TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Israel announced Sunday that it will ease its blockade of Gaza, expanding the goods allowed into that Palestinian territory. The decision came three weeks after a flotilla challenging the blockade was attacked by Israeli commandos. Nine people aboard were killed.
That commando attack was criticized by many countries around the world, and focused attention on conditions in Gaza. Israel began the blockade in June 2007, after Hamas gained political control of Gaza.
That was a year after the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner by Palestinians in a cross-border raid and held in Gaza. Israel has been trying to get him back ever since, and his imprisonment has become a rallying point in Israel. Friday is the fourth anniversary of Shalit's abduction.
My guest, Lawrence Wright, spent three weeks in Gaza last fall, and wrote an article about what he observed in the New Yorker. He's a staff writer for the magazine. He's also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11."
Lawrence Wright, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now that Israel is easing the blockade, what do you know of what will be allowed in that was not allowed in during the full blockade?
Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (Staff Writer, The New Yorker; Author, "The Looming Tower: al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11"): They say they're going to allow, you know, unlimited food and other kinds of clothing materials and so on. I think that they're still very concerned about items that could be construed as having a use in weapons or building bunkers; for instance, concrete and construction materials. That's been a hang-up all along. So this is going to be a difficult point for the Israelis.
GROSS: Now, I think they said they were allowing in construction materials, but they're not going to allow in certain dual-use materials. So you think that some construction materials will be considered dual-use and still not be allowed in?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, for instance, I was told by a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces that concrete was not allowed in the past. Why? Because it might be used to construct bunkers for Hamas leaders, and also, it's used as ballast in these homemade rockets that are fired into Israel. And so for that reason, there's been a ban on concrete, which is essential, of course, to building houses.
GROSS: What did Gaza look like when you were there late last year, during the full blockade, when construction materials were included in the blockade - in other words, they were not allowed in?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it looked like the war had just ended. You know, there was no reconstruction at all. About 20 percent of the housing stock in the whole country was fully or partially destroyed, and that included, you know, some 240 schools and a number of hospitals. And it was quite shocking because the place was just riddled with artillery shells and bullet holes and houses that had been bulldozed.
It was, you know, the northern area, which was the industrial district, it was pretty much leveled by bulldozers. So all of the industrial base had essentially been destroyed.
GROSS: Now, you said that one of the paradoxes of the blockade was that Hamas rocket builders and bomb makers could smuggle what they needed through the tunnels, but aid organizations had to account for every brick or sack of flour.
Mr. WRIGHT: This is a huge quandary for the Israelis because Hamas could bring in practically anything that they wanted through the tunnels, and they had the money to do so. But ordinary people in Gaza were really impoverished by this blockade.
So getting access to ordinary requirements of daily life - you know, food clothing, that kind of thing, medicines - was much more difficult. So it really had the opposite effect, I think, of what the blockade was intended to do.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned the tunnels. Would you describe what the tunnels are like and how they operate?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, the tunnels are in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, right next to the Egyptian border, which is nine miles long. You know, we're talking about sand, essentially. So they bore down 30, 40, 50 feet, straight down, and then they turn the corner and head to Egypt.
And they come out on the other side, usually in some predesignated house; like, they'll come up inside the kitchen or something like that. So you wouldn't be able to see the actual exit hole for the tunnel.
And goods are brought into the Rafah-Egyptian side. And they're brought into the house; they're put into the hole in the ground. They're sent down, using a winch, down to where the tunnel floor greets the lateral part of the tunnel. And then the smugglers haul it across - sometimes using electrical winches to drag it through the hole - and it's brought up on the other side.
GROSS: So on both sides, are the entrances and exits in somebody's home?
Mr. WRIGHT: No, no. When the on the Gaza side, it's quite open. There were hundreds of tunnel operators. In fact, this was the only construction activity I saw when I was in Gaza. The tunnel operators were, at that time, reconstructing the tunnels that had been bombed during Operation Cast Lead by the Israeli Air Force.
GROSS: And this was in late 2008, that operation, that three-week-long operation.
Mr. WRIGHT: Right. The air war began in December of 2008, and the tunnels were one of the very first targets. So many of them were destroyed - and not all of them were - but the reconstruction activity was quite brisk.
It became the major source of Hamas' tax revenue because they taxed the goods that came through the tunnels.
