“One If by Land, Two If by Sea”
My entry into Gaza through the modern and highly secure Israeli facility at Erez on Gaza’s northern border with Israel was uneventful as compared to Paul Revere’s midnight ride in 1775 when two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church in Boston signaled that the British were arriving by sea. Nor did it have the drama surrounding the five vessel flotilla destined for Gaza preceding my border crossing by land. Revere’s ride, immortalized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, does, however, remind us of troubled times in widely separated parts of the world during different eras. This was my first visit to Gaza. As a result, the account that follows certainly contains errors of omission and perhaps unwittingly some of comission.
The Gaza Strip
The Gaza Strip is a narrow band of land about 45 kilometers long, 6 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and 13 kilometers wide at the widest point. It constitutes 165 square kilometers, which makes it about the size of Singapore or the tiny Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Gaza is surrounded on the north and east by Israel, on the southwest by Egypt and on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. You can drive the length of Gaza in 45 minutes.
More than 1.5 million people live in this densely populated land. Until 1948, Gaza was the administrative capital of a strip of land stretching from the Palestinian border with Egypt to Ashdod in present day Israel. As Israel expanded its territory in 1948, it stopped at the borders of Gaza which became a sanctuary for some 200,000 to 250,000 Palestinian refugees expelled from land that became part of Israel. In 1949, Egypt and Israel signed an armistice establishing the current boundaries for Gaza. The territory holds no religious significance for the Jewish people.
The Governance Situation
Hamas firmly controls Gaza while the party of Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, governs in the West Bank. Hamas is an acronym for an organization that translates as the Islamic Resistance Movement. Hamas developed in 1987 from the Muslim Brotherhood, a religious and political organization founded in Egypt. The senior Hamas figure in Gaza today is Ismail Haniyeh, while its overall leader, Khaled Meshal, resides in exile in Syria. In 2006, Hamas surprisingly won the Palestinian general legislative elections, defeating Fatah and setting the stage for a power struggle. In 2007, Hamas militarily routed remaining Fatah supporters in Gaza, killing many and forcing others to flee to the West Bank. This led to a de facto division of Gaza, led by Hamas, and the West Bank, led by the PA with its headquarters in Ramallah.
Hamas combines Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism. Its founding charter commits Hamas to the destruction of Israel and the replacement of the PA with an Islamist state on the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel, which precludes it from taking part in any peace talks. Israel, the United States and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. But Hamas is also a powerful political and social organization that has a reputation for eschewing corruption, and it has proved that it can mobilize support in free elections. Hamas funds schools, orphanages, mosques, clinics and sports leagues throughout Gaza.
Recent Gaza-Israel Relations
Israel imposed sanctions against Gaza after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections and after Hamas subsequently captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who presumably remains under Hamas control although he has not been seen publicly. After Hamas defeated Fatah and took complete control of Gaza in 2007, Israel then implemented an even stricter embargo, with Egyptian support. Beginning early in its administration, Hamas allowed (probably encouraged) the firing of poorly targeted rockets into Israel. Other organizations also engaged in these homemade rocket attacks. There was a six-month cease fire in 2008, but Hamas called off the truce near the end of the year and resumed firing rockets into Israel. Tel Aviv responded in late December with a massive attack on Gaza by air and ground that lasted for three weeks, killed many Palestinians and inflicted considerable damage. Rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel have largely ended.
The tightened Israeli blockade has made it almost impossible to rebuild the structures destroyed by Israel during its invasion in late 2008 and early
2009. For example, Israel destroyed Gaza’s main power plant and sewage treatment plant. Power has been partially restored, but there are still frequent outages. The sewage treatment plant has not been repaired and raw sewage is spilling into Gaza’s northern shore, polluting an area where I saw many Palestinians swimming. In an ambiguous announcement on 17 June 2010, Israel said it would adjust its blockade policy and allow more goods to enter Gaza.
Expectations versus Reality
I was not sure what to expect during this two day visit to Gaza, especially in view of all the publicity following the failed flotilla episode. My underlying expectations were that Gaza is an economic dead zone with shortages of nearly everything and that Palestinians living in Gaza would be overwhelmingly despondent. I also expected to encounter a heavy and visible Hamas security presence. All three expectations were wide of the mark.
What I found was bustling commercial activity based on trade through the underground tunnels between Gaza’s southern border and Egypt and a population that remains angry at its plight but is far from despondent. I stayed in a first class hotel, the Al Deira in Gaza City, and ate in excellent restaurants with varied menus. The Mediterranean beaches were crowded from sunup until well after sundown with adults and children. Admittedly, this tiny enclave where exit and entry for Palestinians is almost impossible does not allow much else by way of recreation. I did see a few armed Hamas security personal dressed in black fatigues. They were, however, neither numerous nor did they seem to be engaged in any activity other than serving on static guard duty. Hamas has reportedly made a major effort to take arms from individual Palestinians, a development welcomed by most residents who previously were subject to periodic celebratory shooting that resulted in the death of innocent people. Before Hamas took power in Gaza, there was also frequent family-based factionalism that ended in violence.
Small Gazan vessels continue to fish up to 3 miles off the coast. They operate out of the tiny harbor at Gaza City and are easily visible off shore as are the larger Israeli naval vessels that patrol regularly beyond the 3 mile zone. The fishing industry has shrunk significantly because of its limited access to the sea. If the small Gazan fishing vessels venture out more than 3 miles, the Israeli naval ships fire warning shots or, on occasion, directly at the Gazan vessels.
Reactions to the Flotilla
Gazans were still buzzing about the flotilla during my visit. It is clear, however, that the flotilla was largely a political stunt and not a humanitarian aid mission. With the important exception of building materials and large equipment, the flotilla was bringing little that is not already available in Gaza. Israel’s mishandling of the situation was a propaganda bonanza for Gaza. Residents of Gaza welcomed the flotilla because it focused attention on their situation and showed that someone in the outside world cares about Gaza. There was particular appreciation for Turkey and a surge in demand for Turkish flags, which one could see flying in Gaza.
There were several rocket attacks in May 2010 from Gaza into Israel after the flotilla episode. They came to a quick end and Palestinians claim that Hamas even captured and jailed the offenders. I have no way of confirming this report. The fact that Israel did not retaliate suggests that it understands these were renegade attacks opposed by Hamas.
The Tunnel System
A visit to the maze of tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border was one of the most fascinating stops. At this point, Gaza is about 13 kilometers wide from the Mediterranean Sea to the Israeli border. Apparently the soil from the shore of the Mediterranean for about five kilometers inland is too sandy to build tunnels. They tend to cave in. Presumably, there is also a reluctance to build tunnels close to the Israeli border. This would leave a band of perhaps 5 kilometers that is a couple of hundred yards wide to build the tunnel entrances and exits on the Gaza side. There are no obvious security personnel in the tunnel exit/entry area and strangers can move around at random.
In Gaza, most of the openings are covered by tents or more permanent structures. The tunnels extend under the Egyptian wall along the border for a distance of up to 1 kilometer before they open again on the Egyptian side. They descend up to a depth of 20 meters. I saw one that went straight down for 12 meters and then made a right angle turn towards the Egyptian border. I was told there are currently about 3,000 active tunnels, although eyeballing the small area in which they are concentrated suggests that estimate may be too high. Perhaps each opening has multiple tunnels that increase the number. It is also not clear what qualifies as a tunnel. Some of them reportedly consist of nothing more than a pipe to carry fuel, which is very cheap in Egypt and remains reasonably priced in Gaza. I was also told that the tunnels, which are owned by individual families and operate like a crime syndicate, are licensed by Hamas and the goods taxed by Hamas. According to one estimate, the tunnels employ directly or indirectly some 40,000 persons. That figure seems much too high. Several Palestinians said that one or more tunnels is/are large enough to drive a car through. It is very dangerous to work in the tunnels. They cave in regularly and the Israelis occasionally bomb the system.
