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A Gaza Equestrian Club Offers Unlikely Sanctuary

Welcome to *Gazablanca...

Winner of a horse race in Jabalia
Winner of a horse race in Jabalia
Sonja Zekri

JABALIA — The white stallion prances and bucks, relishing its freedom. But it is the freedom of a walled pen. Even the horse, a full-blood Arab stallion, is subject to the laws of Gaza, which keep man and beast on very short reins.

In the Jabaliya riding club in the north of Gaza, it is easy to forget that beyond the walls lie rubbish heaps and desperation — an overpopulated stretch of coast that some Palestinians call Gazablanca. Inside the club there are neat lawns and stalls for 40 to 50 horses, many of which are privately owned. Like the villas and luxury cars, they are proof that not everyone in Gaza is poverty-stricken.

It hasn’t always been so well-kept, the club’s manager Amal Jari tells us. “The new government neglected the club at first,” she says. “We rent this land from the Ministry for Health and Sport, but they don’t do anything for us.”

Next to Jari, a man with a full beard is listening closely to her careful words, but we understand her meaning: The new government is Hamas, and the club represents the antithesis of what the Islamists want to achieve in the Gaza Strip. Palestinians are subject to Hamas’ strict decency laws. Any couple seen walking down the street must be sure to have their marriage licence with them. If men and women greet one another with an embrace, they are soon put right.

Today not much is happening at the riding club. It has been raining heavily, and so the arena is knee-deep in water. But anyone who wants to escape from the sadness of daily life in Gaza — anyone who can afford it, that is — comes here. Even women, who make up 40% of the club’s 200 riders. They ride, jump and take part in competitions against other clubs in Gaza. “Where else can they participate in sport?” asks Amal Jari. And Hamas? “Hamas is outside, not here.”

The club stands on historical ground. This site used to stable horses belonging to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and there are pictures of him seated on a bay stallion. But after his death in November 2004, Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip, and the club became unreachable. No one dared to come too close, and Arafat’s horses died.

Cut off from the outside world

The new horses were brought in from Israel, as were medicine, vitamins and feed. Since the blockade, however, bringing in supplies has become more difficult. The club’s fate is in the hands of a group of prosperous businessmen who are still allowed to travel to Israel. They invested $2.7 million in the site and had almost everything rebuilt. Some say that there are Hamas members among the horse lovers, but of course they do not travel to Israel.

Gaza’s other route to the outside world has also run into difficulties. The tunnels in the north, which cross the border to Egypt, were recently flooded by heavy rain, but more significantly, they were destroyed from the Egyptian side. Under Morsi, the tunnels flourished, and Hamas received millions of dollars in financial support. But now Morsi is in jail along with thousands of Islamists, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organization.

This spells trouble for Hamas and for the entire Gaza Strip. Groceries, baby food, cement and gasoline were imported through the tunnels, and supplies are running low. Thousands of men once worked in the tunnel business, and now most of them are unemployed.

The hardiest among them are already going back, though. Men like Aid Baraka, who has been working in the tunnels since he was 17 and sees the efforts on the Egyptian side as nothing more than routine disturbance. “We’ll just dig them longer and finish the tunnels a few hundred meters further behind the border,” he says.

The first men are already pumping the water out. Another month, he thinks, and the others will be back. The reopening of the tunnels is vital for Hamas. Once celebrated as the only true resistance organization, it is now subject to anger and derision.

Political scientist Akram Attala receives us in an apartment that has no electricity and is so cold that we can see our breath. He claims that Hamas became drunk on its own success. “When Hamas was voted into government, they thought they were the only party that could rule Gaza,” he tells us. “When the Arab Spring broke out and the Islamists came to power in Egypt, they thought that the Islamic State was within reach.” But then the Egyptian Islamists were overthrown and now Gaza is running low on water, electricity, cement and gas. “Hamas can no longer control the crisis,” Attala says.

It is surprising how often we hear Hamas criticized for provoking Israel to tighten its stranglehold on Gaza. After the second intifada and the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, both Israel and Egypt became unreachable for Palestinians. Amal Jari worked in the Ministry of Health before she became manager of the riding club. “Before, when I finished work I would pack my bags and go to Egypt,” she says. “Now we don’t even have water to wash our hands.”

Hamas is aware of this, says new government spokesperson Israa al-Mudalla. “They know they are not as popular as they used to be. But they say to the people: "Do you want to give up the right to your land? And the fight to release prisoners?"” She says that Hamas controls the streets, but that is not enough. “We need new elections, a new legitimacy. Hamas is prepared for that.”

Attala sees things differently. “When there are significant protests against Hamas, they shoot a few rockets at Israel. Israel reacts and kills Hamas members. Who can protest against martyrs?”

So it seems that it will be some time before the riders of Gaza are out of danger.

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