GROSS: That's how open they were on the Gaza side?
Mr. WRIGHT: That's how yeah. You know, they had tents covering the holes, but it looked like a prairie-dog town all along the Egyptian border. There were hundreds of guys there, hard at work on various tunnels.
GROSS: So have the tunnels been the most functioning part of the economy in Gaza?
Mr. WRIGHT: Really, the major part of the functioning economy. The legitimate economy had been pretty much wiped out, and so it was mainly smugglers and black-marketeers who were making a living there.
GROSS: And from what you could tell in your three weeks' reporting from Gaza, how much of it was - coming through those tunnels at that time - was weapons-oriented, and how much of it was, you know, like food, medicine, construction materials, things like that?
Mr. WRIGHT: It would be impossible for me to judge. I was told that, by a Hamas rocketeer(ph), that they were rebuilding, and they were getting new materials in. You know, how much of that, I don't know.
GROSS: Rebuilding what, rocket-making stuff, or rebuilding homes?
Mr. WRIGHT: No, they were rebuilding the rockets. It was clear that nobody was rebuilding their homes. But they were able to get materials and perhaps actual rockets - pre-manufactured rockets - in through the tunnels. There's no question that they were doing that.
GROSS: How do you get a rocket through a fairly small tunnel?
Mr. WRIGHT: Terry, you're misconceiving of the tunnel.
GROSS: OK, they're not fairly small, huh?
Mr. WRIGHT: They bring automobiles through there. They bring cows. It's you know, the cars, of course, they are dissembled and reassembled on the other side, but they are substantial, some of these tunnels. They're not just you can walk through them. You don't have to crawl through them.
GROSS: So with the Israeli blockade easing, do you think the tunnels are likely to stay fully operational?
Mr. WRIGHT: The tunnels are going to go away. The Egyptians were putting a halt to it. The Egyptians had decided that they were going to dig a new wall along their nine-mile border that would be sunk 60 to 90 feet into the soil to block these tunnels.
So they were drawing an underground curtain across the border, and it was nearly finished when the flotilla arrived. And politically, the situation dramatically changed.
GROSS: Now, why does Egypt want to lay this underground curtain that will make tunneling impossible?
Mr. WRIGHT: Egypt's main goal is to make sure that Gaza stays Israel's problem. For one thing, Hamas is really the creation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian government is terrified of contamination. The last thing they want is blowback from Hamas into Egypt.
And so they've been cooperating with the Israeli authorities and maintaining this blockade.
GROSS: So Israel has been under attack from Hamas. Are you saying that Egypt is afraid it could be under attack from Hamas as well?
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. In fact, Egypt has had a historic problem keeping the lid on its Islamist groups. It's been a very, very bloody war since the late '80s. And the last thing the Egyptians want to see is any resurgence of that kind of violence. And the most likely source of it, in their opinion, would be through Hamas coming back into Egypt through the Muslim Brotherhood.
GROSS: My guest is Lawrence Wright. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker and spent three weeks in Gaza late last year. We'll talk more about Gaza and Israel after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lawrence Wright. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker. Because Israel has said it's easing its blockade of Gaza, we invited him to talk with us about Gaza. He spent three weeks there at the end of 2009, and wrote about it for the New Yorker.
Was it hard for you, as a journalist, to get into Gaza?
Mr. WRIGHT: No. It wasn't that difficult. I made application for a press pass, and I told the Israeli authorities that I planned to write about Gaza. I had no opposition to it.
There were, you know, no other reporters - maybe one other reporter there. Very few foreigners come, very few political figures. It was a pretty much forgotten corner of the world when I was there.
GROSS: Since the Israeli blockade of Gaza is being eased, this would be a good time to hear your impressions of life in Gaza. Your article in the New Yorker was titled "Captives." I think that tells us something about what you thought of life there.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, Gaza is a strip 25 miles long, seven miles wide at its widest point, and there are a million and a half people inside it. Most of them have never been outside of it. Two-thirds of the kids under 18 have never been outside of Gaza's 140 square miles.
Many of the Gazans haven't even ever been to the West Bank. So they don't really know anything about the rest of the occupied territories. It's a very isolated population.
It's not uneducated. They have a very high rate of literacy. In the mid-'90s, their poverty rate was almost equivalent to that in the United States. So it was a fairly well-educated, rather prosperous place, and that prosperity is completely gone now.
