Weaving personal stories intricately with unique insights from the world of international diplomacy, Donald Macintyre's book Gaza: Preparing for Dawn paints a vivid picture of this small strip of land which, despite being known as the world's largest open-air prison, never fails to surprise with its entrepreneurial and enduring spirit.
Gaza: Preparing for Dawn begins with a prologue titled "Shakespeare in Gaza" and the line "Leyla Abdul Rahim had come to the line in Act IV of King Lear where the blinded Gloucester laments, 'as flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport.'" Macintyre pondered this somewhat prophetic statement as he sat in on the grade 12 English class at Bashir Al-Rayyes High School for Girls in Gaza City. He reflects that, amidst the babble of eager students and thoughtful interpretations of the text, "it took a moment to remember that this classroom tour de force had taken place in an isolated, overcrowded 140-square-mile strip of territory corralled by concrete walls and electronically monitored fences, ruled by an armed and proscribed Islamic faction, and succinctly described in recent memory by Condoleezza Rice as a 'terrorist waste-land.' Gaza, as often, was failing to conform to its stereotype."
It is precisely such stereotypes that Macintyre sets out to redress. Speaking on Tuesday night at the London Middle East Institute (LMEI) at the University of London's SOAS, Macintyre discussed his wish to portray the "human tragedy" of those living in Gaza and deconstruct some of the longstanding myths that have informed attitudes and policies towards the Strip for decades. Aimed primarily at a western audience so often limited to mainstream media coverage of Gaza, Macintyre draws on his eight years spent as the Independent's Jerusalem bureau chief between 2004 and 2012 for his in-depth knowledge of politics and diplomacy, daily anecdotes and personal stories. If his book were to be translated into Hebrew, he speculated, it would be even the better, as it could reach an Israeli audience so often blind to the realities that lie just beyond their border.
Readers looking for a complete history of the Israel-Palestine conflict or, indeed, a detailed history of Gaza through the ages, will not find it here. The opening chapter "From Ottomans to Oslo, 1917-1995" gives only a cursory view of key events that are now so well versed that they can at times feel formulaic: the Balfour Declaration, the War of 1948 and the oscillations between war and negotiations that characterised the 1970s, 80s and 90s. This is not what the book sets out to do. Its strength lies in the minute detail with which the past 20 years have been documented, from the impact of the Second Intifada on employment rates and real income levels in Gaza, to challenging the myth that the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Strip "presented Gazans with an unprecedented opportunity to order their own lives […] and live in prosperity and peace; but all [Israel] had got in return was the firing of rockets."
Several chapters of the book are devoted to the parliamentary elections of 2006 and their aftermath, which saw Hamas win a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) and strip Fatah of its long-held dominance over Palestinian political affairs. Largely a result of Hamas's "Change and Reform" ticket, rather than symptomatic of a wholesale shift towards radical Islam, Macintyre believes that the movement's victory was "arguably the turning point in Gaza's fortunes over the next decade." Deemed "the wrong result" by the Quartet of the EU, the US, Russia and the UN who looked on in dismay, Macintyre suggests that their hasty, and arguably misjudged, response to the election result dictated the terms of international debate on Gaza for the following decade and effectively "ruled out what might have been a controlled experiment in whether coexistence was possible with a (relatively) pragmatic Islamist regime desperate for international recognition."
According to Macintyre, very few had planned for the event that Hamas would emerge victorious from the elections. "In Washington no one had even bothered to write a planning paper," said Elliott Abrams, President Bush's Deputy National Security Adviser. In a regional context, this apparent double standard on adherence to democracy had a deleterious effect on the West's standing and can be seen as a case study in bad diplomacy, Macintyre told the LMEI audience.
Though much of Macintyre's book focuses on the role of the international community, or indeed its "uneasy silence" during Israel's Operation Protective Edge in 2014, intertwined with this global outlook are intricate stories of the everyman, simultaneously tragic and uplifting, filled with despair but resilient, collated over decades of meeting ordinary Gazans in his work as a journalist.
One such story is that of Nader Al-Masri, "the long distance runner from Beit Hanoun" who Macintyre sees as indicative of sumud under siege. Noting that "no one would choose Gaza as the place to train for the Olympics," al-Masri has trained morning and night, seven days per week and had saved enough from his £260 per month salary as a PA policeman to buy some trainers. Macintyre met him several times over the course of his period in Jerusalem, and in 2011 Al-Masri was "on a mission" to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics. Unable to leave for training in Qatar, he failed. In spring 2016 he was refused permission to leave Gaza to take part in the Palestinian marathon in Bethlehem, and again in 2017 he was not given an exit visa. "You can't find an athlete or player in another country, training all this time, this hard and at the same time not knowing if they'll be able to go," Al-Masri lamented. And yet he still ran 25 kilometres per day, to "relieve stress" and do his "national job training to represent his people if and when the opportunity finally arose."
In his talk at LMEI, Macintyre explained that while he does not feel optimistic about the situation in Gaza, he was continually struck by the potential of this place and its population, so often forsaken by the outside world. It is this observation that underscores the tone and themes of Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, and makes for a valuable account of life in modern day Gaza.