By Peter Hitchens
Daily Mail - 11th October 2010
It is lunchtime in the world's biggest prison camp, and I am enjoying a rather good caffe latte in an elegant beachfront cafe. Later I will visit the sparkling new Gaza Mall, and then eat an excellent beef stroganoff in an elegant restaurant.
Perhaps it is callous of me to be so self-indulgent, but I think I at least deserve the coffee. I would be having a stiff drink instead, if only the ultra-Islamic regime hadn't banned alcohol with a harsh and heavy hand.
Just an hour ago I was examining a 90ft-deep smuggling tunnel, leading out of the Gaza Strip and into Egypt. This excavation, within sight of Egyptian border troops who are supposed to stop such things, is unbelievably officially licensed by the local authority as a 'trading project' (registration fee £1,600).
It was until recently used for the import of cattle, chocolate and motorcycles (though not, its owner insists, for munitions or people) and at its peak earned more than £30,000 a day in fees.
But business has collapsed because the Israelis have relaxed many of their restrictions on imports, and most such tunnels are going out of business. While I was there I heard the whine of Israeli drones and the thunder of jet bombers far overhead.
Then, worryingly soon after I left, the area was pulverised with high explosive. I don't know if the Israeli air force waited for me to leave, or just walloped the tunnels anyway.
The Jewish state's grasp of basic public relations is notoriously bad. But the Israeli authorities certainly know I am here. I am one of only four people who crossed into the world's most misrepresented location this morning.
Don't, please, accuse of me of complacency or denying the truth. I do not pretend to know everything about Gaza. I don't think it is a paradise, or remotely normal. But I do know for certain what I saw and heard.
But it is a lot more complicated, and a lot more interesting, than that. In fact, the true state of the Gaza Strip, and of the West Bank of the Jordan, is so full of paradoxes and surprises that most news coverage of the Middle East finds it easier to concentrate on the obvious, and leave out the awkward bits.
Which is why, in my view, politicians and public alike have been herded down a dead end that serves only propagandists and cynics, and leaves the people of this beautiful, important part of the world suffering needlessly.
For instance, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, recently fawned on his Islamist hosts in Turkey by stating Gaza was a 'prison camp'. This phrase is the official line of the well-funded Arab and Muslim lobby, who want to make sure Israel is seen by the world as a villainous oppressor.Well, Israeli soldiers can and do act with crude brutality. Israeli settlers can and do steal Arab water and drive Arabs off their land. Israeli politicians are often coarse and insensitive.
The treatment of Israel's Arab citizens is one of the great missed opportunities of history, needlessly mean and short-sighted. The seizure of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 were blunders, made worse by later folly.
But if you think Israel is the only problem, or that Israelis are the only oppressors hereabouts, think again. Realise, for a start, that Israel no longer rules Gaza. Its settlements are ruins.
No Israelis can be found inside its borders. And, before you say 'but Israel controls the Gaza border', look at a map. The strip's southern frontier almost as hard to cross as the Israeli boundary is with Egypt. And Cairo is as anxious as Israel to seal in the Muslim militants of Hamas.
Gaza was bombed on the day I arrived in retaliation for a series of rocket strikes on Israel, made by Arab militants. Those militants knew this would happen, but they launched their rockets anyway. Many Gazans hate them for this.
One, whom I shall call Ibrahim, told me how he had begged these maniacs to leave his neighbourhood during Israel's devastating military attack nearly two years ago. His wife was close to giving birth.
He knew the Israelis would quickly seek out the launcher, and that these men would bring death down on his home. But the militants sneered at his pleading, so he shoved his wife into his car and fled.
Moments after he passed the first major crossroads, a huge Israeli bomb burst on the spot where his car had been. The diabolical power of modern munitions is still visible, in the ruins of what was once a government building.
It looks as if a giant has chewed and smashed it, and then come back and stamped on it. If you can imagine trying to protect a pregnant woman from such forces, then you can begin to understand how complex it is living here, where those who claim to defend you bring death to your door.
For the Islamist rocket-firers are also the government here, supported by Iran and others who care more for an abstract cause than they do for real people. They claim that their permanent war with Israel is for the benefit of the Palestinian Arabs. But is it?
