Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, October 11th 2008.



When I reach the end of the cool, dimly-lit corridor, I set my bags down on the ground and call out, quietly at first, but then at the top of my voice. “Hello… HELLO!?” The words echo around the spacious hangar. Eventually, a small trapdoor in the concrete opens, and a toothless man in a luminous vest beckons me through. I place my luggage on the trolley and we walk in silence down another winding gangway, until I emerge, blinking, into the dazzling sunlight.

What stands before me is a scene of utter desolation: the chalk remains of roads, buildings and farmland, bombed and bulldozed beyond recognition. The photographer accompanying me has just been turned away by the Israeli captain in charge at Erez crossing. As a result, I’m carrying two rucksacks, both stuffed to bursting point with medical supplies and duty free whiskey (which I’m told will be gratefully received in the besieged city). I sling a bag over each shoulder and strike out alone into no-man’s-land. The temperature is close to 40˚C and the ground crunches beneath my feet.

About five hundred metres along the track, I run into a Hamas checkpoint. Beyond it, three taxi drivers are reclining in the shade of an olive tree. After the Orwellian ordeal I’ve just endured on the Israeli side of the border, formalities here are refreshingly straightforward. A bearded gunman in military fatigues ambles over, squints at me and scribbles my name down in longhand in a dog-eared copybook. Then he hands back my passport, smiles and shakes my hand. “Welcome to Gaza!” he says.
Kids in Gaza

The Gaza Strip is home to 1.5m people: the majority of them refugee families expelled from the land that became Israel in 1948. It’s about a third the size of Co. Louth and is not part of any internationally recognised sovereign state. Although the Israeli occupation officially ended in 2005, Israel retains control of Gaza’s borders, territorial waters and airspace, as well as its power and water supplies. In the wake of Hamas’ surprise election victory here in March 2006, and the subsequent routing of the remaining opposition Fatah forces last summer, Israel declared Gaza an “enemy entity” and began enforcing a crippling military blockade.

Israel insists the blockade is a necessary security measure, citing the hundreds of Qassam rockets that have been fired into its territory from Gaza since 2005. Palestinians counter that the siege constitutes collective punishment against the civilian population. What no one disputes is that the lives of Gaza’s residents have been severely disrupted as a result. The economy is paralysed and there are serious shortages of all consumer goods. As in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, tunnels have been constructed to smuggle food and weapons into the territory. But with demand far outstripping supply, prices have skyrocketed.

In the stifling heat of midday, Gaza City is a ghost town. Shop fronts are boarded up and the streets are cratered with enormous potholes (which my taxi driver negotiates with the practiced ease of a cocktail waitress whisking a tray of drinks across a crowded bar.) Portraits of fresh-faced young men hang from every billboard, lamppost and wall. It’s almost as though a general election campaign were underway, except that most of the candidates look barely old enough to vote. “Martyrs of the Palestinian resistance” explains the taxi driver. And that’s pretty much the end of that conversation.

In an air-conditioned office on Omar al-Mukhtar Street, law student Said al Madhoun sips from a glass of coffee and chooses his words carefully. Like countless young Gazans, the 29-year-old’s life has been turned upside down by the current crisis. A year ago, he was offered a Masters scholarship at the American University in Washington D.C. As a result of the blockade, however, he remains stranded in Gaza with no idea when, if ever, he will be allowed to leave. Since March he has been volunteering as a field researcher at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

“No one can deny that a real disaster is taking place here” he says, offering a series of grim statistics to support that assertion: 30% of the population suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, 80% surviving on less than $2 per day, 40% unemployment. The average wage earner here supports eight people, but earns five times less than he did before the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Under the present Israeli blockade, only a trickle of basic commodities are permitted into the territory. With the supply of raw materials cut off, and access to outside markets denied, industry and agriculture have collapsed.

Meanwhile, Gaza’s fishermen, once permitted to trawl up to 20 miles from the shore under the terms of the Oslo Accord, are now obliged to stay within seven miles of the coast, where fish stocks are all but exhausted – a regulation aggressively enforced by the Israeli navy. Coupled with a prohibitive increase in fuel prices, this means that the majority of the Palestinian fishing fleet is now rusting at harbour. Hundreds of thousands of students and migrant workers remain stranded, while as many as 500 seriously ill patients have been denied permission to seek advanced medical treatment abroad.

