The horse leaps into the air, obediently following the young woman’s command to jump the fence. Every so often the dull thud of his hoofs hitting the ground coincides with an air strike. Nobody aside from me seems to notice when it does, but, then again, nobody else seems to be paying any attention to the air strikes at all, least of all the horse.
Gaza feels normal, and that’s the strangest thing about it. People are going about their days – buying clothes, playing football on the beach, eating ice-cream with friends. Car horns honk relentlessly. At the Faisal Equestrian Centre young girls in jodhpurs ride horses while their parents sip coffee.
In the distance is the war. Mortars, rockets and missiles fly overhead; from Gaza into Israel, from Israel into Gaza. Below, the people get on with their lives.
The peppering of the afternoon sky with artillery fire is so unremarkable that nobody appears to notice it. The young girl on horseback doesn’t miss a single step. When I ask our driver about it, he appears not yet to have registered that it is happening.
This is just a regular Thursday.
There is a serene madness to Gaza. It is simultaneously the most normal and the most dysfunctional place you’ve ever been. People smile in the streets but you sense that inside they are crying or screaming, or probably both. That is Gaza’s great trick: masking its madness behind a veneer of normality.
There are two realities to Gaza: the one you see, and the one that actually is.
The illusion begins at the Erez border crossing. Erez is spacious, modern and designed to accommodate large volumes of commuter traffic. It’s also completely deserted, because while Erez was built to facilitate large numbers of people, the blockade of Gaza ensures that it does not.
The illusion and the reality.
Inside Gaza, the pretence continues. The streets are vibrant. For a moment you’re embarrassed that you thought they would be anything else. At first, only the little things give it away.
You notice that there are no planes in the sky and you remember that there is a blockade on Gaza’s airspace, as well as its sea and land ports.
You see people sitting on steps staring into the distance and you remember that Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world.
You spot the bags of maize resting outside warehouses and you remember that 80 per cent of Gaza’s population receives humanitarian aid.
You realise that in Gaza all is not what it seems.
Under the shade down at the pier a young man sits under a sky where no planes can fly and stares out to a sea where no ships can sail. Behind him, the far side of Gaza’s narrow sliver, stand eight metre high walls that form a semi-circle, locking him and his 1.8 million fellow inhabitants into this tiny parcel of land.
Our presence peeks his interest. He walks over and tells us his problems.
He is 22. He has no job, no income and no possibility of leaving. His wife gave birth to twins last year but one of them died. He doesn’t elaborate, although it’s not hard to wonder whether given a functioning health service this would have been the outcome.
“My life here is like a prison,” he says. “There is nothing for me here.”
He says that sometimes he wants to die, and I believe him.
Less than two kilometres away, Sr. Bridget Tighe stands in a narrowly lane. Doorways line her path. Behind each doorway is a family, each one packed into one or two rooms. Sr. Bridget is from Sligo but for 18 months has called Gaza home.
She runs a health centre for children. Many young people here are severely traumatised. Any child in Gaza over the age of 8 has already survived three major wars. The last one, in 2014, saw 2,200 people killed over the space of 54 days.
But the trauma here runs deeper than the mental scars of war. This is a trauma borne from being trapped.
Gaza is less than one quarter the size of Leitrim but is home to a population equivalent to that of Northern Ireland. Very few of them are eligible for permits to leave. The vast majority are trapped into a tiny strip of land that is crumbling at the seams.
Sr. Bridget says that people aren’t angry any more, they are just depressed. Speak with people and that becomes evident. You mention that you are returning to Jerusalem in the morning and their eyes fill with sadness. It is an hour up the road but it may as well be another world.
We meet one young man, a Christian, who was granted a temporary visa to visit Bethlehem during Easter. He diverted to Tel Aviv. What did he do there? “Drank beer on the beach,” he says with just about the biggest grin you can imagine.
A black sense of humour prevails. We tell one young man that we hope to meet him again next time we are in Gaza. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’m not going anywhere”.
Back on the beach, a group of young people jump from walls, performing elaborate somersaults as they fall into the sand. This is Gaza’s Parkour Club; the strip’s chapter of the urban sport which sees people leap across buildings unaided by safety equipment. During the war they did it from rubble but these days the beach is their playground.
It’s a dangerous hobby – one of their friends was recently evacuated to hospital in Israel after breaking virtually every bone in his body – but it’s not hard to see why they do it. Sport is an escape. Each jump and each twist is cheered by an enthusiastic crowd. For a moment, at least, they are normal teenagers on a regular beach enjoying themselves.
Each time they jump, they leap into the illusion of what Gaza could be. Each time they land, they crash back into the reality of what it is.
Sometimes they land just as the air strikes hit. But they don’t seem to notice. Or perhaps they just no longer care.