Human beings will always strive for some sort of normal life. They do this even when bombs are falling and demagogues raging. Even when, as in Gaza, there is no way out and morality patrols sweep through restaurants in search of illicit beer and women smoking in public or otherwise affronting the 14th Century values of Hamas.
So I won't give the name of the rather pleasant establishment where young women, Islamic butterflies mocking the fanatics' strict dress code with bright make-up and colourful silken hijabs, chattered as they inhaled apple-scented smoke from their water-pipes.
Their menfolk, nearby, watched football on huge, flat-screen televisions. Nor will I say where I saw the Gazan young gathering for beach barbecues beneath palm-leaf umbrellas.
Of course this way of life isn't typical. But it exists, and it shows the 'prison camp' designation is a brain-dead over-simplification. If it is wrong for the rich to live next door to the desperate and we often assume this when wecriticise Israel then what about Gaza's wealthy, and its Hamas rulers?
They tolerate this gap, so they are presumably as blameworthy as the Israelis whose comfortable homes overlook chasms of poverty. Then there is the use of the word 'siege'.
Can anyone think of a siege in human history, from Syracuse to Leningrad, where the shops of the besieged city have been full of Snickers bars and Chinese motorbikes, and where European Union and other foreign aid projects pour streams of cash (often yours) into the pockets of thousands? Once again, the word conceals more than it reveals.
In Gaza's trapped, unequal society, a wealthy and influential few live in magnificent villas with sea views and their own generators to escape the endless power cuts.
Gaza also possesses a reasonably well-off middle class, who spend their cash in a shopping mall sited in Treasure Street in Gaza City, round the corner from another street that is almost entirely given over to shops displaying washing machines and refrigerators.
Siege? Not exactly. What about Gaza's 'refugee camps'. The expression is misleading. Most of those who live in them are not refugees, but the children and grandchildren of those who fled Israel in the war of 1948.
All the other refugees from that era in India and Pakistan, the Germans driven from Poland and the Czech lands, not to mention the Jews expelled from the Arab world were long ago resettled.
Unbelievably, these people are still stuck in insanitary townships, hostages in a vast struggle kept going by politicians who claim to care about them. These places are not much different from the poorer urban districts of Cairo, about which nobody, in the Arab world or the West, has much to say.
It is not idle to say that these 'camps' should have been pulled down years ago, and their inhabitants rehoused. It can be done. The United Arab Emirates, to their lasting credit, have paid for a smart new housing estate with a view of the Mediterranean.
It shows what could happen if the Arab world cared as much as it says it does about Gaza. Everyone in Gaza could live in such places, at a cost that would be no more than small change in the oil-rich Arab world's pocket.
But the propagandists, who insist that one day the refugees will return to their lost homes, regard such improvements as acceptance that Israel is permanent and so they prefer the squalor, for other people.
Those who rightly condemn the misery of the camps should ask themselves whose fault it really is. As so often in the Arab world, the rubbish-infested squalor of the streets conceals clean, private quarters, not luxurious and sometimes basic, but out of these places emerge each day huge numbers of scrubbed, neatly-uniformed children, on their way to schools so crammed that they have two shifts.
I wish I was sure these young people were being taught the principles of human brotherhood and co-existence. But I doubt it. On a wall in a street in central Gaza, a mural clearly displayed with official approval shows an obscene caricature of an Israeli soldier with a dead child slung from his bayonet.
Next to it is written in Arabic 'Child Hunter'. Other propaganda, in English, is nearby. My guide is embarrassed by this racialist foulness. I wonder how so many other Western visitors have somehow failed to mention it in their accounts.
I was still wondering about this as I travelled to the short distance to the West Bank, where Israel still partly rules. I was the recipient of hospitality in many Arab homes a level of generosity that should make Western people ashamed of their cold, neighbour-hating cities.
And once again I saw the outline of a society, slowly forming amid the wreckage, in which a decent person might live, work, raise children and attempt to live a good life. But I also saw and heard distressing things.
One which I feel all of us should be aware of is the plight of Christian Arabs under the rule of the Palestinian Authority. More than once I heard them say: 'Life was better for us under Israeli rule.'