Much of it depended on work in Israel, and in the mid-'80s, 100,000 Gazans were going to work in Israel every day, and tens of thousands of Israelis were coming to Gaza for the seafood and the beaches. It was a much more prosperous, open place - with a lot more promise than it has now.
GROSS: Now you describe Gaza as a sea of children. You say the average woman has 5.1 children, one of the highest birthrates in the world, and more than half of the population - is that right? - are children.
Mr. WRIGHT: More than half are 18 years old or younger. And yeah, when you're there, you're just overwhelmed by how youthful the population is. And this is a very worrisome fact to the Israelis, who often talk about the demographic time bomb - kids just all over the place.
And there's very little for them to do. You know, when I was there, the blockade included a ban on toys, and many of the sports facilities had been bombed by the Israelis. The Islamists had burned down all of the movie theaters in the '80s, and the main diversion for the children was the beach.
But the beach, it was stained and stinking from the fact that they dump 20 million gallons a day of raw and partially treated sewage offshore. So you could smell it, and the spare parts...
GROSS: Who is the "they" that you refer to?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, this is the Gazan sewage plant was destroyed in Operation Cast Lead. So now, the sewage simply just streams out some of it is treated, much of it is not, and it is just offloaded in a pipe into the Mediterranean.
And it is - to me, one of the starkest contrasts was walking along the beach in Tel Aviv, which has just beautiful, you know, these topaz water, just exquisite. And that same ocean, only 50 or 60 miles south of there, is discolored and ugly, and full of kids - and fishermen out there with their nets, trying to catch fish. It was a pretty unsettling sight.
GROSS: So if half of the population in Gaza is under 18, are these young people getting an education? Are schools functioning now?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, 200 and some-odd schools were damaged or destroyed in the war. So it's difficult for them. But they are still getting an education. There is despite all the troubles, you know, there is a life. Kids go to school. The government functions in you know, I mean, the streets are kept swept, despite the fact that the garbage trucks had been destroyed. They're using donkey carts and so on.
So there's the semblance of life. But what struck me - it had a pre-industrial quality to it. There are cars. There are not very many, but you see many donkey taxis and that kind of thing. It has really been taken back to another age.
GROSS: Remind us how the Israeli blockade of Gaza was started, how and why.
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there were two instances. One was in June, 2006, a young Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit was abducted from a crossing called Kerem Shalom, in southwestern Israel. And since then, he's been held captive.
The Israelis surrounded the strip, sealed off the borders, went rummaging through the residential areas, looking for him. Four hundred Gazans were killed in the next several months during this, and the Israelis said they weren't going to leave until they had recaptured Gilad Shalit. But by November, it became pretty obvious that wasn't going to happen.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The elections were held in January 2006.]
Then in 2007, there was an election in the Palestinian territories, and to the astonishment of practically the entire world community, Hamas won.
Now this was really shocking, especially in Israel, because Hamas is dedicated to the elimination of Israel. And when in June of that year, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and expelled the Fatah government - which after all, had been defeated in the election but was refusing to concede power - the Israelis declared Gaza a hostile entity, as if the entire population of Gaza was affiliated with Hamas. And that's when they began imposing this very strict blockade.
GROSS: When you were reporting from Gaza, did you also go to Israel and see what it was like for Israelis, who often came under rocket attack from Gaza?
Mr. WRIGHT: Oh, yeah. I spent time on the borders and especially in Sderat, which is there's actually a rocket museum there, behind the police station, where they keep the carcasses of these old rockets that they've picked up.
And it's impressive. There are hundreds and hundreds of them, and some of them had been signed by the rocket designer, and some are, you know, have greater range than others. That's, I think, one of the problems that precipitated the war, is that the Israelis began to sense that the range of these rockets was getting greater, and the destructive power was greater.
So one thing they wanted to do was to shut off that barricade of rockets that were coming after them.
But the thing is, Terry, you know, at times, the rockets had essentially stopped. I mean, there was a truce before Operation Cast Lead that had pretty much throttled the rockets that were flying into southern Israel.
And unfortunately, both sides violated the spirit of that: Hamas, by trying to capture another Israeli soldier; and the Israelis, by not easing the blockade, as Hamas had said that they had assumed they would. So Hamas refused to extend the truce, and that's what led to Operation Cast Lead.