“How can a terminally ill patient pose a security threat?” asks Said al Madhoun, shaking his head in disbelief. Actually, Israeli authorities have hinted at a possible rationale for denying some patients treatment abroad. In March 2008, 21-year-old Nael al Kurdi from Gaza City died after being refused permission to return to Egypt to continue his cancer treatment. At the time an Israeli government spokesman speculated that, with nothing left to live for, terminally ill patients might be more tempted to become suicide bombers. It was beautiful, brutal logic, worthy of Colonel Cathcart in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

From Israel’s point of view, though, it is engaged in an existential battle with an array of dangerous enemies intent on its destruction. Any relaxation of the present security measures would likely be exploited by Hamas to mount further attacks on Israeli territory. Said rejects this line of argument out of hand. “The siege of Gaza is a collective punishment inflicted by the Israeli army on innocent civilians” he replies quietly. “Governments and relief organisations have made statements condemning what is happening here. But, right now, there is no real international pressure on Israeli to resolve the situation.”

The streets of Gaza City are slowly coming to life. Whistles sound. Car horns honk. Down one dusty alleyway, two men push-start a battered old Toyota. Around the corner, a boy sells water melons from a wheel barrow. Kalashnikov-toting Hamas fighters, in their distinctive blue camouflage fatigues, keep a watchful eye on passing cars. In contrast to the West Bank, with its endless checkpoints and tailbacks, traffic here flows relatively freely, potholes and rubbish piles notwithstanding. Functioning automobiles have become something of a rarity though. The cars that do operate run on cooking oil. A noxious odour pervades the city.

Fuel imports into Gaza are strictly limited by the Israeli army. The effect of the chronic shortage is felt well beyond the arena of transportation. Due to a lack of industrial diesel, Gaza’s main power plant is forced to operate at well below capacity, resulting in six to eight hours of power cuts per day. With insufficient electricity available to operate the pumps, about a third of the population live without running water in their homes, and 30-40 million litres of sewage flow untreated into the sea every day.

Four kilometres north in the Jabaliya refugee camp, I meet a man whose job it is to navigate these myriad of overlapping crises on a daily basis. Dr. Yousef Mousa is the charismatic director of Al-Awda Hospital. He is a large, loquacious man, who effortlessly commands attention, even as he insists that this nurse, or that surgeon, is better qualified to speak. (Though I wouldn’t dream of saying it to him, he actually reminds me a lot of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.) He accepts the medical supplies I offer on behalf of Irish Medical Aid for Palestine with a minimum of fuss. An aide takes the bag and returns minutes later with both a neatly typed receipt and a list of medicines the hospital still urgently requires.

With a population of about 100,000 people, Jabaliya is Gaza’s largest refugee camp. It was the site of the last major Israeli incursion in 2006 and, more recently, a flashpoint in the internecine violence that convulsed Gaza in the summer of 2007. A moustachioed doctor shows me photographs of patients killed or injured in an Israeli rocket attack on an apartment block here in February of this year. One man’s right leg and scrotum are completely obliterated while the rest of his body is left almost unscathed. Another man, who was standing across the street when the missile struck, has shards of plastic buried deep into his torso. There are other images too disturbing even to describe.hospital-slideshow-2

Dr. Mousa insists that all of those killed were innocent civilians. But he is quick to add that the families of prisoners and ‘martyrs’ (as they are universally referred to here) are, as a right, treated free of charge at the cash-strapped hospital. At the moment, a fragile truce between Hamas and Israel is holding. But even during this brief respite from violence, the problems faced by his staff are legion. Regular power cuts mean that the hospital has to depend on two back-up generators, which cost up to $1,200 per day to run. With no diesel or spare parts, the hospital – which is home to the sole maternity ward in northern Gaza – operates only a skeleton ambulance service.

The sewage crisis meanwhile has also created another whole slew of problems. Contamination is everywhere: in the water people drink, the fish they eat and the sea they wash their clothes in. Children in particular are susceptible to worms and other parasites. In March of last year a sewage reservoir burst and flooded the nearby village of Umm Naser, killing four people and destroying 25 makeshift homes. In the months that followed, insects and mosquitoes spread skin and gastric diseases among the surrounding population. Malnutrition is rife and the use of cooking oil in car engines has led to a dramatic upsurge in respiratory problems.

But it is not just people’s health that’s being adversely affected, Dr. Mousa says. The very fabric of Gazan society is coming apart. For Palestinians, extended family networks are very important. (Before I came here, an Irish aid worker told me that any Gaza resident could likely locate any other Gaza resident within a maximum of three phone calls. Setting up meetings and so on, in the short time I’ve been here, that estimate has proven unfailingly accurate.) Current hardships though, are causing brothers, sisters and cousins to clash, as they struggle to provide for elderly relatives and children.

