Seldom do we have an opportunity to get an insider's view of the operations of a critical international agency as well as the roots of an important contemporary conflict. Here, a retired American Foreign Service Officer provides such an insight with notes on his experiences, observations, and impressions when visiting the Gaza Strip as a diplomat assigned to U.S. embassies in the region and then service in Gaza as an officer of UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Assoc. Publisher
A number of people have asked that I record some of the experiences, observations and impressions acquired during my years working in the Gaza strip with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). With apologies for a lack of precision due to the passage of time, there follow descriptions of and comments on things that I observed during my four years administering relief services for some 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees living in the Gaza Strip, as well as impressions from previous visits to Gaza.
My second visit took place in the spring of 1970 when my wife, Tess, was able to accompany me. Again, we traveled via the Allenby Bridge and, after a brief stop at the UNRWA field office, proceeded to our lodging at Marna House. Marna House, as visitors to the Strip will recall, was then regarded as the only place suitable for western visitors. There weren't many in those days - western journalists, NGO representatives, UN officials and the occasional foreign embassy visitor, although most of the latter tended not to remain overnight in Gaza as security conditions were still unsettled. Marna House was an ad hoc B&B in the home of Mrs. Margaret Nassar, herself a refugee from Safad in northern Galilee. I don't recall the circumstances that resulted in Mrs. Nassar ending up in Gaza rather than Jerusalem where her son, Walter, lived, or with one of her two married daughters, Hilda and Ruth, both of whom were married and living in the UK. She was a charming lady with many interesting and sad tales of her experiences before, during and after the 1948 War. She also followed day-to-day events in Gaza very closely, and when I was visiting in the camps and something occurred in Gaza City that threatened to upset the security situation, she kept Tess in the house and away from the souq or the nearby UN beach facility.
For the most part, security conditions at this time within the Gaza Strip, at least in the cities, were generally tolerable. The local, non-refugee residents, and many of the refugee population as well, thought negotiations to implement UN Security Council Resolution 242, then under way in New York, could result in a settlement agreement that would enable the refugees either to return to their former homes in what had become Israel or be compensated for their losses and helped to resettle elsewhere. There was no support for any agreement that did not make it possible for most, if not all, of the refugees to leave the Gaza Strip.
Accompanied by a UNRWA expatriate staff member, I visited several of the eight refugee camps within the Gaza Strip, from Jabaliya, near the northern border with Israel, to Rafah, adjacent to the border with Egypt. On a slightly elevated plot of ground near Gaza City there was already an Israeli civilian settlement with, I was told at the time, a few hundred settlers. These were escorted by the IDF into Israel each day as there was no work for them in Gaza. Between this settlement and the southern edge of Gaza City was the main IDF camp, an area obviously not open to the public. During the years before June 1967, this area had been an Egyptian military administration headquarters.
Although I had little contact with local residents during this visit, I did dine with a few members of the al-Shawwa family. (The al-Shawwas are a prominent, extended family that has lived in Gaza for generations. Some years later, Haj Rashad al-Shawwa became mayor of Gaza City and after his death a nephew, 'Awn, took over the position.) I recall a comment from one of the people I met that, although the Gazans had not been happy with the Egyptian military administration in the Gaza Strip, the situation since June 1967 when Israel had reoccupied the area had deteriorated significantly. For example, the port of Gaza, destroyed during the June '67 fighting, had not been repaired or allowed to reopen, thus preventing Gaza farmers from exporting their produce (mainly citrus) to their former markets in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Europe. Gazans were convinced that Israeli officials would never permit the port to reopen, believing exports of citrus from the Strip would be at a competitive advantage in European markets vis-à-vis produce from Israel. People with whom I spoke also criticized an Israeli claim to have uncovered remains of an ancient Jewish settlement on the shore near Gaza City, a claim they feared would be used to justify continued Israeli occupation of the area. I subsequently learned that this artifact was, in fact, a fragment of a mosaic floor from a Roman settlement.
