On Gaza Beach

Ari Shavit, translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Langfur

The setting is idyllic: a few hundred yards from the quiet Mediterranean shore. At six in the morning, when the fishing boats go out, you feel for a moment that you are back in the Greek Islands of the 1950s. A fresh breeze blows eastward through the guard tower and past the Palestinian prisoners below me.

The guards in the towers turn to look out now and then at the water. And the early risers among the prisoners enter the tin shanty where the toilets are and stand on tiptoe as close as they can to the only window from which it is possible to see the Mediterranean.

One day, if there is a state called Palestine, its government will no doubt lease this piece of ground to some international entrepreneur who would set up a Club Med Gaza Beach. One day, when there is peace, Israelis could come here for a short vacation on foreign soil ten miles from the border. They would dance the samba and buy Palestinian needlework in the duty-free shop.

Meanwhile we have the usual morning routine: long lines of prisoners in blue uniforms are led from compound to compound beneath the curling wire fences, beneath the barrels of the M-16s.

Those who lead them are my buddies. Jewish soldiers. In the bluish light of an early April morning they hold their rifles tightly. They tell the prisoners to stop, to advance, to stop. While the fresh breeze blows in from the sea, they tell the prisoners to hold their hands out in front of them. A young soldier goes from one to another, clamping on handcuffs.

This is the internment camp “Gaza Beach.” It is one of seven camps built in a rush in the early stages of the intifada three and a half years ago. But the temporary camps gradually became part of routine life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I am here doing my annual reserve service, like any other Israeli man. This time, instead of taking part in military exercises, I am a guard. The camp is on the southwestern outskirts of the city of Gaza. I’m lucky: this place is considered one of the best of all internment camps of its kind. The notorious internment camps at Ketsiot and Far’ah are much worse than this one, and only Megiddo prison in the north of Israel—so they say—competes with ours for humaneness.

Until the uprising broke out in December 1987, the prison contained a small number of prisoners, some of them said to be dangerous criminals. Since 1988 it has held at any given time a thousand men or more. Most are awaiting trial; most were arrested because they were throwing stones or were said to be members of illegal organizations. Many are in their teens. Among them, here and there, are some boys who are small and appear to be very young.

The Gaza Beach Internment Facility has several sections: the interrogation section of Shin Bet (the…

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