Most of the goods in Gaza today come through the tunnels. Consumer goods and food products are widely available. Most of them are from China and Egypt. There are serious shortages of building products and heavy equipment. As a result, most of the structures bombed by Israel during the brief war in 2008-2009 have not been rebuilt. On the other hand, virtually all the rubble has been removed and there is vacant space where buildings once stood. The tunnel system does have one huge downside. They drive up the cost of the goods available to residents of Gaza. Consequently, poorer Gazans, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population, can not afford anything other than essentials.
The tunnel system could not operate without the connivance of Egyptian officials on their side of the border. Since Egypt’s official policy is to support the Israeli blockade, the assumption is that bribes to Egyptian officials allows the system to function. The U.S. reportedly helped finance a scheme to drive steel plates 30 meters deep (below this level it is very difficult to dig a tunnel) along that part of the Gaza-Egypt border where tunnels exist. It is proving to be an expensive failure. For about $5,000, the Palestinians can cut through the steel plate and continue with their tunneling. There is so much money to be made in the tunnel economy, that $5,000 is no obstacle at all. According to one account, the United States has suspended financing of this project.
Where Does the Money Come From to Support This Economy?
In view of the Israeli blockade, virtually no functioning industry and very little agriculture, the question arises as to the source of funds for the Gazan economy. Most of it seems to come from the following:
Israeli Settlements in Gaza
In August 2005, Israel forcibly evacuated all remaining settlers living in the Gaza Strip. At the peak there were less than 8,000 Israeli settlers in Gaza, but they occupied some key real estate and the secure roads supporting their exit to and entry from Israel severely complicated the movement of the 1.5 million Palestinians who shared this congested land.
The closure of the settlements has significantly improved internal mobility and the lifestyle of the Palestinians. They no longer have to contend with Israeli security personnel inside Gaza who were there for the purpose of protecting the settlers. According to the Palestinians, Israel concluded that the small number of settlers living in Gaza posed excessive security expenses and presented an untenable long-term situation. Some Gazans argue that the periodic rocket attacks from within Gaza into Israeli settlements in Gaza drove them out. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Israel bulldozed the settlements to the ground. Hamas has made use of very little of these leveled settlement spaces. In those cases where the land was once owned by Palestinian families, it has not yet been returned.
The Rafah Border Crossing
I was able to tour the border crossing at Rafah from Gaza into Egypt. Egypt had recently reopened the border although it had already closed to movement of persons at the time of my visit. The security emplacements are simple on the Gaza side, more impressive on the Egyptian side. The actual crossing covers a surprisingly large land area. Hamas security personnel control the Gaza side while Egyptian troops are in charge on their side. Because there was no movement of people at the time of my visit, the Hamas guards were bored and pleased to take the time to show a visitor how the crossing worked.
Gaza and the International Community
Gaza continues to struggle with its international ties. Because it is on the terrorist list of the United States and European Union, contact with these countries is out of the question. Nor does it have very many friends in the Arab world. Its only neighbor other than Israel is Egypt. Because Hamas’ ideological ties are with the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, an opposition group that is anathema to President Mubarak, relations between Egypt and Hamas remain cool. Egypt also sees Gaza as an Israeli-created problem and is not especially anxious to assume responsibility for an issue that was not of its making. This is understandable as concerns the movement of Palestinians from Gaza through Egypt. It is less clear, however, why Egypt does not want to benefit more from commerce passing legally across the Gaza-Egypt border rather than surreptitiously through the tunnel system. Open trade would seem to work to the advantage of both Egypt and Gaza. It is also possible that Egypt is keeping the border closed in response to pressure from Israel. The Egyptian announcement following the flotilla incident that it had reopened the Rafah border has had limited impact. The Rafah crossing is only open to a small number of people each day. No commerce is passing through Rafah.
Hamas, comprised of Sunni Muslims, has developed close relations with Shia Iran. Ideologically, the two entities have nothing in common; this appears to be a marriage of convenience. Nor does Hamas have anything in common ideologically with Wahabbi Saudi Arabia. Hamas does have good links with Syria, Sudan, Qatar and recently Turkey.
