A City Called Gaza

When the aging stretch taxi made its way out of the parking lot of the Rafah Terminal in the southern Gaza Strip I remember being struck by the beauty of Palestine’s coastal plain. I entered Gaza via Egypt, which in the spring of 2013 was the most reliable crossing into the Strip. We made our way north, passing through Khan Younis, a number of smaller towns and villages, Nuseirat, and then on to Gaza. All the while built up urban spaces were punctuated by parcels of agricultural land.

When you read about Gaza, and in particular its largest city (which bears the same name), you often hear about how crowded it is. One of the things I see circulate widely is that it’s one of the most densely populated places on the planet. You read about massive urban sprawl. You hear about Beach Camp, one of the territory’s overcrowded refugee camps, which rests on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City.  You read about the incredibly high unemployment rate in the Strip, the fact that its aquifer is almost completely polluted, and that by 2020 the territory itself will be unlivable.

The city of Gaza is home to roughly half a million Palestinians. The territory is home to almost two million. The Strip is roughly 80% refugees, the majority of whom fled their homes and villages in the period surrounding 1948. Even though you read about these aspects of Gaza, it’s hard to comprehend until you see it. I visited Gaza for a month in the spring of 2013 and one afternoon we piled into a car and drove to one of the highest points in the Strip. I wanted to see what it looked like from as high up as we could get.

(Click images to enlarge and enter slideshow.)

Honestly, I had never seen anything like it. If I looked out the window of the room I had rented in downtown Gaza, our street slowly snaked its way down to the Mediterranean Sea. A 15-minute walk would take me to the beach and to Gaza’s port. A 15-minute drive up the street, to the east, would bring me to the edge of Gaza’s dense urban space. This was the edge, not because Gaza wasn’t expanding or because the buildings and their residents weren’t multiplying, but because it simply couldn’t go any further. If you drove 15 minutes east you were in Shuja’iyya, one of Gaza’s biggest neighborhoods, which quickly gave way to a continually shrinking strip of agricultural land and the militarized border with Israel.

The Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City on a busy Thursday evening (2013).

I remember the night that I took that photo of downtown Gaza. I had rented a room from two local teachers. The Rimal neighborhood was busy because it was a Thursday and the weekend had just started. I put my camera on the ledge of the window in my room and let the exposure run. In a way, I’ve always felt like that photo captured how vibrant and beautiful Gaza is.

Shortly after I took that photo the power went out across the city. One of Gaza’s regular rolling blackouts. There’s one electricity plant in the Gaza Strip, and it has long been unable to meet Gaza’s electricity needs. Even with additional power brought in from Israel or Egypt, it’s never enough. The plant has been damaged numerous times during Israel’s years of shelling the Strip. In 2017 it ran out of fuel. Israel and the Palestinian Authority blamed the Hamas government for being incapable of efficiently running the plant. Hamas blamed the Palestinian Authority (and by extension Israel) for taxing the fuel imports necessary for keeping the plant operational. In the summer of 2017, untreated sewage ran into the Mediterranean because the electricity was off and the treatment plants couldn’t function.

When the power went out that night, I had already gotten used to it. I had been in Gaza for a few weeks by then and had adjusted myself to the frequency and length of the outages. I remember leaning against the window sill in the apartment, looking out at the darkness all around. The owner of the shop below our apartment building rolled his gas generator outside and I could make out the outline of his body as he stood over it, pulling the cord to get it started. As it heaved to life I saw the logo of the Pepsi cooler at the door of the shop light up again. When the shop re-opened I could see children from the neighborhood going in to buy bags of chips and cans of pop. Soon I heard a chorus of generators starting up in the neighborhood around our apartment. That night Gaza was doing what it has always done, ever since it was forced to shoulder the seemingly crushing weight of occupation. It was refusing to be quiet. It was refusing to let the light go out.

Over the past two years I’ve retreated from discussions about Palestine, even though it’s at the center of my work. I’ve disengaged, in part because it all looks increasingly dark to me. It feels dark, in a way that it never has to me before. But lately, as I’ve mentally marked 5yrs since my visit, my mind has circled back to Gaza. Recently, thousands of Palestinians have marched on Gaza’s borders to demand their rights. When I read about what’s happening in Gaza now, I still find myself fixating on what feels like darkness. But I’ve also found myself thinking about that night in 2013. That night we collectively, briefly, descended into darkness. I heard the city quiet down as I stood at my window. But then, within minutes Gaza’s residents brought the city back from that darkness and into the light. Right now, as it always is, that’s what Gaza is doing. It’s refusing to be quiet, it’s refusing to be consumed by darkness. 

Thanks to Uri Horesh and Taylor R. Genovese for their feedback on an earlier version of this. 

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