Travel: Eyeball to eyeball along the Gaza strip

Penny Young decided to get off the beaten track, taking her bike past the watchtowers and concrete walls. She found herself eating, breathing and living politics

I CYCLE up underneath the watchtowers and into the shadow of a high protective blank concrete wall. The young soldier in charge sneeringly asks to see my passport, indicating with a nod to a subordinate to turn up the cassette of Western pop music which is playing on a shelf behind him. "Where are you going?" he asks in broken English over the noise.

I think it's fairly obvious where I'm going. There's only one way in for foreigners and this is it, the checkpoint at the Erez crossing into the Gaza strip. "To Gaza", I reply as nicely as I can.

I get my stamp on the separate piece of paper inside my passport which the Israelis obligingly give you when you enter their bit of the unholy land and wheel the bicycle over the smashed pavements, through the labyrinth of crash barriers and shark-like gates with iron teeth towards the Palestinian soldiers. One asks to see my paperwork. He smiles with pleasure as he hands it back. "Welcome to Gaza," he says.

Formalities over, I cycle down the road towards Gaza City, through the orange groves and the scattered sprawls of half-made concrete buildings, trying not to crash into the crazy taxis, clapped out old cars and little donkeys, horses, carts and lorries all jostling for space on that narrow ribbon of tarmac which heads south for 30 miles through the Gaza strip and out at the other end into Egypt.

As I cycle closer to Gaza City itself, I can feel myself breathing in, that feeling of being squeezed reinforced as I pedal up a hill and see the city lying sprawled out as far as the bird can fly. The road disappears underneath a pile of rubble and bulldozers and we're all diverted into a small back street to sit in a hooting line of smelly traffic inching its way through the concrete chaos of Gaza City. I weave the bicycle in and out, minding the pot holes, heading towards the sea and the hotel area.

Yes, there is a hotel area in Gaza. One of them, the Marna Hotel is a private villa in a quiet residential back street, with a little library, grand piano, parrot and beautiful pieces of Oriental furniture. It remained open even during the intifada. But I choose the newer light and airy Amal Hotel in El Mina, the old port area, because at $20 (pounds 12.50) a night with breakfast, it's the cheapest in town and they're so pleased I've come with the bicycle which is tucked away in an empty room downstairs.

I'm given a comfortable room with a balcony, opposite a bathroom where the bath water bubbles back up through the drain in the floor but is kept spotlessly clean. In fact the whole hotel is kept clean and ready for guests even though I'm alone for most of my stay, apart from the occasional European health worker, Taiwanese businessman, stray American student from Cairo, Israeli Arab who's possessed by a demon and has come to Gaza to get rid of it - and two young French boys.

The French boys, like the American, are soon taken under the wing of new-found Palestinian friends. Off go the wide-eyed foreigners to be fed with delicious home cooking - lucky them - and taken to play billiards in the ubiquitous sports clubs (males only). The French boys show me the plastic bullets they've been given by their new friends as holiday souvenirs and tell me, horror-struck, about the bullet hole scars they were shown by nearly everyone at the club.

I make do with Mohammed who gleefully describes what fun it was to throw stones at the Israelis as they stumbled in panic through the narrow alleyways of the refugee camps trying to control thousands of hostile Palestinians during the intifada. It had even been worth the two-year spell in prison when he'd been chained up by his wrists - he rubs them thoughtfully at the memory - for much of the time.

It's estimated that around 80 per cent of Palestinians have psychological problems of one kind or another. After just a few days in the strip, I have seen two vicious looking street fights, both involving crowds of men, and two car crashes (I myself never feel unsafe on the streets and am treated like a piece of china throughout). Soon I too feel as if I am in need of the services of Gaza's famous community mental health programme. It comes to a head, literally, when I'm asked by one smiling woman how I'm finding Gaza. I burst into tears. It's the pressure. You eat, sleep, breathe and live politics in Gaza. Most of the million or so Palestinians are from refugee families who lost their homes and land in 1948. Although the strip gained a kind of autonomy in 1994, Israel keeps a suffocating control on all movement in and out. The Palestinians burn with a sense of injustice and fury that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about them.

"Hi," says the street trader who went to university in the Gulf and the waiter at La Mirage who warns of Israeli informers wherever you look. "Hi. Welcome to Gaza. What do you think of Yasser Arafat? Why do the British want to bomb the Iraqi people? Did you love Diana too?"

My days are spent listening to people telling me that living in Gaza is like being in prison - and then exploring for light relief the few historic remnants which have survived occupation and destruction over the last 3,000 years or so.

There's the Great Mosque which used to be a 12th century Crusader church. Then there's the pillar supposedly from a third century synagogue, but here I'm thrown out almost as soon as I go in. "Come back when it's not prayer time," they say. I slink off, pushing past the money changers, to explore the small vaulted gold souk instead.

Nearby tucked away in the bazaar is the Hamam al-Samarra, a working Turkish bath. I stumble across it during the few hours a week it's open for women and creep down the narrow stone steps into the steamy stone and marble underground chambers.

