Books: Beside an ocean of tears

Drinking the Sea at Gaza by Amira Hass Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20, 378pp; Seaside slum, and mixed-up metropolis: Middle Eastern views by Stephen Howe

In Israeli slang "Go to Gaza!" serves as a synonym for "Go to Hell!" (They sound rather similar in Hebrew.) Recently Yasser Arafat, who has ruled Gaza since 1994, started using a similar expression. Opponents of his rule, he snarled, could "Go and drink the sea at Gaza". In Palestinian Arabic, "Go drink sea-water!" means, again, "Go to Hell!"

The shared view of Israelis and Palestinians is that the Gaza Strip is indeed close to Hell. Nearly a million people, the majority refugees or their descendants, are squeezed into less than 120 square miles. Bleak and oppressive, dirt-poor and violent, so lacking in amenities that Gazans really do have to drink sea-water - such is the image, and a big part of the reality.

There is something surreal about the Gaza seaside. The beaches are as good as anywhere in the eastern Mediterranean. The sea, the sand and the sun are the same as those which draw swarms of holidaymakers further north, in Israel or Turkey. But pushing up against the seafront, almost the whole length of the Gaza Strip, are some of the worst, most overcrowded slums in the world. Although the seafront slums are now interspersed with some flashy new hotels and restaurants, these stand empty. It seems almost obscene to turn one's back on all that squalor, and wade out to sea.

There are many Israeli writers and journalists who are "pro-Palestinian", in the sense of acknowledging historic injustices done by Israel, or accepting the case for Palestinian national rights. But only a tiny handful seem able to move from sympathy to empathy, to show complete recognition of Palestinians as individuals and as equals, let alone to identify with their plight. Certainly not the most famous Israeli literary "dove", Amoz Oz.

A younger novelist, David Grossman, comes much closer. His books of interviews with Palestinians, The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire, show a kind of human warmth towards his subjects, and a genuine respect for Arab culture, entirely lacking in Oz's work. Poet and historian Ammiel Alcalay offers something similar.

Yet there has never been a literary equivalent to the musical vision expressed by the Israeli group Bustan Abraham, with their mixed Arab-Jewish line-up and extraordinary blending of eastern and western genres - until Amira Hass's book. This is the most powerful, because the most fully human and intimate, Israeli portrayal of Palestinians ever written.

Hass, a reporter for the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, spent four years living in Gaza. Foreign correspondents, still less Israeli ones, hardly ever dare do more than make chaperoned day-trips there. She found herself not only recording but sharing the lives of its people with ever-increasing closeness, forming tight friendships even with Islamic militants and former guerrilla leaders. Hers is in many ways a horribly depressing story; no honest account of Gaza could fail to be so. But in showing another Gaza, revealing the intimate spaces - especially women's spaces - behind the grim facades, it offers a kind of hope.

The Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" since 1993 has not yet brought peace, and certainly not prosperity; but in parts of the West Bank under Palestinian self-rule some things have got better. In Jericho and Bethlehem especially - the former Arafat's showcase, comparatively flush with European funds, the latter feverishly gearing up for the expected flood of millennial pilgrims - there's an air of economic dynamism and even, sometimes, of optimism.

True, the outward appearances of improvement are not entirely lacking in Gaza either. As Hass notes, a casual visitor in the past few years might be deceived by all the building work, the new offices and shops and Porsches, into thinking that Gaza is being transformed. But these are almost all for Arafat's tiny, parasitic ruling elite, or for the tourists who will never come.

Return a few times, and you'll notice how many of those grandiose building projects have stayed in the same half-finished state in which you first saw them. They do nothing to lift the mass of Gaza's population from their desperate poverty.

This is not "natural" poverty, nor the result of "underdevelopment" in its usual meaning. It has been deliberately and systematically induced by a decades-long process that economist Sara Roy calls "de-development", initiated when Egypt ruled the strip, but screwed ever tighter through the three decades of Israeli occupation.

Thus Gaza's workforce became massively dependent on labour within Israel: mostly unskilled casual labour, miserably paid, lacking in legal or trade-union rights. And throughout the 1990s, even these meagre sources of income have been squeezed hard and frequently cut off altogether - especially when, as a standard response to any violent incident in Israel, Gaza's borders are closed for weeks. That policy has contributed more than anything else to the Strip's ever intensifying economic misery.

There is no logic to it. Palestinians endure collective punishment not only when one of their fanatics attacks Israelis, but when it's the other way round. An Islamic suicide bomber slaughters shoppers in Tel Aviv - Israel closes the borders. An American-Jewish zealot slaughters Muslim worshippers in Hebron - and Israel closes the borders.

The policy is not even systematic, let alone even-handed. One can often move with little difficulty between Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank. The "border" controls seem haphazard and half- hearted, and can even be evaded altogether simply by taking a back road over the Mount of Olives. Yet Gaza is almost totally sealed off - a vast, stifling prison.

Apart from a few updated footnotes, Hass's story goes only up to 1996. Since then, almost everything she describes has got worse. Arafat's authority has at least 40,000 police and paramilitaries, but the whole Gaza Strip still has no hospital facilities for cancer sufferers. They have to travel to Israel or the West Bank for treatment - except that often they can't even do that. The borders are closed.

Stephen Howe's book `Afrocentricism: mythical pasts and imagined homes' is now published in paperback by Verso

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be Lonely Island's second Hollywood venture following their 2007 film Hot Rod
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the movie There Will Be Blood
music
Arts and Entertainment
Brush with greatness: the artist Norman Cornish in 1999
art
Life and Style
Stress less: relaxation techniques can help focus the mind and put problems in context
art
Arts and Entertainment

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment