By Emad Moussa for The New Arab

Arduous, complex, and unjustifiably degrading. This was my two-day journey through the Sinai desert on my way to the Gaza Strip after 15 years of absence.

After long periods of closure over the past years, Egypt finally opened the Rafah Crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip in February this year, apparently “permanently” but in a limited capacity.

Egypt only allows Palestinians originally from Gaza and their direct family members to enter the Strip. Foreign passport holders must show a Gaza ID to be allowed in. Anyone else, including non-Gazan Palestinians, requires a special permit.

As we entered the Palestinian side of the border, it didn’t take long to stamp our passports and be on our way into Gaza.

It was a relief to see that after 15 years of blockade and four wars, Gaza has kept its intimate soul, although not without deep wounds”

Gaza seemed to have better infrastructure, cleaner streets, and certainly more organised traffic than I remember. But the trail of destruction left by Israeli jets and artillery in the 11-day war, only two weeks earlier could not be ignored.

Entering the outskirts of Gaza city from the East, through Shujaiya neighbourhood, the signs of poverty were alarmingly present, significantly more than anything I experienced last time I was there. It was visible in the young men who hung out on the sides of the roads, clearly jobless; in the number of grocery stores selling the same products; and in the large number of roaming sellers, many of them children.

Despite it all, there was still a familiar atmosphere, the same hospitable and friendly mannerisms. It was a relief to see that after 15 years of blockade and four wars, Gaza has kept its intimate soul, although not without deep wounds that I’d come to see days later.

Israel physically left Gaza in 2005, but the occupation realistically and effectively transformed from boots on the ground into a remote-control blockade.

After Hamas won the Palestinian legislative council elections in 2006, the blockade intensified and became more sophisticated, touching almost every aspect of life and affecting all residents in the Strip. Since then, Gaza has become an example of extreme restrictions on movement; conditional entry of products and an outright ban on others; severe shortages in electricity and medical equipment; and unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty.

But this is a blockade like no other, an unorthodox case of deep oppression situated within the larger oppression that Israel’s occupation represents. Throughout history, colonial powers used extreme violence and collective punishment against their colonised subjects, but never before has an occupying power gone to war against the very people it controlled, as Israel has against Gaza.

The aftermath of the last war wasn’t only obvious in the destroyed infrastructure, but also in the collective emotional fatigue and apathy. It’s immediately obvious that the once obsessively held Covid-19 precautions no longer exist. As someone noted: “Corona is the least of our concerns.” With a health system so fragile, to ignore Covid-19 says a lot about the post-war priorities.

Gaza hasn’t changed much socially. Granted, a tightly knit social network and a deep-rooted patriarchal system play a significant role in sustaining a rigid social reality. In the Gazan scenario, however, it’s the artificial socio-political situation that is also to blame for creating a somewhat social stagnation.

Gaza is generally conservative, but there has always been room for liberal thought and unconventional worldviews. These seem to have retreated over the past 15 years in order to allow for an old-style conservatism to act as society’s primary line of defence against what many view as existential threats.

When it comes to resisting the occupation, the Gaza I know from 2006 now has a somewhat changed narrative. Back then, the walls were often covered with posters of the victims martyred by Israel’s aggression and anti-Israel graffiti.

Today, after 15 years of siege and four destructive wars, the martyrs and graffiti are still there, but in light of what Palestinians consider an exceptional resistance performance during the last wars and the incremental growth in military capabilities, large billboards mostly glorifying military achievements against Israel seem to dominate the major roundabouts and squares.

There appears to be a transition from the overwhelmingly victim-focused narratives to a victim-fighter narrative, with an emphasis on “fighter”. At some point, the PLO embraced such a dichotomy, but in Gaza, Hamas seems especially invested in the narratives of heroism and the lofty goals of liberation, more so than lamenting the destruction and casualties.

Gazans almost unanimously hold the resistance in high regard but are also openly unhappy about the performance of their leadership”

The religious side to this conviction sees sacrifices for the homeland as divine, but there’s also a psychological need, through the narratives of resistance, to keep the morale high. Against the enormous odds, Gazans certainly need, or rather, have to invent high morale in order to function, much less survive.

Gazans almost unanimously hold the resistance in high regard but are also openly unhappy about the performance of their leadership. Resentment of both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is widespread, the suspicion of Egypt’s al-Sisi’s role in the ceasefire is present, although spoken about in a hush-hush manner while publicly praising Egypt’s help and historical role in supporting Palestine. There’s also some mumbling about Hamas’ monopoly over the war-and-peace decisions.

Above all, anger about Palestinian disunity continues to simmer, but ironically, people are also divided over whom to blame: Israel and the Arabs, Hamas and Fatah, or all. The Gazan situation is highly complex, so the blame game isn’t an easy or accurate exercise. Oftentimes, it’s only a venting technique; allowing people to feel a sense of control over an abnormal and uncontrollable situation.

No one knows how long this situation will endure, but most agree that Gaza’s political complexities, much like its misery, are manifold. They go well beyond the mere Israel-Palestine situation and the internal Palestinian disagreements, well into the regional and international power balances and alliances.

Meanwhile, the people of Gaza are left with no choice but to resist and cynically hope for a better future, a future that may be dull, but is at least predictable and manageable.