Tales from Gaza: What is life really like in 'the world's largest outdoor prison'?

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With its sandy beaches and sumptuous seafood, it could be a holiday resort. But life in Gaza, post-Israeli sanctions and with 50 per cent unemployment, has never been more difficult. Alistair Dawber meets the people trying to survive on the Palestinian coast.

The guide books warn that it's very unstable and that tourists shouldn't go there; the Foreign Office tells Brits that there's a high threat from terrorism – don't visit any part of the territory, it says, and if you do, there is no 'our man' there to help you out.

In truth, it is pretty difficult to get into Gaza anyway. Unless you are a journalist or work for an NGO, the likelihood is that you will get stopped at Israel's airport-terminal-like border post at Erez, which governs who is allowed to enter the Palestinian territory and, more importantly in Israeli eyes, who is allowed out.

But once you do get permission to go to Gaza, you realise that it is not like anywhere else. After getting the necessary stamps in your passport, you take a long walk through an 800-metre or so long cage, overlooked by Israeli army gun posts and balloons fixed with cameras that keep an eye over what's going on. Locals call it "the world's biggest prison", and it's not difficult to understand why.

You eventually arrive at the first of two checkpoints, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the moderate Fatah faction. Fatah doesn't run Gaza, but since Hamas, which is in charge, does not recognise Israel, it will not inform the Israelis on their side of the border that you are coming back.

To think that Gaza City (the Palestinians refer to both the city and the 10km x 40km territory by the same name) is just a few kilometres from modern-day Israel is remarkable. It is like plenty of other Arab towns, just poorer, and after November's eight-day war between Hamas and Israel, many buildings in the city centre lie in ruins, like collapsed wedding cakes, after being hit by missiles.

Gaza is about 5,000 years old and one of the world's oldest cities. In that time it has been both a thriving port and, as it is today, a sprawling mess of refugee camps and poverty. According to the United Nations, 1.5 million people call it home, making Gaza one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. Of the 1.5 million inhabitants, 1.1 million are refugees; those who lived in what is now Israel before 1948 refuse to give up the belief that one day they'll return to their former homes.

The UN predicts that by 2020, the population will be more than 2 million, and that GDP per capita of about $2,700 by 2015 is less than what people were earning in 1990. Hospitals need an extra 800 beds now and, by 2020, an additional 1,000 doctors and 2,000 nurses.

But why is life in Gaza so difficult? It is not hard to imagine the place as a thriving Mediterranean resort: the white beaches are gorgeous and the seafood – such as the tuna served to us on the beach by the fisherman Rachad al-Hisi – is peerless.

The obvious – if incomplete – answer is the blockade imposed by Israel, which justifies the sanctions on security grounds. Before last year's war, more than 2,000 rockets from Gaza fell on southern Israel; in the past, militants from Gaza have launched manned attacks from the territory.

In 2006, Hamas, an ideological Islamic and militant organisation that, since its inception, has been committed to the end of Israel, surprisingly won elections in Gaza. The poll, still regarded as probably the most democratic in the history of the Arab world, ushered in international sanctions. The situation deteriorated the following year when a unity government between Hamas and Fatah, which controls the other Palestinian territory, the West Bank, collapsed amid grisly violence that resultedf in the deaths of at least 120 people, some publicly executed, others after having been pushed from the top of tall buildings.

Following the battle, Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza on the grounds that Fatah was unable to provide security. Now Israel inspects most of what enters and leaves Gaza, and limits supplies; it is able to determine what materials reach people there, and what does not.

After the eight-day war between Israel and Hamas in November, Gazans report that there has been an increased supply of goods, but Israel, concerned about the prospect of rockets being fired at the south of the country and Tel Aviv, maintains its blockade.

The testimonies over the following pages are a small snapshot into life in Gaza, by people who can rarely get their voices heard. What is immediately noticeable is that all the portraits in this feature are of men. In two and a half days' work- ing in Gaza, we did not find many women who were willing to speak and be photographed. Where we did, as in the case of the wife of the farmer Saeed Jnead, her engagement with us was only as a result of her husband also being there; at no time did we find a woman who was willing to speak to us independently.

The other thing that was striking was that few people were enthusiastic about Hamas. The militant group has twice survived conflict with the vastly better armed Israelis in recent years, and has paraded its survival as a success. But ordinary people in Gaza are largely unconcerned with flag waving and the military battles; like anywhere else, they want a better life and are worried about the prospects for their children.

