display | more...
Gaza has been around for a while: the earliest known reference is an inscription in the Temple of Amun at Karnak, Egypt, dated 1500 BC, which states that the town of Gaza is 'flourishing'. And for a long time it did: a staging post on trade routes connecting Asia and Persia with Arabia, Egypt and Africa, even the name means "treasure" in Arabic. Alexander the Great laid siege to the town in 332 BC, executing 10,000 defenders after being held off for two months. Up next, the town was held by the Romans, the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and briefly even by the French in 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte set up camp on his way to defeat in Egypt. The Turks took it back, then lost it to the British in World War I. The Egyptian army grabbed it during the 1948 war that led to Israel's independence, opening camps for Palestinian refugees -- and the current situation began when Israel occupied the Strip in 1967.

A bit of terminology disentanglement: "Gaza Strip" refers to the entire 40-by-6 kilometer patch of territory, much of which has been swallowed up by Jewish settlements. "Gaza City" refers to the town itself, in the northern part of the strip, but due to huge population growth the City now sprawls into many of the surrounding villages and it's a tough task to say what is a part of the City and what isn't. Both city and strip are pretty much interchangably referred to as "Gaza", so I will follow suit.

Finally, while the name "Gaza" is pretty much standardized in the international media, the alternate transcriptions Ghazzah (or variants thereof), from the Arabic غزة, and (more rarely) 'Azza, from the Hebrew עזה, are occasionally used in the area itself.

Orientation

Gaza isn't quite the pure hellhole you might expect given TV coverage, although needless to say the birthplace of the Intifada and one of the most overpopulated bits on the entire planet isn't exactly paradise on earth either. A UN report in 1952 stated that the Strip is too small to support its population of 300,000; there are now well over one million inhabitants and the latest figures from the Palestinian Authority put unemployment at a whopping 79%. Most inhabitants are Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 war but were denied entry into Egypt proper.

The Gaza Strip is a narrow slice of land between the Mediterranean to the west and the Negev desert to the east. Egypt lies to the south, the north and east border Israel. The urbal sprawl of Gaza City, mostly stretching along and around the 3-km long Omar al-Mukhtar Street, covers much of the north. The other main towns of Khan Yunis and Rafah are near the southern border. The Jewish settlements of Gush Erez in the northernmost tip, kibbutz Netzarim in the middle and Gush Katif on the southern coast have the best agricultural land, but most of the land outside the cities is still farmed and Gazan produce like melons and papayas are exported worldwide. The export stuff tends to come from the settlements though, as you can't grow melons in a desert without government subsidies, and getting around EU bans on importing from the Occupied Territories requires a bit of governmental collusion.

Sights

Gaza is not exactly a top tourist destination and most of its attractions have taken quite a beating during the past 50 years. The following are all in Gaza City.

The obligatory Great Mosque (Jamaa al-Akbar) makes up for its lackluster appearance with an interesting history: it's a converted Crusader church built on the site of a Hellenic temple with pillars from a 3rd-century Jewish synagogue. More educational might be a UNRWA-arranged visit to one of the refugee camps that dot the strip. The UNRWA office is on al-Azhar St, near the Islamic University, call ahead to see if they can arrange a little tour. Your most probable destination is the optimistically named Beach Camp, a warren of concrete huts and open sewers housing 63,000 people, built next to a sandy beach -- and you can walk there on your own, 15 minutes to the north from the intersection of Omar al-Mukhtar St. with the seafront road. UNRWA wisely recommends avoiding military clothing. The Jabaliya refugree camp is also a nearby option.

Undoubtedly the most fun thing to do in Gaza is to visit the PLO Flag Shop, a bit tough to find (ask around) but unmistakable once you spot it. It's the place to buy Palestinian flags, stickers, badges, pennants and above all the legendary inflatable Yasser Arafat, a truly bizarre blow-up tennis racket thingy emblazoned with a map of Palestine on one side and a familiar fuzzy visage on the other. Don't leave Gaza without it!

If the chaos starts to get to you, head to the coast and the suburb of Rimal, the posh bit of Gaza where the rich Palestinians, UN workers and reporters live. There are a surprising number of high-class restaurants and hotels in the vicinity, one of the best of which is the quixotic Windmill Hotel. Sip on a locally bottled 7-Up in the bar and ponder the fact that while for you a day in Gaza is probably more than enough, most of the people who actually live here can never leave.

Getting There

At time of writing, getting into Gaza is both difficult and unwise. Even in happier days, the only entry point into the Strip is at Erez in the north. Getting to Erez is a bit kinky, as you'll need to find your way to Ashkelon and take a taxi (the distance can be shortened by taking a bus to Yad Mordechai Junction first). Once through passport control, you'll find plenty of drivers fighting for the privilege of driving you to Gaza City. By the way, at the border be sure to take the VIP line, which you are entitled to through virtue of not being Palestinian. Those you see in the other line have been there since 4:30 AM and will have to return by 5 PM, as Israel only issues one-day work permits.

The Rafah border crossing with Israel is physically in the Gaza Strip, but you can only enter Israel proper through it. Gaza International Airport at Dahaniya is out of action as it has recently been flattened by the IDF, and it had been closed for over a year anyway. The Port of Gaza, under construction, shared the airport's fate.

Getting Around

There is no public transport in Gaza, but most any vehicle will gladly turn into a taxi if you point at the roadside with an index finger. (Travel up and down Omar al-Mukhtar St. will set you back one shekel; trips elsewhere are negotiable.) Note that only main roads are paved, and that it is advisable to watch your step if walking, since traffic is chaotic and sidewalks are largely nonexistent.

References

Lonely Planet Israel (4th ed), 1999
Personal experience

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.