One young man, lamenting the refusal of the Muslim-dominated courts to help him in a property dispute with squatters, burst out: 'We are so alone! All of us Christians feel so lonely in this country.'
This conversation took place about a mile from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where tourists are given the impression that the Christian religion is respected. Not really.
I was told, in whispers, of the unprintable desecration of this shrine by Palestinian gunmen when they seized the church in 2002 'world opinion' was exclusively directed against Israel. I will not name the people who told me these things.
I have also decided not to name another leading Christian Arab who told me of how his efforts to maintain Christian culture in the West Bank had met with official thuggery and intimidation.
My guide and host reckons there are 30,000 Christians in the three neighbouring municipalities of Bethlehem, Beit-Sahour and Beit- Jala. Soon there will be far fewer.
He has found out that 2,000 emigrated between 2001 and 2004, a process which has not stopped. What is most infuriating about this is that many Christians in Britain are fed propaganda blaming this on the Israelis.
Arabs can oppress each other, without any help from outside. Because the Palestinian cause is a favourite among Western Leftists, they prefer not to notice that it is largely an aggressive Islamic cause.
And in this part of the world, political correctness does not exist. Picture yourself on a comfortable sofa in an apartment in a West Bank town. Nearby runs the infamous, absurd, barrier dividing the Arab world from Israel.
Think about this wall. I acknowledge that it is hateful and oppressive dividing men from their land, and (in one case) cutting across the playground of a high school. But I have concluded that it is a civilised response to the suicide bombing that led to its being built.
My host, a thoughtful family man who has spent years in Israeli prisons but is now sick of war, has been talking politics and history. His wife, though present, remains unseen.
Suddenly he begins to speak about the Jews. He utters thoughts that would not have been out of place in Hitler's Germany. This is what he has been brought up to believe and what his children's schools will pass on to them.
The heart sinks at this evidence of individual sense mixed up with evil and stupidity. It makes talk of a 'New Middle East' seem like twaddle. So, are we to despair? I am not so sure.
Not far from this spot there is an unmarked turning at a roundabout on the route back into Jerusalem. It's an unnumbered road running south from Route 437. About a hundred yards along, it is barred by concrete blocks. It is a ghost road.
If it ever opens, it will be part of a network of secure roads and tunnels that would link Nablus and Ramallah in the northern West Bank to Bethlehem and Hebron in the south.
It would enable people to do the normal things they want to do visit relatives, go to work, go shopping. It would not make Arab Palestine a state. It has nothing to do with the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank a problem made worse by Barack Obama's call for a moratorium, a demand even the Palestinian leadership had never made.
But it might help create a society in which a happy life was possible for many people. I suspect it is nearly finished. It is not the only sign that the human yearning for normality is strong. In Ramallah, unofficial capital of Arab Palestine, it is a pleasure to visit the busy streets around Manara Square at twilight, with the cafes and the shops invitingly bright.
A few years ago, the bullet-torn corpses of 'collaborators' were displayed here. Now the displays are of smart clothes but not as smart as those in Ramallah's opulent shopping mall, stocked with designer goods, and with camel rides for the children outside.
Even in notorious Hebron in the south, famous for its massacres and its aggressive Israeli enclave, the mall culture is in evidence three miles from this seat of tension. And on the road from Hebron to Jerusalem stands a cut-price supermarket so cheap that Israeli settlers and Palestinians mingle happily at the cash tills.
I might add that an Arab intellectual, sitting in a Gaza cafe, recalled for me the happy days when Gazan women used to wear short skirts (now they all wear shrouds and veils) and you could get a beer by the beach.
But perhaps best of all was the comment of the Arab Israeli who mourned for 'the good old days before we had peace'. It may well be that no solution to the problem of Israel is possible, and that it will all end, perhaps decades from now, in a nuclear fireball.
But if outside politicians, more interested in their reputations than in the lives of Arabs and Israelis, would only stop their search for a final settlement, might it be that people left to their own devices might find a way of living together, a way that was imperfect, but which no longer involved human beings being dissolved into hunks of flying flesh by high explosive?