Assaf Kfoury: Why Gaza?

By Assaf Kfoury, Israeli Occupation Archive – 5 Nov 2012

Introductory Note

Assaf Kfoury

Assaf Kfoury

Three weeks before Israel launched its Operation Pillar of Defense on November 14, 2012 I was part of an academic delegation on a short trip to the Gaza Strip on October 18-22. For the mainstream media, October was a “normal” time, because hardships endured by Gazans are not newsworthy when there are no F-16’s dropping laser-guided smart bombs.  That one or two Gazans were killed by Israeli army patrols from one week to the next in October, because they had transgressed the limits of the Israeli siege, went largely unnoticed.

But such are the ethical standards of the mainstream media, genuflecting to power and ignoring the oppressed. One way to see through the ideological fog is to experience “normal” conditions from close range. Inside the Gaza Strip in October, we directly witnessed the devastating effects of the sanctions, the siege, the sea blockade and – more fundamentally – the long systematic evisceration that Gaza has suffered over several decades.

On November 14, 2012 Israeli President Shimon Peres explained why Israel launched its Operation Pillar of Defense by saying “for the past five days there has been constant missile fire at Israel and mothers and children cannot sleep quietly at night.” In response to Mr. Peres’ one-sided compassion: If the sleepless nights of Palestinian mothers and children also count for something, honesty dictates a very different chronology.

On November 5, a 20-year old Palestinian civilian, Ahmad al-Nabaheen, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers after inadvertently drifting close to the border. On November 8, a 13-year old Palestinian boy playing soccer near his house, Hamid Younis Abu Daqqa, was killed by machine gun fire, either from Israeli helicopters or tanks that had crossed into Gaza territory. On November 10, four Israeli soldiers (legitimate targets of attack) were wounded when an anti-tank missile was fired at their patrol along the security fence in the northern Gaza Strip. On November 10, Israeli tank shells killed four Palestinians and wounded 30 in Gaza City proper; the four were 18-year old Ahmad al-Dardasawi, 17-year old Muhammad Hararah, and two unidentified men who later died from injuries sustained in the attack. And on went the infernal escalation.

In the article below I collected separate impressions from different moments during our October trip. I wrote it a few days before November 14. The “normality” of Gaza is a long-sustained violence whose effects in fact exceed, and make inevitable, the kind of explosive violence inflicted by Operation Pillar of Defense.

Longing to See the World – and Return Home

If only it would just sink into the Sea”
–the late Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin referring to Gaza.1


The long car ride from Cairo took more than six hours. Going through the Rafah border terminal was another three hours of waiting and arguing. On the Egyptian side of the terminal, people were pushing from all directions, many with heavy suitcases and children in tow. The chaotic scene did not perturb the mostly jovial Egyptian border officers, unmindful or dismissive of the dense crowd of tired and helpless travelers they kept pushing over the edge. Those who complained seemed to have to wait a little longer before getting their travel documents stamped and approved for crossing.

The Gaza Strip is hemmed in from all sides. The Israeli naval blockade prevents all transport of people and goods from the sea. The land border with Israel is tightly sealed. Rafah at the southern edge of the Strip is one of only two operating entry/exit points, the other is Erez at the northern edge. Rafah is the only and hard way in and out, via Egypt, for the vast majority of Palestinians. Israel controls the Erez crossing, strictly monitoring entry of international aid workers, journalists, and a trickle of Palestinians.

The Egyptian officers grilled me for not having a hawiyya (Gaza ID card). I insisted my US passport was my only ID and I never carried a Gaza ID. “But your name is an Arab name, right?” The one questioning me was not entirely sure. Yes, it is, but I am not Gazan.” Just treat me like any other foreigner, a visiting university professor,” I said. My official invitation from the Mathematics Department at the Islamic University did not convince him. The very unpleasant thought of having to return to Cairo crossed my mind. They finally acceded to my request to call up one of the assistants of Eyad Sarraj2 in Gaza (one of several contacts carefully recorded in my wallet each with a phone number), who had been advising us in earlier days on how to prepare for the trip to Rafah. This seemed to unblock things. After their brief conversation on the phone, they let me cross.

I knew that many Gazans had acquired North American and European passports over the years, giving them some mobility to leave and return to the Strip. What I did not know, or failed to remember, was that Gazans holding foreign passports still have to produce Gaza ID’s in order to get through. In principle, foreign visitors are allowed to enter, provided they are invited by a Gaza institution or a major NGO, with also prior tanseeq (coordination) and a letter to prove it with the Egyptian mukhabarat. In my case, an Arab name made me suspect and seemed to disqualify me as a foreign visitor.  And an official invitation and a tanseeq letter were useless – until Eyad Sarraj’s office interceded for me.

