A Gaza Equestrian Club Offers Unlikely Sanctuary

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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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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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