Guardian – 24 July 2000
Tairif Abu Dayya has had a hectic month. In his PLO shop in Gaza City, amid dozens of inflatable Yasser Arafat dolls dangling from the ceiling, he and his family have been hurriedly sewing 3,000 flags.
The order, placed by the Palestinian National Authority before the start of the Camp David summit a fortnight ago, should ensure there are enough flags to mark the declaration of Palestinian statehood, long threatened by Arafat for mid-September. Tairif has also made three giant flags – measuring 25 metres by 10 – for key sites at Gaza airport, Orient House in East Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Hebron, and created an equally large portrait of the Palestinian leader himself. “I am Arafat’s biggest fan,” Tairif says.
If a deal can be brokered at Camp David, the new flags will certainly be needed. Many of the ones lining the streets near Arafat’s palace on Gaza seafront are barely recognisable: the harsh sun has bleached away the greens, reds and blacks, leaving what appear to be white flags of surrender. Their state – they have also been made ragged by time and the wind – neatly matches the forlorn, unloved condition of Gaza City. It may currently be the capital of Arafat’s nascent state but his negotiators are working overtime to make sure that honour passes to East Jerusalem.
Gaza is a wretched place to live. More than one million Palestinians, the majority of them living in refugee camps, are squeezed into a tiny dusty strip of land 28 miles long and six wide between the Negev desert and the Mediterranean, creating one of the most densely populated areas on earth.
Adult unemployment has been estimated by the UN at 60%, and 90% of Gazans are said to live below the poverty line. Most water sources are contaminated with sewage or seawater, and the donkey and cart is still a major means of transport. Although Gazans have a reputation for being the most friendly of Palestinians, these pressures have created a palpable air of tension that all too readily surfaces in petty arguments and fights.
Life for another group of Gazans, however, is not so hard. Enjoying a hermetically sealed existence in 18 settlements dotted throughout the strip, 6,000 Israelis are supplied with water from private reservoirs and control most of the area’s best arable land. A series of separate roads guarded by IDF troops connect them to Israel.
Palestinians also need to leave Gaza – either to visit loved ones in the West Bank or seek work in Israel. They have only one exit, at the Erez “security” border crossing which is controlled by Israel. Here thousands of Palestinians arrive each morning hoping to be let out. When the border isn’t closed, as it can be unexpectedly, or their permits confiscated, they have to endure the indignity of being herded through a 500-metre long metal enclosure – a sort of cattle run – to be processed by the authorities.
Like many Palestinians, 32-year-old Manzur calls Gaza a prison, the biggest in the world. He lives a short distance from Gaza City in Beach Camp, home to 50,000 refugees. True to its name, the camp is by the sea but even the beach here is blighted by the squalor and overcrowding. Manzur is lucky to have a job, as a security guard at a hotel, but earns too little to buy a flat or hope to attract a bride. Instead he lives with his parents, four sisters, eight brothers and a grandfather. They share four rooms between them.
His grandparents fled from Jaffa, the Arab port south of Tel Aviv, in the 1948 war that established Israel. Manzur has never been there but says a few years ago his grandfather returned, to find the family home occupied by Israelis. “I know that I can never hope to live there,” he says. “We have all given up dreaming. Gaza kills your dreams.”