GROSS: What has the state of rocket attacks been like during the blockade?
Mr. WRIGHT: Very few attacks since then and to some extent, that's largely thanks to Hamas, who has been able to control the rocket attacks.
I was told that, you know, some of the there are some residual attacks: some of them, according to Hamas authorities, by that had been paid for by tunnelers who wanted to make sure that the blockade continued; and some by rival factions, of which there are a number, much more radical groups that Hamas tries to keep under control.
GROSS: So you attribute the diminishing of rocket attacks to Hamas' control, and not to the success of the Israeli blockade of Gaza?
Mr. WRIGHT: I think that if Hamas were to decide to pull the brakes off, that there would be a tremendous flurry of rocket attacks. I think that they must have the supplies and probably the rockets assembled. It's not unlimited, but I think that the fact is that Hamas has declared the rocketeers to be criminals and asked them to, you know, hold off on any attacks on Israel.
And there's no question that the number of attacks has fallen. The Israelis did accomplish their goal in, you know, eliminating any kind of armed resistance through Operation Cast Lead, and in no doubt - they crushed the rocket makers and rounded up lots and lots of material that could have been used for rocket-making.
But the Israelis also say that Hamas has been replenishing those very items, you know, and that rockets themselves have been brought in, Iranian rockets. So it's hard to know how much has actually been accomplished until you see another conflict, just as you saw with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The arsenal doesn't really become apparent until the conflict begins.
GROSS: My guest, Lawrence Wright, will be back in the second half of the show. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "The Looming Tower: al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Lawrence Wright. We're talking about life in Gaza, Israel's easing of its blockade of goods going to Gaza, and the threat posed to Israel by Hamas, which politically controls Gaza.
Part of the reason for the Israeli blockade of Gaza is the capture by Hamas of the Israeli - the young Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. And his role as a captive has taken on such a huge significance and symbolic importance in Israel. Can you talk about how he became that important?
Mr. WRIGHT: It's fascinating to me because he occupies a place in Israeli psychology that is hard for Americans to appreciate. Very few Americans realize that a young American soldier, Beau Bergdahl, was taken captive by the Taliban and has been held for several years. You rarely hear his name mentioned. But in Israel, the name of Gilad Shalit is on everybody's lips. He's on bumper stickers. People voted for him for premier. There are tickers on the Internet sites for newspapers, about how many minutes and seconds he's been held in captivity.
There's a tent set up opposite the prime minister's house in Jerusalem, where Shalit's father and other supporters gather to make sure that everybody remembers Shalit. There's some eerie sites of, you know, these giant, life-size, cardboard cutouts of Shalit people carry in marches, so it looks like hundreds and hundreds of Shalits marching down the street.
The political pressure in Israel to try to make a deal with Shalit is very great. And yet, everybody recognizes it. The costs are also very high.
GROSS: The cost being?
Mr. WRIGHT: The Hamas government initially asked for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners to be released in exchange for Shalit, and that number rose to 1,400 after a year. And 450 of those are people who have been convicted of terrorist crimes. So this is not just - you know, there are many people who have been detained in Israel, and many that have been held for stone-throwing charges and this sort of thing. But we're talking about some of the most notorious killers that are in Israeli jails. And those are the people who the Hamas government would like to redeem.
Now, Israel has a history of making these kind of lopsided prisoner swaps. And in 1985, for instance, there was a similar deal for Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon. And the people that were exchanged in that - more than a thousand of them - some of them included the very people that came back to Palestine and to Gaza and started Hamas, including Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the quadriplegic schoolteacher who was really, the spiritual godfather of Hamas.
So Israelis realize that there's a real cost to these kinds of prisoner exchanges. And yet there's this mandate inside Israel to make sure that their soldiers are taken care of. Everybody in Israel, essentially, is subject to becoming a part of the army. And so it's universal conscription, and there's a sense that this could be anyone. This could be our son. So there's a tremendous investment in Israel, in trying to free Gilad Shalit.
GROSS: What do you think about when you think about the math involved and the kind of equation that you've been talking about? How many prisoners is one soldier's freedom worth? How big a crackdown is a soldier's freedom worth? What goes through your mind when you're reporting on that kind of math?