Gaza's enthusiastic Director of Antiquities, Dr Moain Zadek, takes me to see the sites of the two most recent archaeological finds in the Gaza strip. The first is a sandy area near the Erez checkpoint. He scrapes away some of the sand to reveal the coloured tiles of a mosaic floor from a Byzantine church. "It covers 400 square metres and is the best preserved in all the Palestinian areas. The question is how to preserve it from development."

Next stop is the Beach Refugee Camp. We stand amid the rubbish on top of a huge pile of sand projecting over the sea. "This is Alexander the Great's port," says Dr Zadek - before adding that the Palestinian Authority had jailed him for nine days for trying to protect it. His plans had conflicted with the plans of wealthy property speculators.

My favourite shop is the PLO flag shop, festooned with giant posters of Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein. You can buy Yasser Arafat tie pins and cufflinks, Father Christmases that snow when you turn them upside down and models of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem with flashing lights. Sadly the shop has run out of inflatable head and shoulder sized Yasser Arafats.

It's pleasant cycling along the fine sand beaches and through the orchards of almond trees in the south of the strip where you can visit Gaza International Airport, brand new but kept under wraps until Israel allows it to open. Less pleasant is having to cycle past the Israeli positions on the main road, guns poking from the tops of sandbagged fortifications guarding Israeli settlements. Alone, I fear I look like a suicide bomber. Palestinians are only allowed to drive past if there are at least two of them.

I'm dying for a gin and tonic but there's no alcohol sold in the Gaza strip. Hamas banned it when they burned out all the cinemas in the late 1980s. Still, there are plenty of felafel stores to choose from, spicy chick-pea balls sizzled in oil, popped hot into pitta bread and then topped up with a selection of pickles coloured a lurid red, yellow and green, mainly variations on a cabbage theme.

There's a long way to go before Gaza is a regular stop on the tourist map. It cannot provide the packaged "desert experience" or "religious experience" that you'll get in Israel. But what it will give you is eyeball- to-eyeball experience.

gaza fact file

FLIGHTS:

You can find bargains to Tel Aviv or Eilat. I flew with Britannia Airways on a two-week ticket from Luton to Eilat for pounds 110. I junked my return and bought a single back from Tel Aviv for $220 (pounds 137). Faresavers (01476 592095) were quoting fares from about pounds 120. The cheapest way to get to Gaza from Eilat is to take a bus through Beer Sheba and Ashqelon, get out at the Yad Mordechai junction and walk or hitch the five miles down the road to the Erez checkpoint. If coming from Tel Aviv, take a bus heading to Beer Sheba via Ashqelon and do the same. Or find a share-taxi from Tel Aviv for about $20 (pounds 12.50)

HOTELS IN GAZA CITY:

Windmill Hotel: 2 United Nations Avenue, Remal, Gaza City. Tel: 072 7 826241. Fax: 972 7 869284. The best hotel in town. This is where the diplomats and ambassadors now stay. Rooms from $80 (pounds 50).

Palestine Hotel: Sea front, Gaza City. Tel: 972 7 823355. Fax: 972 7 860056. Yasser Arafat stayed here when he arrived on 1 July 1994. Most expensive telephone calls per minute. Rooms $100 (pounds 63); suite, $95 (pounds 60) full board, $65 (pounds 40) double, $55 (pounds 34) single.

Marna House: A private villa in a quiet residential street away from the sea. Tel 972 7 823322. Fax: 972 7 822624. This is the usual choice of journalists and visiting academics. Rooms $70 (pounds 44); double $60 (pounds 37) single.

Amal Hotel: Omar Al Mokhtar St. Tel: 972 7 861832. Fax: 972 7 841317. Cheapest and friendliest hotel. Rooms from $20 (pounds 12.50).

If you want to stay in the south of the strip, a hotel has opened in Khan Yunis in the extraordinary Hope City complex run by Yasser Arafat's brother, Dr Fathi Arafat. It is a giant community centre catering for the disabled and the able-bodied - who Dr Fathi says are all disabled in some way too. Rooms from $40 (pounds 25). (Nobody uses addresses in the Gaza strip. Everybody knows everybody and where everything is).

VISAS:

Most nationalities, including the British, do not need a visa to visit Israel.You can ask the Israelis not to stamp your passport on arrival at Ben Gurion airport. They will give you a separate card to keep which will be stamped on entering Israel and Gaza and on leaving Israel. Be prepared for long questioning when you come to leave the country if you have visited the Palestinians.

BOOKS:

The `Lonely Planet Guide to Israel' includes a section on the Palestinian Territories. The best book on the history and politics of Gaza is the very readable `Life at the Crossroads' by Gerald Butt. You can pick up a copy at the Marna House Hotel in Gaza City for $15 (pounds 9.30). Real Middle East enthusiasts would be advised to drop in to the Al Hoda bookshop in Charing Cross Road.

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