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

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