I was traveling with Noam Chomsky, who was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a linguistics conference organized by the Islamic University of Gaza.3 We were part of a two-vehicle convoy that had started in Cairo early that morning. The second vehicle right behind us was a minibus bringing an international group of linguists, rallied by Hagit Borer several months before to attend the same conference. I was the only mathematician in the group.

From a local academic meeting – in itself an admirable initiative and affirmation that Gaza could lead a semblance of normal life despite the sanctions and the siege – the conference became an international event, with Noam Chomsky and other linguists from abroad due to attend. An obvious act of defiance and international solidarity, it was bound to irk all of Gaza’s tormentors, starting with the Israeli government, just as it was meant to publicize Gaza’s dire conditions to the outside world.

After the Rafah crossing, there was another hour of driving in bumpy darkened roads, before we arrived at our final destination (the Mat’haf Hotel) near the northern end of the Strip. By then it was pitch black outside. There was just enough time to wash and get ready for a dinner reception in honor of all the visiting foreign academics.

But in my hotel room, I could not get my bar of soap to produce any foam, no matter how much I rubbed it under water. That too I should have remembered, because I had often read about hard water in Gaza – water that has become increasingly dense with noxious minerals over the years. I had brought the bar of soap with me from Boston, but the water was so hard that it was like a sticky piece of wood in my hands. Rinse as I could, I still felt something pasty on my hair. In a rush, I used the towel to wipe the remaining soap off my face and hair.

On the way out, I told the hotel receptionist how I struggled with the soap. I asked if I could buy a softer soap somewhere nearby. “Welcome to Gaza!” he laughed. I felt a little sheepish worrying about water and soap when they had lived with the problem for years. “You should have been here in 2008 and 2009, especially after the Israeli attack – soap and everything else was far worse,” he said.

Maybe it was worse in 2009. Yes, of course, no doubt things are a little better now than they were during the Israeli onslaught of Operation Cast Lead. But this misses the wider picture and points to a bigger problem in reporting on the situation in Gaza. Things are better or worse relative to what? Over what time period, the last three years or the last three decades? And what will Gaza’s ultimate fate be?


It does not take much to find out about the water situation in the Gaza Strip. Numerous reports have been issued over the years. An Amnesty International report from October 2009 points out that:

Gaza’s sole source of fresh water is the Coastal Aquifer, a trans-boundary waterway shared with Israel running along the coast up to Haifa. The aquifer is severely deteriorated with up to 95 percent of the extracted water unsuitable for human consumption with dangerous levels of nitrates and chlorides, well above World Health Organization guidelines, with potential for serious health risks for the 1.6 million Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip.4

The report ominously warns that Gaza may run out of fresh water within this decade if no action is taken to find alternative sources. The same conclusion applies to other sectors of the Gazan economy.

Notwithstanding temporary improvements, Gaza’s economic infrastructure is still in long-term decline. Short-term upsurges and infusions of funds from Turkey, Qatar, and other benefactors cannot by themselves reverse the trend. Charity-based growth is at best ephemeral development and unsustainable in the long run. The fact is that Gaza was not left in a state of under-development, but was deliberately de-developed, to use the words of Sara Roy, a highly respected researcher on Gaza at Harvard University.5 Over past decades and years, Palestinian industry has been systematically sabotaged in favor of Israeli industry, including industry (or whatever is worthy of the name) in Gaza, whose economy is essentially controlled by Israel. Most alarming is a recent UN report, Gaza in 2020, which suggests that Gaza will no longer be a “liveable place” in 2020.6

In the West, Gaza’s situation is mostly ignored or distorted. And distortion can come in different ways. We can leave aside journalists and writers who blithely overlook or massage the facts to deny or minimize Gaza’s long-term economic deterioration. These are hacks for pay, criminal in camouflaging an ugly reality.

But some others do the distortion out of apparently good intentions: In their eagerness to show that Hamas is not the evil so often portrayed in the West and that the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority in Ramallah does not deserve to win the “beauty contest” against Hamas in Gaza, they quote out of context, or emphasize short-term economic activities (yes, truly admirable against all odds) and ignore inexorable long-term trends (again, if nothing happens to reverse them). Here is a flagrant out-of-context quotation, from a recent article intent on portraying Gaza as a hive of hopeful activity:

[U]nemployment in the formal economy fell to 29 percent, its lowest in a decade and an improvement of eight percentage points in a year.7

A rosy picture indeed, which will please anyone with a conscience. The contrast with the UN report, where the same 29 percent rate is also mentioned, couldn’t be any starker:

Unemployment in Gaza stood at 29% in 2011 and has increased since. Women and youth are particularly affected: The unemployment rate for women was 47% during the first quarter of 2012, and it was 58% for people between 20 and 24 years of age.8

These are not statistics of a thriving economy, but rather one which is on life support, or close to it. The UN report, leaving aside whatever reservation we may have about it, is grim enough to alert us to a catastrophic situation a few years from now, if something is not done before.