By way of example, Dr. Mousa tells me about a man who visited the hospital recently and asked to speak to him privately. Until the blockade began, the man said, he had earned $50 a day as a migrant worker in Israel. He provided for his family and looked after his children. With the beginning of the blockade, however, he lost his job. He sold everything he owned – furniture, refrigerator, television – to put food on the table. With nothing left to sell, he now hid in the bathroom each morning until his children had left for school. He could not bear to tell them that he had no food to give them. Was the hospital able to help him, I ask? Dr. Mousa shakes his head. “This man did not look for help. He just wanted someone to know that this was happening.”

If any pavement still exists on Twam Street, it is buried beneath several inches of sand. The now derelict boulevard was once to have been the centrepiece of a rejuvenated commercial district in Gaza. But the EU-funded construction project halted abruptly when Hamas came to power in March 2006. All of the businesses here are boarded up now, except for one: a pharmacy. The pharmacist appears mildly astonished to see a Westerner walk through her front door. But she smiles politely and says hello. The entire stock is covered in a thin layer of fine sand. She cleans the sand off every day, she explains (by miming the cleaning action). But it always returns.

Down at the seafront, I try to speak to some of the returning fishermen. But a man in a blue beret aggressively informs me that access to the pier is prohibited. I’m not sure what this guy’s problem is. But he’s pointing an AK-47 assault rifle at me, so I elect not to make a fuss. It was on a beach near here in June 2006 that seven members of a Palestinian family were killed by an alleged Israeli artillery strike. The television pictures of the surviving daughter’s grief shocked the world. Today the beaches are occupied by rows and rows of galvanised shacks, which some families appear to be making their homes. I ask the taxi driver if these people are Bedouin, the nomadic Arab tribe commonly found across Israel and Palestine. “No” he replies. “Just poor.”

Across the road a handful of rather grand-looking hotels are boarded-up and falling apart. Gaza was once going to be the Singapore of the Mediterranean, the taxi driver informs me. He laughs bitterly now at the idea.

Even in the midst of all this grinding poverty and decay, a small clique of affluent young men still exists in Gaza. I know this because they’re sitting next to me in the dining room at my hotel, smoking hookahs and watching a European soccer game. I ask the waiter for a cold beer with my dinner. He hands the menu back to me, looking a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, sir” he says in faltering English. “There are no beers on the menu.” “In that case”, I suggest, lowering my voice a little, “maybe you could bring me one of the beers that aren’t on the menu?” I give him a knowing look. He shakes his head. “No, sir” he says. “No beer.”

The sale of alcohol, he explains, is strictly prohibited in the Gaza Strip. (Well, that would explain why those whiskey bottles I was dishing out earlier were so ecstatically well received.) He says that another hotel nearby used to run a bar until recently. But it shut down after being firebombed by Islamic Jihad. I really can’t believe what I’m hearing. I smuggled enough hooch into this city this morning to get an entire intifada soused. And my thanks is a lukewarm bottle of mineral water!

For a region which seems to be permanently teetering on the brink of apocalypse, Arab satellite TV is surprisingly sedate. I had expected the airwaves to be inundated with mad mullahs ranting about the Great Satan and anthropomorphic dinosaurs lecturing pre-school children about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Instead, typical primetime entertainment here consists of a Daniel O’Donnell-esque crooner, in a keffiyeh and goatee beard, singing sentimental love songs while standing in front of a pretend lake. I may not understand Arabic but, as I drift off to sleep, I fancy I can take an educated guess at what his song is about.

Once I had a little girl, she was pretty as can be
They say she was the fairest girl in old Arab-i-eee…

fullbright-2At breakfast the next morning, I chat to Osama Dawoud, a 25-year-old engineering lecturer at the Palestinian University. He is a sombre, articulate guy, an admirer of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky, who looks every inch the academic in his shirtsleeves and tie. Earlier this year, Dawoud was one of seven Gazans awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in the United States. He was due to enrol at the University of Utah this month to study for his PhD. In June however, all seven recipients of the prestigious bursary were refused exit visas by the Israeli government. After the personal intervention of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the matter appeared to be settled in the students favour. But when they presented themselves at Erez Crossing, Dawoud and two others were again refused passage.

Last month, the US State Department withdrew US entry visas for these three students, saying only that “new information” about them had come to light. “We are still waiting, yes” Dawoud sighs. “But it’s not just a matter of waiting. They offer us no explanations, nothing.”

