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The first umbrellas have been set up on the beach, with towels laid out between them and plastic chairs dug into the fine sand. A couple of boys and girls run into the water as the grown-ups lounge in the shade. The sun glints off the waves, and the sky is deep blue and cloudless on this Friday morning in June. It could be a normal day on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Except for that aggravating noise, the humming of Israeli drones circling above in the sky – apparently watching everything and everyone. The view of the sea is also far from idyllic, with Israeli patrol boats visible on the horizon. Normally, Palestinian fishermen can take their boats a few miles out to sea. Recently, though, the Israeli military has completely sealed off the area off Gaza's coast and anyone who approaches the naval ships will be fired on. The total naval blockade is intended as punishment for the fact that militant Palestinians have again been deploying balloons and kites to launch incendiary or explosive devices at Israel. In retaliation for the blockade, Hamas has fired a rocket at southern Israel, with the Israeli air force responding overnight by bombing Hamas bunkers.

This is all part of the disturbing normality for beachgoers. For many, life has become a matter of mere survival, but they are still able to laugh occasionally and splash about in the waves. They have to keep going somehow. They don't have any other choice.

The Palestinians have once again captured the world's attention. And like so many times before, it's others who are negotiating their future. This time, the United States government is promising to deliver prosperity and peace through investment, but it is uncertain whether the billions pledged in the purported "deal of the century" will ever reach them. Their dream of establishing their own state is also a long way off. Under President Donald Trump, U.S. policy largely supports the interests of the Israelis. The Palestinians weren't even asked, for example, when the White House made the decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and they weren't invited to discussions about the possible annexation of the West Bank. And yet it is the Palestinians who are in most urgent need of change.

In Gaza, it isn't possible to forget even for a moment where you are: in a densely populated enclave, 40 kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide, surrounded by a huge fence. Since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel has blockaded all access to the coastal strip – by land, by sea and by air. Furthermore, border crossings to Israel and Egypt are often closed, there are strict conditions on the import of goods and few people are able to leave. 

Gazans have had to find other ways of crossing the boundaries in order to break out of the cycle of poverty, violence, apathy and confinement that defines their lives here.

Al-Mokh Channels His Anger into Lyrics

Hosam Khalaf is also known as Al-Mokh © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

Al-Mokh receives his guest from ZEIT ONLINE in his home, located on a side street in the center of Gaza City. In the wall of the staircase leading up to his apartment, there is a large hole, through which you can see the neighboring building, or at least what is left of it: a crater in the ground with debris and rubble piled up next to it. The building was hit by an Israeli missile during unrest in May, presumably because senior Islamist Hamas or Islamic Jihad leaders lived there.

Al-Mokh, 30, is wearing jeans. His living room is sparsely furnished, with tiles, a carpet, mattresses and a wooden cupboard in the corner with a small television on top of it. A poster hangs on the wall that reads: "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." This is the life motto of Hosam Khalaf, who calls himself Al-Mokh, the brain. He is Gaza Strip's most famous rapper.

We live with the feeling that everything could be over at any minute.
Rapper Al-Mokh

He's also an unflinching critic of Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip in an authoritarian manner and has been labeled a terrorist organization by Israel and a few Western states. Hamas has arrested Khalaf more than 20 times for his critical remarks. When asked why he keeps taking this risk, he answers: "I have nothing left to lose." 

Khalaf started rapping six years ago, when he still lived in Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. He had just completed his university degree in media studies and French, but he wasn't able to find a job. "I couldn't work, I had no money, I couldn't travel, I couldn't speak my mind," he says, describing his life at the time. At the very least, he wanted to be able to speak his mind, so he began channeling his anger into lyrics. At the end of 2014, he recorded his first music video, featuring him rapping with two friends in front of a mobile phone camera, singing about how life in Gaza is like black coffee, dark and bitter. 

