GAZA CITY-From Erez Crossing, a gray wall of forbidding concrete stretches as far as the eye can see, dotted with observation towers. The road to Gaza and up to this, the main checkpoint into Gaza from Israel, winds through lush croplands. Acres of winter wheat give way to almond trees, figs coming into leaf, peach trees in blossom, and orange groves filling the air with their heady fragrance.
At the checkpoint the fecund landscape comes to an abrupt end. If the Israeli government has granted you a permit to cross the border into Gaza, as it has granted me, then you present your passport, enter through a series of barbed wire and concrete barriers, and go into the terminal-a cavernous hangar that is eerily quiet except for the slamming of metal doors.
There you must pass through passport control, zigzag through a series of mechanized gates and scanners (including full-body scanners for the return), then out an automatic steel door and through the half-mile long buffer zone separating Israel from Gaza. It's a maze to be completed in reverse before Erez closes at 3 p.m.
This is where the journey back in time begins. In the fields young men dig potatoes and dump them into a cart hitched to mules. Others scavenge rubble from what used to be an industrial zone run by the Israelis. Out on the dirt roads, donkey carts loaded with edible greens collected along the roadside compete with beat-up sedans, dodging potholes and broken pavement.
Gaza is where 200,000 Palestinian refugees fled the advances of the Jewish paramilitary forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. There the mostly refugee descendants are a dense population of 1.4 million on a strip of desert coastland measuring 25 miles long and only a few miles wide. There the Muslim Brotherhood launched Hamas in 1987, firing homemade rockets on Israeli forces from the Jabalia refugee camp. Rocket attacks into Jewish settlements became so disturbing in 2008 that Israel launched a three-week air and ground offensive Dec. 27. Thirteen Israelis were killed during that war and 1,400 Palestinians. Hulks of government office high-rises and apartments, bombed by Israeli missile fire 16 months ago and left untouched, signify the destruction and stagnation that is life in this walled-off territory.
If you ask residents to describe Gaza, young and old say the same thing: It's like living in a prison. Israel and Egypt, which controls Gaza's southern border, allow few Palestinians to leave, and they permit entry to few outsiders. The Palestinian Authority is launching economic development projects across the West Bank, but none of that progress reaches here. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has intensified a blockade that prohibits nearly all but food and a few essentials from entering the country.
There is no equipment for cleanup from the war, and material to aid reconstruction is prohibited. More than two-thirds of the country is dependent on food aid, according to health workers, and foraging in the fields outside Gaza City is evident all day long. Even Gaza's fishermen-whose legendary skills extend back to when the Philistines occupied the area-are no longer permitted to fish in waters more than 3½ miles from shore.
At the same time, Hamas is tightening its grip on the local population. In March it banned men from cutting women's hair. And on April 15 it executed two Palestinians convicted in a Hamas military court of collaborating with Israel.
So it's amazing that Pastor Hanna Massad, having gotten out, chooses to go back. Again and again.
Massad was the full-time pastor of Gaza Baptist Church for 11 years. Now many call him the "pastor in exile." In 2007 authorities advised his family and six others to get out after Islamic militants kidnapped and murdered another leader in the church, Rami Ayyad.
The 26-year-old was found dead in the street of multiple stabbings and gunshot wounds to the head near the Christian bookshop he ran, the only Christian store of its kind in Gaza.
"There was a lot of chaos and lawlessness. We felt it was wise to leave, but we thought we would come back after a few weeks. We thought it would get better, but instead it became more dangerous," said Massad, 50, whose wife had worked alongside Ayyad in the bookshop.
Hamas seized control of Gaza four months before Ayyad's death and had won a victory in the Palestinian Authority's parliament. Gaza residents say it did so by providing social services otherwise lacking. Hamas funded mosques, schools, soup kitchens, orphanages, and medical clinics in Gaza.
The Baptist church, which first opened in the 1950s, had increasingly provided a similar safety net by running a library, youth programs, and medical clinics, and by helping with a school that began in 2006 and currently serves 250 mostly Muslim students. A few workers in Gaza, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, say they believe that Islamic militants increasingly saw the church programs as competing with their own-and Ayyad as the face for that work.
So Massad, his wife, and two daughters-with the help of the Israeli and Palestinian Bible Society-left. They lived in the West Bank near Bethlehem for 10 months, then moved to Jordan, where his wife has family. Ayyad's widow and her three young children (she was pregnant when her husband was murdered) also evacuated to the West Bank, along with other families connected to the church work.
Massad is the only one allowed to return, and he comes back for several weeks at a time to serve in the church, to preach, and to help supervise the school. At one point he was cut off from his family for 10 months as Israeli authorities refused him permission to leave Gaza.
