of martyrs, and clothing stores that sell both abayas and sexy lingerie. The refugee camp of Jabaliyah looks nothing like a tent city, but shoeless kids play soccer down every other alleyway. And there are long stretches of pristine beaches along the Mediterranean, dotted by the occasional sign for an empty “Tourist Hotel” or “Fish Restaurant.”
Azmi Keshawi, an impeccably dressed man with big brown eyes and curly eyelashes, is our guide in Gaza. He’s well known among the foreign press corps as one of the most resourceful journalists in Gaza, and I’ve burdened him with the difficult task of getting access to the militant wing of Hamas -- the Qassam Brigades -- just when Hamas is attempting to appear like a modern political party with moderate views, capable of reining in its well-trained militia of 5,000.
Azmi permanently holds his cell phone in his right hand. The speed dial has numbers for each Hamas politician elected to parliament and a handful of Qassam commanders in Gaza. But I can tell he is sizing me up as we drive around the Gaza Strip. He’s not going to burn his well-earned contacts on an irresponsible journalist who just “wants guns and masks” -- his words. He will test me for a few days before he fixes anything of substance.
Azmi drives us toward the Egyptian border, 40 kilometers south of Gaza City. Gaza is known as one of the most populated strips of land in the world, but to my eyes there is still some space for sprawl. There are sand dunes next to verdant fields that grow cauliflower, carrots and strawberries. “This place used to be carpeted with orange groves, but they’ve all been uprooted by the Israelis,” Azmi tells me. “They claim that the Qassam rockets could be fired from behind the trees. We’ve now lost our main source of income.”
The situation is only getting worse. In February, Israel closed the Karni crossing, the only gate that handles goods. This week alone, 100 tons of Palestinian strawberries and flowers spoiled.
In the outskirts of Gaza lies Khan Younis, an agricultural town more commonly known as Kidnap City. “Get ready, we are going to drive fast,” Azmi warns. He points to a street where two houses are barricaded by sand bags. “Can you see how they blocked off the street? There has been a four-month war between two families, the El Masri clan and the Abu Taha clan. Stupid fight,” Azmi says. “The Abu Tahas lost four, the El Masris lost three, and there were even two bystanders.” I think of Romeo and Juliet.
A few miles ahead, at the southern tip of Gaza, is the town of Rafah. The barren sand dunes are cleaved by a giant wall of concrete that divides the land for as far as the eye can see. There are a few buildings that overlook Egypt, but nobody lives in them anymore. Years of shelling have made them uninhabitable. But at least in this town, Palestinians have control over the border. An average of 1,350 Palestinians travel to and from Egypt daily. Azmi tells me he takes his family to Egypt every year in the summertime. “I could go from Cairo to any city in the world, but the U.S. no longer gives me a visa,” he says.
On the way back, we stop by the Jewish settlement of Netzer Hazani. There used to be 19 Jewish settlements in Gaza, but Ariel Sharon forced them out last summer. The well-built colony now looks like a neighborhood flattened by a bomb. “They didn’t leave any structure we could use,” Azmi explains. But even so, every few yards there are Palestinians digging holes in the sand, looting buried water pipes and copper wire. In a country with an unemployment rate of 60 percent, even scraps become a precious source of income.
Two days into shooting the story, we arrive at the Erez crossing to film the men who do have work -- but across the border in Israel. It’s 3 a.m. and very chilly. Azmi’s Hyundai wades past a line of people -- the car’s headlights illuminating the faces of crusty, tired men who have been standing in line for the last seven hours. Some men squat and sleep against the mesh wire wall; others burn small fires to keep their hands warm; a few are eating samaras sold by an enterprising Palestinian vendor. They come in groups -- uncles, brothers, sons-in-law -- and stand at the gate as many as five nights a week in the hope of getting across to Israel, where they can make $40 a day working on a construction site or picking oranges. With the average Palestinian salary at $250 a month, the 10-hour commute can be worth the cold and the frustration.
Kate speaks Arabic pretty well. She strikes up a conversation with a few men who approach her. I stand behind, not understanding what they are saying, though I can tell they are complaining. Abu Hani, a man with deep wrinkles, blue eyes and a turban on his head to keep him warm, tells Kate he has been standing there since 8 p.m. He’s been working in construction in Tel Aviv since 1979 and expects he’ll make the crossing by 7 a.m. and return home by 5 p.m., in time to get two hours of sleep. “It turns into chaos at sunrise,” he tells Kate. “People push and shout, worried they won’t get to work on time. We are so tired and frustrated. Sometimes, I wake up and pray that the crossing will be closed so that I will have an excuse not to go to work.”
We talk to another man, Zaki, who is standing much closer to the entrance of the gate. The line finally moves a bit and 15 men are waved in. Zaki is next. “Believe me, if there were jobs in Gaza, I wouldn’t do this. This is humiliating for us,” he says. “We call it the ‘walk of shame.’”
The line moves again. A mob of men charge behind Zaki and he advances past the first checkpoint. A very long urine-scented tunnel awaits him.