Officials from the Khan Younis municipality, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, gave us a tour of the nearby desalination plant under construction. The 1993 Oslo Accords called for building two plants in what appeared to be a gesture of parity, one in Israel proper and one in Gaza. The one in Israel was built, an advanced seawater desalination plant. The Palestinian facility is yet to be completed and uses the cheaper and inferior technology of desalinating underground water, which will further threaten the sole over-used and heavily polluted aquifer.

On the afternoon of the same day, Noam Chomsky addressed a packed hall of sympathetic listeners in a meeting organized by TIDA, the activist progressive think-tank founded and directed by Eyad Sarraj. Noam gave an analysis of US policies in the Middle East and recounted some of what we had seen earlier in the morning in Khan Younis.

In the question-and-answer session after the presentation, it seemed surreal to hear a British aid volunteer in the audience taking Noam to task for what he described as Noam’s opposition to a “one-state” solution. In light of the urgency of sheer survival in the rest of Gaza, “one-state or two-state” sounded totally gratuitous and sterile to me, of no consequence for how to help Palestinians confront their internal problems and their many external enemies. Noam’s answer: “I am not against a one-state solution – in fact my own preference is for a no-state solution – but tell me how to get there. I know of no intermediate step other than a two-state solution.”


On my return to Boston, a friend asked, “Can you confirm or not the optimistic reports on the level of development?” The words seemed incongruous. It is very difficult to associate optimism, or development of any kind worthy of the name, with the reality of Gaza. Even without an extensive background about the history of the place, before and after 1948 or before and after 1967, an honest open-minded observer, without a prior agenda to push (of the kind “Gaza is thriving” or, at the other extreme, “Gaza deserves its lot”) will be overwhelmed.

Gaza’s people in general do not play the victim role, much to their credit, but a sympathetic outsider cannot escape a mixture of anger and sadness from meeting and talking with them. They express it, it is palpable, and one quickly shares the feeling – interspersed with the warm welcome, bantering, and small conversation about weather and food. There are a few middle-class enclaves, mostly inhabited by the remaining old families of Gaza, but the rest is a huge, impoverished place. Chaotic, teeming with people, invaded by foul odors from untreated sewage, crisscrossed with potted and dusty roads, and everything else that we have read about for years, but it is still a shocker to experience it directly.

One dominant impression from Gaza is the resilience of its people. It is admirable – somewhere else in the world, against lesser odds, perhaps the source of some optimism – but here reflecting their determination to endure the hardships, retain their land and their homes at all costs, go on with their lives in the face of extreme adversity and, with that, warmly embrace any kind of support or solidarity from the outside that seems to break their isolation. This was the constant backdrop in conversation, sometimes explicit and sometimes assumed, with friends or in chance encounters, with the university driver or the hosting professors, with the hotel receptionist or even the apologetic waiter one morning because they had run out of black olives for breakfast.

No, the waiter was not telling me there were no more black olives in Gaza. To compensate, he brought me another serving of green olives and an extra supply of zaatar. But, like other rationed goods in Gaza, lack of black olives on that particular morning mirrored the wider situation and we joked ruefully about it.

No doubt, there is economic activity, sometimes impressive or even dazzling to someone unwilling to put it in the context of a long-standing siege, but, in the end, this is activity to resist and delay the catastrophic outcome predicted by the aforementioned UN report. Of course, this is not a preordained outcome, and we all want to resist it, starting with the people of Gaza themselves with the support of all their friends outside and with whatever available means.

So they make do with whatever they have. Yes, there are buildings under construction, but many more left unfinished with missing upper floors or as skeletons without their walls. Yes, there is electricity, but interrupted at different moments every day. Yes, the universities are functioning, but the dropout rates are high, and higher still among men than among women, because employment prospects are poor (close to nil in the mathematical sciences, not surprisingly and as explained by my mathematician colleagues).