A street in Gaza City © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

His critical attitude would also permeate all of his later songs. He sings about the polluted water and the lack of electricity, about the fact that people in Gaza are committing suicide out of desperation, and about how young people in Gaza live for the moment, because they never know when the next war will break out. Just like everyone else here, Khalaf has experienced three wars with Israel – in 2008, 2012 and most recently in 2014. "We live with the feeling that everything could be over at any minute." He sings about how the power struggle among Palestinian leaders is paralyzing society.

Fatah, founded in 1965, led the Palestinian struggle for an independent state for decades, but the radical Islamist Hamas was founded in 1987 in the Gaza Strip as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and a fratricidal war has been raging between the two groups since 2007. That was the year that Hamas, which had just won the parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories, forcibly drove Fatah out of Gaza. Since then, there have been two parallel Palestinian administrations – Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – but both groups claim sole power over all the Palestinian territories. 

Gaza City: A refugee camp has become a city of its own. © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

Khalaf sings about how Hamas restricts freedom in Gaza and how they dictate how young people should look, such as wearing long beards. He writes lyrics about how Hamas abuses people's suffering in order to get money from abroad, which it then uses to line its own pockets. How they carry out their militant struggle at the expense of the civilians.

There isn't really anyone else in Gaza who dares to say such things in public. 

After uploading the first video to Facebook, Khalaf received a letter from Hamas ordering him to appear at the police station. He says they threw him into prison for nine months and 16 days. That period, Khalaf says, was "straight out of hell." He was forced to share a cell with seven criminals, he wasn't allowed to contact a lawyer and it was absolute lawlessness. They accused him of being a spy from abroad who wanted to destroy Hamas and of betraying the Palestinians. "I just want to be able to live and have a job," Khalaf replied. Since his release, he's been posting videos constantly on his YouTube channel. Sometimes, someone from Hamas calls to tell him to delete this video or that Facebook post. Khalaf has close to 100,000 followers on Facebook, and now, whenever Hamas detains him again for a few days, his fans launch campaigns for his release.

He says he speaks for the ordinary people. And they're not interested in the Palestinian leaders' politics or ideology, he says – they just want to be able to live in dignity. But those hopes keep getting dashed. Over and over again.

The Battle for the Holy Land

At the camp in Gaza City © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

Israelis and Palestinians both lay claim to the territory between Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. Israeli sovereignty extends across most of the territory, with the rest ruled by Israel as an occupying power since the Six Day War in 1967. The Palestinians, for their part, are striving to establish their own state. The main issues in the conflict are Israeli settlement construction, the status of Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees who were expelled during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-49, which is referred to by Palestinians and Arabs as Nakba, the catastrophe.

The fact that the conflict is still continuing today is also a product of the role played by religion. In Israel, ultra-nationalist religious settlers claim the entire territory to be the Promised Land given to them by God, which in turn provides them with the legitimacy to use force against Palestinians and destroy their property. On the Palestinian side, radical Islamists reject negotiations with Israel and are calling for a holy war to reclaim the former Palestinian land.

Some Gaza Strip residents support this struggle, but far from all of them. The split in Palestinian society is reflected in the Great March of Return, the protest along the border fence that has taken place every Friday since March 2018.

Rapper Khalaf was one of the first to join the protest marches. Initially, the primarily civilian crowds demonstrated peacefully for an end to the blockade and for a better life, with survival having become even more difficult for Gaza residents since the blockade introduced in 2007. Then the U.S. announced it planned to reduce its aid payments to the Palestinians. The economy ground to a halt, the unemployment rate was and remains one of the highest in the world, with 60 percent joblessness among 20 to 24-year-olds. The health care system is poor, and half the population lives below the poverty line, dependent on humanitarian aid. But there's another reason that drew many civilians to the protests. They wanted to show the world: We're still here. 

It didn't take long for Hamas to exploit the marches as an element of resistance, and it now has taken full control over the protests. It organizes the transportation of protesters to the border fence and provides them with food and drink while they are there. Rumors also abound that Hamas pays participants to demonstrate. Since the beginning of the protests, several hundred people have been killed and thousands injured in clashes with the Israeli security forces. Many of the former protesters, including Rapper Khalaf, are no longer attending the demonstrations due to the violence and because they feel taken advantage of by Hamas. Khalaf is critical of Hamas for enshrining the dead and injured as heroes and offering the relatives compensation payments. "As if money could replace a lost leg," he says.

