Preparing for Gaza and crossing the divide
There are only two entry and exit points for the Gaza Strip: Rafah lies on the southern end of Gaza, bordering Egypt, and Erez is on the northern end, bordering Israel.
Erez is strictly for international aid workers, press, and those Israel deems acceptable to let in and out. Very rarely are Palestinians permitted exit and entry through this point, and months of prior coordination with the Israeli government is needed to cross at Erez.
Rafah is a bit less of a challenge…but a challenge nonetheless. Coordination still has to be made with the Egyptians for any international crossing of the border. A multi-entry visa must be obtained prior to landing in Cairo, and in order to have clearance for the Rafah border crossing, internationals need to present an invitation letter from a major NGO working in the Gaza Strip so the Egyptians know there’s a purpose for your travel.
Overall, the process is a bit complex and takes persistence and patience. People are turned away at Rafah all the time, and it can take weeks to enter in such cases. There’s never a guarantee with the crossing, and travelers should always be prepared to be denied entry.
Reaching Rafah from Egypt
Getting from Cairo to Rafah is not exceptionally difficult and can be done by bus, shared taxi, or private car. The only challenge in this part of the journey is that the Sinai is no longer very stable, and Westerners especially tend to stand out, so it’s important to be aware of the security situation. As a result, a private car with a trusted driver is always the best option.
Once at the border, the porters will rush to grab travelers’ bags and will literally rip them out of your hands, leaving you having to pay them to get them back. Because of this, the best advice is to hang on tightly to your bags and avoid the porters at all costs. Yell at them if absolutely necessary.
The situation with the porters is a prime example of how bad the economy is in Egypt and how desperate people are. Luckily, in Gaza, where the poverty is the same or worse, the desperation is nonexistent.
Welcome to Gaza
Once you’ve made it into Gaza, you’re in for exceptional hospitality. People will talk to you and immediately want to know where you’re from, what you’re doing, what brings you to Gaza.
Like anywhere else, don’t be overly generous with the information you share, and be aware of who you’re sharing details with. It’s easy to be polite and greet inquiries with a smile while keeping your responses vague.
In general, though, never be afraid to accept a warm cup of sweet tea in exchange for a chat, and you will learn the ins and outs of Gazan culture quickly. Ahlan wa sahlan — the phrase you’ll undoubtedly hear the most — Welcome!
The security situation in Gaza is complicated and can be sketchy at times, but like anywhere else in the world, smart travel goes a long way. As a general rule of thumb, never walk alone or travel around the Strip alone unless going a short distance and using a private car service.
Because so few foreigners visit Gaza, you’ll be noticed and paid close attention to — as such, it’s best to be discreet about where exactly you’re staying and to be aware of your surroundings.
If you ever feel unsafe, don’t be afraid to let the police know. They’ll take your concerns seriously and are truly looking out for you. The last thing they want to see is something happen to a guest in their territory.
The other major security concern is Israeli airstrikes. If for some reason there’s an escalation, you should stay in your hotel / residence after 9pm (strikes usually occur at night), and do your best to keep in touch with others about what’s happening.
Twitter is an awesome resource for this, and the youth in Gaza prove to be a better news source than the local channels. Leave your windows open a bit to avoid shattering, and have a bag ready to go with essentials should you need to leave.
Gaza’s overall culture is quite conservative, especially south of Gaza City. While there are many women who don’t cover their hair, they are still very modest, and are in the minority. Men and women don’t typically mix outside of their families, and some cafes have a men’s section and women’s / family section.
Be respectful in dress and in action. If you keep modesty in mind — even in the summer — you should be fine.
Long, loose clothing is standard, and women should keep everything below the collar bone covered except forearms, wrists, hands, ankles, and feet, depending on the weather and time of year. Headscarves aren’t necessary unless entering a mosque. For me, scarves were a favorite accessory in Gaza…just in case!
Aside from outward appearance, the most important thing to remember is that unlike many Western societies, some men and women do not shake hands with members of the opposite sex, so it’s best to wait until a hand is extended toward you before offering yours. It’s also not appropriate for members of the opposite sex to hug or kiss on the cheek, so be mindful of local customs.
Finally, alcohol and drugs are completely illegal in the Gaza Strip. Leave all that behind and respect the local culture and laws.
Fixers can be really helpful if you’re spending a short time in Gaza and need a guide or, more specifically, if you’ll be doing journalistic work and need someone to help you set up stories and translate.
Please note that while some people will help you out free of charge, it’s appropriate to pay if you can. Set expectations up front.
While this assistance is key, you can also do a lot of planning yourself with the great resource, Gaza Today.
I wouldn’t take street taxis, even if I was a man. Private taxis are 7-10 shekels within Gaza City, which is about twice as much as street taxis, if not more, but offer door-to-door service wherever you are. Hotels can help you arrange these if you don’t feel comfortable doing it on your own right away. Or, these are my recommendations:
- Imad Taxi – 082864000 (speaks English)
- Qahira Taxi – 082862299 (I used them — very friendly and reliable)
Hotels / accommodations
The following hotels are by the beach — with the exception of Marna House, which is next to Shifa Hospital — but all are within the Remal area of Gaza City, which is probably the safest area of Gaza and where international NGO staff are allowed to move more freely.
- Deira – $125-$185/night
- Marna House – ~$100 per night; telephone +970 8 282 2624
- Al Mathaf (outside Remal, but very safe and absolutely gorgeous) – $75-$85/night
- Grand Palace
- Beach Hotel
For longer stays, renting an apartment or small house is a great way to go. In my experience, rent ranged from $400 to $600+ per month, plus utilities (100 shekel or less per month). For help arranging long-term accommodations, email me at JuliaCHurley@gmail.com.