Students were swarming around me at the end of my lecture in the Mathematics Department at the Islamic University. They were competing for my attention and trying to get their answers first. But none of the questions – not a single one out of at least a dozen – was related to what I had lectured on. All the questions had to do with help I could provide if they applied to pursue their studies in the US or, in the case of one, if he wanted to join a cousin who had managed to emigrate to the Detroit area in the US.  I was a little disappointed, wondering if I had messed up my mathematical explanations. But then surviving in Gaza can be stifling for young people eager to discover the world. Mathematics was not their priority when talking to a foreign guest.

The contrast with Cairo University, where I had lectured a few days earlier, was stark and instructive.  Students were just as receptive and gave me a warm and feisty welcome, the way they do for any guest lecturer anywhere else in the world. But, there in Cairo, their questions were related to what I had lectured on – not a single one had to do with running out of Egypt.

A blocked horizon, the feeling of being encircled and unable to go very far, is pervasive in Gaza. The once-thriving fishing industry and the open sea sustaining it, always part of Gaza’s economy and identity in the past, have been robbed from Gaza and its people – deliberately and relentlessly, for years and decades, with no one and no party ever brought to account. Turning one’s back to the misery inland, and looking out to the Mediterranean and its shimmering waters, should normally be a soothing escape, but not in Gaza. Our mornings over breakfast at the hotel were punctuated by gunfire from somewhere off shore. These were not dynamite sticks that kids or poor people detonated underwater to collect large quantities of stunned fish, as I initially thought, but gunfire from Israeli patrol boats warning fishermen to stay inside the three nautical-mile limit. On the morning we left the Strip, we were told that two fishermen who went beyond the limit were killed the day before.

I befriended the two security guards that trailed us everywhere, riding with us in the cars and minibuses from one place to another. At first, I thought they were university employees. I later found out they worked for the Palestinian ministry of interior, which had assigned them to accompany our delegation of foreign academics. They said I was wrong to assume they were Hamas members. They insisted they were independent civil servants, although they did not mince words to express their admiration for Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and utter contempt for former Fatah security chief Mohammad Dahlan.

They were glad to converse with me in Arabic and recognized my accent from somewhere further north. I told them about my connections to Lebanon and Palestine, and my early education in Egypt. To them, I probably sounded like an emissary from an unreachable wonderland, as I gave them attractive accounts of Beirut, Cairo, and Alexandria.  Boston and New York, further out, were an altogether different planet. They were eager to hear about these distant places. I obliged them, but also felt bad that they could only dream of my privileges. Although both born in Gaza, one identified himself from Majdal (Ashkelon in present day Israel, a few kilometers north of the Gaza Strip) and the other from Beer al-Sab’e (Beer Sheba in present day Israel). Both in their late 20’s or early 30’s, they had never set foot anywhere outside the 140 square miles of the Strip.

Exiting the Strip at the Rafah border, and crossing into the vast Sinai, the comparison with Egypt is unavoidable. One moves from Gaza’s sorrows and disquieting horizons to Egypt’s open landscapes, which stretch out for hundreds of kilometers in all directions and are available to everyone. Egypt has its own share of poverty, in some places even worse than anything in Gaza, but the poorest of the poor in Cairo can always walk on the Nile Corniche and enjoy the river’s majestic view.

[IOA Editor: More on Noam Chomsky’s Gaza visit, below. 9]


  1. Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza, Days and Nights in a Land under Siege, Metropolitan Books, 1999, page 9.
  2. Eyad Sarraj is a Gaza-based Palestinian psychiatrist and long-time social-rights activist. He is the founder of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and of TIDA, a progressive think-tank focusing on Palestinian rights. Eyad Sarraj’s office provided counsel and information before and during our trip to Gaza.
  3. Noam Chomsky recorded some of his impressions elsewhere, Impressions of Gaza, 7 November 2012.
  4. Amnesty International, Israel rations Palestinians to trickle of water, 27 October 2009.
  5. Sara Roy, The Gaza Strip, the Political Economy of De-development, Institute of Palestine Studies,1995; Failing Peace, Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, Pluto Press, 2007; and Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza, Princeton University Press, 2011.
  6. A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, Gaza in 2020: A liveable place? 27 August 2012,
  7. Nicolas Pelham, “Gaza: A Way Out?” New York Review of Books, Blog, October 26, 2012.
  8. A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, op. cit.
  9. Coverage of Noam Chomsky’s Gaza visit on the IOA: Impressions of Gaza; Noam Chomsky responds to Gisha’s “What we want from Noam Chomsky”; How Chomsky came to Gaza: a statement by eight who accompanied him; and Chomsky makes first Gaza visit
Back to Top

Readers are welcome to discuss IOA content on our Facebook page. To participate, please click HERE.