But there are others who don't try to stop these potential victims from joining the demonstrations. On the contrary.

The Abd Rabbu Family Would Do Anything for Palestine

Hassanat Abd Rabbu in front of his home © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

The Abd Rabbu family lives in Jabalia, a camp north of Gaza City not far from the border. Three generations live in the house: grandfather Hassanat, 61, and his wife Kamela, 56, with their seven sons and four daughters, as well as their partners and children – a total of 28 people. There's a lot going on this afternoon, just like every Friday: The family is preparing for the Great March. Kamela is cooking in the kitchen so she can hand out food later at the protest at the fence. They all support Hamas, but it's difficult to say how deep that support runs. They say Hamas is the only organization that represents them as Palestinians. And the family is unanimous in their belief that all the problems are exclusively the result of the Israelis and the occupation.  

Hassanat is sitting on a chair in a bare room on the ground floor and some of his sons are seated around him on a sofa and a mattress. He looks like one might imagine a patriarch is supposed to look, with his long beard, traditional robe and imposing stature. Three of his sons have been injured in the protests at the border fence, with his 20-year-old son Mahmoud, who is sitting on the sofa with his crutches next to him, losing the use of one of his legs. The bullets from the Israeli side struck both legs, and they are covered with wounds that Mahmoud shows off with a bit of pride.

"We would do anything for Palestine," says Hassanat, who grew up in Jabalia. He says that when the first Intifada began in 1987, he threw stones at the Israeli soldiers and that he has spent his entire life fighting against the occupation and will continue to do so. For how long? "Until Israel gives us our land back." His son Yousef adds: "There are victims in every revolution. We also have to make sacrifices." Then the 29-year-old talks about the fact that every liberation has its price, adding that the Jews have no right to be here. Has he ever heard of the Holocaust? Yousef nods before answering: "Hitler gassed the Jews because he knew they would destroy the whole world."

Three of Hassanat's sons: Mahmoud, Mustafa and Yousef (from left to right) © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

It's difficult to know how many people in Gaza are as filled with hate as the Abd Rabbu family. In interviews, many emphasize that it's not Judaism as a religion that they have a problem with, but rather the fact that some Israelis feel superior to the Palestinians. They say the Israeli government and Hamas are two sides of the same coin, extreme positions that make normal life impossible for the Palestinians. 

The longer the blockade lasts, the greater the danger of further radicalization becomes, especially among young men. To many of them, the Jews are merely the snipers patrolling the fences, shooting their friends and constantly monitoring them as though they were criminals. Most have never seen a synagogue. And Hamas knows how to use that to their advantage.

The Ideology of Hamas Hardliner Mahmoud al-Zahar

A meeting with Mahmoud al-Zahar illustrates just how inflexible the ideology of Hamas militants is. He's a founding member of the organization and serves as its foreign minister and the leader of its radical wing. Hamas leaders rarely grant interviews to Western news outlets, but the 73-year-old receives his guest from ZEIT ONLINE in his garden in Gaza City following evening prayers. His expression is serious, and he speaks quietly. He explains the desolate situation in Gaza by pointing to the lack of support from Arab countries and to the policies of Mahmoud Abbas, head of the moderate Fatah organization and president of the Palestinian National Authority – and a man al-Zahar views as being weak due to his "pro-Israeli" and "pro-Western" stance.

When asked how Hamas views the future of the Palestinians, al-Zahar responds with rhetorical questions of his own. He asks whether Germany would accept occupation, such as a Muslim state under Hamas control. And he asks why Jews are even in the region, given that they lived in the U.S., Russia and elsewhere prior to 1948. Essentially, al-Zahar's responses highlight fundamental Hamas principles, such as the conviction that Palestine is a country that has been occupied by a racist, Zionist project and that negotiations are a waste of time. And that all of Palestine should be encompassed within a Muslim country. The Jewish government, al-Zahar says, exists at the expense of Palestinian existence. This country, he continues, belongs to the ancestors of the Palestinians and is a Muslim country, not Christian or Jewish.

