Below Zero




Below Zero by Ben Ehrenreich

April 20th, 2014 reset - +

THE PASSPORT TERMINAL at Erez Crossing is like the airport of your very worst dreams. There are no duty-free shops on the other side, no airplanes, no runways, and no possibility of flight, just a series of cages opening finally into the biggest cage of all, the Gaza Strip. The terminal is a cavernous building constructed entirely of metal and glass. High-ceilinged, with beams and ventilation ducts exposed. Everything is sterile. A row of blue tollbooth-like structures divides the hall in two. Nearly all of them are empty. If you linger too long, a sunglassed fellow carrying a Tavor submachine gun will stroll by to grunt you in the right direction. You will stand before a glass door and wait for a light to turn green. When it does, you will pull the door open and push your documents through the slot to the Israeli official inside the booth.

Only a very few categories of humans are permitted to pass in either direction through Erez: foreign journalists, select international aid workers, a small number of Palestinian officials and businessmen, and those lucky Palestinians approved to seek urgent medical care unavailable in Gaza. The woman behind the glass was polite, warm even. She inspected my press card, my passport and visa. She asked me how long I would be staying in Gaza. She asked my father’s name, and his father’s name. For a moment, my grandfather, dead for 15 years, hovered behind my shoulder. He was laughing. I was glad for his company. The woman behind the glass returned my documents. “Have a nice trip,” she said, and smiled.

I collected my things and waited for the photographer friend with whom I was traveling. We passed through a tall metal turnstile, and then another, into a concrete-walled room. Several low, steel doors without knob or latch or peephole were set into one wall. All were closed. I looked for an exit. There was none. The turnstile only turned one way. We waited. Surely someone knew that we were here? They did. One of the steel doors slid suddenly open. We walked through it. The door shut behind us with a clank. We were in Gaza now, in an open space with a concrete floor, a metal roof, and walls of wire mesh. The walls narrowed into a tunnel stretching off into the distance. I had heard about this part: the kilometer-long cage. There was nothing to do but walk.

To our right was the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Israel, constructed here as in the West Bank of slabs of concrete about six meters high and a meter and a half wide. For a short stretch beside the terminal, erosion had caused the wall to collapse. The slabs lay broken and jumbled in the sand, pointing in odd directions, like bad teeth. Then the tunnel turned south, toward Gaza City. On both sides of the cage, the fields were bright with wildflowers. To the left a flock of sheep was grazing. Camels wandered freely a little farther off. Birds perched in the wire mesh, chirping as they took flight. A vehicle was approaching, a mutant motorcycle-drawn tuk-tuk hauling giant suitcases. The driver sped by without making eye contact. A golf cart passed behind him with two veiled women in the backseat: the inter-cage taxi service.

At last the tunnel opened onto a courtyard, where we handed our documents to a Palestinian Authority official sitting behind a window cut into a shipping container. He handed them back, and we got into a taxi (full-sized). “Welcome,” the driver said after a short drive to the final checkpoint. “It’s a beautiful day,” he said. And it was. We presented our documents to a Hamas policeman sitting behind yet another window. After a few minutes of confusion — my papers handed off to one man in plain clothes, and then another — he handed me my passport and a Hamas-issued permit allowing me to stay in the Gaza Strip for one week. I had arrived.

The night before, US Secretary of State John Kerry had flown off to Brussels, precipitously canceling a scheduled meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry’s seemingly indefatigable optimism had cracked. The negotiations were scheduled to continue for another three and a half weeks, but Israeli commentators were already discussing them in the past tense. For the previous eight months, at Kerry’s urging, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had been talking — mainly they had been talking about talking, and talking about what they would have to talk about if they were ever to begin talking about talking in earnest. Possible land swaps between Israel and the West Bank had come up. So had the fate of Jerusalem, of the major settlement blocs, and of the Jordan Valley. Entirely absent from the conversation, though, was Gaza and the 1.7 million Palestinians who live in the strip’s scant 139 square miles, fenced in by concrete and razor wire, watched from above by Israeli drones and surveillance balloons.

The people of Gaza have been trapped, isolated, forgotten by the world — except when Israel chose to bomb them with more than the usual fervor — since 2007, after Hamas, which had won the Palestinian legislative elections two years earlier, pushed out Abbas’s Fatah party and took control of the strip. Israel imposed a blockade, severely limiting the transport of goods in and out, strangling Hamas by starving its constituents. Since then, Gaza has all but disappeared. It has become the dark side of the promised land, just out of sight, rarely mentioned and seldom heard, not part of any proposed solution, a perpetual problem that has been and will continue to be contained. Gaza’s present is one possible future — not just for the West Bank, if things continue on their current path, but for the rest of the world, wherever entire populations are unwanted and feared, wherever the resources exist to control them from above. 

