Gideon Levy

Nothing Makes Sense Here: A Journey Along the Fences and Barbed Wire Suffocating the Gaza Strip

On one side there are watchtowers and workers building an anti-terror barrier. On the other, a small tent city of Palestinian protesters

Israeli soldiers facing Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border.
\ Alex Levac

The fence separated them. On each side stood the children of the late 1990s, young people of the same age, Israeli soldiers and Gaza demonstrators. They stood opposite each other, the armed and protected soldiers with their jeeps, bulldozers, dirt barriers, barbed wire and watchtowers, and opposite them the exposed demonstrators, a parasol and an ambulance. Several dozen Gaza residents came to the fence at midweek, too, to stand and silently defy the fence and soldiers, while behind them 18 families mourned their loved ones and hundreds nursed their wounds – victims of the mass shooting last Friday.

It was afternoon. The earth-moving equipment that’s building the huge underground barrier and putting up dirt barriers all along the fence raised dust that sometimes blocked visibility. The drilling machines, watchtowers and jeeps – overloaded with intelligence and protective gear on their roofs – lent the place the appearance of a science-fiction film.

Nothing makes sense here, at the fence of the huge concentration camp called Gaza: the residents who helplessly watch the bulldozers closing in on them, intensifying the siege and the strangulation. The drivers of the heavy engineering equipment, some of whom are Israeli Arabs who use a phosphorescent bulletproof vest as a prayer rug, while on the other side they’re kneeling for that same afternoon prayer toward the same Mecca and to the same God. The huge quantities of concrete being poured into the bloody earth to achieve even more imaginary security for Israel, opposite the group of barefoot men whose most sophisticated weapons this week were large mirrors with which they tried to blind the snipers firing at them.

How sad it is to travel along the Burma Road, the military’s nickname for the patrol road next to the fence that locks in Gaza; how sad to see the houses on the other side up close, like stretching out an arm and touching it, and think about the fate of the inhabitants. How sad it is to see the huge sums being poured into the earth in this imaginary underground barrier, at the edge of which cement factories have been built to satisfy its appetite for concrete, and think about how much good could be done with this money. How sad it is to observe the Gaza prison from outside.

The Erez crossing is empty. The terminal that was built to let through tens of thousands of people, which is almost empty even on ordinary days, emptied out completely this week. A wheelchair that was rushed to the entrance heralded the passage of one patient; a pair of cats burrowing in a dumpster was a reminder that there is life here. An intelligence balloon was sent aloft once again to keep track of the people.

Israelis facing the Gaza border.
\ Alex Levac

The family of Emil Fugato donated money from his estate to develop the security highway surrounding Gaza, as inscribed on the stone slab standing on the hill between Sderot and Gaza and overlooking Beit Hanun. During the Gaza wars, curiosity seekers gathered here to watch the shelling, but now it’s quiet even on this hill, which has a tree planted at its highest point.

At the Arele Campsite people are picnicking. They’re celebrating Passover, the festival of freedom, opposite the largest prison in the world. The Cease-fire House has been renovated, a “national heritage site” in a place where the word “cease-fire” is no longer familiar. At the foot of the campsite are the fields of wheat and stubble of Kibbutz Nir Am that reach right up to Gaza, the sight of which you can’t escape. “We’re here,” people shout from inside a Kia Picanto car that has arrived at the campsite.

The Black Arrow Memorial is also here, and also overlooks Gaza – a marble block for each of the reprisal acts undertaken by Israel’s Paratroopers Brigade in the 1950s, which were called retaliatory acts. Several of them took place in Gaza, others in Jordan. Operations in Khan Yunis, Kissufim (Operation An Eye for an Eye), Qalqilyah, Kuntilla (Operation Egged) – all acts of revenge. Terror for terror. Quotations from Genesis, Natan Alterman, Hannah Szenes, Yitzhak Shalev and of course Ariel Sharon, the leader of the reprisal campaign.

The sign says the Black Arrow booklet is available from “Erol,” and provides a phone number. Tourists from the city of Yavneh arrive for an organized visit among the commemorative stones of the reprisal operations. Yavneh was once the Arab town of Yibneh – and the descendants of its 1948 refugees live in the besieged enclave opposite us. It’s doubtful whether any of the vacationers here is thinking about their fate.

“Why did the Sinai Campaign begin?” asks the guide, and someone asks what the Sinai Campaign was. “Have you heard of the attack against Moshav Patish? There was a wedding. Terrorists came.” The Jabalya refugee camp is opposite us. “Dan shall be a serpent by the road, a viper by the path” (Genesis 49:17), it says on the memorial. Shujaiyeh, where dozens of Gazans were killed during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, isn’t far away either.