Food and a smoke
Check out this directory of great restaurants throughout Gaza from Gaza Today.
If you ever get an opportunity for a home-cooked meal, take it. In addition to some excellent food, you’ll get a glimpse into the family-oriented culture of Gaza, with meals being served family-style (and in generous portions for those who can afford it).
There are tons of little shops all over Gaza worth a stop for a quick falafel or shawarma sandwich. Eating like a local costs only a shekel or two at the cheapest and no more than 10 shekel for a fully loaded sandwich at the more expensive places.
When you’re ready to sit down, you may run into more Westernized menus, but traditional food isn’t hard to find. Try the hommus at Al Badia café in Gaza City, which serves the best in the Strip. I go for the hommus with meat, paired with a fresh lemon and mint.
For a good steak, Roots is the place to go. It’s a bit pricey by Gaza standards, and has outdoor seating and Christmas lights strewn throughout the garden.
Traditional water pipes (argileh / shisha / hookah / hubbly bubbly) are good to order at Mathaf and Beach Hotel. Beach sits right on the Mediterranean, while Mathaf has gardens and architecture you won’t find anywhere else in Gaza.
For sweets, definitely try Abu-Saoud in Remal in Gaza City. Dive into warm kunaffa, or sample the array of baklava and other homemade pastries.
And for the homesick, there’s Taboun, also in Remal — best pizza in town.
For the ‘real’ Gaza
Once you’ve eaten your way through Gaza’s restaurants and food stands, and hopefully been lucky enough to enjoy a home-cooked meal, there’s much to see and do in Gaza.
Although the aftermath of conflict is still apparent, much of the rubble from the most recent large-scale conflict (’08-’09) has been removed, which has been an important step for Gazans as they move forward. They don’t want to be reminded of the horrors of war, and they certainly don’t want war tourism coming to their beautiful home.
The Old City, in Gaza City, is the best area for markets. Be sure to bargain, and try to pick up some fresh fruits, vegetables, or dried fruits and spices (it’s almost all local since very little gets in and out of the Strip). This is also a great spot to see the ingenuity of Gazans who live under blockade, as they fix broken appliances and create new contraptions to work around the import restrictions they’re faced with.
Hit the Gold Market and watch young grooms-to-be picking out jewelry for their brides alongside their families. Look up for a view of the architecture that has withstood time and conflict.
Don’t miss the mosque next to the Gold Market, which has some beautiful murals on the ceilings, and ask if someone wouldn’t mind showing you around. Most times, they’re happy to oblige, as long as prayers aren’t underway.
Not far from the Old City is the Qasr Al-Basha, an old castle that’s now a girls school. I recommend photographing it in the late afternoon light.
You’ll also probably be greeted and watched by many of the children playing soccer on its grounds.
You can also visit the tunnels at Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. You’ll need a guide, preferably someone who knows a tunnel owner, and typically some sort of permission from the local authorities.
The tunnels are now a lifeline for the blockaded Gaza Strip, and witnessing the tunnel economy that’s boomed since the lockdown began in 2006 is essential to understanding life here — what people have been forced to do to survive, and how a very, very small few are becoming rich in the process.
My favorite “attraction” in Gaza is the sea. Just remember to dress modestly when swimming (women should be fully clothed). Make it a point to visit the mina, or port, and talk with the local fishermen. You may be invited in for a meal or at least a chat over tea.
Just 20 minutes south of Gaza City is Jouhirdeik, an area of farmland situated immediately north of the Maghazi refugee camp. Here, horses roam and Bedouin pass through grazing their small herds of sheep.
Try one of the many local produce markets, such as the one in the Beach Refugee Camp or the Old City, or you can shop right along the main street in Remal, Omar Al Mukhtar, which has dozens of little stores (and fantastic ice cream shops, too).
The Atfaluna Society for the Deaf and Al Noor (the UN Palestine Refugee Agency shop near the field office in the center of Gaza City) have incredibly beautiful local, handmade embroidery and crafts for sale. Atfaluna’s are produced by deaf residents of Gaza, and all proceeds go directly back to the organization. Al Noor’s are made by refugees in the many camps scattered throughout the Gaza Strip. Both are highly recommended.
The news is full of stories of fuel, water, and electricity shortages in Gaza, and there’s no exaggeration here. Electricity cuts are constant and sometimes last over eight hours a day, and while generators are rather commonplace, they’re loud and pose a fire hazard. Fuel can’t always be found to run them either.
Tap water is mostly salinated, polluted, and undrinkable, so bottled water is everywhere and a must.
There’s also the complex political situation, which, honestly, can’t be avoided. It’s something every traveler will draw their own conclusions about, but from one traveler to another: take in Gaza for what it is, remember the human side of what you witness, and let its politics become background noise to the overall experience.
Tourism aside, the most important part of Gaza is its people. Palestinians in Gaza are the only “tour guides” you can find, and if you keep an open mind and make the effort to understand, ask questions, and see Gaza for Gaza, the people will welcome you like family. The 1.7 million people that make up the families living in the refugee camps, the city highrises, the few large villas scattered around the Strip, or on the farms, will invite you in for tea and share their stories with you.
If nothing else, a trip to Gaza will leave you asking questions, and any stereotypes you may have entered with will be quickly discarded at the border.
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Julia C. Hurley
Julia C. Hurley believes in being the change you wish to see in the world. A non-profit professional and human rights advocate - with a passion for travel, food, and yoga - she lectures, blogs at http://juliachurley.blogspot.com, tweets like a mad woman @JuliaCHurley, and raises funds for organizations related to children, education, and development in the Middle East while trying to open American eyes to the realities of the region she has come to love.