The last elections in Gaza were in 2006 and the conventional wisdom is that a new, overdue poll would return a Fatah-led administration in Gaza. Incidentally, the theory goes that a similar poll in the West Bank would lead to a Hamas government there.

But almost everyone we spoke to in Gaza is tired of the current situation. Hamas came to power not by being militant and intent on the destruction of Israel but by providing social care, hospitals and education to children. It still does provide these much needed services, but the lot of ordinary people has not improved. Nearly 50 per cent of Gazans do not have jobs, and the accusation is that work, even that provided by the UN, which has a huge and wholly necessary presence in Gaza, goes to those with connections to Hamas. In the huge refugee camps that are found all over Gaza, the jobless rate is even higher.

This is not a scientific study of life in Gaza, more a portrait of interesting individuals we met there. There are many thousands like those we met, and though not suffering famine or the spread of deadly disease, for people in Gaza life is still desperate. The frustration is palpable and in a land that has a violent history, that frustration, mixed with an easy supply of arms and an obvious enemy, is a very dangerous mix indeed.

'Because of the restrictions, we're catching fewer fish'

RACHAD AL-HISI, FISHERMAN

Working with his younger colleagues, Rachad al-Hisi had spent the morning making repairs to a tennis-court-size green sardine net spread out on the beach that forms one of the boundaries of Gaza City.

Now 67 years old, al-Hisi has been fishing these waters since 1962. "Gaza is in a geographically bad position for fishing," he complains. "We're in the corner of the Mediterranean and the big, expensive fish don't travel this far – to get them, we've got to go further out into the sea."

For the first 20 years of al-Hisi's life as a fisherman, that wasn't a problem. He was able to fish wherever he wanted, and Gaza – one of the world's oldest cities – was vibrant, with plenty of tourists coming to enjoy the beautiful beaches and keeping the price of the day's catch high.

But that was then. With 14 children to support at home in Gaza City's al-Shati or Beach camp for refugees, the one-third of a square mile web of streets and concrete that is home to nearly 90,000 people, life has become significantly more difficult for al-Hisi and Gaza's other fisherman.

Rachad al-Hisi blames two groups: the Israelis and the Egyptians. To find people who blame the Israelis for their circumstances in Gaza is not difficult, but for fishermen, the Jewish state's policies in Gaza have direct implications. When we visited al-Hisi, the Israelis would only allow Gaza's fishermen to fish six miles from the coastline, a policy that changed to just three miles three weeks ago in response to rockets being fired from the territory into southern Israel during the visit of Barack Obama.

"We can only catch the big fish 10 miles out to sea – so how are we supposed to catch them now? Because of the restrictions we're catching fewer fish and making less money," he says. "We are always getting into trouble; because our boats are not fitted with sophisticated navigation equipment, we go after the fish and then all of sudden we're seven miles out to sea and in trouble.

"But it's not just the Israelis who are picking us up. The Egyptians also stop us fishing in their waters, but they are taking fish from our waters too. There are species that used to be plentiful here – sea bass, red mullet – we just don't see them any more. Of course, it's better to be arrested by the Egyptians rather than the Israelis."

There are now 3,500 fishermen in Gaza operating in 700 boats, all competing for an increasingly smaller catch. Can things ever improve? "Inshallah, there will be peace. Until then, we've just got to hope that we don't get caught."

'Before the fighting it was dangerous to be a farmer'

SAEED JNEAD, FARMER

We ask Saeed Jnead, a 53-year-old farmer, for an interview as he travels along a dirt track on the back of his donkey-pulled cart about half a mile from the fortified border with Israel. Within minutes, the jovial Mr Jnead has stopped, invited us to his farm for coffee and is surrounded by members of his family on the dusty road, wondering what on Earth we're doing there.

Farmers, usually growers of olives, dates and citrus fruits, have been among the biggest losers of the isolation of Gaza. The Israeli army prevents them from getting too close to the security wall and in many cases, the farmers have lost large tracts of land.

But Mr Jnead, whose tooth-bereft mouth seems to be forever smiling, is clearly one of life's optimists. "Life here since the war [the eight-day conflict between Israel and Hamas in November] has improved. Before the fighting, it was very dangerous to be a farmer. Believe me, when one of my sons went off in the donkey cart in the morning, I always worried about whether he would ever come back."

