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WHEN I FIRST VISITED GAZA in 1997 with a tour group we caught the Israelis off guard. We did not know, but it was Shabat, the Jewish day of rest. We were dropped off at the Erez checkpoint, then an unsightly clutter of barbed wire and pre-fabricated buildings.

Nobody was around and it was dead quiet. Erez’s parking lot was a sea of dusty cars and trucks. We entered a long wire tunnel, and at the end of it, surprised a dozing soldier. He jumped up and grabbed his radio. A lieutenant in a jeep arrived within minutes. It was the Sabbath, he said, but he would try to get us through.

In 1997 there was still a brief honeymoon period when as tourists we could visit Gaza. It was, however, something of a mirage. Roads between areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority were becoming choked with PA roadblocks and Israeli checkpoints. The era of siege, attrition and virtual imprisonment was already upon us.

We gave the lieutenant our passports, and he drove off. He came back with a security official and two other soldiers. He took us through the gate to an outbuilding. While the official went into an office, the lieutenant ordered his two men to stay with us. We settled outside in the sun to wait.

We had nothing to do, so we started chatting to one of the soldiers. We asked him what he thought of Israel. He was Russian and replied that he had been in the country for a year. “It’s not so friendly,” he said in broken English, adding that he was homesick.

After the tedium of Israeli bureaucracy, we finally entered Gaza. Our bus driver, who was napping when we arrived, was unfazed by our three-hour delay. “Welcome, welcome,” he said, as we drove past an industrial buffer zone into streets lined by breeze-block apartments.

Whilst modern Gaza is undeniably the sorry result of Zionist apartheid, its history dates back to the Bronze Age. It is featured in Egyptian chronicles, and has been a territorial prize for over 6,000 years. Gaza has always been at the edge of someone else’s empire.

Geographically, Gaza lies on the eastern rim of the Sinai Desert. As the northernmost port of the Frankincense Trail and as a conduit of the Silk Route, it linked Central Asia to Africa. What made Gaza appealing to the ancients was that, as an agricultural hub, it could replenish their fleets and caravans.

During the Christian era, Gaza was renowned for its library and school of rhetoric. Christian pilgrims used to visit Gaza as they retraced the flight of Mary and Jesus to Egypt, paying homage to what they believed was the temple of Samson1.

Other prophets who travelled through Gaza were Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and possibly Muhammad – who as a young man accompanied his uncle, Abu Talib, on a caravan to Syria.

When Caliph ‘Umar arrived after 632 CE, Muslims found the grave of Ghazzat ul-Hashimi, the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muhammad. And when the Hajj developed into a Muslim rite of passage after the Prophet’s death, Gaza became a way-station for Muslim pilgrims.

One of Islam’s greatest legal scholars, Imam Shafi’i, was born in Gaza in the 7th century. The great Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battutah, visited Gaza twice in the 1300’s. In the 17th century a French traveller compared its markets and public baths to those of Paris2.

In spite of a long and eventful history, surprisingly little archaeological exploration has taken place in Gaza. In its sands lie the ruins of Bronze Age settlements, Greek temples, Roman palaces, Byzantine basilicas and Mamluk khans. There is even an unexplored tunnel in the courtyard of Gaza City’s Grand Mosque, originally a Byzantine structure dating back to the 3rd century.

Modern Gaza, a mere ghost of its historic self, is 42-kilometres long and 10-kilometres wide –a tiny fingernail of a Bantustan hugging the Mediterranean coast. It is 14 times smaller than the West Bank, but houses 28 refugee camps.

The Gaza Strip ends at Rafah, its southernmost town dating back to Pharaonic times. It became Egypt’s border in 1906, and was cut in two by Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin’s Camp David Accords of 19783 when Israel relinquished the occupied Sinai.

With refugees 80% of its population, half of Rafah’s citizens live in Egypt, the other in Gaza. With its families divided by the capricious lines of political barter and blockade, Rafah’s cross border tunnels were in existence well before the Israeli siege of 2007.

Rafah is where Macedonian-born Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, married Mark Anthony. Cleopatra, who could speak nine languages, had four husbands – two of them Roman generals. The Yasser ‘Arafat International Airport was constructed at Rafah after Oslo, but it was destroyed in 2001.

Rafah is the second biggest entry-and-exit point for Gaza. Unsupervised by Israel and manned by Egypt, it has been Gaza’s somewhat erratic and sometimes only lifeline to the outside world.

Today, with about 3,000 Palestinians accounting for every urban square kilometre, and with a population of well over 1, 4 million (mostly refugees) Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Most Israelis resent Gaza’s existence, and see it as a festering sore. I sometimes think that if Israeli politicians had known what they know today, they probably would have handed Gaza back to Egypt in 1967.

This explains why Ariel Sharon disbanded Gaza’s 18 settlements in 2005. Displacing Gaza’s 2,500 settlers out of a population of half a million in the Occupied Territories was a small price to pay – especially if he could seal off Israel’s least desirable entity.

Sharon knew that with the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and the 1948 territories fast exceeding that of Israelis, demographics was the most pressing question. To cut off Gaza from the already fragmented West Bank, and to divide it from within, would truly fossilise the moribund peace process.

Dov Weisglass, Sharon’s advisor, put it this way: disengagement would supply the right amount of formaldehyde to ensure there would never be détente with Palestinians.

I visited Gaza for the second time in January 2006 to attend Palestine’s parliamentary elections as a civil society monitor for the South African government.

This time we did not catch any Israeli sentries off guard, and after going through security, our diplomatic vehicle was allowed to cross into Gaza. The prefabs and wire had gone, and Erez with its maze of concrete barriers looked less of a cattle pen.

