Gaza: The land that aches       behind its blockade

A Palestinian smuggler works inside a tunnel beneath the 
Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where goods are exchanged. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP

A Palestinian smuggler works inside a tunnel beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, where goods are exchanged. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP

"Fortitude" has always been one of my favourite words; in Arabic it is samoud, also translated as "courage, obstinacy and a quiet sort of pride". Apparently the ordinary people of Gaza have this. They are also planting many olive tree saplings to replace "groves savaged by bulldozers" and their donkeys and horses are well cared for.

It would probably not have occurred to me to read a book about life inside blockaded Gaza were it not for the fact that I have been an admirer of Dervla Murphy’s writing for many years.
And it’d be fair to say I am (or was) one of the "culpably ignorant" – her phrase – when it comes to the problems of Israel and the Palestinians.

This book describes a month she spent in Gaza once it was possible to get in via the Rafah Gate from Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Of course, she is aware that this vexing subject is one that many just give up on, believing it is too complex to understand. I’d venture to say that she has done well in clarifying it and bringing it to life through her many encounters with ordinary Palestinians living inside the blockade.

At the outset she says that Hamas has seriously neglected PR, and that Israeli habaras (propaganda) or "confusing misinformation" has led to the situation where many people just cannot get to grips with what is going on. For this reason, she believes that certain simple facts need to be stated as often as possible; one of these is that, although about 10 000 rockets have been fired into Israel by the (tragically uncontrolled) jihadists in Gaza, the number of Israelis killed over 10 years has been 23 – compared with the thousands of Palestinians.

The book is a short but dense read, 239 pages, supported by a map, a glossary, a list of abbreviations, a timeline summary of the history since 1897, a bibliography (for the very serious reader) and a foreword by noted scholar Avi Shlaim. She explains that it was originally part of a much longer book on Israel, which will be coming out soon.

Murphy makes few positive references to Israelis, but perhaps in the context of this month by the sea, not long after Operation Cast Lead in 2008, this is not surprising, and she is examining the consequences for the beleaguered Gazans of unacknowledged war crimes. With reference to this term, she says: "Let’s

give up calling spades agricultural implements", and elsewhere in the text says of the Goldstone Report that it has been "managed" to Israel’s satisfaction.

Most people older than 80 would consider their life’s work done, but Murphy is not most people. Her unflagging interest in history, justice and humanity has taken her to Rwanda, South Africa, Cuba and Croatia, where she has deployed her considerable intellect, great warmth and common sense in bringing these places to her many readers.

In this case, her concern is more serious as the situation is so dire. Her encounters were with both Hamas and Fatah adherents (she is critical of both), academics, professionals and people she met by chance in minibus taxis, on the beach and in cafés and who invited her into their homes. She saw for herself the shelled hospitals and university science departments and, of course, the damaged homes where children were killed playing on the rooftops, and where women were killed chopping vegetables in courtyards.

She walked through one of the tunnels to Egypt through which some goods are brought in. She explains why they exist and are not shelled – to keep the Palestinians suffering, but not so badly that the outside world would have to intervene.

The restrictions on Muslim women, the discredited two-state solution, the nonexistent "peace ­process", the violated truces, the newish binational solution – supported by delegitimising Israel through BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) campaigns, are all examined, with views given by the people she talks to, as well as excerpts from the texts of scholars.

Probably most controversially, she tries to see why the war against the Palestinians has been so devastating, and inflicted on the whole population, a collective punishment. Some of her interlocutors suggested that it is a dark hangover of the Holocaust, in which Jews themselves were collectively punished. She also examines the effect of the Holocaust in preventing the wider world from confronting Israel, not wanting to seem anti-Semitic.

One of her Gazan friends, named only as Anwar, "a dedicated and confident binationalist", though

not keen on BDS, says: "Run a global BDS campaign, demand one-person-one-vote and a constitution like South Africa’s. When we are not demanding independence, we can’t be demonised as terrorists threatening security. All perspectives change!"

Grim though things have been, and still are, it seems many younger people are prepared to look at matters differently, though the role of the United States is crucial and frightening. This fascinating read will change the way you see the world; it is available on Kindle if not on paper in the bookshops.

On leaving Gaza, Murphy managed to avoid having her Hamas and Fatah friends see her, and each other, off at the Rafah gate, but she did make a point of going to speak to two ­donkeys.

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