The Gaza Strip occupies a land area not much bigger than a large country town: it is barely 12 kilometres wide and from its southern border with Egypt about 40 kilometres long. To its north and east lies Israel and its western edge is a Mediterranean beach.
Its history is long, complicated, and often terribly cruel — it has been a biblical city, a crusader port, a dusty pit stop for weary pilgrims, a place where Australian soldiers fought and died fighting the Turks and, in 1948, a refuge for thousands of Arabs fleeing the creation of the State of Israel.
Today is a fetid hellhole where in 2007 a poorly maintained sewage treatment plant collapsed and people were drowned by a tidal wave of excreta. Everyday life is increasingly lived under the thumb of clerics who harp on martyrdom and morality but whose rockets and suicide bombs kill mostly the innocent and unlucky. But when it comes to cleaning up the donkey shit that coats the crumbling roads and attracts swarms of flies, or getting the lights to work, or drinkable water to come from the taps, these people have far fewer ideas.
Gaza is the sort of place that people would leave if they could, but they can’t. Over the decades its border with Israel has evolved from an unmarked line in the scrub to a high-tech security barrier patrolled by tanks, attack helicopters and aerial drones. It is, in effect, a giant prison.
I peeked into Gaza from Israel: it was the closest I could get. In 2005 I found a job on a kibbutz that was built right up against the border fence. A few kilometres away, on the streets of the Gaza Strip, donkey power was how things got moved around, but on the kibbutz, they were using advanced technology to make potatoes sprout from the desert. They had giant robotic sprinklers on wheels and there was talk of potato DNA. The aerial photos on the wall of the farm office showed circular swathes of brilliant green sprouting from a desert that was otherwise the colour of burnt toast.
Sometimes in the cool of the night I’d wander off for a stroll and end up far enough away from the glare and noise that I could hear the crickets chirping and see the dim pinpricks of what looked like kerosene lamps twinkling out from the city next door. I liked to kid myself they had some slight ethereal flicker that lights back home didn’t have. This was, after all, the Holy Land.
Nearly every night there was shooting of one sort or another over there. Strange muffled crumps, weird flashes of light and tat, tat, tat. This, people said, was the sound of a Palestinian civil war. They were always launching these homemade rockets at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot that were highly effective at blowing craters in car parks and fields. (Thankfully the potato farm, though easily within range, seemed to be beneath their attention.) For their trouble, they were swiftly bombed into oblivion by the Israeli Air Force, often taking a bunch of innocent bystanders with them.
Other times the shooting did come from our side: the soldiers who guarded the security barrier opening fire on a shadow that was frequently a goat, but occasionally someone trying to get across into Israel.
I didn’t doubt that there were terrorists in Gaza who believed murdering someone like me was a sure way to heaven, and I was glad that someone stood between them and the local bus stop. Beyond that sinister truth, however, there must have been thousands more who were neither crazy nor homicidal, just desperate enough to fool themselves into thinking they could escape through the fence and find some cash-in-hand work in Israel that, though shitty and demeaning, might just keep their family from going hungry. Regardless of who they were, few who tried to escape from Gaza made it out alive.
The strange thing is that standing there on the very edge of all this, it didn’t seem incredibly important. I had my own work and worry and so long as the fighting stayed a few kilometres away, it wasn’t my concern.
Daylight didn’t make things any clearer. At work in the fields I had a clear view over the fence to the slums: they were a low-slung sea of concrete boxes clustered tightly on the surface of a desert plain. One and a half million people were crammed into the Strip but from the back of the tractor it looked so still and silent the figure seemed unbelievable.
There were snipers over there who sometimes shot at the tractors. The field hands joked about what poor shots they were. They stayed quiet while I was there, though looking out over the fields and the fence at the slums beyond, I didn‘t doubt they existed. In the afternoon, when the heat was intense, the city on the other side had the look of no other city I’d ever seen. It actually seemed to smoulder with anger, although that might just have been the noxious fumes rising from the piles of uncollected trash stewing in the sun.
Anywhere else it would be deemed insane to try to harvest potatoes in such an environment, but Israel has so little land and so many hostile borders that there are few other choices. This is not a country where anything is simple. Even the potatoes come out of the earth coated with guilt and history. Along with mud and rocks and spuds, the harvesting machines churn up shards of broken pottery, remnants of jars that had once held olive oil and water. These jars could only have come from the Arab villages that once dotted the desert we were making bloom, but had long since been ground into mud.
It hard to imagine that the grandparents of the snipers lurking in the slums just over the fence had once lived in them, but I knew that some of them almost certainly had.