MAXWELL:  A whirlwind tour of Gaza, including the inside of a jail

5/30/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



On May 22, I spent almost three hours in the custody of the Palestinian police in Gaza City.

After recovering from fear of being tortured and locked away for years, I acknowledged to myself and to my captors that, because of my, well, ignorance and stupidity, I belonged in Yasser Arafat’s jail.

Three years ago, when I was here last, I swore that, when I returned to the Middle East, I would visit the Gaza Strip and the major West Bank cities under quasi-Palestinian control.

Although violence often occurs between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers over settlement issues in the West Bank, my trips to Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, Nablus and Ramallah were uneventful. Each was filled with the vibrancy and chaos I have come to expect of an Arab city.

In Jerusalem, I hired Runnie Hadi and his taxi for the day. At Erez, the only entry/exit point in the northern strip, he informed me that he could not enter Gaza because, in addition to being an Israeli citizen, he is an East Jerusalem Palestinian.

Runnie spoke with several Gazan taxi drivers before discovering one who knew someone who spoke English and would give me a tour of the city for a reasonable fee. Here, I paid another driver to jockey me through the four inspection barricades. The third stop, the most important for me, was the State Information Service of Gaza, Palestine, where I picked up the form for Gaza Strip press credentials. The agent told me to get two passport photographs to accompany the form. A photographer in Gaza City would gladly help me, he said.

I transferred to yet another taxi, for yet another fee. The drive to Gaza City was unlike anything I had experienced. Hundreds of taxis and horse-drawn wagons and carts competed for space on the dusty, potholed, narrow streets. Traffic lights and stop signs were in short supply. At every corner, car horns beeped, emaciated animals brayed and kicked, some rearing like the Lone Ranger’s Silver, as waves of pedestrians, many of them schoolchildren, wandered in and out of the paths of speeding vehicles.

My interpreter, perhaps in her mid-50s, was a kind woman whose English was only slightly better than my Arabic, which is awful. Something told me that she and my driver would land me in trouble with the authorities. She showed me refugee communities, United Nations facilities, street markets stretching for several city blocks, squalor the likes of which I have never seen anywhere else in my travels.

I knew that I was destined for calamity after my cabbie drove into a school playground, forcing students to scatter. The headmaster refused to grant me an interview because I did not have proper authorization.

Undaunted, my guide took me to another school. Again, the cabbie drove into the parking lot, beeping, jamming the brakes and waving at the children. This time, the headmaster talked with me for about 20 minutes. Apparently, I thought, many Gazans make up their own rules _ depending on their levels of fear.

Next, we went to the shop that was to do my photographs. Because the owner was out to lunch and because Runnie expected me back at the checkpoint by 1 p.m., I asked the guide to show me Arafat’s home. She said that the site was too far away for my tight schedule but that we could take the scenic route along the Mediterranean back to Erez.

Initially, I was not worried when I noticed a van following us. As we drove along the shore, I spotted a magnificent building under construction. After my guide said that it was a new school, I asked the driver to stop about 300 yards away so that I could take pictures. Wanting to give me a better vantage point, he drove near the property, where I shot at least four different angles of the building.

We had driven about five blocks when the mystery van rushed us and cut us off on a debris-strewn plateau. Four policemen jumped out, two wielding automatic military rifles, the other two grasping handguns tucked in their belts. The van driver snatched my camera, passport and state of Israel press card. Another officer took the license of my taxi driver.

The fear on the faces of my driver and my interpreter made me regret that I had not given my itinerary and cellular telephone number to the American consulate. When the officer in charge instructed us to follow the van to the lockup, I began to sweat.

At the station, we were hustled into a holding room where three officers guarded us. Doors opened and slammed as officers walked back and forth, some carrying papers, a different one carrying my camera every few minutes. After about 30 minutes, my driver was taken away. The authorities yelled at him in a nearby room. He returned after about 15 minutes, clearly scared. His cockiness was gone. Minutes later, he again was taken away.

Then, my interpreter was whisked away. I was alone with the three guards. They wore blank expressions, alternately speaking on one of two wall telephones opposite me. In the main hallway, men in coat and tie _ some with handguns in their belts _ stopped to give me the once-over.

An officer took trays of sliced melon, water and other drinks into a room, where men sat around a shiny conference table. Instinct told me that someone important _ who would decide my fate _ had arrived.

Indeed, the activity picked up. One moment a guard served me Turkish coffee, delicious tea the next, cold water the next. One asked if I smoked. I felt hopeful that I would survive this ordeal in one piece. My happiness dissipated, however, after I remembered that, in Florida, the condemned are fed their choice of food and drink just before being strapped in “Old Sparky.”

Suddenly, my interpreter returned, her broad smile suggesting a good outcome. A policeman led me into a room to the right. There, I was introduced to the police chief, to an intelligence official and to Col. Mohammed Al Masri, the government media spokesmen who will help me arrange my next visit to Gaza City.

They were polite, professional and friendly.

“Welcome to Gaza,” the chief said. “Do you know what you took pictures of and why our men brought you in?”

“My guide told me that the building was a new school.”

“No,” he said, laughing. “You took pictures of the Palestinian Authority’s new headquarters.”

He said that the government lets journalists visit the site but that most usually get permission and are given official escorts.

“I guess I deserved to be arrested,” I said.

“Our guys got nervous when you didn’t have an escort,” Al Masri said.

“Here’s your camera and film,” the chief said. “You’re free to go. Enjoy the rest of your stay in Gaza. Next time, call us, and Col. Al Masri will be glad to help you. Gaza is an exciting place.”

For my inconvenience, the chief said, he was giving me a large photograph of Arafat _ which I intend to frame and hang as a reminder of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

During the ride back to Erez, my interpreter told me that the authorities were considering revoking the license of my driver and throwing him in jail. He was to report back to the authorities that evening at 6. The next morning, I returned to the foreign journalist checkpoint and submitted my paperwork and photos required for a press card.

When I come back to pick up the card, I plan to go into town and find out what happened to the driver and the interpreter. First, of course, I will contact Col. Al Masri or someone representing him. I hope to shoot photos of life in what must be one of the most exciting cities in the world.