Mr. WRIGHT: I was preoccupied by this. I - you know, because how do you establish the value of a human life? You know, this is a question that Jewish law has dealt with. I mean, in the Mishnah, you'll find that, you know, there's a statement that you cannot ransom a hostage for more than his actual value because it upsets the balance of the universe.
But it also states that the longer a hostage remains captive, in cases in which he could be ransomed, is tantamount to murder. So there's this, you know, kind of contradictory mandate built inside Jewish law.
Then there's the idea that one life, one Jewish life might be worth 1,400 Palestinian lives. What does that say about the mentality of both sides? One, that our lives are so much more valuable that we would consider negotiating the release of 1,400 people. And the other is that our lives are so devalued that we would demand 1,400 Palestinians in exchange for our one Israeli.
I think it's a really profound question. And I think that in this impasse between these two historic enemies, this question of the value of each other's lives is really at the root of the psychological problem that is preventing them from dealing squarely with each other.
GROSS: When you've reported from Gaza and from Israel, have you felt that each side comprehends the other side's humanity and the other side's suffering?
Mr. WRIGHT: Not at all. No. This is the thing that is so striking to me, that each side is so dehumanized in the eyes of the other. And there's this sometimes overtly stated but often implied, they got what they deserved. You hear that in one form or another so many times.
And, for instance, when I was talking to this young Hamas rocketeer: Do you feel guilty about sending these rockets into civilian areas? No. No. I mean, they're not limiting their war to civilians, so why should I feel guilty? That's the mentality that you're dealing with. It's very discouraging.
I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East. But when you talk to people about the current situation, there's a sense that nothing can change. And it's that feeling, that nothing good can happen and only bad can develop, that is what's really crippling the whole region. And it's murderous on the peace process.
You've put together a monologue, or a one-man show - whichever you prefer to call it - called "The Human Scale" that's about Gaza and Israel. You've done a few workshop performances, and you plan to do it again in the fall, produced by the Public Theater in New York. Why did you want to do a stage performance about Gaza?
Mr. WRIGHT: No, I...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WRIGHT: I did one before, called "My Trip to Al-Qaida and...
GROSS: Which was filmed. It's a subject of a documentary.
Mr. WRIGHT: Right. HBO's going to air it this fall. But it's odd. I agree. I mean, it's - but I'm intrigued by the marriage of journalism and theater. And in fact, I first got interested in it one time when I went to see "Fires in the Mirror," the Anna Deavere Smith one-woman show that was about the Crown Heights tragedy. And it was done at the Public Theater. So I was just galvanized by that. And I've always been interested in theater, and I am a journalist, but I never thought you could put the two together. But it was so intimate - and so electrifying for me.
And so years later, when I had finished my book about al-Qaida, "The Looming Tower," I decided I would try my hand at it. And, I don't know. I've really enjoyed it. And there's a way of doing journalism on stage that, yes, it's a smaller audience than, you know, a copy of the New Yorker. But I feel like I can actually communicate with the individuals in the audience. And the goal of this particular play is not to solve the problem, but to try to widen people's understanding of the other.
Most people come into the question of Israel and Palestine with very determined views. And it's very difficult to shake those views. And that's the object of this play, is to shake them out of the position that they're in.
GROSS: Can you give us one example of something that you think shakes somebody out of his position?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, if you are - for instance, if you are sympathetic to Hamas, to me, one of the things that - I watched Hamas television. And the children's shows that they had - you know, they have a show called "Pioneers for Tomorrow," in which there's a young host named Saraa, who's, I think, 12 years old. And she interviews - or she has a co-host. And the original co-host was a mouse name Farfur, who is beaten to death by an Israeli interrogator on the television show. And then he's succeeded by a bumblebee, who dies because he can't get across the Egyptian border for medical treatment. And then he's succeeded by a rabbit, and the rabbit is bombed by an Israeli. It's just - your jaw drops when you watch what kids are being shown on this television.
And then I think about the other side. The - you know, there was a doctor named Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who was a gynecologist in Gaza, who actually trained and practiced in Israel. And during the war, he would give - on Israeli television - he would give accounts in fluent Hebrew about what was happening inside the Gaza hospitals. And on the day before the war ended, two rockets went through his apartment in Gaza City, killing three of his daughters and injuring a number of other relatives.