Media speculation about the decision has centred upon the fact that all three are graduates of the Islamic University in Gaza. But Dawoud doubts that could be the reason. The university is the only one in Gaza to offer an engineering programme, he says, and he hasn’t had any connection with it since graduating in 2005. Besides, he left to study for his Masters Degree in Jordan in 2006 and his association with the institution didn’t prove any stumbling block then. “It is very frustrating. The Israeli authorities will refer only to ‘security concerns’ or ‘security threats’. I wish someone would tell me what the threat is, because I have nothing to hide.”

He points out that, even if Israel considers him a security risk, they could still allow him to cross into Egypt at Rafah and fly to the US from Cairo. In August 2008, the Washington Post reported on allegations that terminally ill patients from Gaza were being pressured to inform on their friends and family in return for access to treatment abroad. Speaking to me before those claims come to light, Dawoud makes some very similar allegations about the tactics being used on students. He even claims that another Fulbright scholar, Zuhair Abu Shaban, was pressurised to give information on his own family.

“They were asking him ‘What do you know about this person? What do you know about that person?’ He was shown a long list with the names of members of his own family. But his family is one of the biggest in Gaza. He cannot know something about every single relative.” Even answering the questions posed by Shin Bet agents is no guarantee of safe passage. “They want students to provide information about Hamas” Dawoud explains. “If the student complies, it means he has a relationship with Hamas. If he doesn’t, it means he is not cooperating. In either case they will send him back. It is ridiculous.”

We’re joined at the table by another stranded student, Said al Madhoun, whom I met yesterday the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Both al Madhoun and Dawoud state that, if permitted to study abroad, they intend to return to help rebuild Gaza. “I have a clear vision of how I would contribute to the future of Gaza” says Dawoud. “My PhD is in the field of environmental and water resources training. You know about the environmental problems we have here. The population in the Gaza Strip will double in the next fifteen years. If Israel is serious about wanting two states living in peace alongside each other, they should encourage higher education and not make students pawns in a political conflict.”

Talk turns to the general political situation. What of the likelihood of another Israeli incursion into Gaza, I ask? “Hopefully that will not happen” al Madhoun replies. “If it does happen, I can assure you that it will only benefit the extremists here. Our people have nothing left. The Israelis are keeping us isolated and humiliated, but keeping us alive. When people are treated in this manner, you should only expect the worst from them. If live ceases to have any meaning, I guarantee you will only find more suicide bombers.”

erez-crossingBack at Erez, the border has closed again with no warning given or explanation offered. Half a dozen demoralised-looking Palestinian businessmen are seated on the asphalt, with only a narrow sheet of galvanise to protect them from the glare of the midday sun. I approach one to ask if he has any idea what’s going on. But he gestures to me to just sit down. High above us, Israeli F-16 fighter planes can be heard roaring through the sky. There are reports on Israeli radio that Fatah-linked militants have fired Qassam rockets into Israel from Gaza. So it looks as though we may here for some time.

Two hours pass and there is still no hint as to when, if ever, the crossing is likely to reopen. Some of the businessmen have now taken out their prayer mats and are kneeling towards Mecca to offer their midday prayers. I’m surreptitiously reading from yesterday’s Jerusalem Post. For the most part, Gaza has not featured as a story in the Israeli media this summer. Much more attention has been focused on the possibility of US or Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. But in this edition M.J. Rosenberg has written a column about the Egyptian-brokered truce with Hamas.

The present detente, he concedes, is unlikely to last. There is already ample evidence that Hamas (like Israel) is using the pause to regroup and rearm. When the ceasefire does collapse, Israel will likely launch its long-deferred invasion of Gaza. So ultimately, all this truce is likely to achieve is to defer, by a few weeks or months, the deaths of dozens or hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of Palestinians. All the same, Rosenberg argues, even if that is the case, such a delay is worth the risk. He describes seeing an interview with the mother of an American soldier who died in Iraq. The woman said that she would give everything she owned to spend just one more day with her son.

“Even if the inevitable dead are spared for just a week or a month” Rosenberg writes, “It is another week with parents, children and friends. Surely that is worth something?”

[Former Mongrel publisher Yousef Eldin was to have taken photographs on this trip, but was denied entry at Erez crossing by the IDF. These images instead were taken on my own camera phone.]

[Postscript: An Israeli reader named Susan Schwarm writes: “Re: the AK-47 wielding gunman blocking access to the pier. Does Hamas have something to hide, such as attempts to smuggle weapons into the Strip? Perhaps this explains why Israel has restricted fishing limits from 32km to 11km.” It might, but given how freely Hamas was smuggling weapons from Egypt through the tunnels at Rafah at that time, it’s hard to see why they would have risked interception at sea by the Israeli navy. ]