Mr Jnead's children, and their prospects in what is often referred to as the world's largest open prison, is top of his concerns. "I want a peaceful place where my children and their families can be secure in their own land. I'm not talking about tomorrow, but we have to believe in the future, although things do change – you [the UK] used to occupy the United States, but look what's happened now, look who's stronger. It may be too late for my life, but that's what I hope for my sons."

Mr Jnead's father planted the fruit trees on the farm in 1956, including the lemon grove where Mr Jnead takes us for a glass of thick Arabic coffee. It is where Mr Jnead has tried to work all his life.

He is someone who has felt the force of the Israeli army – his house was destroyed during what was then one of the regular incursions of 2004. "They came at midnight and in the morning. All of a sudden, my house was gone. I've still not had any explanation."

But Mr Jnead seems to be the kind of person who would forgive all the past problems in favour of a lasting peace deal. "Peace is essential. Without it we will carry on like this, with this terrible life." Sitting next to his young son, 13-year-old Ashor, who was recently stung on the eye by a bee, Mr Jnead adds: "What will he do with this life? I want him to be a doctor or a lawyer – I have the same aspirations as any parent in the West; but here, like this, what chance does he really have?"

'We're not political. Anyone can come to drink our coffee'

RAMADAN MALCHA, CAFÉ OWNER

Sitting in a seafront café just south of Gaza City, you can picture what the place could be like. It has all the natural benefits of a Mediterranean city, and if somehow a lasting peace could be guaranteed, it is not such a stretch to imagine Thomson Holidays offering all-inclusive breaks at luxury resorts there.

Someone who shares this vision, or perhaps more accurately, a version of it, is Ramadan Malcha. He's the owner of the Estnbool Café, which is situated just off the beach. His establishment, he assures us, is named after the Turkish city.

We meet Malcha after stopping off in the Estnbool. It is a large cavernous place, and it's not difficult to imagine how this, too, could end up as a popular destination for Brits looking for some cheap summer sun.

That may be a pipe dream, but nonetheless, Malcha says that business is booming: "We're a cheap place for guys to hang out in and have a coffee, or for families to come at the weekends and have a meal," he says, giving us his sales patter.

"All sorts of people come in here – we get business meetings, people using the beach and the unemployed who come here to pass the time. We're not political, anyone's welcome to come to drink our coffee – even if Ariel Sharon [the former Israeli prime minister] came here, he would be welcome, as long as he bought a coffee, and that wouldn't cost him more than NIS 5 [5 New Israeli Shekels, about 90p]."

So all's swell in Gaza, then? Not quite. MalchaRamadan introduces us to his 19-year-old son, Yassir, who is set to get married in a few weeks' time. "Of course, the main thing I want for my son is for him to be happy, but aside from that I want him to do better than I have done.

"I want my son to be a doctor, or maybe even a journalist, but that's very difficult because the education system here is not so great."

Elsewhere in the Estnbool, 33-year-old Mohammed Molhati has a less sunny outlook than Ramadan. A former construction worker, he has been unemployed for "some time".

"Why would I blame Israel?" he says. "I blame Hamas and Fatah for their feuding – the only way to sort out Gaza is to dissolve the government, get rid of Hamas, get rid of Fatah and start a new government from the beginning."

Why is he in the Estnbool that afternoon? "Because there's nothing else to do."

'Hamas are to blame for this predicament'

KHALED HAMIS, UNEMPLOYED IN THE AL-SHATI REFUGEE CAMP

In Gaza, they call it the Beach camp, a sprawling village that is home to those who used to live in Israel, and now, increasingly, their children. The hot, dusty, disorganised and filthy camp is formally known as the al-Shati camp. It is home, according to some estimates, to nearly 100,000 people, all crammed into less than half a square mile.

On the day we meet Khaled Hamis, he was doing the same thing he's been doing for the past decade. Nothing. It is now 10 years since he had a job, and almost every day of those years he has met his equally jobless friends in the street, sitting on cheap garden furniture and whiling the day away talking and drinking tea.

"We are bored," he says three times in quick succession. "I used to be able to go and work in Israel, but now it gets worse and worse. Not one of these people has a job."

When we first meet 47-year-old Hamis, he is sitting with seven or eight other men who are in a similar position to him. By the time we leave, there are perhaps 40 people in the street, and none of them says they have regular work.

Fingering prayer beads, Hamis says that he is a hopeless case. "We are not being lazy, but all the jobs go to people who have connections to the [Hamas] government," he says. There are lots of UN programmes here, too, but even to get work with them, you have to know the right people. About 80 per cent of the people in the camp are in the same position," he claims.