Does Hamas still believe in armed resistance? "We defend ourselves against the occupation," says al-Zahar. "When they attack us, we have to respond. It's self-defense."

Hardliners like al-Zahar say that they speak for the majority of Palestinians. But many people in Gaza have had enough of the violence and are pursuing completely different goals.

Cyclist Alaa al-Daly Is an Idol for Amputees

Cyclist Alaa al-Daly © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

People like Alaa al-Daly. The 22-year-old cyclist lives in his parent's house not far from the Egyptian border on the outskirts of Rafah, a town on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip. His room is on the ground floor and sparsely furnished with a bed, a wardrobe and some shelves. That's where he keeps his trophies, mementos from another life – one that came to an end in March 2018.

Al-Daly began cycling as a youth, initially biking for his own enjoyment on the uneven, dusty roads before qualifying for the Palestinian national cycling team. The team was frequently invited to take part in international cycling races, but the athletes were usually unable to attend, either because the border crossing was closed or because Israel refused to allow them to leave Gaza. The result being that al-Daly has only ever been able to take part in races in Gaza – against a team from the West Bank, for example. But al-Daly always wanted to hit the big time and, as one of the best cyclists in the Gaza Strip at the time, he was on the right track.

Images of Alaa al-Daly prior to his injury © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

March 30, 2018, the day when the Great March of Return began, was also the day on which al-Daly's dream died, as he describes it. He was training for a race in Jakarta, Indonesia, a fantastic opportunity if he were granted permission to travel. On that Friday, he some of his teammates went to the fence. He says they just wanted to look and to show that they weren't happy with the constant travel bans that prevented them from taking part in international competitions. He says he stayed well away from the fence, not wanting to endanger his athletic career. But then, he says, the Israelis fired tear gas at their demonstration and al-Daly, panicked and half-blind, says he accidentally ran closer and closer to the fence. Gunfire hit his right leg and, in the hospital, it quickly became clear that it could not be saved.

I lost my leg but not my will
Cyclist Alaa al-Daly

The weeks following the amputation were terrible for al-Daly. "I lost all hope," he says. But then he realized that he had little choice but to accept his fate and that doing so would make him stronger. Cycling, he said, has always been the most important thing in his life and he resolved to continue. "I lost my leg, but not my will," he says. As soon as he was able, he got back on his bike and has been training regularly ever since – with one leg. His prosthetic isn't suitable for sports and he doesn't have enough money for a specialized one.

Al-Daly's former coach trains with him four or five times per week and the cyclist is currently looking for a sponsor to help set up a team for amputee cyclists. Currently, he is the only member. Indeed, he is the only professional cyclist amputee in the entire Palestinian territories. There are around 1,600 amputees in the Gaza Strip and, because injuries often are not properly treated, that number is constantly growing. Al-Daly says that there is a lot of talent within that group and by encouraging them to take up cycling, he wants to give them a goal in life.

The cyclist became an idol to other amputees in Gaza. In letters they send to al-Daly, they write that he gives them strength and courage and that he is an inspiration to them. Al-Daly says it helps to motivate him and he smiles. He says it's his dream to race around the world with a Palestinian national team for amputees. 

At the market in Gaza City © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

Talent, potential: It is something you see everywhere in Gaza. There are so many possibilities. It could be a beautiful place with spacious beachside promenades, the sun, the palm trees. And the warm-hearted, talented people who follow their dreams and create new things even if their surroundings make it almost impossible.

The Gaza Sky Geeks Facilitate Self-Determination

The entrance to the Gaza Sky Geeks © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

To get to the Gaza Sky Geeks, the first tech hub in Gaza, you must first leave behind the snarled streets of the Gaza City center. They are located in a nondescript office building where they have rented almost an entire upper floor. There is a large common room with a kitchen and a place to buy snacks, behind which are separate, air-conditioned offices, all of them generously sized with modern furnishings. The walls are covered with colorful graffiti and young men and women rush from room to room. Laughter rings through the halls.