When Massad does go back, it is to the stucco house where he was born. In 1948 Israeli advances in the Arab-Israeli War forced his parents and grandparents out of Jaffa, and like hundreds of thousands of others, they ended up in Gaza. We talked in the home's walled garden, sitting on plastic chairs where his Bible lay open beneath the shade of mango trees his father planted in the 1980s. The garden is small but contains 50-year-old olive trees planted by his grandfather, several lemon trees, and beds of parsley and greens. Massad hires a caretaker in his absences, as he is the only one left to manage the property: One sister has just died of a long-term illness and another with muscular dystrophy requires home care.
"I really did not want to leave because a shepherd does not leave his sheep," said Massad. Many who remained in Gaza left the church out of fear following Ayyad's death but are slowly returning-up to 200 people currently attend the regular Sunday afternoon service. In all, church leaders estimate, Gaza has about 1,000 Christians-mostly Greek Orthodox and Catholic, with a growing number of evangelicals-out of its total population of 1.4 million.
"We live between two fires," said Massad. "Muslim persecution and Israeli occupation."
He began as pastor in 1987 but left in 1991 to study at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, just as Hamas influence began to grow. By the time he returned in 1999, Hamas' militant influence was being felt among church members. Evangelism, he said, is a red-line issue, and most women in the church wear hijab, or a full-length head covering, when they go out in public so they can't be distinguished from Muslim women.
Since 2007, he said, "There is risk, and we have to be careful." But being careful also means forging relationships with receptive Hamas leaders: "We let them know that it is very important for the Christian community to feel safe here," said Massad. "When there is a risky situation I talk to them. The danger is more likely a small group of militants."
In addition to its war with Israel, Hamas is struggling to hold control inside Gaza. Rival groups, including Islamic Jihad and Salafia, have claimed responsibility for most recent attacks on Jewish settlements and for kidnappings-while Hamas publicly states it intends to maintain a ceasefire with Israel. But increasingly, say residents, control of Hamas-and therefore Gaza-is coming from outside the territory. In March Hamas' military chief in Gaza warned of increased bombings by al-Qaeda and Salafists against Hamas' own leaders and said, "Security anarchy is extensive and [Hamas military] men are being killed." Political decisions are made by Hamas leaders in Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. "If things change there, they will change here," noted Massad. "But for the last 10 years all we've seen is more militancy."
And increasing deprivation as a result. Last week Israel allowed wood and aluminum into Gaza for the first time since 2007; it still blocks urgently needed concrete and cement.
What Israel does allow into Gaza is easier to list than what it does not: human food, animal food, groceries (like soap), and medicine. It blocks large items like cars and appliances, all manner of equipment and spare parts, and small items down to light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments-even crayons.
Palestinian Christians say that what's harder to endure than the persistent shortages is the travel restrictions. The families evacuated along with Massad's family left behind parents, siblings, and others; and with few exceptions they have not been allowed to see them since. One young father (none wanted their names used in print) told me his parents were allowed to visit Bethlehem recently, for one week only, and it was the first time they had seen a new grandchild born in 2007. Israel does not permit whole families to travel outside Gaza (believing they will never return to Gaza unless some family remains there), so another young mother told me she has not seen her younger siblings since 2007. The five families living near Bethlehem are not permitted to travel anywhere outside the Bethlehem area either.
"We see journalists and humanitarian workers traveling to Gaza, but Palestinians are not allowed to go," said Bishara Awad, founder and president of Bethlehem Bible College. His wife Salwa is from Gaza and has not seen her family members who remain there for nine years. When her sister-in-law died in Gaza last month, Israeli authorities denied her permission to attend the funeral.
"You don't want to talk politics, but when you share your story that is what comes out," said Massad. "We as Arabs and Palestinians did a lot of bad things, but we have suffered, too. With Israel it is not eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth; it is 100 teeth for a tooth."
Across the street from
the bookshop, whose bright blue doors now remain closed and locked, is Ahli Arab Hospital. It began in 1882 as a British hospital run by the Christian Mission Society. It eventually came under the control of the Southern Baptists, but today it is run by the Anglican communion.
When I sat down at the hospital with director Suhaila Tarazi, before I could ask a question she said simply, "We lack medicine and need supplies."
She had just received from the Ministry of Health the list of medical items showing a zero balance in Gaza: It contained 440 items. "Our biggest problems here at the hospital are treating kidney disease. We need dialysis equipment and X-ray development solutions. Our other big problem is spare parts for all equipment."
Ahli Arab is an 80-bed hospital but currently can operate only 50 beds. "Our target group is the poorest of the poor, which is a growing group," said Tarazi. Even with outside support that includes the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made a special visit in February to rededicate a hospital chapel destroyed by an Israeli bomb in 2003, Tarazi and her health workers are not exempt from shortages. Electricity is cut off about every 8 to 12 hours, and the hospital must ration the use of generators because of fuel shortages.
As Gaza's isolation deepens, in recent months Tarazi sees two trends: the increase in waterborne diseases and gastroenteritis; and patients showing up with their whole families-often eight to 10 people-who hope to receive better food and shelter at the hospital than they can scrape together elsewhere.
"We have a life-threatening problem with sewage because of the shortage of treatment facilities. It is dangerous to eat fish from less than three miles offshore, as they have been swimming in water likely contaminated. And now 40 million liters of water are pulled daily from the same sea to meet basic needs."
It's hard to see how current negotiations are enough to break the cycle of violence and deprivation. Rocket launches and suicide bombs bring blockades and border closures that further isolate Gaza, keeping "good guy" Palestinians out while militancy within the small enclave grows, prompting more Islamic militant violence and more restrictions from Israel.
Back at Erez Crossing the most prominent features of crossing the border at the end of the day are the ambulances and rows of wheelchairs. Each day health workers try to convince Israeli authorities to allow their worst cases through for care in the cities of the West Bank and Israel. If they succeed, the patients are unloaded from the ambulances and pushed by wheelchair across the buffer zone-and into the present again.
The first mention of Gaza is in Deuteronomy 2:23, when the Avvites occupied the territory, soon to be overrun by Philistines. By 1300 b.c. the city had become the conqueror's coastal base from which they launched attacks against Israel in what now seems a perpetual state of war. Captured by Napoleon in 1799, Gaza came under Egyptian influence, and the UN handed control to Egypt when it created modern Israel in 1948.
1949 Israel signs truce with Arab countries that declared war on it in 1948. Egypt retains control of the Gaza Strip and refugees move there.
1956 Israel invades Egypt, mostly in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar's takeover of the Suez Canal. A year later it withdraws.
1967 Six-Day War begins as Israel attacks Syria, Jordan, and Egypt and captures Gaza and Sinai from Egypt, and the West Bank from Jordan.
1979 Egypt and Israel sign a U.S.-brokered peace treaty to normalize relations. They also agree to a framework for self-rule for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
1982 President Ronald Reagan endorses full autonomy under Jordanian supervision for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel rejects the plan.
1987 Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, begins. Hamas is founded and launches attacks on Israeli forces from Gaza.
1988 Palestinian leadership splits over growing Hamas influence.
1993 Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin sign Oslo Accords to negotiate an end to the conflict based on a two-state solution.
1995 Rabin is assassinated by an Orthodox Jew who opposed the Oslo accords. Shimon Peres becomes temporary PM in his place.
1996 Peres declares war on Hamas after suicide bombs kill Israeli civilians.
2000 At Camp David, President Bill Clinton brings together Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak for final negotiations under the Oslo Accords. Barak offers a list of Israeli concessions, but Arafat balks. In September the Second Intifada begins under growing influence of Hamas in Gaza.
2001 A powerful bomb at a Tel Aviv disco kills 17 and injures dozens more, as Intifada violence continues through 2004, leaving over 1,000 Israelis and more than 4,000 Palestinians dead.
2004 Israel fires missiles into Gaza in a targeted assassination of the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. In November, Yasser Arafat dies in a Paris hospital.
2005 Israel completes troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip but does not ease movement restrictions for Palestinians living there.
2006 Hamas wins Palestinian parliamentary elections, ousting Arafat's Fatah party but not his successor, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
2007 Hamas gunmen rout Fatah from Gaza, killing 100 people, and seize control of the territory. In October Christian bookshop manager Rami Ayyad is found dead.
2008 In December Israeli troops and tanks cross into Gaza, launching a ground war after a month of exchanging airstrikes. Three weeks later, Israel withdraws to Gaza Strip borders but launches a naval and land blockade. More than 50,000 Gaza residents are displaced.
2010 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls on Israel to end two-year blockade, saying over half of Gazans are food-deprived.
Three Israeli civilians have been killed by Gaza-launched Qassam rockets since November 2008, but the "junkyard" rockets pose daily fear and uncertainty for the 800,000 Israelis who live within their 10-mile range, according to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW). Lacking guidance systems, the rockets are "inherently indiscriminate" and threaten civilians in violation of the laws of war, the report says. At the same time, HRW faults Israel for nearly 800 civilian deaths in Gaza in its 2009 offensive, and provides evidence that a number are the result of drone-launched missiles, suggesting-since the drone is one of the most precise weapons in its arsenal-that the civilians were targeted.