What it’s like in Gaza on a ‘day of rage’
When President Trump announced the US will recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinian leaders called for a ‘Day of Rage’ in protest. Here’s what it was like on the ground.
Most of the international community considers bustling, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv to be the capital of Israel. But last Wednesday, President Trump announced his intention to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the religious and historical home of Judaism.
Palestinians leaders reacted with outrage, with the leader of Hamas calling for a ‘new intifada’ against Israel’s government. Muslims across the world worried they could lose access to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. A few Palestinian people lit Israeli and American flags on fire, threw stones at Israeli soldiers, and staged protests as part of a ‘day of rage’ over the decision. By the end of the day, one Palestinian was killed and about 250 injured according to news reports.
But there are four million people living in the West Bank and Gaza and most of them had a different kind of day. I know this because I spent the last week in Gaza and on Thursday traveled through the northern half of the strip witnessing the scene on the ground on the ‘day of rage’.
I ate breakfast overlooking the ocean. On the beach, a group of women in headscarves were hanging out by the breakwater posing and taking pictures of themselves. A young boy was collecting plastic water bottles, presumably to sell them to the recycling company. An older man was walking along the border of the waves toward a lifeguard hut. I’ve noticed lifeguard huts seem to have the same architecture worldwide. Were it not for the Arabic writing on the side, the structure could have been on Miami Beach.
I took a car to a local coworking space. We passed groups of kids walking to school in smart uniforms: blue robes with white headscarves for the girls, and what I swear was a boy scout uniform for the boys. There’s a lot of great street art all over Gaza City, from abstract designs and calligraphy to more familiar characters:
At the office, I led a workshop on growth marketing tactics. One woman had started a dress consignment business: she convinced women to ‘list’ dresses they didn’t often wear anymore with her, then she found people who wanted to buy them. She’s brokered $500 worth of sales so far, and was debating building an online portal or app to make the process more scalable. ‘I’m worried that the market isn’t big enough here to merit building something — it’s not too hard for me to do this through Facebook messenger and Snapchat now. If we could operate in Saudi Arabia or Egypt, things would be different.’
A young man wanted to start a Facebook group of video game players, which he would eventually pivot into a marketplace for fan art. He’d shut down a previous Facebook group he’d started because there had been issues with people making inflammatory religious statements. ‘We have a lot of different opinions on religion here in Gaza,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable.’
Suggestions poured in. ‘You need to establish a code of conduct,’ said one woman. ‘Just say this is a place to talk about gaming, not religion. You don’t need to take a stand on which religious comments are right or not. Just say they’re free to discuss that elsewhere, but you want to keep the conversation focused on gaming.’
Another issue for the gamer: ‘People look down on you for gaming. A lot of people will say you’re wasting your time. The grandparents watch ten hours of TV a day and they say we’re wasting our time when we play World of Warcraft.’
‘Maybe you could highlight stories of gamers who are also successful in other ways,’ suggested another woman. ‘You could get a famous gamer to give a talk on Skype to a group of gamers here.’
‘You could even sell tickets,’ said another. ‘Maybe that’s a better business than selling fan art?’
Somehow in the course of the discussion I mentioned how much I love kunefe, a traditional middle eastern dessert made of cheese wrapped in shredded wheat, deep fried, drizzled with honey and topped with pistachios. One of the people in the office appeared fifteen minutes later with a big plate of it… and within a minute seemingly everyone in the office had come in to take a bite.
After the workshop, I chatted with some of the other people working out of the space. I was crossing into Israel later in the day, and considering visiting a friend in Jerusalem or just heading straight to the airport. I asked if they’d heard anything about the security situation.
‘Honestly, I haven’t been paying any attention. If it’s bad we hope it will pass quickly. It’s not in our control, so why give it any thought?’
‘This Embassy move gives fanatics another reason to make trouble. But it doesn’t really change anything about how things work on the ground.’
‘We’re used to having political leadership who are provocative and embarrassing. We know Trump doesn’t represent you any more than Hamas represents us. Now you know how it feels to have your politics hijacked by crazy people like we do!’
‘Mostly I just feel bad for the US diplomats who have to move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I hear it’s pretty boring there and because of security they’ll barely be able to move around. And — no beach.’ I wouldn’t have thought many Gazans would be sympathetic to the plight of US diplomats, but there’s at least one.
I left the office and headed to the border crossing with three foreigners, one of whom lives in Jerusalem, one in Ramallah, and one in San Francisco like me.
We drove through a beach town that had evolved out of a refugee camp established in 1948 when Muslims fled Israel. The tents had become shacks, and eventually concrete buildings, many of which had colorful graffiti on the walls. It was an obviously poor neighborhood, but corner shops — what we’d call bodegas in NYC— were full of Coca Cola, Mars Bars, and seasonal fruit.
There and in all the neighborhoods we passed, men, women, and children appeared to be going about their daily life as usual. We saw a group of girls playing tag, a group of boys playing soccer, a bicycle delivery guy. A man in a smart suit with a battered briefcase hopped in a yellow cab. We passed a runaway donkey and two boys trying to catch up with it. Hamas soldiers in their blue camo uniforms lazed by the side of the road.
In the middle of one stretch of road, someone had lit three tires on fire. I thought: how dramatic that would look in a picture, and how completely unimpressive it is in person. We drove around the tire fire.
I saw what looked like an oil rig but was in fact a desalination facility just over the Israeli border. ‘They can’t use it right now because there aren’t sewage treatment facilities here — I think they may have been blown up in the 2014 war? — and so the sewage from Gaza flows towards the desalination facility and contaminates the water.’ What goes around comes around, I guess.
As we approached the border, we passed new apartment blocks. Two had been destroyed in the 2014 war, and the bombed-out walls exposed intricate tile, painted molding, rich wallpaper — it was clear they had been very nice apartments. For a second I thought, why would you build such a nice apartment building in such a volatile area? And then I remembered, of course: where else could they?
Next to the apartment block stood a slum. Young boys were dragging dumpsters into the road and lighting them on fire. While I can’t discount the possibility this is something that kids would do for fun any day of the week, I’m pretty sure this was part of the ‘day of rage’ and if so was the closest to violent protest we saw.
We pulled over to ask the first adult we saw how we could get through. Kids swarmed around our car saying ‘hello!’, smiling and waving at us. The man pointed us to a narrow road through the slum, which we passed through without incident.
As we walked through the kilometer or so of no man’s land that separates Gaza from Israel, we reflected on how most people in the US seem to think the Middle East is a constant bloodbath. ‘I’m much, much more likely to die from a random act of violence in my hometown of Chicago than I am here,’ said the foreigner who lives in Jerusalem. Yet Gaza is the war zone.
I worked briefly as a journalist in Istanbul many years ago. At one point I pitched a feel-good story about a new arts collective that had sprung up. I’ll never forget the words my editor said to me: ‘People won’t want to hear about that. People want stories of dead babies being raped.’ For all the good work journalists do, it’s worth remembering that they get paid for getting attention and so are incentivized to make things appear more gruesome than they are.
There is needless violence in the Middle East and pain and suffering I didn’t see in my superficial few days in the region. But there is much, much more to talk about outside that. Though it may never be published in the mainstream news, Gaza is a place for entrepreneurs, gamers, schoolchildren, surfers, selfie-takers, street artists, and so many more who don’t want anything to do with the conflict. Things may get worse in the coming days, but most Gazans will be doing the same things they do every day. Their stories should be heard too.