Testing the Waters—
Palestine & Israel, 2006
Journal, May 16-18, 2006 (edited May 20)—Gaza
Dispatches from Gaza - 1
By Skip Schiel
A nervous beginning to the day, neck ache, head ache, slight stomach ache, restless night, maybe all explained by what the day bodes: a 10 day journey into the "Worst of the Worst," Gaza. And yet, tho an awful prospect, where I'm mysteriously drawn.
—Ramallah, May 16, 2006
Arez checkpoint [the main entry point from the north, from Israel] awas swift. Last year I remember a 1-hour transit time; this walk thru was without incident, polite personnel, some of them not military, no sharp questioning. However, had we [with Melodie Breton, a traveling companion] been Palestine, a different case. Different line, different wait, different questions. The authorities are building a huge new building at the crossing or "terminal." Later I learned this was to be office space, not a processing center. Coming back thru will be a different story, I'm sure. Then: into Israel.
We learned later that the military closed Arez shortly after we'd passed, on information that militants were planning an attack. Had we been slightly later, one hour or so, we might have been barred. As happened twice last year for me. Melodie should have no trouble getting out when she leaves tonight.
THE UN'S OFFICE FOR THE COORDINATION OF HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS
To the United Nations, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, for a visit with Amani Alfara who is writing a report about water in Gaza. Needless to say, a perfect contact. She introduced us to the water realities here, which are among the harshest in Israel-Palestine—aridity, pollution, lack of sewage treatment, contamination of aquifer, overuse by Israel, blocked infrastructure development for various reasons including the cutoff of funding, etc. Most importantly, we learned that our hopes to travel freely thru the strip are curtailed bec of security issues: 9 internationals have been kidnapped recently, the UN has responded by requiring staff, when traveling outside the central city, to travel only in convoys of 2 armored vehicles containing armed guards. To date, no UN staff has been attacked. So today we only travel locally. And because of a shortage of vehicles and guards, we postpone the larger trip until Thursday, if then. Unfortunately, Melodie, for some reason, with only a 3-day permit, leaves tonight and misses the grand tour.
In the office we met also Hamada Al-Bayrari, humanitarian affairs assistant, who will be in the States in a few weeks for studies and might overlap my return. I offered to greet and host him in Cambridge. Also Stuart Shepherd, humanitarian affairs officer, from Britain who arranged transport for our water tour.
Amani is our main host at OCHA. In her 40s, with a trim body and aquiline facial features, she seems smart and quick, articulate, and devoted to water. Parents Gazans, she was born in Kuwait, studied in Europe, returned to the strip to marry, divorced, and now finds herself more or less locked in here. She said, "Unlike your country, here we inherit our citizenship. I can't move to Israel, I can't travel to the West Bank, I am here for awhile. Melodie is staying with her.
By email, Louise informed me about the flooding in New England. Swollen rivers, ruined homes, destitute people, conditions resembling new Orleans after Katrina, some wonder if marginalized people once again will suffer the most. As I wrote to Louise and Dan [a close friend], such a contrast: deathly dry in Gaza, deathly wet in the Northeast.
My apartment is also near the beach, within 1 km, I can see it from several of my windows. The apartment is clean, spacious, with 3 bedrooms, in a new 6 story bdg, housing offices of Norwegian Humanitarian Aid and other such organizations, plus personnel working there. But I smell sewage in this neighborhood, a stench unlike anything I've sampled in the Occupied Territories. I must ask its source. Also I'm trapped inside my home, not free to wander about on an early morning excursion or a late night exploration. Amani warned me—not wise to walk alone, anywhere in Gaza, day or night.
Unlike Ramallah where the muezzin (the person who calls Muslims to prayer) is distant and usually faint, here in Gaza, a stronghold of Islam, the muezzin might be right outside my window. Early in the morning, maybe 4 am, he called us to prayer. Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar . Luckily the sound is not harsh or belligerent, but mellow and melodic. The muezzin provides my best musical treats.
I do not drink the tap water. I try not even to wash my brush or mouth with tap water. I have to remember, this is not the West Bank where water is usually safe to drink. Here, because of all the water problems, I drink only bottled or purified water. Amani told us that the coliform count is often high, and much of the water is salty, kidney failure is rife, and people tend to sport yellowed teeth.
—Gaza, May 17, 2006
We bid Melodie goodbye, Hamada, Amani and me driving her to Arez after a jaunt from coastal to eastern sector Gaza city, the nearly to the eastern extremity where we could view Israeli settlements far in the distance. In front of us was Beit Hanoun, the firing zone for home constructed rockets, the quassams, that then earn the return favor of Israeli missiles and artillery. I could see nothing of this activity. Earlier we drove thru a small part of Beach Camp, stopping at the part of the shore where untreated sewage pours into the sea. Amani cautioned me not to leave the group, even for a few steps. I tried to show the men standing in effluent hurling fishing nets. Aghast, Amani explained that telling people what they're risking generates little effect. In the summer the beach is jammed, and parents can't control where their kids swim or what they do.
Near or in Beit Hanoun we viewed the huge lagoons filling with untreated sewage. Recently a young girl fell into one of these and drowned. Sewage is leaching into the aquifer. The lagoons produce a hideous odor. While photographing all this a man came up to Amani and Hamad and explained one consequence of the sewage: skin rashes. A boy appeared, and we examined his face and back for the rash. Gently nudging away other boys who insisted on peering at this boy, creating a shadow over the skin, precluding good photography, I finally followed the light and made what might at least be clear evidentiary photos.
After 2 informative meetings with folks at the Palestine Water Authority, PWA ( I'll report on this later, from my notes), introduced by Amani, accompanied and accompanying Melodie—she is the only one in my entire circle who is sharing this adventure with me—I discovered that the only water related event upcoming for the day was yet another meeting. Because of the requirement to travel outside Gaza city only in armored vehicles with armed guards, these not available to us, we stayed in the protected zone, the Green Zone of Gaza. And the prospect of yet another meeting, educational as they were, did not appeal. So I called the Gaza Community Mental Health Program, GCMHP, asked for Reem, my main contact there, and announced my availability. She said, "Come on over. "
THE GAZA COMMUNITY MENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
I met Husam, the public relations director that had expedited my trip last year, his assistant, Marwan, Reem, of course, and we swiftly worked out a plan. The key issues they'd like photoed are the Women's Empowerment Project in Beach Camp (mostly women making crafts), a tour which might include kids newly shot in hospitals, Gaza generally, and evidence of the siege (as Husam termed it). He also said he hoped that I might train a few staff delegated with the task of making photos.
As evidence of the siege, Husam listed the lack of medical services, so we have sick people in hospitals, and the blockage of needed supplies and equipment, so pharmacy shelves are empty, and possibly the shelling, because I then might show not only the obvious physical effects, but the consequent great stress and fear.
Well, Skip, thought I, this is rich. How can I do it when I have only 2 days available for the GCMHP now that I'm scheduled tightly with my main host, American Friends Service Committee? I guess I'll just have to return for a 3 rd visit next year.
Husam and I hit it off, speaking directly to each other about our motivations and issues. We agreed that media plays a key part, and that Palestinians, for whatever reasons, do not do this well. That it is important to not go numb. That being a healer who is helpless is among the most torturous of conditions. That last point struck me hard. What if I as a photographer could no longer make photos? No equipment, supplies, or computer support? No friends backing me up when I travel to rough places like Gaza? No money? What if restrictions on access prevent me from free travel, as almost happened this time coming thru Arez?
Now back to the water meetings, a few signal points: the PWA plays a major role in Gaza, coordinating projects and funding. Much of its funding comes primarily from the World Bank, who is distinguished from other donors in not threatening funding cuts after the Hamas election win.
Within the West Bank, travel restrictions impede communication between key parties. Contrast that with Gaza: travel outside the perimeter is prohibited for Gazans, and for others, such as personnel from the West Bank or elsewhere, getting in is a chore. In addition, Israel curtails the entry of supplies and equipment. So closures at Arez and Karni, the commercial entry point, control the water work.
Needless to add, water is in crisis in Gaza. Pollution, scarcity, distribution all suffer. But more detail later. Hopefully with good photos as well.
Women staff at the Women's Center gave permission for me to photograph, so Husam sent me off with a driver and staff member to the Center in Beach Camp. Driving thru the camp—thanks to Fida I know now how to differentiate a camp from its surroundings—I snapped my usual and usually faulty photos from a moving vehicle (but occasionally one is a winner). I try to show the building method—vertically. And some of the children. Also the contiguity of the Mediterranean Sea.
We also noticed many soldiers at intersections, each in uniform, not much consistency in uniforms, i.e., not uniform, and each with a large rifle, usually a Kalashnikov. Not only in Beach Camp but throughout Gaza. Later, Amani and Hamad explained that this is the newly created Hamas security force, numbering some 3000 men, all previously unemployed, and all still not paid because of the funding cuts. The creation of this small and so far useless army—what do they do other than stand around looking tough? Nothing to guard, no beneficial work to do like clearing streets or directing traffic or even moderating crime (which is frequent)—represents anther power struggle between Hamas a Fatah. President Abu Mazen, until this moment, had complete control of the security apparatus. A bit of a paradox: struggle over who controls security lessens security. So the numerous soldiers, with virtually no duties but lots of bullets, are a potential flashpoint for civil war.
—Gaza, May 18, 2006