GAZA CITY (Reuters) - In the build-up to the one-year anniversary of the Gaza border protests that opened up a deadly new front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Reuters photographer Dylan Martinez visited Gaza for the first time.
As someone who had never set eyes on Gaza, his assignment was to use those unfamiliar eyes to record life beyond the daily drumbeat of violence in the blockaded Palestinian territory.
The mood has become more tense in recent weeks as the March 30 anniversary nears, with trails of Palestinian rockets and Israeli missiles again appearing in the skies above.
Martinez did not know what to expect after he crossed through Israel’s fortified checkpoint and past a long caged walkway and parallel road leading to a dilapidated Palestinian checkpoint at the other end.
“We have a great team of photographers and journalists in Gaza whose main task, really, is to photograph the protest, the clashes between Israel and Gaza,” said Martinez, 49, a 28-year Reuters veteran who has covered Europe, Asia and the Americas and is currently based in London.
“My remit, I think, was to do pretty much anything but that. Because everyone has seen that side of Gaza.”
Gaza is a 139-square-mile (360-square-kilometre) coastal strip situated between Tel Aviv and Sinai and is home to around two million Palestinians, two thirds of them refugees.
It has been governed by the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas since shortly after Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005.
With its armed brigades and thousands of police and security men on the streets, Hamas controls Gaza’s interior as tightly as Israeli soldiers, gunboats and warplanes control most of Gaza’s perimeter, with Egyptian walls and watchtowers along the eight-mile southern border.
Accompanied by a Reuters assistant photographer from Gaza City, Martinez travelled the strip, photographing it at every hour of the day and night over a 10-day period.
One of the most powerful scenes was a patch of waste land between a school and a mosque where children were playing.
“These kids were burning some cardboard, they had trenches, they were throwing sandballs so they weren’t hurting each other. And I said, ‘Oh, what are you guys doing?’ and they said, ‘Oh, we are playing Jews and Arabs.’” The image, he said, “will probably stay with me forever”.
Parts of Gaza, to his surprise, resembled an underdeveloped version of California’s famed Venice Beach - with glorious Mediterranean sunsets, bathers and skateboarders, but often with crumbling buildings and rubbish heaps as part of the backdrop.
In vehicle scrapyards in the north, he saw stacks of discarded cars. With 53 percent of Gazans living in poverty, according to a United Nations report in December, valuable items such as cars are cannibalized for every accessory.
The same “use everything” dynamic could be seen at the harbour, where even the smallest fish discarded from a catch were gathered to be sold to poorer families.
On Friday, while youths were protesting at the Gaza-Israel border, Martinez went to the beach to see what was going on.
“I really understood that not 2 million people had gone to the border to clash with the Israelis. What else were they doing?” he said.
“I found a bunch of skaters there with, I don’t know, I think they had one or two boards between them, some pretty ropey roller blades...They were just busy filming themselves trying to do flips, trying to do tricks, things like that.”
After the sun goes down and the streets empty, pool halls and bakeries continue to operate through the darkness imposed by night, and by Gaza’s constant power cuts.
Martinez was warned many times by officials and bystanders on the street, in a more cautionary than menacing manner, not to photograph Hamas checkpoints and military installations.
Often, he did not realize what the buildings were because their exteriors gave no sign of what might have been within. Otherwise, Martinez encountered few problems.
“There’s a real sense of being enclosed. You can stand on the beach looking out toward the horizon and see this fantastic sun and crystal blue waters, a sense (that) you are part of the world and there is everything around you,” he said.
“You look to the right, you turn one way, and there is Israel and you can go down this road but in a car it was taking 20 minutes. You look the other way, there is Egypt. You go down the road there, there’s a blockade, you can’t go any further.
“You look inland, and there in the background as well is the horizon, is Israel. And you can’t go that way.
“So there is always a feeling you can only go so far one way. And the other way. I did feel it. There is a sort of feeling of enclosure.”
Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich