National Geographic : 1996 Sep
Watching history being made T IS NOT EASY to see why the Gaza Strip is one of the most fought over places on earth. At the Erez checkpoint-the main northern entry to this 140-square-mile stretch of sand-Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns guard the concrete-and razor-wire border where Israel comes up against part of the new Palestinian autono mous region. In the distance thousands of cinder-block shanties, set along dusty roads, extend to the sea. Nearer the city of Gaza, potholes and pools of sewage mar the roads. But despite these conditions Palestinian policemen race about in brand-new trucks, and Palestinian flags, once forbidden, fly from every house and shop. Occupied by Israel since 1967, Gaza has weathered decades of political and economic turmoil. More than half its 900,000 people are unemployed, conditions are generally squalid, and fundamentalist Islamic groups like Hamas threaten stability. But with the signing of the 1993 peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organiza tion (PLO), Palestinians are hoping to create a new state in Gaza and the West Bank. Their dream persists despite the election of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has promised to keep it from becoming a reality. I first visited the Gaza Strip in 1988 as a photographer on assignment for Time magazine. It was during the intifada, when Palestinian youth lost the patience of their forebears and exploded in seven years of riots and strikes. As I drove in with several jour nalists, a group of young Palestinians stopped us. They wore red-and-white-checked kaf fiyehs, and they had set their roadblock-a pile of old car parts and broken furniture on fire. We got out to talk with their leader, a tall 18-year-old whose blue eyes stared at us like cold, impenetrable diamonds. He told us to drive on, but as we did, his group turned on us, throwing scraps from their roadblock in front of our car and smashing our windows. We managed to plow through the pile of junk and escape. That day I felt an uneasiness that would melt away as I returned to Gaza again and again over the next seven years. I eventually rented an apartment, where I would live for Unprotected by natural barriers, Gaza lay squarely in the path of ancient armies invading the coastal plain. Between wars the city flourished as a center for trade. -. rrCr ^ i .