Difference between revisions of "Gaza"
Revision as of 23:18, 5 November 2009
Essentially an enormous refugee camp positioned between Israel and Egypt, Gaza isn't quite the pure hellhole you might expect given TV coverage, although needless to say the birthplace of the Intifada and one of the most overpopulated bits on the entire planet isn't exactly paradise on earth either. A UN report in 1952 stated that the Strip was too small to support its population of 300,000; there are now well over one million inhabitants and the latest figures from the Palestinian Authority put unemployment at a whopping 79%. Most inhabitants are descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 war but were denied entry into Egypt proper.
Gaza has been around for a while: the earliest known reference is an inscription in the Temple of Amun at Karnak, Egypt, dated 1500 BC, which states that the town of Gaza is 'flourishing'. And for a long time it did: a staging post on trade routes connecting Asia and Persia with Arabia, Egypt and Africa, even the name means "treasure" in Arabic. Alexander the Great laid siege to the town in 332 BC, executing 10,000 defenders after being held off for two months. Later, the town was held by the Romans, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and briefly even by the French in 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte set up camp on his way to defeat in Egypt. The Turks took it back, then lost it to the British in World War I. The Egyptian army grabbed it during the 1948 war that led to Israel's independence, opening camps for Palestinian refugees - and the current situation began when Israel occupied the Strip in 1967.
Spurred by the violence of the 1987-1993 Intifadah ("Uprising"), Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed a "Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements" in 1993, under which the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created to govern the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for a transitional period "not exceeding five years" as a step towards full independence. Parts of the territories were indeed handed over the PA between 1994 and 1999, but the peace plans were derailed by the second Intifadah that broke out in September 2000, unleashing yet another spiral of violence.
Israel unilaterally disengaged from Gaza in 2005, evacuating three Jewish settlements and withdrawing its troops from the territory. It did however retain control of the airspace and the coastline in addition to the fact the entire region is circled by a large armed security fence. The Islamist Hamas won elections in 2006 and violently kicked out the remnants of the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Under Hamas rule, the rain of Qassam rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel increased, and Israel responded by locking down the borders down tighter than ever and conducting raids to assassinate suspected militants. In late 2008, Israel launched a massive coordinated air and land offensive with the aim of breaking the back of Hamas, killing over 1,300 Palestinians in the process. As of January 2009, the Israelis have disengaged and Hamas remains in tenuous control, but the future remains unclear — and dim.
The Gaza Strip is a narrow, 40-km long slice of land between the Mediterranean to the west and the Negev desert to the east. Egypt lies to the south, the north and east border Israel. The urban sprawl of Gaza City, mostly stretching along and around the 3-km long Omar al-Mukhtar Street, covers much of the north. The other main towns of Khan Yunis and Rafah are near the southern border, with most of the rest covered with agricultural land.
A bit of terminology disentanglement: Gaza Strip refers to the entire 40-by-6 kilometer patch of territory. Gaza City refers to the town itself, in the northern part of the strip, but due to huge population growth the City now sprawls into many of the surrounding villages and it's a tough task to say what is a part of the City and what isn't. Both city and strip are pretty much interchangeably referred to as Gaza and this guide will follow suit.
Temperate, mild winters, dry and warm to hot summers.
Flat to rolling, sand and dune covered coastal plain
Highest point: Abu 'Awdah (Joz Abu 'Auda) 105 m
Getting into Gaza is both difficult and unwise. In fact, as of around 2003, all would-be visitors were required to apply in advance for Israeli permission to enter the Strip. The application is usually submitted through your embassy in Israel and, in theory takes between 5-10 days. In practice, it can take months, and if you're not either a fully accredited journalist or an aid/human rights worker, you're unlikely to get permission to enter Gaza from Israel.
On occasion and usually for humanitarian reasons it is sometimes possible to enter Gaza from Egypt through the Rafah crossing. The last time it was open was 20 March 2009 but has been closed since for an indeterminate period. On the rare occasion when Rafah crossing is open, prior permission from the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities is required. If successful, permission can take several days or even weeks to obtain. Your Embassy will not normally help you obtain this as entry is contrary to their travel advice and consular assistance there is severely limited or non existent.
Gaza has no functioning airport, as Yasser Arafat International Airport (IATA: GZA) has been shut down since 2000. It has badly damaged by multiple bombings and is unlikely to reopen in the foreseeable future, so for time being, the closest airports is El Arish International Airport and Tel Aviv.
The only way in is through the Erez crossing in the north, and then you need a permit from the Israeli Army. If you have a permit, you need coordination with the Israeli Army, specifying when you are planning to enter and leave Gaza. Journalists with a Government Press Office (GPO) card can come and go as they please. Only vehicles with prior coordination (such as a handful of UN cars) are allowed to drive in and only after a thorough search.
At Erez, you have to approach the Israeli soldier in a pillbox who will ask you to open your bags on the table and check you're allowed entry. They may or may not ask a few questions. You then wait outside an electronic gate for your turn to be called through. You then enter the terminal, hand your passport and coordination over to another soldier who may or may not ask you more questions. If everything is satisfactory, take back your documents and follow the signs directing you to Gaza. After exiting the terminal, you end up in a long barren concrete tunnel. Don't bring anything too bulky as you'll have to go through a turnstile gate. Coming through the tunnel, you cross a no-mans-land. This can be a bit nervous, depending on the general situation in the area at the moment, and this is the most likely place for you to be shot at. After some hundred meters, you come to "Shamsa Shamsa" (five five in Arabic), which marks the spot where Palestinian Arabs stop if they do not have coordination with the Israeli Army. Here you will find a bunch of taxi drivers, desperately waiting for business. On the way through the tunnel and no-mans-land you might be approached by Palestinian porters that want to help you with your luggage, for a fee.
