Monday, February 11, 2008

Much More like a Zoo

On the radio from Boston they asked me what effect the electricity cuts were having on life in Gaza. Electricity outages were finally making headlines across the world, but in many parts of Gaza they are part of everyday life. The refugee camp I was staying in that night was having a power outage like it had many nights of the week, just this time the world took the slightest notice because Israel, which controls every thing and person entering and exiting this little strip of land, 365km2 of it, had decided to intensify the siege to include gas that the so called Gaza Strip relied on to function. This gas was not only for cars to keep moving, but incidentally also fueled Gaza City’s power plant, which kept the Strip’s capital functioning. Many other areas outside of Gaza City continue to receive their electricity directly from Israel’s power grid, the cost of which is extracted from the Palestinian Authority’s budget. Siege or no siege, this electricity is turned on and off at random.

Gaza is much less like a prison as it is so often referred to, but much more like a zoo. Humans very much live there, like animals in a cage, they are fed and given water, the lights come on when the zoo-keepers determine it is time to have them on and at other times they come out. When I was asked how electricity outages were affecting life in Gaza, I was caught off guard, because here lights always come on and off without rhyme or reason.
Foreigners, the few visitors of the zoo, mainly journalists, keep coming in a very hesitant stream to take photographs, to see a little bit of the life inside this zoo. The animals are all alive still, tucked away in the hospitals are the sick, where they are out of sight with medical supplies never quite running out, but always just almost. No hospital on earth would want to be run this way. The doctor in charge of a kidney dialysis department told me he was constantly depressed, his job was to tend to the needs of the sick, but he knows what is left in the storerooms and when the medicine that is required has just expired and there is none to replace it.

A man who works as a medicine supplier for a West Bank company told me they used to important 40 crates every week, now they get 5 crates every 5 weeks, if they are lucky. The shipment arrives at the unmanned Israeli-Gaza border, is dumped on the Gaza side where it sits in the sun until permission is signaled for Palestinians to approach it and pick it up.

I recall a zoo I visited in Chicago one time. It was the middle of the summer and although summers there are nothing like they are here, it was hot for the polar bear on a piece of melting ice under the sun. Most disturbing was that the bear walked in a constant rhythm, in the same exact path, back and forth in an oddly shaped circle around the ever-shrinking ice block. It was as if the bear was trying to speak to the passing by onlookers in something much more powerful than words. Zoo-keepers never let allow animals to starve, it would make for negative press. In Gaza no one is starving. Of its 1.5 million citizens, 1.2 million receive food aid. I wonder at times if it would be better for the humanitarian aid to be shut down for a few days, let us see the consequences because this is much closer to reality. People without jobs, without an income to afford the vital necessities of life. If this aid status quo remains as it does no solutions will ever be found, the zoo remains a zoo. If the aid is cut, Gaza will be revealed for what it is, a humanitarian catastrophe, inhabited, by a people that are already dead, like the bear, walking in circles, awaiting the ice to melt beneath their feet.

The siege allows into the zoo only what the zoo-keepers consider the most “necessary” of items. So since June among many other things no cement, no soda, no locks, no car spare parts, no generators, no computers, no mobile phones, no chocolate have been allowed in, and nothing allowed out. Israeli fruit is readily available; one would not want to upset the suppliers. One man walked up to me as I, a zoo visitor, was taking pictures, here we have no water, no electricity, we can’t travel. He asked me “what do you like about this place,” after I informed him I did. “I loved the people,” I said, concerning the situation, I had no words.

The friend I was visiting after I was asked about electricity outages on the radio lives north of Gaza City. We met at 8pm, he picked me up in town in his taxi. But we did not go to his place, where I knew his nine kids were waiting for me. We drove around for some time, it was night and many areas were dark and when dropping off a friend who was in the backseat we ended up staying there, for coffee, for tea and for some nuts and snacks. After pushing for some time he was finally convinced to head home. We arrived at 10:30, just as the lights came back on. The family, those who were still awake when we arrived, were sitting around a makeshift fire in the courtyard. The oldest daughter told me, they had been there since 5. After a late dinner was prepared we all huddled around an electric pot in which they make bread, which was turned upside down and used as a heater, although a small one.

I had been to Rafah a couple weeks before the wall came down. It was a daunting menace over what remained of a community that lived near its shadow. All those that once fell within range of its shadow had had their homes demolished and only a few of the ruins were still to be seen. I heard once that a “peace park” was to built on this razed land. But it never materialized; only some sandy football fields can be seen amidst the rubble. I remember a number of kids with kites. Three kids had their kite so high up I could barely see it. Somehow it spoke of a longing to see the world from out there, beyond the walls of this zoo.

A few weeks later they did. That wall came down and it was with joy that not only those boys I am certain, but people I met all across the Gaza Strip traveled south and out of the gates. Although there was a gas shortage every taxi, bus and truck-driver mustered up the gas they had left to transport people south. The day before a seat in a taxi had cost 7 shekels to Rafah, that day it jumped to 30 in a taxi, 20 on a crowded bus and 10 shekels for a standing spot on the back of a packed truck. I received calls from friends who were across the border, in my country, just enjoying the change. That was it, many bought cigarettes at a much cheaper price and a few supplies that they could manage to carry across the toppled metal wall, but more than anything they were there for just something different, something new. Many Gazans knew they would get to the Egyptian town of El-Arish only to find the city out of food and water, which is what happened in 2005, the last time the border was stormed, they knew they were likely to walk for kilometers past the traffic jams that always formed when there were too many people and cars aimed for the same destination. They went anyway to experience the rush past a zoo with an open gate. For those few days the cages were open and Gazans all came and went, the young and the old, girls and boys, families packed bags and headed to the beach in El-Arish. The drivers filled up not on over-priced Israeli taxed gas, the children bought chocolate, one of my friends bought 20 bags of cement to finish building his house, he had recently gotten married.

Despite the chaos, the coming down of the wall brought a spark of life to this place, this no-man’s-land, this unrecognized strip, without a recognized government, with closed borders, sealed off from the world, breathed a breath of fresh air. A short breath.