Gaza Sky Geeks is a place where young programmers can learn how to develop apps and found startups. The project was launched in 2011 with the help of the U.S. aid organization Mercy Corps and receives support from Google and the German foundation Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, among other sources. The Gaza Sky Geeks provide space, electricity and a fast internet connection, all things that tend to be at a premium in Gaza. Each year, young entrepreneurs can apply with their project ideas. If they are accepted, they receive support throughout the development of their enterprise, with the goal being that of founding their own company and finding foreign investors. There are programming classes and courses for freelancers in such disciplines as time management and customer relations while mentors provide advice on job applications. Foreign experts also lead training courses, provided they can obtain permission to come. Around 150 people meet here every day. The courses are full and many applicants are turned away. Thus far, they have managed to support the founding of 37 startups, with 16 of them still in operation.

On this particular afternoon, for example, two young women from Gaza City have gathered in a room to work on their project. They are developing a smartphone app that can match users with domestic help in real time. In another room, a young woman, having learned a great deal from training courses here, is working on her laptop. As a freelance writer and translator, she accepts jobs from around the world via different online platforms. Most recently, she wrote an e-book about tourist attractions in Ohio, even though she has never left the Gaza Strip.

Creating such possibilities was Iyad Altahrawi's plan. The 29-year-old worked for a bank in Gaza City following his university studies and began serving as a mentor at Gaza Sky Geeks in 2012. He liked the atmosphere because it enabled the young people working there to forget for a moment the harsh realities of their day-to-day lives. "The people who came to the Sky Geeks didn't talk about war and catastrophe, but about how to create new jobs and learn new things," he says.

Iyad Altahrawi returned to Gaza. © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

He was unable, however, to ignore the 2014 war with Israel and it changed Altahrawi's perspective on life. In his telling, the story goes like this: The family of a friend of his father's that lived in southern Gaza was trapped in their home during the bombardment – 46 people in a single house. They called Altahrawi begging him to call for help. Altahrawi contacted the Red Cross but was told that they couldn't do anything. So, he spoke with the family on the phone, seeking to keep them calm for hours as the bombs fell all around them. He could hear screaming and the crying of the children. Later, he says, the family fled the house and many of them were shot, some of them immediately, and then bled to death in the house. Altahrawi says he could hear them breathing until the very end. His version of events could not be independently verified.

After that incident, he says, he lost all faith in humanity and everything went dark. He says he was saved by messages of support from his friends from around the world that he had met during previous trips. He was also accepted to an internship abroad for which he had applied. The fact that there were people out there who wanted to give him a chance enabled him to return to life.

Once the fighting came to an end, he packed his backpack and headed to Rafah to cross the border into Egypt. He had had enough of war and violence: "I didn't want to die in Gaza," Altahrawi says. He remained in Cairo for a while before then doing an internship with Coca-Cola in the U.S. and, afterwards, moving to Germany to earn an additional degree at a business university in the state of Hesse. Once he finished, he received several offers from international companies to start his career, but he rejected all of them and returned to Gaza in September 2017 to work for Gaza Sky Geeks as program officer for startups. He says he wanted to fulfill his promise to give others, who would otherwise have no hope, an opportunity of the kind he once benefited from.

Hope Remains

Don't give up, pursue your dreams: That's something that the rapper Khalaf also wants. He is currently in the process of writing his next song in which he will once again criticize all sides. Hamas will perhaps soon realize that violence doesn't present a lasting solution, he says. And that there can only be a solution if those in power listen to the people.

And there it is, once again – the hope that you continually encounter in Gaza. The last time they took him into custody was the first time they didn't beat him, Khalaf says grinning. Maybe, he adds, that's a sign of better things to come.

The sea on the left, the edge of Gaza City. Israel lies straight ahead. © Andrea Backhaus für ZEIT ONLINE

Translators: Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey