Inside blighted enclave where Hamas rules with an iron fist

Published by The Daily Mail (October 10th, 2023)

As I entered the Erez crossing point from Israel into the Gaza Strip, my Israeli-Arab friend asked me to bring him some fish and chips on my return a few days later. ‘They are the best you will ever have,’ he told me with a smile.

This was a big claim to make to a Brit – but he was right. The recommended vendor was easy to find, with a blue and white boat, dolphins painted on the side, sticking out from his shop front. And the mound of chips topped with fingers of fried fish wrapped in paper were superb.

Yet few other things are so palatable in this miserable, fenced-in enclave by the Mediterranean, just 25 miles long and seven miles wide at its maximum point, which is home to more than two million people.

It is one of the most depressing places I have visited.

The huge airport-like terminal controlled by the Israeli Army at Erez was near-deserted when I last entered five years ago, about to shut down for a long weekend holiday.

I watched the only other traveller, an old woman laden with bulging bags, struggle through a single-person turnstile. Then I hired a motorcyclist to speed me down a long caged walkway through the buffer zone into Palestinian territory.

Israel seized the Strip from Egypt in the 1967 war, but unilaterally withdrew all its troops and settlers in 2005 in a bid to improve security. When Hamas won a shock victory in elections the following year, it forced out its rivals to take total control of the terrain.

This sparked restrictions on the movement of goods and people by Egypt and Israel, leaving residents trapped under the hardline group renowned for repression and violence against its own people as well as the use of sickening terror against foes.

Everywhere in Gaza there is a veneer of normality as people try to get on with their lives in the bustling shops, malls, cafes and restaurants. 

It feels much like other less prosperous parts of the Middle East, with its shabby breeze-block buildings, colourful murals, crowded streets, gaggles of friendly kids – especially when the familiar sound of the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer.

I drank good coffee in smart cafes filled with young folks on phones and computers, while Gaza’s restaurants adapt to the many problems in a culture proud of its cuisine.

Yet this illusion of normality began to clear after I arrived at my seafront hotel and admired the view of the sandy beach and fishing boats on sparkling waters. Don’t go swimming, warned a local journalist, they dump all the sewage there.

I learned later that due to chronic energy shortfalls and shattered infrastructure, enough raw sewage to fill 40 Olympic swimming pools was being pumped into that lovely sea each day (although there have been efforts since to fix this system).

Gaza has constant power cuts, dismal public services, dirty water and a crushing lack of jobs.  Most of its energy comes from Israel – but even the small contributions from Gaza’s single power plant, like all private generators, rely on imported diesel.

Much of the struggling health services depend on the United Nations and charities. Patients in need of more serious treatment require permission from Palestinian and Israeli officials to travel outside the Strip, which is ringed with 20ft fences, motion sensors, radar and cameras.

But the most critical shortage here is of hope. This is one of the world’s most densely populated places and has one of the youngest populations – yet more than two-thirds of young adults are unemployed, while eight in ten residents rely on external aid.

Although tens of thousands of Palestinians used to leave Gaza to work in Israel, the border was sealed after the Hamas takeover, so an entire generation has grown up never able to leave the Strip and never having met an Israeli.

This all makes it fertile ground for Hamas to find ‘martyrs’ for its twisted cause, especially amid the trauma of living under frequent attack and bombardment.

The beach offers some escape from the stifling heat and pessimism.  However, even fishing is caught up in the conflict – the catch is constrained by Israeli gunships that shoot at crews or confiscate boats if they breach an imposed 15-mile offshore limit.

Near the port in Gaza City, I came across a graveyard of abandoned fishing boats. The 15-year economic blockade prevents their owners from buying parts for repairs.

It also limits supplies of fuel and trucks, so you see scores of donkeys plodding through chaotic traffic as they clear garbage, carry goods around town or cart off the latest missile debris for reconstruction.

Hamas developed an extensive network of tunnels to smuggle in goods, but these are targeted by Israel because they have been used also for missiles and weapons.

It is little wonder that past polls have found half of Gazans want to leave this blighted place – and no surprise that it was the source of the latest explosion of hatred to stain this turbulent region.

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