And there's a videotape of the Israeli news anchor receiving a call from this doctor, begging for help to let the ambulances through because the Israeli authorities weren't allowing the ambulances to take the wounded to the hospital. And this anchorman personally called up Israeli authorities and demanded that, in this instance, that they treat the girls. And the girls were brought into Israel. But the heart-wrenching nature of this man's suffering - it's so striking. So you can't watch those things, either one of them, without thinking this tragedy has gone on too long.
GROSS: How do you address Israel within your show?
Mr. WRIGHT: I talk about the cost that Israel has paid in terms of suffering and humanitarian distress because of Hamas, which is now actually in control of Gaza. Just imagine if you're an Israeli and you were under siege by missile attacks, which - by, essentially, an insurgency - which then proceeds to take over the territory in a free -probably the freest election that's ever been held in the Arab world. It's very galling.
I had dinner one night in Jerusalem with Ari Shavit, who's a columnist for the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz. And he reminded me that in March 2002, the restaurant that we were in was called Cafe Moment. And back in 2002, the Hamas suicide brigades were right in the middle of their campaign. Hundreds of Israelis died during that period of time in bus bombings, shopping centers. More than 80 died that March in 2002, alone. And he was living nearby.
He recalled, in the middle of the night, hearing the bomb go off, and he ran down to Cafe Moment, which was a hangout for liberal intellectuals and artists. And he said, you know, that it was eerie, you know, this kind of, you know, quiet. Outside there were, you know, dismembered bodies. People had been blown clear across the street; 11 people were killed. But inside, there was this eerie silence, and he walked inside. And there was, he said, this beautiful dead girl lying in the doorway. And at the bar, there were three men, sitting on their stools. It was, he said, literally as if they were still drinking their beers, but they were all dead. This was just one of many bombings that very month in Israel.
GROSS: Do you think that the easing of the Israeli blockade will be an opportunity to resume peace talks?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, there have been many opportunities for peace in this region, and all of them have been missed. So if the track record were to continue as per history, it would make little difference. I think there's always an opportunity for peace. And the talk that says that there is not, is the enemy of peace.
It's possible to make peace in this region. There are many creative ideas that have been thrown about, about how that could be accomplished, any one of which is better than the status quo - for all parties.
GROSS: You know, obviously one of the things that has made the conflict between Israel and Gaza so unsolvable is that Gaza is ruled by Hamas, and one of Hamas' goals is to eliminate the state of Israel. And so, Israel clearly feels threatened by a Hamas-run government. At the same time, Hamas accuses Israel of keeping everybody in Gaza a prisoner in the territory.
Mr. WRIGHT: And both things are true. You know, that's part of the stalemate here, is that the rhetoric has gotten so out of scale. And no one's willing to make any concessions. For instance, right now, here we have a, I think, a very ripe moment for change in the relationship between Israel and Gaza, in particular.
Suddenly, the Israelis are announcing that they're easing the blockade. Well, it would be a good time for Hamas to respond. And a great way to do that would be to release Gilad Shalit unconditionally. It would, I think, make a huge impression on the world community. And I think it would provide face-saving for the Israeli authorities, and also a powerful incentive to respond in kind. That would be the most ideal outcome of this whole flotilla episode.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WRIGHT: It's always a pleasure, Terry. Thank you.
GROSS: Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker. You can find a link to his New Yorker article, about life in Gaza, on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find links to NPR's continuing coverage of the Middle East.
Wright is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaida and the Road to 9/11." A filmed version of his one-man show, "My Trip to Al-Qaida," will be shown on HBO September 7th and 11th. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
New Yorker writer Lawrence Wright spent three weeks in Gaza late last year. Wright discusses Israel's recent easing of the Gaza blockade -- and explains what it could mean for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Israel announced Sunday that it would partially lift its three-year blockade of Gaza -- a move that will expand the flow of food and goods into the Hamas-ruled enclave that's home to 1.5 million people.
The announcement came three weeks after Israel raided a Gaza-bound flotilla filled with pro-Palestinian aid activists. Nine people, including one American, were killed during the raid -- which provoked anger against Israel worldwide.