The streets of Gaza City are dusty and gray. Ragged green flags flutter on the lampposts. In some neighborhoods more than half of the buildings look unfinished, their concrete-blocks un-stuccoed and, except for the ubiquitous graffiti, unpainted. Even in the busiest downtown streets, traffic is light: fuel prices have doubled since the Egyptians shut down the smuggling tunnels last summer, depriving Hamas of its tax base and cutting the flow not only of weaponry but also of livestock, home appliances, clothing, construction materials, medicine, gasoline, food. Every third or fourth storefront is shuttered. Banners hang from rooftops commemorating martyrs, advertising the courage and sacrifice of one armed faction or another. They’re crude photoshopped pastiches, the face of a smiling young man beside another image of the same boy dead, posing proudly with a rifle. Billboards hawk air conditioners, savings accounts, insurance. Horses and donkeys trot below them through the streets, pulling carts. Many of the shops appear to have nothing in stock but a single shelf of motor oil. Others display their wares on the sidewalk: crates of oranges; plastic toys; red-and-green-labeled bottles of Coca-Cola and Sprite; car batteries; chickens; used bumpers and doors.

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We drove east and out of the city until there were open fields and olive groves on both sides of the road. We passed abandoned gas stations and idle factories. Moharam Fouad worked a small plot of land, turning over the soil with a short-handled hoe. He wore Adidas track pants, the knees dark with dirt. His wife sat cross-legged on the ground a few yards away, a child in her lap. Fouad had owned a house near here, he said, but the Israelis bulldozed it on the second day of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. (More than 3,000 Gazan families lost their homes in that brief and one-sided war; 13 Israelis and 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed.) Since then, Fouad and his family have lived in a mud-walled hut. His wife was pregnant. The land he was tilling wasn’t his. He was paid 20 shekels a day to farm it, he said, a little less than six dollars. He used to work in the tunnels and made nearly four times as much. The child stood at Fouad’s feet, sucking a finger and clinging to his leg. Fouad smiled. “It’s like life below zero,” he said. Far to the north, a white balloon hung high in the sky, watching.

We got back in the car and drove east toward the Buffer Zone. On the other side, in Israel, the fields were furrowed with crops, but here mainly grass and yellow wildflowers grew. The land that Mohammad al Dabba was farming was a rare exception. He was an older man, dapper in a brown vest and gray button-down shirt. He smoked a cigarette in a wooden holder, picking at the spines of a paddle cactus with his free hand. In 2009, Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning Gazans not to come within 300 meters of the border fence. The IDF, the fliers promised, would “eliminate anyone who will be found in the zone. […] Since you are warned, no excuses are accepted.” The UN estimates that 30 percent of Gaza’s arable land has been lost to the Buffer Zone. Israeli troops “shoot on a daily basis,” al Dabba said, as if he were talking about the weather. “It depends how close we get.”

One of al Dabba’s sons, he said, had been shot in the eye. Not in the Buffer Zone, but during an incursion by Israeli troops 12 years ago. He was a boy, and had been throwing stones at soldiers. The bullet had passed through the back of his head, but he survived, al Dabba said, praise God. (I would meet him later, a quiet, muscular man with a long, black beard, wearing jeans belted with a brass buckle that said, “Hell on Wheels.” The right side of his face was scarred but handsome, the eye dark and intense. His left eye was shriveled and dead.) Another of al Dabba’s sons had been shot in the leg. And just a few weeks ago a farmer named Ibrahim Mansour was shot dead — al Dabba pointed to the border — “right over there.” A flock of crows took flight two fields over. In the distance, a military Jeep crawled along the line. Al Dabba pulled a phone from his pocket to see if anyone from Mansour’s family was around.

He walked across his field, and we took the road and met him in the yard of an adjacent cement factory. The wall of the warehouse beside it was scarred with gunfire, and with larger holes from some more substantial form of artillery. No one appeared to be working in either facility. Al Dabba brought out plastic chairs for us to sit on, tea for us to drink. Salaama Mansour arrived on the back of a friend’s motorbike. Ibrahim had been his brother-in-law. He was killed on the 13th of February, Salaama said. He had gone out with a few others, collecting gravel to sell to the cement plants. Ibrahim was a farmer, but there’s little work in farming anymore — external markets are inaccessible, and the local markets are flooded with cheap Israeli produce — so he gathered stones instead. On a good day, he could make between 10 and 20 shekels, about three to six dollars.

That day, the soldiers first fired tear gas to disperse the workers. They got out of their Jeep, Salaama said, and took shelter behind some high point where the workers couldn’t see them. The soldiers appeared to have left, so the workers returned. “When they came out they shot him,” Salaama said. Another man was shot in the foot. He lived. Ibrahim didn’t. “The bullet exploded inside his head.” He was 38. He left seven children. “It was normal that he would be shot,” Salaama said.

We returned to the city and drove to the home of Hussam Salama. It was easy to find. A huge banner hung outside the house depicting Salama, a thin-faced man with short hair and a light beard, and Mahmoud al Koumee, who was beside him in the car when their vehicle was struck by an Israeli missile during the last major bombardment, on November 20, 2012, one day before the ceasefire. Both men were journalists for the Hamas government’s al-Aqsa television network. Salama’s father, Mohammed, met us in the courtyard. He sat bent in a plastic chair. He was white-haired, long-limbed, so thin that his clothes looked like they’d been hung on him to dry.

