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Many associate Gaza with intractable conflict, but as Julia C. Hurley explains, it’s still a place to visit.
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.

A multi-entry visa must be obtained prior to landing in Cairo…internationals need to present an invitation letter from a major NGO working in the Gaza Strip

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.

A proud fisherman, Khamis Abu Sadiq, invited me and friends for lunch. Photo: Author

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!

Security

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.

Culture

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.

alcohol and drugs are completely illegal in the Gaza Strip. Leave all that behind and respect the local culture and laws.

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

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.

Car services

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)

View of the Gaza Port. Photo: Author

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.

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.

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.

Girls celebrating breaking a world record at an UNRWA Summer Games event. Photo: Author

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.

For souvenirs

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.

Additional challenges

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.

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.

The people

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.

About The Author

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.

  • http://matadornetwork.com/author/emilyarent/ EHA

    Bookmarked. This was incredibly useful, Julia, and such a thorough account of all the aspects a traveler should consider. I especially enjoyed the insights on the “tunnel culture” in Gaza. Thank you!

  • http://roadiswheretheheartis.wordpress.com/about/ Priyanka Kher

    This is such a well written piece. Simple, Informative and open. Very nice.

  • http://twitter.com/JuliaCHurley Julia C. Hurley

    Thank you! For more in depth information on Gaza, check out my blog
    where I wrote about the experience for 3 months:
    http://juliachurley.blogspot.com  

  • Dan

    Do they also give you a tour of their rocket factories and elementary school’s where they teach how to kill JEWS? How about their suicide bombing exhibits with fake (Israeli) body parts scattered all around?

    If you missed that you wasted your trip, you should go back!

    http://www2.ljworld.com/photos/2001/sep/24/22442/

    • http://twitter.com/JuliaCHurley Julia C. Hurley

       Dan, while I respect your opinions, I think you’re being blinded by fear and prejudice. That couldn’t be further from the reality. I lived there for 3 months and not one person ever uttered a word of hatred. One child who I interviewed after he was injured during an Israeli airstrike, when asked what he would tell an Israeli, simply said to me that he would tell them he wished this would stop. Nothing more. No hate, no violence. Just make it stop. The overwhelming majority want peace and are tired of the rockets and the airstrikes. They don’t teach hate, they teach love and courage. I encourage you to read my blog http://juliachurley.blogspot.com for more of the reality on the ground. I advocate for peace and understanding. I used to be blinded by fear and prejudice. I used to think Arabs and Muslims wanted to kill me, and then I spent time there and learned that it couldn’t be further from the truth. http://insideislam.wisc.edu/index.php/archives/8273

      • Amelia

        Thank you for that response, Julia! You make me believe in people again.

        • David Hicks

          Thank you for your compassionate response here Julia.
          Your experience mirrors mine in the West Bank of Occupied Palestine.
          Thank you for letting us know that travel to Gaza is not impossible !

          • http://twitter.com/JuliaCHurley Julia C. Hurley

             Thank you to both Amelia and David. I’m glad the piece had a positive impact :)

  • Jewel

    Absolutely spot on ….perfect, bless you x

  • Whitney

    Julia,
    It seems from your article that the only chance of entering is if you’re directly affiliated with an NGO or some other similar organization.  Is there any chance for tourists entering from Egypt, or due to the current situation, is this still far from reality? Thank you in advance for your response! 

    • http://twitter.com/JuliaCHurley Julia C. Hurley

       Hi Whitney,

      Unfortunately, Gaza is not a “tourist” destination. The only way to obtain entry is to either be affiliated with an NGO, have an invitation from one (as I did), or to be a Palestinian with a huweya, or ID card. Even then, entry isn’t guaranteed. The Egyptian crossing is by no means open, and only about 500 people are allowed to pass through on a daily basis. This is important for people to know so that they see this is an ongoing siege, and there is no freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza. Realistically, Gazans don’t want “tourists” per say right now. Everyone there told me they wanted people to visit, but many activists have been coming for purposes of seeing how war torn it is and all they ever seem to want to see are bombed out buildings….they’re even disappointed when they realize most have been cleared. While it is important to highlight that part of Gaza, war tourism is a horrible thing, and the people in Gaza want the world to see them for what they are….human beings…not victims.