Writer Lawrence Wright spent three weeks in the Gaza Strip last year and wrote about his experiences in The New Yorker. He joins Fresh Air to detail how the capture of an Israeli solider named Gilad Shalit led to the three-year blockade, what the sanctions have done to Gaza's economy and what Israel's easing of the Gaza blockade could mean for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
"Right now I think we have a very ripe moment for change in the relationship between Israel and Gaza in particular," he tells Terry Gross. "Suddenly the Israelis announce that they are easing the blockade. Well, it would be a good time for Hamas to respond and a great way to do that would be to release Gilad Shalit unconditionally. It would, I think, make a huge impression on the world community and I think it would provide face-saving for the Israeli authorities and also a powerful incentive to respond in kind. That would be the most ideal outcome of this entire flotilla episode."
On how the Israeli blockade of Gaza began
"In June 2006, a young Israeli solider named Gilad Shalit was abducted from a crossing called Kerem Shalom in southwestern Israel. And since then, he's been held captive. The Israelis surrounded the strip and sealed off the borders and went rummaging through the residential areas looking for him. Four hundred Gazans were killed in the next several months, and the Israelis said they weren't going to leave until they had recaptured Gilad Shalit. But by November , it became pretty obvious that that wasn't going to happen.
"Then in 2007, there was an election in the Palestinian territories, and to the astonishment of practically the entire world community, Hamas won. Now this was really shocking, especially in Israel because Hamas is dedicated to the elimination of Israel. And when in June of that year, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip and expelled the Fatah government -- which, after all, had been defeated in the election but had been refusing to concede power, the Israelis declared Gaza a hostile entity -- as if the entire population of Gaza was affiliated with Hamas. And that's when they began imposing this very strict blockade."
On what the lifting of the blockade means
"They say they're going to allow unlimited food and other kinds of clothing materials and so on. I think that they're still very concerned about items that could be construed as having a use in weapons or building bunkers. For instance, concrete and construction materials have been a hang-up all along. So this is going to be a difficult point for the Israelis."
On the effect of the blockade on food and medication
"There were food items that were allowed in and then there was food that was smuggled in. And it was never really clear to me on what I was eating -- where it came from. The Israeli control had a list that was kept very closely held and so sometimes, something like jam might be put on the list but macaroni would be taken off of it. So it was inscrutable. People never really knew what kind of foodstuffs were going to be allowed into the strip. That was all supplemented by everything else that came through the tunnels in the southern part of the country."
On what the tunnels looked like
"The tunnels are in the southern part of the Gaza Strip right next to the Egyptian border, which is 9 miles long. We're talking about sand essentially. So they bore down 30, 40, 50 feet straight down and then they turn the corner and head to Egypt. And usually they come up on the other side in some predesignated house. Like they'll come up inside the kitchen or something like that. So you wouldn't be able to see the actual exit hole for the tunnel. And goods are brought into the Rafah-Egyptian side. And they're brought into the house. They're put into a hole in the ground. They're sent down using a winch down to where the tunnel floor greets the lateral part of the tunnel and then the smuggler hauls it across."
On Gaza's population demographics
"More than half [of Gaza's population] are 18 years old or younger. And when you're there, you're just overwhelmed by how youthful the population is. And this is a very worrisome fact to the Israelis who often talk about the demographic time bomb. I remember asking this senior Hamas official about this and he said 'It's nothing sinister. We just love to reproduce.' " But you can see that is manifest everywhere -- kids all over the place and there's very little for them to do. When I was there, the blockade included a ban on toys, and many of the sports facilities had been bombed by the Israelis. The Islamists had burned down all of the movie theaters in the '80s and the main diversion for children was the beach. But the beach was stained and stinking from the fact that they dump 20 million gallons a day of raw and partially treated sewage offshore. So you could smell it."
On each side understanding each other
"This is the thing that is so striking to me: Each side is so dehumanized in the eyes of the other and there's this sometimes overtly stated, but sometimes implied -- they got what they deserved. You hear that in one form or another so many times. For instance, when I was talking to this young Hamas racketeer, I said 'Do you feel guilty about sending these rockets into civilian areas?' [He said] 'No, no. I mean they're not limited their war for civilians so why should I feel guilty?' That's the mentality that you're dealing with. It's very discouraging to go into, especially for an American. And I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East, but when you talk to people about the current situation there's a sense that nothing can change. There's a feeling of paralysis. ... Nothing is happening. They don't believe anything can happen. And it's that feeling that nothing good can happen and only bad can develop -- that's what's really crippling that whole region."