GAZA STRIP – "Marhaba! Smell the jasmine and taste the olives," was the text message I had just received and dismissed – thinking it must be from a friend making a joke, knowing where I was heading on assignment.
But the follow-up "Welcome to Palestine" text was a dead giveaway. This was clearly my phone company provider’s warm welcome on a recent trip to Gaza.
But the 25-mile long, 6-mile wide Gaza Strip that greeted me didn’t exactly gel with the phone company's sales pitch.
As we exited through the sleek, spiked turnstile at the Erez Crossing from Israel, I quickly realized we’d entered another world.
AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS
Palestinian workers lay asphalt as a street is paved in Gaza City using funding from the ruling Hamas government on July 11, 2010.
Instead of the robotic scanners, conveyor belts and digital display boards on the Israeli side, we were now greeted by porters offering rickety wooden trolleys andbroken wheelchairs as luggage carts.
Warmed by the porters’ eager help, we lugged our cases of TV gear to a decidedly lower tech, makeshift border, administered by the Hamas-run authorities.
The plight of Gaza’s 1.5 million people has gained renewed attention since Israel’s botched raid on an aid flotilla trying to breach the blockade on May 31.
Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since Hamas seized control of the territory in June 2007. Israel says the purpose of the blockade is to weaken Hamas, which has pledged to destroy Israel, and to put an end to the rocket attacks from Gaza.
But the blockade has been widely criticized as a form of "collective punishment" that has created a humanitarian crisis by groups from the European Union to Amnesty International.
We went to Gaza to see for ourselves what life was like for people living under the austere conditions.
Bags of rubble
Before we arrived, Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), summed-up the situation, "There’s 80 percent aid dependency, 44 percent unemployment and deep poverty has tripled in the last year."
He emphasized the urgent need for cement, which is vital for important rebuilding projects. But the importation of cement-making materials have been banned by Israel because of its potential use for military purposes such as building weapon-smuggling tunnels.
But even with the U.N. spokesman’s warning, the scene was startling.
There were several small groups of young men hacking away at the rubble remains of buildings, homes, businesses, shops, schools, restaurants – all destroyed during decades of conflict, with the most recent damage done by Israel’s 2008-2009 incursion.
Primitively equipped, these crews loaded donkeys or horses and carts with sacks full of crushed pebbles. These bags of rubble, worth about $1 on the local market, would be used for makeshift repairs.
But as we progressed into the center of Gaza, I couldn’t help notice how clean everything looked despite the scars of some unfinished and destroyed buildings.
The area certainly seemed more spruced up than four or five years ago, when I last visited. Adding to the atmosphere was the intoxicating vegetation, lush orange-colored blossoms, roses, carnations.
I was also taken in by the shop windows. Along with the usual hardware, food and repair shops, tucked in among the more traditional Arab fashion window displays were alluring party dresses and summery designs that could easily match some London boutiques.
But I quickly snapped back to reality.
There’s really not much evidence of glitz and allure on the streets. Since Hamas took over, they’ve imposed strict Islamic dress code. Most Gaza women cover at least their heads and some have adopted full burqa-like attire.
But not 22-year-old Berlanty Azzam.
One of an estimated 5,000 Christians in Gaza, she managed to leave and study on the West Bank, only to have her travel permit later rejected by the Israelis. She's decided not to cover up and wanders around freely in jeans, short-sleeved tee-shirts and an uncovered head.
Freely might be an overstatement. She has to deal with being stared at and abused by males in the street, so as a result, she spends a lot of time at home or on the Internet. When she does venture out, it’s with her mother, Evette Azzam.
Evette told us that her main worry is for her daughter’s future, "There are so few Christian boys left; so who should she marry? What kind of future could she have?"
For Berlanty, the only future is escape. "Every day I’m trying to forget I'm in Gaza," she said. "But if they opened the border and it remains like it is now, I'd be out in a flash."
But the option of leaving is exactly what most Gazans, trapped by Israeli travel restrictions, don't have. Access to the outside world remains elusive for most since border crossings are mostly limited to humanitarian cases, students studying abroad, and foreign passport holders. Prospects for a future in the blockaded area just aren’t there for Muslims and Christians alike.
The future looks grim for even one of the more privileged teenagers we talked to, Baraa Abu Shawiesh, 14, who was lucky enough to visit the U.S. on an aid-backed program recently. She told us she has changed her dream for the future from becoming a doctor to working as translator, believing that could increase her chances of getting out of Gaza one day. Meantime, she struggles with the frustrations of day to day.
"I want to scream out in a very loud voice and tell them – the presidents and leaders and children from other countries – that we Palestinian children, we love peace, we hate wars and we are actually very kind," Shawiesh said.
Born into a grim future
As we approached Schiffer Hospital, one of Gaza’s finest hospitals even though it is still damaged from Israeli attacks, a different kind of screams were ringing out.
Gunness, the U.N. spokesman, had told us that the World Health Organization needs $20 million worth of urgent medical supplies to adequately operate in Gaza. He suggested we visit Schiffer Hospital’s prenatal ward to understand the situation better.
Gaza has more premature babies than anywhere in the world, according to Dr. Ashraf who showed us around.
"The causes for such high numbers of premature births may be myriad, but the consequence is that these babies, who just barely arrive into the world, must struggle for survival. We just don't have the special food and medical equipment that allows them to develop and thrive," he said.
During our visit, two babies – one just an hour old, looking frail and withering – were without incubators.
I asked how the woman who we had heard screaming on arrival was feeling. "Oh she’s just given birth to premature quadruplets," Ashraf said. "And we don't have any incubators left for them."
For those children who do survive, and there are many of them – some 44 percent of the population is under 15 – it’s a tough future. An estimated 95 percent of them suffer from trauma and stress.
Gaza Mental Health Community Director, Dr. Ahmed Abu Tawaheena, told us that the children here are reacting to the traumas of war and the blockade with an inability to concentrate and violent behavior against each other.
"But their biggest fear is that they will be abandoned by their parents, or that their parents won’t get their salary," he explained.
"The kids maybe traumatized, and yet I end up treating many of their parents for depression," said Tawaheena. "One father who has tried to commit suicide several times told me what his young son said to him. After asking three times over a short period if the father could spare a shekel [about 25 cents] for his son’s pocket money, the boy said ‘If you don't even have that, why did you bring me into this world?’