      Anyway, sorry for the disappointing response to that, but thanks for your question and thanks for reading!

      Julia

  • http://www.chasingtheunexpected.com/ Angela

    I’ll be honest, when I read the title I thought this was one of the many articles that appear in Israeli papers claiming that in Gaza there is no blockade and that it’s just a common holiday destination. I’m glad I was wrong. You describe well both the situation and Palestinian hospitality.
    I visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, it’s terrible how they are forced to live. I think many people both in the US and in Europe are on denial because it’s just more convenient to refuse that our governments are allowing this. And beside fear and prejudice, their opinions are distorted by misleading news and reports.

    • http://twitter.com/JuliaCHurley Julia C. Hurley

       I’m glad it surprised you and thanks for reading. The blockade and siege of Gaza is ongoing, horrendous, and making life even worse for Gazans today than right after Cast Lead. While a very very small number are comfortable, it is by no means the paradise Israeli papers try to paint. That’s simply false.

      I was chatting with a scholar the other day who has spent a lot of time in the camps in Lebanon and from what I understand, they’re as bad as Gaza, if not worse. It’s truly sad people can’t see the real picture and the disaster that has been caused by bad policies.

      • Guest

        I think a large part of the reason Israeli and Western papers report things like shopping malls and other superfluous luxuries being built in Gaza is because it shows how truly wasteful those who “govern” are being. Yes,  there is a partial nudge (right or wrong) to the idea that life might not be so bad in Gaza as a political point, but more than anything it speaks to the idea that those in power are corrupt and doing nothing to try and build infrastructure or provide basic necessities. They build shopping malls instead and try to project their military strength against Israel. In the West Bank the most obvious problems are similar. Trash lines the streets because there is no trash pick up. Kids have nothing to do, there are no parks or soccer fields. There is a very nice memorial in Ramallah to Yasser Arafat, but this makes sense considering what a wealthy man he was when he died. In case you don’t get the subtext, Arafat lined his pockets with millions and millions of dollars which was supposed to go these types of things and most of his colleagues were no better.  
        Kuddos to you for trying to leave politics out of this and I agree a focus on people is important because not all are hateful and most just want to live their lives.  Your blog certainly shows how you really feel, however, and you seem to give the Palestinian leadership a free pass. There is a much uglier side that you intentionally leave out or haven’t been exposed to.  I would encourage you to watch the documentary called “Precious Life”.  It will at least show a more complex picture from the otherside. I would also remeber people want you to sympathize with their cause, so they will say things that will make you do that (an Israeli will say the same thing). I am also at a complete lost for words on how Palestinian refuge camps in Lebanon are in anyway the fault of the US or Europe @497c03c47bf741c22566b46354215de2:disqus ?Did the US bar Palestinians in Lebanon from serving in nearly any profession or own property? Did Europe restrict their movements outside   of the refugee camps?  We now have generations that were born on Lebanese soil, yet no citizenship. Is this the US or Europe’s fault? Israel’s? The PLO moved to Lebanon after being kicked out of Jordan (where the Jordanians reportedly killed more Palestinians than the Israelis ever have). They further exacerbated the Lebanese Civil War then drew in Israel by using the country to launch attacks against the north of Israel.My point is this: It’s easy to blame the Israelis for everything. But it’s lazy, naive, and it helps no one.

        • http://www.chasingtheunexpected.com/ Angela

           Hi “Guest”. Far from me justifying or denying Lebanese fault on the grim conditions Palestinians are forced to in their camps (about which I will be writing on a post devoted to this), but why are they there? Why has the West accepted, instead of condemning, the (ongoing) ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the hand of Israel, of which the refugee camps are a direct consequence? Now, denying this is, to me, lazy and naive.

        • David Hicks

          Hi ” Guest,”   Indeed, as Angela asks. Why are they there?
          Answer : Palestinian refugees are where they are as refugees because they were driven out of Palestine by the Zionist’s stated policy of ethnic cleansing. 80% of the population of the Gaza strip are refugees from other parts of Occupied Palestine down the many decades.

          Think on that for a minute Mr/Ms Guest.

