H2O in Gaza

In this blog, Troy Sternberg, geographer and sometime White Horse Press author of both books and articles in Nomadic Peoples reports on his experiences In Gaza, filming for the current BBC4 series H20: The Molecule that Made Us. (All images courtesy of Freddie Claire).

Walking into Gaza – well there is no such thing. After seven levels of security barriers the last five-metre iron door clangs shut, the film crew turfed into oblivion. No signs, only cctv cameras in the empty yard. We knock on the opposite wall, pound, shout into the silence. Resigned to fate, bad movies and evening news clips fill the discussion. After twenty minutes the far wall slides open a crack. A bespectacled man lets us pass to a Palestinian checkpoint that bundles us in a van. A kilometre later we are dropped at an Hamas checkpoint, our names and numbers laboriously tapped in to an ancient Compaq computer in a metal hut. Research has never started in such an inauspicious manner.

Our guide/fixer finds us and we head to the hotel past dilapidation and dubious monuments. Dropped at a fading British relic, we find everyone polite, welcoming us as their few guests in a cavernous dining hall. We are here to talk about water, to interview and film Gazans. A case of imported Turkish water on the table screams ‘only drink this’. As an academic I want to walk amongst people, see the territory, understand the context. The hotel cannot allow this. Or are they security? ‘Later’, they say in distinguished English. Only after dinner overlooking the Mediterranean are we allowed to go fifty metres with our guide to sip tea in an exclusive café. It’s full of people who receive money from abroad.

We drive by the Hamas leader’s residence into a Palestinian refugee camp within Gaza – already I am learning the internal divisions. As the film crew sets up in a tenement flat, it is not only water the residents are missing. The accoutrements of home are also absent. Against dark bare walls the refrigerator now serves as a shelf holding emptiness. We discuss the difficulty of procuring water, where the waste goes, what awaits tomorrow, whilst sights and smells tell the story. The men are direct, open – do they see in us some hope, what has the translator said? From refilled plastic litre bottles a tank on the roof is painstakingly refilled. It’s Monday, at 11 the mosque has water delivered. We walk through a warren of alleys to a tank where already children are lined up twenty deep. On the steps idle men explain there are no jobs, their lives uprooted and hope lost in random acts of unkindness. Resignation rather than animosity colours their faces. But some of the teenagers less so; they shout a few phrases of disillusionment in Arabic and English. In the crowd I feel safe, something normal that did not previously need to be considered in fieldwork.

Then the scrum for the water starts. But also drumbeats from afar. These grow louder, a parade of sorts has started, draws closer. Then the ping-ping of gunshots only a corner away. The marching soldiers come into view. Children scatter, abandoning plastic jugs. Basic human instincts take over. My clear thought asks ‘are they shooting the foreigners?’ as I stand flat against the mosque wall. The cameraman, so busy filming, is swallowed by the crowd. Will we see him again? Bullets rain through the sky.

That night the hotel’s hummus is particularly tasty. We drink cups of sugary tea and laugh, or at least try to smile. Outside was like stepping into a newscast, the cafe the catharsis afterward. One minute in clouds of danger, the next asking for the wifi password to share the experience. Our guide talks of trying to leave with a UN scholarship in hand but no way to exit Gaza. Now we understand a little.

Each day tells a part of the story through water. What happened to the desalination plant paid for by the Swedes? Driving south it is clear the sewage treatment plant also has no energy. The Gazans shrug – at this time of year the effluent washes up on Israeli beaches. Each checkpoint the guns come out. I look – stashed somewhere is a bottle of water. Little hopes – getting kids in school; and big dreams – finding $1500 to cross into Egypt, repeat through the days. Always precious drops of water are protected, nothing spills out of the tea cup. The sense is indelible, immediate but once home water’s essence will fade.

We film at the spice market, the ‘I Love Gaza’ sign, the modern coffee shop. The tri-lingual water director unearths rays of hope. The farm visit, alas, is cancelled at the last moment. Each day the questions are fewer because through all the political theatre there is not enough water to drink. The people share openly with us, speak directly – we document their plight to momentarily remind viewers elsewhere.

Then the call comes – protests are called before Friday prayers. Foreigners must leave. We race back to commotion in the hotel. Do we have the wasta (connections) to get out? For now we are stranded, dependent on others. I wonder, are we a future news story, will mobs storm the hotel? The refugee camp is in sight, will they come for water and food? Probably not. For the wifi and access to the outside world? Maybe. For the serene sense that for a moment all is well in life? More likely.

At 7a.m. we race to border before any new orders are issued. Guards don’t care about the passports, point us towards the exit cage. It is an enclosed walkway hundreds of metres long. Outside bulldozers are moving boulders around for crowd control. Each step draws us towards safety, an unknown danger averted. Squinting in the sun the Dante-esque seven levels of security come into view. Twenty minutes later we emerge into indifference. An hour after that, I am by the pool at an Israeli resort chosen for us. Kids are splashing poolside, suddenly water is expendable. It spills on sidewalks, sprinklers rotate, plastic water bottles scattered on the tables. I want to speak but no one cares about lives minutes away. I fold up the experience, thank academia for the opportunity to see the variegated world we live in. The next day in the airport cafe I learn that nine Palestinians were killed in the protests by security forces. I recognise the caged walkway in photos and can’t wait to leave the promised land.

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