Parenthetically, I should perhaps also mention my UNRWA-oriented trips to Damascus in 1969 and 1970 when there was no official U.S. presence. (Italy represented U.S. interests and occupied U.S. facilities in the Syrian capital.) Syrian officials, military personnel at the border with Lebanon, and especially merchants in the Damascus souq evinced genuine pleasure at seeing an American official return to their country. Several people (not officials) asked when the U.S. would reopen its embassy in Damascus. I don't recall anyone mentioning at the time the Golan Heights as an issue impeding a restoration of U.S.-Syrian relations. There was, however, clearly a great interest in the then-current negotiations over implementation of UNSC Resolution 242, hoping they would result in an agreement providing both for the return of the Golan to Syrian sovereignty and resettlement of the Palestinian refugees outside Syria. On both of these visits I stayed at the New Umayyad Hotel where a number of senior Soviet military and civilian officials as well as representatives from eastern European countries were quartered. They were notably surprised to discover an American official staying at the hotel.
During my later assignment as Deputy Director of the Sinai Support Mission (1976-1979), I had several occasions to visit both Egypt and Israel. On trips from the Sinai Field Mission to Tel Aviv we frequently transited Gaza though I did manage on two occasions to stop briefly to renew acquaintance with Mme. Nassar and the then-UNRWA field office director, Art Geaney. My cursory impressions at the time were that little had changed within the Strip since my earlier visits, despite the October 1973 war, other than the refugee camps were even more crowded and sanitation was, if anything, even less apparent. Both the Rafah and Jabaliya pools, which served in lieu of any municipal sewage disposal system for the camps, were larger and more odoriferous than ever.
I returned to Gaza in June 1981 to serve as deputy director and field administration officer of the UNRWA field office. It was not long before I realized that a sea change was taking place in the outlook and aspirations of local residents. In the first place, some 35,000 to 40,000 Gazans were then commuting to work within Israel each day, bringing a significant improvement in the economic condition of many families, both refugee and non-refugee. Gaza souqs and small retail establishments were functioning more normally than before, and it was not unusual for Israelis to drive to Gaza on shabat in their yellow-plated vehicles for shopping, as some agricultural products, gas and minor automobile repairs were less expensive than in Israel.
This disillusionment was not confined to Arab governments, but extended also to the PLO and Yasser 'Arafat, who were widely seen as both corrupt and unable to help Palestinian refugees in the occupied territories. The negative views of 'Arafat and the PLO, that apparently had been growing, at least in Gaza, since their defeat by King Hussein in September 1970 (Black September), were further strengthened when the IDF invaded Lebanon in 1982 and expelled the PLO leadership to Tunis. By this time I had been in Gaza for just over a year, and acquaintances began to tell me they were coming to the conclusion that perhaps the only hope for refugees and other residents of the occupied territories to have a better future might be to become Israeli citizens and for the territories to become a part of Israel. (It was never clear to me at the time just how widely this view might have been shared by the population of Gaza at large. In retrospect, however, it seems likely that it was a sentiment held only by the rather small number of educated and relatively self-reliant individuals.)
Contributing to the discouragement of Gazan refugees at this time was at least one aspect of Israel's agreement with Egypt to withdraw from the Sinai. Gazan officials and refugee leaders apparently had been encouraged (by Israeli officials?) to expect that Egypt would allow certain Gaza refugees to move into Yamit and other Israeli settlements in the northeastern corner of the Sinai that were to be evacuated. When the Egyptian authorities rejected such proposals, the settlements were destroyed by the IDF and the lands reoccupied by Bedouin families that allegedly had lived in the area before the Israeli occupation began in 1967.