Higher Education in Gaza
The primary purpose of my visit to Gaza was to lecture on the brain drain and the Nile water question at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. Consequently, I will offer a few comments on the state of higher education in Gaza.
Al-Azhar University is affiliated with Fatah. Pictures of Yasser Arafat still hang on the wall. Established in 1991, it has an undergraduate enrollment of 18,000 and about 300 students at the MA level. It has 12 faculties and an association with Cairo University. Most classes are taught in Arabic, although the science faculties are often taught in English. All the teaching staff is Palestinian from Gaza. It has a department of desalinization, a medical institute, a pharmacy program, and a respected water research center. It does not have a strong academic reputation. Graduates have huge problems finding employment. One exception is the small number of graduates in agriculture.
The Hamas-affiliated Islamic University of Gaza has the best academic reputation in the Gaza Strip. It enrolls 19,000 undergraduates and 1,000 MA students. It has 10 faculties at the BA and MA level: medicine, engineering, information technology, science, nursing, commerce, education, art, sharia and law. Education is based on religious doctrine. It has the most rigorous academic program, the best students and the best faculty, a number of whom are former Fulbright scholars. Because of the Islamic University links with Hamas, the United States has no engagement with the institution.
Established in 2000, Al-Aqsa University has about 16,000 undergraduates. In 2009, it became embroiled in a power struggle involving Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). The PA in Ramallah briefly closed the university. It reopened in the fall of 2009, apparently under a committee formed by the National and Islamic Forces on the initiative of the PFLP. Al Aqsa has two campuses—one in Gaza City and one in southern Gaza at Khan Younis City on land formerly occupied by Israeli settlers. It has 7 faculties: arts, science, education, media, fine arts, physical education and administration and financial studies. The quality of education is considered to be poor.
The University College of Applied Sciences has about 6,000 undergraduate students. It offers 40 majors and was started by professors from the Islamic University. The focus is on technical education. It reportedly has high standards.
The newest institution of higher learning is Palestine University, a private school. It only has 400 to 500 students and is struggling to obtain accreditation.
Al-Quds Open University offers long distance education from outside Gaza to some 60,000 students in both Gaza and the West Bank at 24 different centers. Most of its students failed to obtain admittance to one of the other universities.
Some of the Key Problems Facing Gaza
The fact that Gaza is in better shape than I expected, does not mean it is doing well. The problems are enormous and include the following:
The Future of Gaza
In spite of the terrible state of relations between Israel and Gaza, I find it easier to be optimistic about a solution to their differences than a solution of the West Bank situation. The existence of the ubiquitous Israeli settlements and their security satrapy on the West Bank do not make it possible for me to envisage creation of a viable, independent Palestinian state in the West Bank anytime in the foreseeable future.
The situation in Gaza is very different. While current political relations between Hamas and Israel are much worse than they are in the case of the PA and Israel, the practical issues are much more amenable to solution. Gaza has well defined and generally accepted borders with Israel. There are no longer any Israeli settlements in Gaza. Hamas clearly controls all the territory in Gaza. In the West Bank, the PA only controls the cities while Israel controls large chunks of the rest of the territory.
If Hamas could end its stated goal of the destruction of Israel, agree to accept the existence of Israel and return the captured Israeli soldier, the way would seem to be open for reaching an understanding with Tel Aviv. The two entities do not have to like each other; they only need to co-exist. Israel would have to end its blockade of Gaza, permit infrastructure such as Gaza’s international airport (destroyed by Israel circa 2001 and then again in 2009) to reopen and allow Gaza complete and free access along the Mediterranean coast. A particularly difficult issue for Israel would be Gaza’s desire to build up its military capacity. But it should be possible to resolve even this issue.
This may be naïve, wishful thinking by a specialist on Africa, not the Middle East. But as compared to the challenges in reaching a solution for the West Bank, Gaza looks positively soluble.
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