/ 8 June 2009

War-torn lounging in Gaza

Staff Photographer
Staff Photographer

Horizons collapse, fold in like origami, when you cross into Gaza. As you approach the Erez border crossing from the Israeli side of the fence, open fields of yellow wheat are punctuated by groves of dark trees and fields of vegetables that roll to distant ridges. Empty of people, by and large. Endowed with the precious commodity of space.

Inside Gaza it is a different story. The modern “terminal” of blast-proof glass and hi-tech detectors is a kind of brutal joke. It funnels the few permitted to cross into Gaza out of its polished hall and into a tunnel that has lost its roof, then spits them out into an area of ruins, overlooked by a blank concrete wall capped with watchtowers.

The Gaza Strip, so recently pounded by artillery and bombs and tanks, is circumscribed by visible and invisible lines of menace, forbidden boundaries that for most Palestinians amputate the possibility of what lies beyond, policed by automatic weapons, observation balloons and armoured vehicles.

In reality, as residents were warned after a bombing attempt on the border, the real, solid frontier is irrelevant, bordered as it is by a 300m-deep “death zone” Palestinians have been told they may not approach.

On its coast, Gaza’s limitations are marked by a different fence where the bars are Israeli gunboats, scurrying beyond the Palestinian fishing boats and preventing them from going outside a zone imposed by the warships.

For the most part, however, the horizons are stiflingly closed. They comprise the few metres that can be observed from a window or a balcony. On a dirty stretch of beach by Gaza City’s harbour, Jasser Abu Libda, 44, sits under a beach umbrella with his family. “It is the only place where you can come for cheap entertainment and breathe good air,” says Jasser. “Gaza is so crowded.”

A cleaner with the Hamas-run municipality, Jasser lives with his family in the Beach refugee camp to the north. The rocks there make it dangerous for the children, so they take a taxi to the harbour beach, usually four or five times each month.

“People say they speak to the sea about their problems. They can speak to each other on the beach about how they feel. About their emotions. People feel that if they can swim they can let things out,” he says. He means the pressure of Gaza. “There’s no space here. No room to breathe.”

It has been a while since Jasser last came to the beach. “We couldn’t leave the house then,” he says. It is understood when “then” was — during the war at the beginning of the year that saw Israeli tanks push into Jasser’s district. “It is the first time we’ve come this year,” says Jasser. “There was the war. Then the children’s final exams. They were so excited to come.

“Hear that? … Gunfire.” I can’t hear anything at all. “It makes me nervous when the children say: ‘Look, there’s a naval gunboat.’ It makes me frightened it might shell.”

The family is packing up to return home as the sun begins to set. Some older boys are doing acrobatics on the sand, making stirrups out of cupped hands, and tossing each other into somersaults. Defying Gaza’s closed borders with laughter. —