We arrive at the MSF headquarters in Gaza City for the daily logistical meeting. Hiba, a French-Algerian about to complete her mission, has perhaps the most stressful job of all: to daily organise and monitor the movements of each of the six teams working here. She has to seek “co-ordinations”, which, in the veiled dialect of occupation, means permission to enter and leave any sensitive area. This she achieves, if possible, through an Israeli DCL area commander in the department of co-ordination. We’d met one of them â€” just a kid like the others â€” at Erez. “Oh, Hiba, she takes it all too personally,” he’d said. As if the whole thing were a game, with no hard feelings, between consenting adults. Even with this “co-ordination”, an MSF team may arrive in the area only to be refused access by the local Israeli officer in charge (or, in some cases, to be shot at). No reason need be given. “Security,” they’re sometimes told.
Hiba is constantly assessing, reassessing, adapting. At any moment the heavily fortified Israeli checkpoint at Abu Houli, in the centre of the Strip, can be closed, effectively dividing Gaza into two parts. It may remain closed for four, six, 10 hours. It might be a security alert or an officer’s whim. Yasser, Sue’s Bedouin driver, once waited for three days to cross. We were held up there. A Palestinian officer, identifiable by the size of his belly, had overridden his leaner subordinates and waved us to the front of the queue. A babble of aggressive commands was disgorged from the IDF bunker through new burglar-proof loudspeakers. Recently a gang of young boys had made a human pyramid and stolen the originals. “Wah, wah, wah,” the boxes yell at you from within their razor-wire cocoons.
Hiba rests only when the teams return safely to their bases in Gaza City, or in the south where another MSF apartment allows visits there to continue if the checkpoint is closed.
At the southern MSF base in Abassan I’m awoken on our third day at 4.30am by the call to prayer, then again at 7am by the surprising sound of children in a school playground. In any place, in any language, the sound is unmistakable. Gleeful and contentious. When you’re in bed and you don’t have to go to school yourself it’s delicious. Are they taught here, among other things, that they have no future? The windows on this side of the apartment overlook a playground of pressed dirt with a black-and-white-striped goal of tubular metal at each end. The school, conspicuously unmarked by bullet or shellfire, is a long two-storey building, built in an L-shape along two sides of the pitch. It is painted cream and pistachio and resembles a motel in Arizona. (Later, in the refugee camp at Rafah, we’ll drive past one riddled with bullet holes, and meet a grinning 10-year-old who proudly shows us the scars, front and back, where the bullet passed through his neck one day at school.)
After waking, I move to the back of the flat, to the kitchen. At the far side of a hand-tilled field warming itself in the early sunshine stand two pristine houses, white and cream, like miniature palaces. The field is hemmed at one end by a row of olive trees, and at the other by a large cactus.
A middle-aged man and woman in traditional clothes move the drills in unison. The distance between them maintained, gestures identical, they advance, bent at the waist, planting one tiny onion at a time plucked from a metal bowl. If an occupying force were ever in need of an image to advertise the benevolence of their authority, this would be it. I wonder what awaits them. I try but fail to imagine the roar of a diesel engine, the filth of its exhaust, as a bulldozer turns this idyll to dust.
Later, sipping cardamom-flavoured coffee, I look down on a fiercely contested football game. Half the kids have bare feet. There’s a teacher on each side, in shirt and tie. One tries a volley which, to shrieks of delight, sails over the wall behind the goal. Two little boys watch, arms around each other. They turn and hug for a long time, then wander off still arm in arm. Sue Mitchell arrives. The co-ordination we needed has come through. After the warning shots fired at us from the watchtower at Tuffah yesterday, we’d thought maybe the Israelis would refuse it.