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  • Writer's pictureGalia Guttman

My Gaza strip experience

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

In September 1997, shortly before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), I was at the Erez checkpoint, the border crossing between the Gaza strip and Israel, sitting in a Jeep of the Palestinian Authority security service. Sitting next to me was Benny Vaknin, the mayor of Ashqelon city. We were surrounded by Palestinian Security Service with policemen ready with submachine guns. It was the tightest security escort I've ever experienced.

After about five kilometers and very fast pulse rate, we arrived at Gaza’s main street - Omar Al-Mukhtar. Passers by stopped and stared at the mounted entourage accompanied by sounds of sirens. I felt like being in an action movie.

Al-Mukhtar street ends at the Gaza Port in the Rimal neighborhood - then the most prosperous in the city, and today a heep of rubble following Hamas terrorist attack on Israeli settlemnts on October 7th. This was the street where the main hotels were located as well as Gaza's most important government, public and commercial buildings.

Aoun Saaid Al-Shawa, the then mayor of Gaza, was awaiting us on the steps of the town hall, dressed in a suit, and looking very smart. His secretary led us to his office and we were treated to Baklava pastries, all kinds of sweets, tea and cofffee. After ten minutes or so of small talk, Al-Shawa tried politely to understand what brought us to Gaza.

What brought us to Gaza?

A few months prior to the occasion, Roni Barzilay, the editor of Kol HaDarom newspaper and myself, were discussing a special topic for the New Year's edition.

Those were the times of the Oslo Accords, long before Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. Those past years of relative peace now seem like another universe. At the time the idea of organizing a first-of-its-kind neighborly meeting between the mayors of Gaza and Ashqelon did not seem like a crazy idea.

I had no clue how to arrange such a meeting, not a single contact to begin with. Somehow I managed to obtain the phone number of Al-Shawa's office ,contacted his secretary and from there things started to unfold.

After two or three weeks the secretary called me back with a somewhat hesitant answer. She sounded pleasant, and said it would take some time. She promised to call again. The mayor of Ashqelon, who foresaw the economic benefits that might arise from a cooperation with Gaza, was much easier to deal with.

After a few weeks, a call came from the mayor's bureau. We were asked to come to the Erez checkpoint, and from there we would be escorted by the Palestinan authorities. The secretary even asked if we would be interested in meeting with the Rais, Yasser Arafat. I agreed.

I was excited about the diplomatic direction my paper was taking. I prepared questions for the joint historical interview of the two mayors, bought a personal gift for the secretary, and a new outfit for myself for the occasion.

Are we agents of the Mossad?

On the appointed day and time we arrived at the Erez checkpoint: Ashqelon's mayor Benny Vaknin, his personal assistant, me and the photographer Tzafrir Abayov. Everything was completely coordinated with the IDF authorities and the Erez checkpoint commander. During the short ride to Gaza, while the jeep drivers were having some fun and showing off, I went over the questions I had prepared for the interview.

Two of Al-Shawas assistants were taking notes. From the looks in their eyes I could tell that they were trying to figure out why on earth we had arrived and who has really sent us. The conversation was conducted in a relaxed atmosphere, and the hospitality was impeccable. From the beginning it seemed that there was a tacit agreement between us that the conversation would not revolve around charged topics.

We talked about the historic connection between Gaza and Ashqelon - two of the five biblical Philistine settlements in the ancient land of Canaan. The three others being Ashdod, Gath and Ekron. We talked about the idea of twin cities, about the economic benefits the two cities could derive from this cooperation, and the importance of promoting peace between us. Al-Shawa was particularly interested in promoting the topic of computers among Gaza students, who could benefit from the knowhow of their Israeli counterparts across the border.

At some point the secretary announced that the Rais was busy and will not be able to attend the meeting. Yes, I was a bit intrigued to meet with Arafat, but on the other hand I felt relieved. Despite the Oslo peace talks that made the headlines then, Arafat was still considered a bitter enemy of Israel.

Garbage knows no boundaries

Two years after that historic event, well after the seeds of cooperation had been sown, in October 1999 another meeting took place. Ashqelon city council members went on a well-publicized visit to the neighboring city of Gaza, accompanied by delegates of the World Bank, members of the Canadian T.N.M sewage treatment company and others.

I was watching the lively gathering, when all the participants were mingling with each other, exchanging ideas, making plans for a better future, even throwing jokes in English, French, Arabic and Hebrew. Maged Abu-Ramadan, Al-Shawa's personal assistant, was having a conversation with Sam Carlson, the representative of the World Bank. Ghazi Mushtaha, the owner of the ice cream factory "Eden", which was located near the Erez checkpoint, was chatting with Tim Martin, the Canadian ambassador to the Palestinian authority, and Lizon ben Harush, the representative of T.N.M, conducted an excited talk with Banny Vaknin.

"You won't believe this is Gaza", Abu-Ramadan and Mushtaha proudly announced. "Our municipality takes great efforts in making Gaza a good place to live in . There used to be mounds of garbage here and now it's clean". The Canadians, who were also trying to promote a regional recycling plant, showed interest. "Trash has no boundaries", they stated.

The best grapes in the world

The first stop on the tour which was organized for the benefit of the delegation was a brand new slaughterhouse. After receiving a detailed description, we hit the road to our next destination, a super modern sewage plant. Our minivan went through sands and vines. "Gaza's grapes are the best in the world", proclaimed Mushtaha.

At this point the guests were beginning to show signs of hunger. The air of Gaza wetted the appetite earlier then expected. On our way we stopped at the private beach of the municipality's employees. Vaknin was already fantasizing about a beach volleyball competition between the teams of Gaza and Ashquelon.

We moved through a new neighborhood, where we passed the lavish house of Abu Mazen (the president of the Palestinian National Authority). Nearby there was hanging a huge billboard with the image of Yasser Arafat.

We were all welcomed by Al-Shawa in the nice new cultural center of the city. "Mr Benny Vaknin, my neighbor and my friend", he welcomed his pal from Ashquelon. "My Brother", Vaknin reciprocated. "I promised to bring with me forty visitors the next time I visit, and brought almost fifty". They shook hands like old friends.

At last, the thought of the upcoming lunch filled everybody with renewed energy.

In the large meeting room of the cultural center the tables were already set with burgundy color tablecloths and roses arrangements in yellow, pink and red. A sumptuous buffet was served, followed by coffee and fine cookies. Then came the signing ceremony. "Dear friends" announced Vaknin, "It seems to me that we are making history". Thus the first ever memorandum of understanding for cooperation between the two cities was signed.

Not long after that, with the help of donations from an American organization, the two municipalities had established a joint (even if short-lived) venture for students from both cities to study together computers.

Did it really happen?

So much happend between then and now. In June 2007 Hamas terrorist organization seized power in Gaza and since then nothing was the same. Al-shawa died in 2001 and did not get to pay a visit to his pal over the border. I sometimes wonder about his secretary's and assistants' whereabouts. If they are still around, they must probably wonder about that Israeli newspaper that took the liberty to initiate such an unusual project.

In light of the appalling barbaric and murderous attack of Hamas on Israeli citizens on October 7th, and the horrible destruction and life loss that ensued, I myself sometimes wonder if that Gaza encounter of mine really happened.

Was it a good time then? Will it ever be better?

Photos: Zafrir Abayov


חבל שתפספסו את הסיפורים שלי, הרשמו וניפגש במייל

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