National Geographic : 1996 Sep
three or four months at a time. Soon I came to discover glimpses of beauty in places like the date palm groves of Dayr al Balah, the sweet-smelling orange blossoms of Bayt Lahiyah, and in the faces of refugee children. It is hard to believe that beauty exists in a place so scarred by its history. By the time Israel began its military occupation, Gaza had been ruled by outside forces for centu ries. Today's Gazans-mostly Sunni Muslim Palestinians-include Bedouin, Gypsies, descendants of African slaves, and Chris tians. There are also 5,000 Jewish settlers. Seventy percent of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are from families who fled there after Israel's 1948 War of Independence. Often during my visits I stayed in the Shabura refu gee camp with a woman, her husband, and their three children. Their home is made of cinder blocks, divided into two rooms and topped with a corrugated metal roof that leaks during storms. Every night they bolted their doors and windows for curfew, and our conversations fell silent as soldiers passed by. That was before the Israeli Army with drew from Palestinian cities and villages. In May 1994 when most soldiers left, three days of tipsy euphoria followed. Children waving Palestinianp-l s clambered all over Israeli ,;f1 --* ^ '^rf' ''3~ 1 '' 1 '' ' ,^'' 1 watchtowers, teenagers revisited the prison cells that had once held them, and adults brought food and flowers to the new Pales tinian policemen. That excitement has since given way to hard reality. As Palestinian President Yasser Arafat told me, "We are suffering from the deadly results of 28 years of occupation, and we are facing big economic problems." Trash and streams of raw sewage foul impoverished refugee camps, and frequent Israeli border closings, prompted by suicide bombings, keep tens of thousands of people from work. Still, with the help of foreign aid that is trick ling in, Gazans are trying to build their land: Workers replace burst sewage pipes and lay sidewalks, and children swing and slide at a playground that was once an abandoned lot. In December 1995 an earthquake in the Red Sea sent tremors north, stirring sadness and fear in everyone. The next day a rain storm hit, and I saw so much joy that I asked a local friend why people were so happy. "Yesterday they thought God was angry with them," he said, "but Gazans believe God loves them when it rains, so they feel better today." It was time for me to leave, though the place, and my hope for its future, will always be a part of me.