The Washington Diplomat / February 2009
By Larry Luxner
Relatively few Americans know much about the Gaza Strip, and even fewer have actually been there.
Houston-based photojournalist Dick Doughty not only lived in the impoverished terrority for an extended period; he also wrote a book about his experiences. The author says he's "horrified and mystified" by what's going on in Gaza these days.
"I don't know what Israel's goal is. I can't even begin to guess," Doughty told the Diplomat in a Jan. 14 phone interview. "But I do know from my experience that people on the outside routinely underestimate the level of desperation that many people in Gaza feel. It's the least free place in the world. People cannot come or go, and they haven't been able to for years. Those who live in free societies have a hard time imagining what this does psychologically to people."
Doughty's book, "Gaza: Legacy of Occupation — A Photographer's Journey," is based on the four months he spent in Gaza in 1993. He returned the following year for five weeks, and has visited Gaza four times since then, most recently in 1999.
Doughty lived in both Gaza City and Khan Yunis, and worked on a daily basis in refugee camps — gathering information, interviewing local residents and taking pictures. Many of those photos can be seen among the 202 pages of his book. Under Doughty's name on the cover is that of co-author and host Mohammed el-Aydi, without whom the book would not have been possible.
"Back then, it was a much more open situation," he said. "The Israelis, as an occupying authority, kept their eye on journalists, but freelancers could pretty much come and go, and the Palestinians tended to welcome them. A few years later, all that changed."
During his time in Gaza, Doughty had no contacts whatsoever with Israelis, mainly because it was too risky for his hosts. Nor did he have much contact with Hamas, since he wasn't there as a political reporter but rather to chronicle the daily life of average Gazans.
"When I was living in Gaza, people from the Islamist groups were more difficult to associate with on a daily basis, because they tended to be more anti-Western," he said. "Those who would enjoy associating with an American journalist like me tended to be more secular."
Doughty, 50, pointed out that "plenty of people in Gaza despise Hamas," which the United States and several other countries consider a terrorist group. But others are loyal to it, for the simple reason that Hamas has improved the quality of their lives.
"Hamas built its reputation in the Strip based on its organizational abilities to deliver social services," he said. "It's also well-documented that Israel covertly funded Hamas as a wedge against Fatah. People in Gaza knew this, but it didn't really seem to bother them much."
Since the current fighting began, he said, "some [in Gaza] will be more sympathetic to Hamas. But my guess is that if they're not ideologically Islamist, it'll be a pragmatic sympathy, and they will align with Hamas only because 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.' Others will be driven even farther from Hamas, because they'll see Hamas as having provoked the fighting."
We asked Doughty if he believes Israeli claims that Hamas gunmen use children as human shields. "The short answer is yes. The second answer is, that's no excuse."
"Even for someone like me who lived in Gaza and has visited there more than half a dozen times, what's going on is pretty much beyond my imagination. This is the only conflict situation in the world where the people who are being attacked have nowhere to run. They're physically confined between the sea and the fences. Unlike Darfur, there's no Chad to escape into."
He added that because Gaza is so densely populated, it's nearly impossible for Hamas to build any kind of guerrilla or military infrastructure without being spotted by the Israelis. "So they have to find sympathizers among the people. I know from experience that there are certainly people who are willing to do this, but others get very upset if they learn Hamas is planning something in a house nearby."
Doughty said he understands the anger being vented throughout the Muslim world against Egypt, which has closed the Rafah border crossing to all but the most urgent Palestinian humanitarian cases. However, he said these things need to be put in their proper context.
"I can't speak for the Egyptian government, but it is obviously very hurtful to the people of Gaza," he said. "Surely, measures of culpability can be assigned to lots of different actors, but there's only one actor, Israel, using its modern military machine against a very lightly armed, captive population — and that's the moral lens I view it through."