Gaza Strip – 27 March 2012

5 Jan

Khan Yunis Night

Khan Yunis is not the refugee camp you would imagine. There are no tents, there is no deafening noise of children crying and there are no visible UN trucks.

By the time I arrive in the Gaza Strip, darkness is already creeping over the camp. From my accommodation, nine stories above Khan Yunis, I breathe in an eerie calm and observe an unending sprawl of drab grey buildings four and five stories tall. It looks like the world’s biggest building site. Few buildings have proper roofs. Some have sheets of corrugated iron while others simply have concrete pillars emerging from a ceiling with rusted steel rods swirling out the top. No building looks complete.

With its concrete buildings, including schools and a hospital, it could be considered a city – and not a small one. So why is it called a refugee camp? Because nobody considers it home. Home, the people of Khan Yunis say, is where they and their ancestors lived prior to 1948, when they were forced out of what is now considered Israel.

They believe that they will one day return to their land. It is not a protest chant or a disillusion; they believe that what the world calls Israel is rightfully their home. They are merely living out their lives here until it is time to return.

As the last ray of light fades over the Mediterranean, the hum of personal diesel generators begins to echo around the boundless grey jungle. I don’t hear the sound of fighter jets coming in or rockets flying out. Gaza, at least on this night, is a lot quieter than I had braced myself for, except for the chorus of generators. Lights gradually flicker on in about one in every hundred windows. The rest stay in darkness even though they are all inhabited.

The Gaza strip, with a population of 1.5 million living in an area of 360 square kilometres, is estimated to be the 6th most densely populated area on earth. It is half the size of County Louth while being inhabited by the equivalent of the entire populations of Connaught and Munster combined, including all their towns and cities.

There is currently not enough diesel to fuel Gaza’s one power station for more than 4 hours a day and residents must now fuel their own generators out of these hours. Three days before I arrive, three girls are burned to death when a candle they are using to see their homework is knocked over, setting fire to their home. Country spokespeople say that hospital patients needing treatments like dialysis are at a fatal risk.

The power station has been running at low capacity since being bombed by Israel in 2006 and it relies on fuel imported and smuggled from Egypt, which has clamped down on fuel smuggling, as it is currently facing its own fuel shortages. The lines of cars, monitored by armed soldiers, outside fuel stations on my drive through Sinai in Egypt are testament to this.

In the north of the strip, men queue their cars, pickup trucks and lorries overnight in disorderly queues, often 30 long and four wide, fully aware that petrol may not be delivered until the next day. There are no queues in the south as my driver informs me that all filling stations in the region of the Egyptian border were bombed by Israeli troops in its 2009 invasion.

Prior to 2010, many everyday items such as jam, canned fruit, chocolate and toys were banned from entering the strip at the Israeli border. Israel confirmed the existence of a document stating the minimum calorie intake required by Gazans to keep them alive, based on age and sex. It has denied, however, that it used this list when deciding which foodstuffs made it through the border.

In 2010 Israeli forces boarded a Gaza-bound Turkish ship in international waters, killing nine activists, some of whom the UN states were armed with iron bars, knives and dinner plates. Due to mounting international pressure, the blockade was eased but movement of people and goods is still highly restricted while the strict naval blockade remains in place.  One man I meet on the Egyptian side of the Rafah Crossing, who has been in Cairo for four weeks for work training, is not allowed back to Gaza, with no explanation being provided.

Hamas, the elected ruling party in the strip, is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the United States and by the European Union. Its military wing fires crude home made rockets blindly into southern Israel and has been accused of using human shield tactics, putting its own citizens at risk.

Israel says that the purpose of the blockade is to stall and eventually halt the production and use of rockets and the movement of  terrorists. It is widely acknowledged, however, that the blockade is a form of collective punishment and is illegal under the Geneva Conventions. The UN has scolded Israel for the blockade but any proposed sanctions have been vetoed by the United States, due to a multi-billion Dollar Israel lobby in the States.

While in any foreign city, it inevitably happens that you stumble upon a dodgy neighbourhood and make a quick return to the beaten track. Walking through the grid street pattern of Khan Yunis, every part of town looks like the dodgy part and every track is quite literally a beaten track of sand littered with washing machines, car parts and burst pipes. Despite the power shortages, there is an abundance of supermarkets and barbers open along the otherwise deserted streets with the generator rattling outside like an ugly appendix of the shop front.

A group of young men sit around a fire on the side of the street, beside a cart selling Kanafeh: a delicious Palestinian sweet pastry made of wheat, honey and pistachio nuts. Nobody can see anyone else’s face around the fire. I talk to one 19-year-old man who is in his first year in Al Asqa University. His plan for this evening and every evening is to sit out in the darkness with his friends.

Before returning to my accommodation, my guide introduces me to three young men whose faces are covered by Keffiyehs.  They are brandishing AK47s.  It is not immediately evident why they are standing so firmly against the wall of a building until I look up and see a ledge jutting out over their heads: drones. These unmanned aerial vehicles – or “mothers in law”, as they are sometimes known, because of the repetitive high-pitched screech they emit) are capable of distinguishing a package or weapon in someone’s hand and, at the more lethal side of the spectrum, shooting Palestinians while being controlled remotely at an Israeli base with a joystick.

The Israeli navy controls the strip’s waters while the walls on the other two sides are monitored by Israeli soldiers who shoot anybody entering the buffer zone on the Palestinian side. This buffer zone runs through hundreds of Palestinians’ farms, making their own land out of bounds to them. The drones, people say, are the final crucial piece in reminding the Palestinians that they are constantly being watched and monitored from all angles. Graffiti artist Banksy has described Palestine as the world’s largest open air prison.

The young militants tell me that the time for a peaceful solution with Israel has passed and they will, in the face of Israel’s multi-billion dollar army, triumph in the quest of returning home. Nobody knows how long this literal vicious circle will continue. Regardless, the ordinary men, women and children of Khan Yunis and the rest of Palestine’s refugee camps and cities, will be the ones to suffer.

It is about 11 by the time I walk back to my hotel. The generators have fallen silent but the electricity is not back. People have gone to sleep because they have nothing better to do.

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