10/16/2007 11:41 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Traveling The Polar Extremes Of The Middle East

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Earlier this month, I put on my journalistic hat and traveled the polar extremes of the Middle East, from Dubai to Gaza City. I had not worked in the Middle East for almost twenty years, and I spent much of last year in a Senate campaign debating America's role in this volatile region. The vast disparity of wealth and opportunity is chilling.

The Gulf Emirate of Dubai is over the top - "Dubai-est" is the phrase. It contains the world's fastest growing city (strategically located between the old Western countries and the new Asian tigers), the world's tallest building (soon to be 151 stories), the world's biggest indoor ski mountain (with chair lift and Indian ski porters dressed as downhill racers), and the world's best hotel (not five but seven stars, featuring an underwater restaurant which is accessed by submarine.)

Dubai is the most capitalist of societies, not only embracing immigration but paying top dollar for the best draft choices from around the world. "Take a Ride into the Future," reads the large billboard along the 12-lane highway. Dubai does not have oil, but they do have access to billions in petro-dollars which they are investing around the world (remember the Dubai port deal from last year?). Politically, they pay lip service to the pro-Palestinian/ anti-Israeli line, but if you follow the money - as Deep Throat once counseled - not one dime is invested with the Palestinians struggling in Gaza.

If Dubai is wide open and welcoming, Gaza is closed for business. Israel and Egypt have shut down their borders with Gaza, which is walled in and may be accessed by a few NGOs at the Erez check point. It's a perversion of the Great Wall of China, winding its way around an area twice the size of Washington DC. The wall around Gaza prevents arms (and almost everything else) from getting in, and suicide bombers (and almost everybody else) from getting out. I was with an NGO for the day, and after a couple of hours and many warnings, we walked through the final steel gate into the bombed out Gazan landscape.

Do you remember Kurt Russell in Escape from L.A. after Los Angeles has been turned into a vast open-air prison? This is Gaza in October 2007. Ever since Hamas was elected early last year and Fatah was later expelled, the residents of Gaza, most of whom are too young to vote, have been walled in and unable to escape. Sewage is overflowing in the streets, hospitals are running out of medicine, and the UN-supplied food is being rationed. "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet," the Guardian newspaper quoted an Israeli official as explaining, "but not to make them die of hunger."

The strategy is to undermine Hamas, which continues to call for the destruction of Israel. And while Hamas has had a ceasefire in place for almost two years, an occasional man-made Qassam rocket lands in Israel, resulting in twelve deaths and many injuries over the last couple of years. The American sponsored peace talks will disregard Gaza, since Fatah will not talk to Hamas, which is boycotting the negotiations. Large piles of sand were poised on street corners in Gaza City in preparation for the Israeli tanks.

Whistling by the sand piles, the students I met at the Mercy Corps "Save the Youth Future Society" mission in Gaza City were remarkably upbeat. They good naturedly blamed everybody - Egypt and the other Arab countries, Israel and the US, and, in particular, Hamas and Fatah. They were not angry but they were old enough to be worried, since last year was better than this year, and they know that next year will be worse.

Republicans believe that there is no problem that can not be solved with a tax cut, and Democrats believe that more education will solve just about anything. Well, there are no taxes in Gaza, and the Palestinians have one of the highest education levels in the world. Gaza could be a land of opportunity, a stable and peaceful neighbor to Israel, a Dubai on the Mediterranean, and instead it is a living hell. How long will those students keep their upbeat optimism?

People cope. A UN advisory about a "Threat to Internationals" forced us to cut our visit short, and as we sped out of the city, some raw sewage splashed into our car's open window. Without taking his foot off the accelerator, our driver handed over some spray-on perfume; "Smells better... plus the alcohol," he said with a smile. While Egypt has shut the door and thrown away the key to the Egypt-Gaza checkpoint, Dubai pays lip service to the plight of the Palestinians as it adds another floor to its world's tallest building.

Since I am writing a piece on Arab media for Rolling Stone, I had to ask the students what they watch on TV. With 1.4 million people all dressed up and no place to go, Gazans watch a lot of it - favorites include Oprah ("she says things we only think") and Friends ("not like here but I wish it was"). One boy I talked to loved Prison Break: "every night I go to sleep dreaming that I am the star, escaping from prison, but every morning I wake up and I am still in Gaza."

(Learn more about Mercy Corps' programs in the West Bank and Gaza and around the world, and how you can support them.)