It was mid-winter, and we had to drive around shell craters once we were in Palestinian territory. Gaza’s dun-coloured streets were damp and chilly. In the 15th century, Gaza was so rich in trees that it had looked like a green carpet. In the 21st century, urban chaos sprouted from the sand.

Gaza was as I remembered it in 1997; busy, bustling and as humanly vibrant as a South African township. But this time there was an added difference.

Buildings, streets and cars were festooned with posters, banners and flags in a riotous celebration of colour. These were the hopeful buntings of democracy. ‘Arafat’s face appeared prominently on Fatah posters together with Mahmoud Abbas and Marwaan Barghouti. Shaikh Ahmed Yasin beamed from within the crescent of a Hamas moon.

We met with Beshara Shahin of the South African mission to decide upon a plan of action. That night we dined at Roots, Gaza’s top restaurant. This was where international journalists, diplomats, embassy spooks and the local political elite rubbed shoulders.

I always felt very uneasy about this kind of thing. I knew many families in Gaza were reliant upon food aid, and I did not want to be accused of living it up while others went hungry.

Over kebabs we decided that on voting day we would split into two teams. One would work from the north, the other from the south. Hopefully, by the end of the day, we would meet in the middle. Our aim was to monitor as much of the voting as possible.

At 6, 30 a.m. we entered the Jabalye District, historic enough to feature in the famous Madaba mosaic, but forced in modern times to host over 80,000 refugees in its cramped alleys.

It is dark but many people are about. In the gloom, groups of young men point in the direction of the polling stations. At the five stations we check out, there is a buzz of activity as officials prepare for the day. Old men in chequered scarves, women hobbling on sticks and even family groups are already making their way to the polls.

At 7 a.m. we observe election officials break open the ballot seals. Members of Hamas and Fatah take studious notes; volunteers from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights tick off their checklists.

The atmosphere is a carnival one. Children with the yellow flags of Fatah, the green of Hamas and the red of the PFLP line the entrance to the polling stations. Throughout the morning we crisscross northern Gaza.

Jabalye, Beit Hanun, Beit Lahiya and Gaza City become a blur as we go through our paperwork, interview polling officers and talk to voters. At about midday I hear Beshara’s mobile ringing. I can see that he is agitated, and he hands the phone to me.

“Shafiq, please deal with this,” he says.

On the line is a lieutenant from Israeli security. The officer asks if one of us can come to Erez to ‘chat’ with his captain. Chat? I knew, like Beshara, that a ‘chat’ with Israeli security would mean hours and hours of stupid and time-wasting questioning.

“Hey, we’re monitoring the elections,” I reply, “I’m busy.”

At the Zaitun School in Gaza City we see an outside broadcast van with ‘Gaza Media Agency’ emblazoned on its side. This is the first media we have seen the whole day. Later at Ash-Shati we come across the Jordanian ambassador. I notice Rageh Omar of the BBC. Adoring onlookers crowd around him as he prepares a piece to camera.

We discover that at 90% of the 24 polling stations we visit, we are the only international monitors. Only a handful of the bigger stations report to us that international missions (mainly the European Union) have visited them.

The only other international NGO that we encounter is the Carter Foundation, whose members express surprise that our mission has been able to monitor over 50 polling stations. I speak to a woman from the European Union who is fretting about a possible Hamas victory.

By 6 p.m. the voting tempo has died down to less than a trickle. Finally, the doors are closed at 7 p.m. and the ballot boxes are sealed. We decide to monitor the counting in one of Gaza City’s polling stations.

Our election officer has a penchant for the dramatic. He shows us the ballot box seals, ceremonially waves his scissors and recites from Qur’an. It is a long night of counting, and as people begin to realise that Hamas might well win the election, gunshots ring out over Al-Deira beach.

The following morning the election result – a Hamas victory – is described as a political ‘earthquake’. I struggle to understand why.

Discontent with the Palestinian Authority had been widespread. Even Christian shopkeepers in Jerusalem had told me they would vote for Hamas. I wondered how the international community, so complicit in ‘Arafat’s decaying regime, had not been able to realise this.

What on earth had their analysts been telling them?

Wadi Abu Nasr, a political analyst based in Haifa, had told me that the biggest question was how the international community would deal with Hamas. It had gained legitimacy by participating in the elections, but there was absolutely no consensus on how to deal with it.

Professor Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), had said in a briefing session that the elections were about survival.

“‘Arafat’s demise has left a huge vacuum. He was the glue that held the political structure together, but now it’s fallen apart. And because nothing happened under the corrupt rule of the Palestinian Authority, there’s a crisis,” he said.

‘Arafat’s rule had been characterised by the four F’s: fasad, fitnah, fanatan and fawdah (corruption, mischief, misrule and chaos). One billion dollars in aid money was unaccounted for. It was so bad that the cement companies of Abu ‘Ala, the Prime Minister, had been linked to Israeli contractors building the West Bank Wall.

Fatah’s ‘Young Turks’, who saw the charismatic (but jailed) Marwaan Barghouti as their future, had challenged the old guard. Their list of election candidates had excluded members of the Revolutionary Council, the legislative assembly and the Cabinet. Eleventh-hour intervention by Egypt had saved the day.

Professor Abdul Hadi noted that Hamas, now ‘playing the game’, had spoken of an interim 10-year settlement based on the 1967 borders. Officials had also indicated that its ‘Charter’, a source of much international opprobrium, was not the Qur’an4.

“That’s why I say the issue here is one of survival. Hamas has realised that to survive, we Palestinians have to share the goods of the apartheid prison,” commented Professor Abdul Hadi, “it’s that simple. The elections are about the prison.”

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