His son was a cameraman, he explained. “There was shelling in this area, and he came to film.” When he was done, he stopped at home to eat, but “there was more shelling, and he left to go and see. The car was targeted. He was on his way back to the office. The rocket set the car on fire. The more water we put on it, the higher the flames rose.” He didn’t know, of course, if the missile that killed his son had been fired by a fighter plane or by one of the drones that hover constantly above the Strip. (Estimates vary widely, but between 600 and 1,100 Palestinians have been killed in drone attacks since 2000, most of them civilians.) It didn’t matter. The result was the same.

I had read about Salama’s and al Koumee’s death when they occurred, though I had never learned their names. I was in California, anxiously following events in Gaza on Twitter and the internet. The journalists’ car was clearly marked — “TV” written on the roof in neon letters so that it could be seen from above. It was traveling behind another press vehicle carrying a driver and fixer employed by The New York Times. In an article published that evening, the Times devoted one sentence to the incident, 19 paragraphs down, without suggesting that there was anything anomalous about assassinating journalists.

The old man was weeping silently, twisted in his chair, his legs crossed and his knees pulled almost to his chest. His son was 30 years old, he said, and had four children, two boys and two girls. “Everybody loved him,” he said. “Everywhere he went he was loved and adored. Thousands of people came to his funeral.” He wiped at his eyes and nose with a tissue. The tears kept coming. I asked if there was anything else he wanted to say.

            He nodded. “May Allah take revenge on them.”

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The sun was getting low, the light soft. We went to the beach. The sea seemed a deeper blue than it had the day before when I had seen it from the other side of Erez, in Israel. The fishing boats were leaving the pier, setting out for the night’s work. I could just barely make out three Israeli gunboats, gray shadows bobbing on the waves a few hundred meters offshore. Kids played soccer on the trash-strewn sand. The older boys practiced parkour, tossing their bodies in the air, flipping and twirling with astonishing ease. They had constructed a springboard by laying a sandbag atop a half-buried tire. One of them kneeled beside it, guiding and encouraging the younger kids, teaching them to jump and flip. They took running starts, one by one, landing on their buttocks and knees with great, giggling splashes of sand. The sun sank lower. Farther down the beach, four young men were throwing fishing nets into the sand, gathering the weighted nets, and tossing them again, catching only air and sand. A horse galloped through the surf, a cart towed behind it. The driver stood balanced on the carriage, surfing it, his arms raised to the sky, screaming with joy, splashing through the waves to join his friends.

In the morning we came across another horse. It was lying on its side on the asphalt, a block from the shore, in the al-Shati refugee camp. Two men stood above it, a policeman and the horse’s owner, a middle-aged man in a brown canvas cap with a leather bill. The horse had apparently just collapsed. Its chest was heaving, its veins tight. Its flesh was almost purple beneath a thin layer of gray and white hair. I found a bottle of water in the car and handed it to the horse’s owner. He poured it over the animal’s ears and face, rubbing it into the horse’s neck. The horse lapped at the water pooling around its lips.

A few boys gathered round to watch, and two young men. One of them, at the owner’s direction, hooked a rein to the horse’s bridle and began to pull at its head. The owner slapped the horse lightly, saying, “Yalla, yalla” (“come on, let’s go”). He pried one foot out from under the horse and placed it square on the pavement. The young man did the same with the other front foot. They heaved at the rein, trying to drag the animal to its feet, succeeding only in lifting its giant head from the ground. The horse resisted. Its head snapped back and thwacked hard against the asphalt. The sound seemed to echo. The men were still for a moment. Blood from a cut on the horse’s knee streamed into the street. The men tried again, lifting the horse’s feet, pushing it up, slapping its face with the rein. “Yalla, yalla.” But the horse collapsed again and rolled over on its back, its feet lolling limp in the air. There was something indecent about it. The men pushed it onto its side again. Another cut had opened on one of the horse’s legs.

By now a small crowd had gathered. Everyone stood in silence, arms crossed or cocked against hips. A boy showed up hauling a bucket. A man brought two soda bottles filled with water. The owner knelt and splashed the water over the horse’s withers and belly and flanks and rump, cleaning its wounds with an anxious tenderness, rubbing the cool liquid into the animal’s purple flesh. The horse reared, lifting its head, and everyone around it took three steps back. Its eyes were panicked — it had recovered enough to feel fear. But panic took too much energy. It didn’t last. More buckets came. The owner wandered across the street to make a phone call. Children watched from a third-story window. Flies gathered on the animal’s wounds. The horse raised its head, slowly this time, and looked around as if it were searching for someone it knew. When we left, except for the occasional twitch of its eye and its ears, the horse was lying still. Its owner and the young man who had been helping him were sitting on the curb beside it, staring at the street between their knees.

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 Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors and Ether, and is LARB's correspondent in the Mideast.

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