Geopolitics

Gaza, What Remains Ten Years After Israeli Settlers Left

A decade after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, many sites have been reduced to ruins. Others are now symbols of Hamas' mission to build a new state.

A beach in Gaza
A beach in Gaza
Gus
Maurizio Molinari

DEIR AL-BALAH â€"

Universities, military bases, theme parks and seaside bars lie beside piles of rubble and abandoned checkpoints. A decade after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, what remains of the former settlements has assumed a new identity as Hamas seeks to transform the territory into a functioning state.

At the entrance of what used to be the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, a green sign bearing the logo of the Palestinian Authority reads "Welcome to the Beautiful Free Land." Nothing is left of the settlement that used to exist here: today, Islamic Jihad's black flags billow over the settlers' deserted farms.

Houses and buildings on Gaza's central ridges were razed to the ground to make way for the hospital of the Islamic University of Gaza, financed by Turkey. Not far from the hospital, schoolchildren can be seen arriving by bus at a small theme park that includes a big colorful Ferris wheel.

"I'm especially happy seeing these children play where the occupiers used to live," says Ahmed, the park's manager.

To find physical traces of the Israeli occupation â€" which lasted from 1967 to 2005 â€" you must go to the intersection with Salah al-Din Road, an area frequently hit by bombings during the Intifadas, or Palestinian rebellions, of the late 1980s and early 2000s. Across the road from a onetime Israeli military base that's become a scrapyard, a Hamas surveillance post controls traffic.

Bases and Training Camps

The coastal highway begins at what once was Netzarim and continues southward, passing through Deir al-Balah and terminating at another former Jewish settlement, Gush Katif. Prior to the 2005 unilateral withdrawal ordered by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, it housed most of the 5,000 Israelis who lived in the settlements scattered over 40% of Gaza's area. Israeli leaders had decided that the military occupation wasn't worth the cost for the sake of so few, mostly ultra Orthodox setters.

Near the wide stretch of beach that the settlers once proudly called "Palm Beach," a so-called "Hamas Riviera" has taken shape, dotted with small bars and restaurants with exotic sounding names and colorful curtains, inviting visitors to dine with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.

Mohamed, 24, a waiter at a local restaurant, recalls the moment "as if it were yesterday" when the checkpoints suddenly disappeared and Palestinians were allowed to enter. "We had never seen anything like it, such a large beach, because until then only the Israelis could enter," he recalls. "It was like entering heaven."

The Deir al-Balah beach, as it's called today, is flanked by several military training camps for Gaza's various militias: not only Hamas, but also the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC).

Each militia's camp is demarcated by the colors of its own flag, each camp billowing columns of smoke high into the air. With Hamas militants driving around on large motorcycles and policemen monitoring the intersections, the former checkpoint appears to be a military base until you notice the nearby theme park.

"Asda City," or Echo City, rises on the former settlement of Ganei Tal and resembles a miniature Disneyland. "After the withdrawal we tried to turn it into a large film set, but the only movie filmed here was Emad Akel, a movie about a hero of the resistance against the Israelis, so we decided to change tack and make a theme park for children instead," says the manager Saed Abalder, 32.

The result is an aquatic park surrounded by carousels, little trains, and even a zoo whose major attraction is a lion. "We brought him in two years ago through the tunnels from Egypt," explains Abalder. "Back then he was so small he could fit into a box."

Boasting deer, ostriches, and baboons, Asda City's zoo replaced the one located in the former Jewish settlement of Netzer Hazani, of which nothing remains. The locals in Deir al-Balah tell conflicting accounts of the settlement's demise. Some recall the Israelis destroying everything before they left, while others remember the withdrawal as a victory for the resistance movement that wanted to rid the town of any sign of the occupation.

Religious Symbols

There is no such dispute over who destroyed the great synagogue of Neve Dekalim, the largest of the settlements in Gaza. It was a powerful symbol because the settlers who opposed the withdrawal occupied the synagogue, refusing to leave and confronting the Israeli soldiers tasked with the operation. When the Palestinians razed it, they left the ruins behind, clearly visible from the main road, as a testament to their determination to destroy the building.

There is no trace left of any of the other Israeli-built synagogues in Gaza, but the Palestinians left intact a basketball arena built by the settlers, still used today by locals. Similarly unscathed is the old administrative building of the Council of Neve Dekalim, its offices first used by the Palestinian Authority and then Hamas after its rise to power in Gaza in 2007. It now forms part of the campus of Al Aqsa University, which with its 28,000 students is the largest university in southern Gaza.

"We tell every student that this is where the occupiers used to live, and this is where we want to build a life for Palestinians," says Neamat Shaban Alwan, the university's vice president. "We are moderates, not extremists, and we want peace with everyone including our former enemies."

In his office hangs a map of Palestine depicting its territory as stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan, with no sign of Israel, and the office's atrium is adorned with a panoramic photo of Jerusalem's old city. Opposite the university's administrative office is the old hospital of Neve Dekalim, which now hosts classes for female students, who are kept apart from their male classmates. Many of them dress conservatively with niqabs and chadors, the full length Islamic veil and cloak, though they feature a variety of colors and styles. There's even a brand new mosque, surrounded by stalls that have developed into a small souk, or open-air marketplace.

"It's still difficult to rebuild Gaza because every once in a while there's a war that sets the clock back," laments Shaban, who pulls out a list of 45 students killed in last summer's war with Israel.

But these days in Gaza a sense of cautious optimism prevails, fueled by rumors of secret negotiations between Israel and Hamas. The possibility of talks have become the topic of the day in Gaza's markets, with locals noting the mass distribution of locally produced license plates featuring the Palestinian flag.

The plates, along with the new "arrivals" and "departures" signs at the port, are seen as tangible signs of Hamas' desire to transform Gaza into a real state. And some dare to wonder if, 10 years after the withdrawal of the Israeli army, an even more momentous change is on its way.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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