Some years earlier the IDF, as part of its security arrangements for maintaining order in the heavily overcrowded UNRWA refugee camp at Rafah, had bulldozed a number of security roads through the camp, displacing several hundred refugee families. These displaced refugees had been relocated to an area known as Canada Camp immediately to the west of Rafah. As long as Israel occupied Sinai this arrangement had the advantage of slightly easing the overcrowded conditions in Rafah and families had no difficulty in maintaining their ties with those resettled in the Canada Camp area. Unfortunately, Canada Camp was located on the Egyptian side of the old international frontier with Gaza and when the time came for withdrawal, instead of allowing the Canada Camp refugees to return to Rafah or be allowed to resettle in the Yamit area, the IDF with Egyptian concurrence erected a chain link fence along the border and families were left to communicate through the fence. Despite subsequent talk of arrangements that would have allowed some of these displaced refugees eventually to return home under a family reunification scheme, little was done and they were, in addition, cut off from further direct assistance from UNRWA, which had no mandate or capability to provide services inside Egypt. The Canada Camp problem remained unresolved and a source of considerable anguish throughout the remainder of my years of service with UNRWA.
Inadequate supplies of fresh water supplies were a growing problem during these years. As Israeli settlements adjacent to the border with Gaza expanded, they consumed more fresh water to satisfy both population and agricultural requirements. Increased drilling into the underground aquifer that also supplied the needs of Gazans was seriously depleting this valuable resource, and the authorities began limiting the quantity of water that Gazan farmers could pump from their own wells to irrigate their citrus groves and other cultivated fields.
Contributing to the widespread unrest within Gaza at this time was the impact of chronic and growing shortages of UNRWA's relief supplies, obliging the Agency to gradually restrict distribution of basic food rations to special hardship cases, i.e. those refugees whose economic circumstances were particularly difficult due to an inability to find employment within Gaza or to get a permit to seek work in Israel, families with mentally or physically handicapped members, families whose breadwinner was jailed in Israel, and others in especially impoverished circumstances.
Various programs of assistance offered by NGOs were helpful in addressing some of the hardships confronted by Gaza refugee families, but the small size of these programs in comparison to the magnitude of the welfare problem in the Strip meant their overall impact was limited. By early 1982, however, UNRWA field office staff became aware of the growing relief assistance programs of a new organization in Gaza named Hamas. Hamas had set up some pre-school education programs, was operating clinics in the camps and in Gaza City supplementing the medical facilities provided by UNRWA in its camp clinics, and was providing limited cash assistance to families whose male breadwinners were imprisoned in Israel. Hamas had at this time small groups of adherents within each of the UNRWA camps and, although direct contacts between the Agency's international staff members and members of Hamas were infrequent, when they did occur discussions were generally cordial and cooperative. It soon became apparent, too, that the IDF authorities in Gaza were encouraging Hamas's activities, viewing the organization as a potentially, and welcome, viable alternative to the PLO which was then anathema for Israel.
Militant Views Spread
Although it was not within the mandate of UNRWA to monitor changes in the political climate or activities of refugees that did not impact on the Agency's operations, when it became apparent that support for the militant views of the Ikhwan was spreading throughout the refugee community with unknown future consequences for settlement efforts, I thought to take advantage of one of my infrequent visits to Tel Aviv to advise the U.S. embassy of these perceived changes. This turned out not to be possible, as I was informed I could not enter the chancery without an appointment made in advance. (As I recall, I tried twice with the same result and ended my four-year tour in Gaza without ever once having had any substantive contact with the embassy.) Also, during my years in Gaza I don't recall any embassy representative other than junior economic/AID officers ever coming to the UNRWA field office. These officers' interests were largely confined to the activities of U.S.-supported NGO programs. Most years we did have visits by an AID representative from Washington whose interests also were not political. I believe embassy officials occasionally visited Mayor al-Shawwa and probably other Gazan officials but they did not consult with UNRWA or visit Agency installations.
