As I entered the Erez crossing from Israel into the Gaza Strip, my Arab-Israeli friend asked me to bring him some fish and chips when I returned a few days later.
“These are the best you’ll ever have,” he told me with a smile.
It was a big statement to make to a Brit – but he was right. The recommended seller was easy to find, with a blue and white boat, dolphins painted on the side, protruding from his store front. And the pile of chips topped with paper-wrapped fried fish fingers was superb.
Yet little else is as acceptable in this miserable, fenced-off enclave on the edge of the Mediterranean, just 25 miles long and seven miles wide at its widest, and home to more than two million people.
This is one of the most depressing places I have visited.
Palestinians inspect the destruction in a neighborhood heavily damaged by Israeli airstrikes on the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City early Monday
A paramedic holds a little girl with a face full of blood and dirt from the effects of the bombing of Israeli planes in Gaza, Palestine, Monday
The huge airport-like terminal controlled by the Israeli army in Erez was almost deserted when I last entered it five years ago, about to close its doors for a long weekend of vacation.
I watched the only other traveler, an old woman laden with bulging bags, struggle to get through a single-person turnstile. Then I hired a motorcyclist to speed me through a long, caged passage through the buffer zone into the Palestinian territory.
Israel conquered the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 war, but unilaterally withdrew all its troops and settlers in 2005 in a bid to improve security. When Hamas won a resounding victory in elections the following year, it forced its rivals to take full control of the field.
This triggered restrictions on the movement of goods and people by Egypt and Israel, leaving residents trapped under the hard-line group renowned for its repression and violence against its own people as well as its use of terror sickening against his enemies.
Across Gaza, there is a semblance of normalcy as people try to go about their lives in bustling shops, malls, cafes and restaurants.
It’s a lot like other, less prosperous parts of the Middle East, with its dilapidated cinder block buildings, colorful murals, crowded streets, groups of friendly children – especially when the familiar sound of the muezzin calls the faithful to the pray.
I’ve had good coffee in fancy cafes full of young people on phones and computers, while Gaza’s restaurants adapt to the many problems of a culture that prides itself on its cuisine.
Yet this illusion of normalcy began to dissipate once I arrived at my beachfront hotel and took in the view of the sandy beach and fishing boats on the sparkling waters. Don’t go swimming, warned a local journalist, they dump all the wastewater there.
Israeli soldiers in military vehicles maneuver in an area along the border with Gaza in southern Israel on Monday.
Missile explodes in Gaza City during Israeli airstrike on Sunday
I later learned that due to chronic energy shortages and destroyed infrastructure, enough raw sewage to fill 40 Olympic swimming pools was pumped into this beautiful sea every day (although efforts have since been made to repair this system).
Gaza experiences constant power cuts, dismal public services, dirty water and an overwhelming lack of jobs.
Most of its energy comes from Israel – but even small contributions from Gaza’s only power plant, like all private generators, rely on imported diesel.
Much of the struggling health service relies on the United Nations and charities. Patients needing more serious treatment must obtain permission from Palestinian and Israeli authorities to travel outside the Gaza Strip, which is surrounded by 20-foot fences, motion sensors, radar and cameras.
But the most glaring lack here is that of hope. It is one of the most densely populated regions in the world and has one of the youngest populations. Yet more than two-thirds of young adults are unemployed, while eight out of ten residents rely on external aid.
Although tens of thousands of Palestinians used to leave Gaza to work in Israel, the border was closed after Hamas took power, so an entire generation grew up without ever being able to leave the Strip and without never meet an Israeli.
All of this provides fertile ground for Hamas to seek “martyrs” for its evil cause, especially amid the trauma of living under frequent attacks and bombardments.
The beach offers some escape from the stifling heat and pessimism.
However, even fishing is caught up in the conflict – catches are limited by Israeli helicopter gunships which shoot crews or confiscate boats if they exceed the imposed limit of 15 miles offshore.
Smoke rises Monday after Israeli airstrike on Gaza City
Near the Gaza City port, I came across a graveyard of abandoned fishing boats. The 15-year economic blockade prevents their owners from purchasing spare parts for repairs.
It also limits the supply of fuel and trucks, so you see dozens of donkeys weaving through chaotic traffic as they clean up trash, transport goods around the city, or haul away the last of the missile debris to reconstruction.
Hamas has developed an extensive network of tunnels to smuggle goods, but these are targeted by Israel because they have also been used for missiles and weapons.
It’s no wonder that previous polls have found that half of Gazans want to leave this devastated place – and it’s no surprise that this was the source of the latest outburst of hatred that has marred this turbulent region.