Sitting just metres from the heavily guarded entrance to the road on which Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister lives, Hamis and his friends have nothing but disdain for the ruling Islamist group.

Asked who is to blame for this predicament, he is unequivocal. "The recent war set us back to zero, and it's the Hamas government, they are the ones to blame for this situation. All the jobs go to their supporters – they have all the power."

It is only when we mention Israel that Hamis and his friends agree that the Jewish state is to blame too, but it is clear that the primary source of annoyance is with the man who lives down the road and the party he runs.

And as for peace, not a chance.

"Peace with Israel looks like it will never happen – nobody in Israel wants peace." Referring to Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995, he says: "When they do find someone who wants peace, they kill him – so what hope is there?".

'They are flooding the tunnels, our only income'

HASAN ABDULLAH, WORKER IN A RAFAH TUNNEL

Rafah, Gaza's second biggest city, is a hot, dusty industrial town on the Egyptian border. Its industry is tunnels. Most men of working age are employed in the tunnels, which allow goods in- to the territory circumventing the blockade.

The tunnels are controversial – the Israelis worry about weapons coming into Gaza through them, while Hamas is worried about what illicit and non-Islamic items are entering. The Egyptians, who flooded many of the tunnels in February, are worried about people coming the other way, seeking a better life.

Given the sensitive nature of what goes on in Rafah's tunnels, it wasn't then a huge surprise that the authorities overseeing the work were not overly keen on us speaking to the men.

But outside the front gates of one of the sites, Hasan Abdullah (not his real name), who was just about to start his eight-hour shift hauling goods up into Gaza, was eager to describe his life as a tunnel worker.

"It's shit," he said simply. "For about NIS 100 [£18] a day, I pull gravel into Gaza. Yes, it's important work, because where would these things come from without the tunnels?

"But we risk life and limb every day," he says passionately. "Only yesterday, someone who worked in our tunnel lost a finger. We don't even have gloves for protection."

It might be expected that Abdullah would blame Israel for his hand-to-mouth existence, and indeed he does blame the Jewish state's blockade for his lot, but it's not the main focus of his ire.

"What is the rest of the Arab world doing?" he asks. "Just look at this situation. We have to get all our things through holes in the ground – who else on the planet has to do this? All we want is to live like anyone else. I want to get married, but how can I, when all the money I get goes on food?

"And now they are flooding the tunnels. They even want to cut off the only thing that provides us with an income."

Abdullah says that he is a Palestinian nationalist. Nonetheless, he also blames Hamas for having a role in flooding the tunnels. "Sure, they want to stop the smuggling, especially the smuggling of drugs, but they also want to tax everything, too. They want fewer tunnels so that they can control them and make money from them themselves, too."

'Life has changed a lot in Gaza'

AHMED YOUSEF, FORMER HAMAS OFFICIAL

Ahmed Yousef is one of the most important movers and shakers in Gaza. An academic, journalist, engineer, author and Hamas politico, Dr Yousef was appointed as an adviser to the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in 2006. Now semi-retired, he runs a think tank with ties to the Islamist government.

Some of the most common complaints of many in Gaza is that they can't leave; the jobs that they used to do in Israel are no longer available to them; and the prospects for their children to go abroad to complete their education are receding fast.

Fortunately for Yousef, aged 63, there have been no such problems. Thrusting a copy of his latest book (in Arabic) at us, he talks at length about his life. He spent most of his academic career in the United States after leaving Gaza in 1982, but he has also spent years living in the Gulf and North Africa. At the time, he had no passport, just Israeli travel documents. Now he's meeting Swiss diplomats and talking about the latest rapprochement between Hamas and its rival political group, Fatah.

He's not overly keen to discuss his own life here – save that he is pleased to be back living with his family – or the problems for ordinary Gazans.

He does address the accusations of the Rafah tunnel workers, saying that the flooding of the tunnels had more to do with the political situation in Egypt. He adds that he has "no idea about any taxes" that are being imposed by Hamas on goods being imported. He is also keen to talk about the future of a united Palestine, rather than the Israelis, but there is anger for Israel's former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who will return to the post if he clears his name in a fraud trial, who he blames for taking Palestinian land for settlements in the West Bank.

"Life has changed a lot here," he says of Gaza, but doesn't say whether it's for the better.

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