Another hundred meter or so beyond Shamsa shamsa, there is a Hamas checkpoint.
Entry, though difficult, pales in comparison to exit. After being deposited at Shamsa Shamsa, go to the white caravan to your right. A man will take your passport and call ahead to tell the Israelis you're coming. Ignore this at your own peril. Cross no-mans-land, enter the concrete tunnel (note the CCTV and speakers playing helicopter noises) and wait at the row of doors. There will usually be a porter with a flask of tea there. Once a handful of people have gathered, one of the doors will open (indicated by a green light on top of the door). Under no circumstances attempt to enter the open doorways on the far left or far right -- these are for foot passengers entering Gaza. You will then enter a hall with a table at the centre. Open your bags at the table. A disembodied voice is likely to bark something at you in Hebrew. When they're happy with what they see in your bags, go through the turnstile when the light flashes green. You will see toilet facilities to your right. Use them. Follow the arrows to Israel. You will then encounter another hall with eight doorways. Wait until one of the lights go green then enter that doorway. Leave your bags with the porter at a large security scanner. Keep your passport and ID on you. Enter a series of gates as the lights flash green. When you come to the body scanner, put your feet on the markers and place your hands on your head. If you're lucky, you will be allowed out to a hall where it appears as if your bags will emerge on a conveyor belt...they won't. Walk straight through to the departures hall. And await your bags there. If you're unlucky, you'll be detained in the maze of body scanners. There is a separate section that will reveal itself to you if the guards in the gallery above feel they need to strip search you. Exit from Gaza could take an hour or several hours. The soldier at the final exit gate will ask you such pressing questions as "Where have you been?" and "Did you speak to any Arabs?". Answer politely. Otherwise you'll be really thankful you used the toilet early in your journey.
The port of Gaza is non-operational.
There is no public transport in Gaza, but most any vehicle will gladly turn into a taxi if you point at the roadside with an index finger. Travel up and down Omar al-Mukhtar St. will set you back one shekel; trips elsewhere are negotiable. It is advisable to watch your step if walking, since traffic is chaotic and sidewalks are largely non-existent.
Gaza is not exactly a top tourist destination and most of its attractions have taken quite a beating during the past 50 years. The following are all in Gaza City.
The local currency is the Israeli shekel. But bring some boxes of cigarettes and a few bottles of whiskey into the Strip and everyone will be your friend. *However, please note the policemen at the Hamas checkpoint into Gaza are now opening all bags and disposing of any alcohol (since early 2009). Do not bring alcohol into Gaza. It could land you into serious trouble.
Usual Arabic cheap eats are available anywhere. Head to the posh suburb of Rimal for fancier food; the restaurant in the Windmill Hotel is nice.
The seaside terrace restaurant of Al Diera hotel serves lovely mezes (small mediterranean-style dishes), including the Gazan speciality Daqqa (a sometimes very spicy chili salad, very nice). They also have some tasty main courses, try the shrimps in tomato sauce, baked in the oven and served in a clay pot. And don't miss out on the fresh strawberry juice! Enhanced with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, it is higly enjoyable. Remember that the sale of alcohol in Gaza is restricted...but you can bring it in when you arrive.
Next to the hotel (north of it) there is a very good seafood & fish restaurant.
Matouk, behind the legislative council building serves an excellent chicken tawwouk.
Another famous restaurant in Gaza City well worth a visit is "Roots".
Due to increasingly strong Hamas influences alcohol is no longer available. Alcohol is forbidden in Islam, and Hamas, as a conservative Islamic group will prohibit it. The last place for a visitor to drink was the UN Club. However, the Club was bombed by unknown attackers on New Years' Eve 2006. If you do manage to find some booze, however, you should not attempt to go out under the influence; you may land in a very bad situation indeed.
Realistically, if you are not either an aid worker, journalist or diplomat, there is no work for you in Gaza. There are a number of NGOs offering internships, however, such as the Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights in Gaza, the Palestinian Center For Human Rights and others.
The Gaza Strip is occasionally subject to Israeli military operations (which include aerial bombardment as well as ground incursions) as well as violent confrontations between the Palestinian Hamas and Fatah factions. While Hamas has managed to curb crime levels in Gaza, some members have been known to beat journalists attempting to cover demonstrations against Hamas. In general, use common sense and avoid these kinds of situations. Consult your embassy for advice and current conditions before setting out. Unlike the West Bank travel documentation does not need to be kept at hand at all times.
See also War zone safety.
Tap water in Gaza is not potable and is often dangerously dirty. Some hotels may use filters but if in doubt, just buy bottles.
At present, Israel is blockading the area following the 2008 "war" and only limited medical supplies are allowed in.
Women should dress conservatively, especially if entering refugee camps. Conservatively here means, within Gaza City a top with long sleeves and absolutely nothing low cut in the front. Ideally, tops should also be long. Trousers are suitable as long as they are loose and full length, not capri pants.