Construction of the barrier on the Gaza border.
\ Alex Levac

A crocheted kippa, a head scarf and a guitar on the stone bench beneath the eucalyptus tree. A couple from Moshav Bnei Netzarim, evacuees from the Gaza Strip. He’s singing a love song to her. And from here, too, Gaza is on the horizon. It doesn’t let go.

Next to the tank-parking area from the days of Operation Protective Edge, opposite the entrance to Kibbutz Nahal Oz, there is now a cement factory for the barrier now under construction. The cement trucks are waiting in line. “We shall clothe you in a dress of concrete and cement,” 2018 version, which even Alterman, who wrote these words in a poem about the building of Tel Aviv, never dreamed of.

The Faiz Road and the Roman Road. War names. In a large watermelon patch that ends almost at the border fence, Israeli Bedouin women are collecting huge plastic sheets that covered the watermelons. Spring has arrived. From here you can already see Gaza’s houses clearly. Kibbutz Nahal Oz’s fields of potatoes, cabbage and kohlrabi reach almost to the border.

Here the watchtowers are surrounded with a dome that gives them a strange appearance. Nobody stops us and we’re on the Burma Road. Maybe they think we’re also with the contractors who are building the largest subterranean barrier in history. Meanwhile, to be on the safe side, they’ve added innumerable barbed wire fences at the edge of the fields as a second line of defense against the demonstrators who might break through the big fence.

There’s a garbage dump on the other side of the fence, white birds are burrowing in it, and not far away there’s a small tent city of the demonstrators. White tents and a few motorcyclists move among them. A yellow Caterpillar earth mover belonging to Morad Yehezkel Ltd. is eating into the earth, building another dirt barrier. Who knows how much more Israel will entrench itself, surround itself with walls, fences and barriers, and imprison its neighbors even more.

Hasan Farhat.

Some of the construction workers and supervisors work here wearing flak jackets and steel helmets. Others, like the operator of the Volvo engineering equipment who’s praying on the phosphorescent vest that he spread out, are completely exposed. The sight of the demonstrators, opposite all these steel machines, is even more heartrending. Suddenly the soldiers start running toward the fence. There’s tension in the air. The soldiers take shelter behind the concrete blocks. One of them tosses a tear gas grenade at the other side. There are no casualties.

And returning from an English lesson at the Islamic University of Gaza where he studies, to his home in the center of Gaza City on the other side of the site where we were standing, is student Hasan Farhat. He’s 20 and he returned home to Gaza in 2011, after spending six years with his parents in Australia, while his father completed a doctorate in linguistics. Farhat was happy to return. He likes life in Gaza, even under siege, and prefers it to life in Australia.

We speak via Skype. Farhat didn’t take part in the demonstration last Friday, although he supports them. He has two younger sisters at home, and they were worried about him and asked him not to go to the demonstration, fearing he’d be hurt.

“I believe that demonstrations are the last nonviolent means. The situation here is constantly deteriorating, and people know that the violent struggle has no chance. We only want to make our voices heard. We want them to know that there are human beings living here, just like everywhere else, with dreams, just like everywhere else.”

Farhat, who is active on the social networks, says 62 percent of the young people and 45 percent of the adults in Gaza are unemployed, and his fellow students are very worried about will happen when they finish their studies and receive their degrees. “As long as we’re studying, there’s at least somewhere to go,” he says. “And so many students are prevented from continuing to study abroad. So many people in the world can enjoy freedom.”

Farhat says the idea of a nonviolent march toward the border was thought up as early as 2011 by Ahmed Abu Rteima, a Palestinian journalist and writer, author of the Arabic-language book “Organized Chaos,” and now a spokesperson for the “Great March of Return.” At the time people thought the idea was crazy, because they were afraid Israel would fire at the marchers.

“This demonstration doesn’t belong to any organization. People here are tired of politics. People in Gaza have nothing more to lose. There are people in Gaza who prefer getting killed quickly at the border to dying slowly in Gaza,” he says. “I remember that when I was in Australia we were once asked if we would prefer to die slowly in a cage full of ants or to die quickly in a cage of lions. Almost everyone said in a cage of lions. To die quickly.”

On Sunday, he says, there was a wedding near the fence. People sang songs and even danced. “But we, those born in the ‘90s, we’re a lost generation,” he says. Still, he’s glad he returned to Gaza.