A more disruptive development that began during my last years in Gaza was the establishment of a number of new Israeli settlements. These were in two areas close to and parallel with the Mediterranean shore: first between the northern Gaza-Israel border and the Shati (or Beach) refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City and later between Khan Younis and Rafah. The existence of these new settlements prevented Palestinians and UNRWA international staff from traveling the direct, scenic road along the shore. The lands that were taken to accommodate these new settlements were for the most part Bedouin Arab lands that had been used for cultivation of fruits and vegetables in the sandy dunes near the sea for generations. Some citrus groves and fields of privately-owned olive trees were also confiscated. Few families that lost access to their traditional lands received any compensation for their losses on the grounds that they were unable to produce legal documentation of ownership. Similar to the status of waqf (Muslim charitable foundation) lands, ownership of the lands used for cultivation was essentially collective and based on long-recognized tribal relationships. Israeli courts, when seized with claims based on tribal or waqf ownership, rarely ruled in favor of the plaintiff. The psychological impact of these new settlements on the already terribly overcrowded and impoverished Gaza Strip was predictable and undoubtedly contributed to an atmosphere of rising tensions that ultimately erupted into the first intifada (1988).
During my last two years of residence in Gaza the frequency and intensity of clashes with the authorities gradually increased, undoubtedly due to a combination of political and economic factors. Employment opportunities within Israel were adversely affected first by the beginning of immigration of the Falasha from Ethiopia and then by the importation of temporary workers from Asia to help meet demands for unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. Also as Israel's settlement activity in the Gaza Strip increased, the IDF presence also increased with additional lookout posts within refugee camps and additional patrols through the camps and UNRWA school compounds. An inevitable consequence was an increase in clashes, with groups of youths throwing stones at Israeli patrols and more serious incidents, followed by more arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of Gazans.
When it came time to leave Gaza in 1985, in the absence of local moving companies we were obliged to make use of a Tel Aviv firm called Promised Land. When the van arrived at our residence, neighbors warned the driver not to drive too close to the entrance of our compound because of the soft, sandy soil. He ignored this advice and when it came time to leave with a full van, he promptly became stuck in the sand. One of his assistants made an unsuccessful trip to the nearby IDF base seeking assistance in freeing his truck. The mover then agreed to accept UNRWA's offer of assistance and eventually, as darkness descended, the truck was freed and on its way to Tel Aviv. The nervousness of the Israeli movers over being in Gaza as night approached was apparent especially after they realized they were stuck in the sand. While we waited for the results of the inquiry at the IDF compound and then for the arrival of an Agency truck, our Bedouin neighbor lady kindly brought a tray of sweet tea as refreshment, an unexpected gesture of friendship for representatives of the occupying power. One of the neighboring children also inquired about the meaning of the name Promised Land on the truck, a question I found myself unable to answer honestly.
For a number of years after my retirement in 1988 I maintained occasional contact by letter and telephone calls with former colleagues and friends in Gaza. Time inevitably took its toll, however, and former colleagues retired from Agency service or died. Since 2001 I have had no success telephoning friends thought to be still living in Gaza.
Looking back at changes that were taking place during and after my years in Gaza, it is not hard to understand why, when the time came for elections in the aftermath of Israel's decision to withdraw from Gaza, Hamas prevailed in its electoral competition with al-Fatah. Its years of effective social welfare and relief activities during a time when neither the PLO nor al-Fatah was able to function in Gaza, and dissatisfaction with Fatah's administration in Gaza under the Oslo Accords, ensured that Hamas would have a clear advantage when it came time for democratic elections. Furthermore, at this writing (mid-2007), despite its being termed a terrorist organization by both Israel and the U.S. and losing international financial support that had been helping to relieve the extreme hardship experienced by most Gazans, they are unlikely to abandon their support for Hamas unless they can be convinced that genuine and substantial economic and political benefits will be achieved by aligning themselves with al-Fatah leadership in a new international diplomatic initiative. Though I have no objective evidence to support this conclusion, I believe a majority of Gazans would now welcome the kind of two state solution proposed by Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, despite the hard-line statements of current Hamas leaders. Should this not be attained in a reasonable period of time, my hunch is that sentiment within Gaza could revert to what it was some 25 years ago, namely that the only hope for Gazans to have a better future lies in merger with Israel.