          There is one teeny part of Bangladesh that has a slightly higher population density than Gaza. I live in a city of exactly twice the population of the  whole Gaza strip. On a very hot Saturday morning in Feb. 2009 , 174 human beings were burned to death a very few Km’s north of my front door – some whom I knew . Our state government handed out  $20,000 to every family that lost a home , within one week , no questions asked. Counselling, equipment, material help of all sorts poured in. The recovery continues today – three years later.

          Over a 22 day period from Boxing Day 2008 , the Israeli military slaughtered EIGHT  times that number of human beings in Gaza – 1417 people, including 500+ children. Operation cast lead ’twas called. [ 13 Israelis died . Four by 'friendly fire!' ]
          You will have seen the ‘pretty pictures’ of white phosphorous raining down on human beings running in their streets. You may even have seen videos of the white phosphorous burning deeply within the flesh of live human beings. From 2006 until a very few months ago, not one bag of cement was allowed into Gaza by the Israelis. Not one bag.
           [ Check out Wikepedia : Gaza War ...  aka  Gaza Slaughter].

          Many  people people describe Israel’s response as disproportionate.
          How would you describe it Mr/Ms Guest.
          And yes mickey-mouse rockets are still being fired from Gaza into southern Israel.I say long live the resistance. Justice first , then peace in Palestine. I travelled – & lived & studied – for months in the West Bank of Occupied Palestine, I did not speak with one person who had angry words to direct at Israeli people. Not one word of hatred or anger towards Israelis or Jews or zionists did I hear.I talked to countless dozens of people & not one of them had NOT had their lives seriously & negatively impacted on by the behaviours of the Jewish State.

          I suggest you visit Occupied Palestine Mr/Ms Guest. I guarantee you will never regret or forget the experience !

  • http://www.themostalive.com/ Ash | themostalive.com

    Great article with some helpful tips I ll be sure to use when I try and see Gaza for myself! The middle East is an amazing part of the world which I cant wait to go back to.

    Thanks for the post!

  • http://villasspain.clubvillamar.co.uk/findAllVillas.php?region=Ibiza villas in ibiza

    This information is just forcing me to visit this post.  I really want to visit this places to see the beautiful culture of this place.

  • concerned

    Thank you for sharing with us your experience, which conforts me in my belief that a minority of wrongdoers excell at poisoning the life of all the rest.

    • http://twitter.com/JuliaCHurley Julia C. Hurley

      It’s that way all around….on both sides of this conflict. The thing is, the siege is completely illegal. Collective punishment of a population is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, regardless of their leadership.

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    This was amazingly useful, Julia, and such a thorough consideration of all the factors a visitor should consider.

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    I think most of the reason Israeli and European documents review things like departmental stores and other unnecessary splendid luxuries being designed in Gaza.

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    Excellent content with some beneficial suggestions I ll be sure to use when I try and see Gaza for myself! The center Eastern is an awesome country which I cant delay to go back again to.

  • I love Medinat Yisrael

    Hello, Ms. Hurley,
    I would like to be as respectful as possible, so please do not take this the wrong way, but I would like to quote what you said below: “They don’t teach hate.” Well, can you please explain this to me?

    http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4241588,00.html

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    In addition, there’s the complex governmental situation, which, genuinely, can’t be prevented.

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    The information is complete of experiences of petrol, water, and power shortages in Gaza, and there is no overstatement here. Electricity reduces are continuous and sometimes last over eight time a day, and while turbines are rather popular, they are noisy and present a flame threat. Fuel cannot always be discovered to run them either.

  • http://www.globaltowncar.com/ Seattle Airport Transportation

    You can also visit the channels at Gaza’s southeast boundary with The red sea. You will need a guide, usually someone who knows a tube owner, and generally some sort of authorization from the local government bodies.

  • Iman Alma

    lovely

  • Bashir Solangi

    Excellent info about Gaza and Palestinians.

    • Syed Raza

      V good information. I always want to visit Gaza, but…….

  • Margot Zaparta

    Thank you for informations:) Gaza is about people and I want to meet them all:)

  • Donna Schwarz-Nielsen

    As someone due to visit Gaza next month as part of the Code Pink
    delegation for International Women’s day, I thank you for an interesting
    & informative article.
    Many thanks for sharing.

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