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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 05:21 GMT 06:21 UK
Working to improve Gaza's image
By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Gaza

Boy on a skiff off the coast of Gaza. Photograph by George Azar
Pictures by George Azar are part of the effort to improve Gaza's image
The Gaza Strip's image could hardly be worse. It is seen as a place of bombs, and armed men in masks, and furious funerals.

Television screens around the world have shown Israeli soldiers opening fire in refugee camps, and sending bulldozers into Palestinian homes.

All that has certainly happened. The years of the uprising against the Israeli occupation were sometimes intensely violent.

But the picture that the world has of Gaza, is not the whole story.

It has often been a war zone - but it is also a place like many others.

It is a place where people get educated, have careers, dance at weddings, raise their children, and make the best of life by the Mediterranean.

Makeover

And now the Palestinian Authority is trying to present more of Gaza's gentler side.

It is part of an effort to change the mood in the strip as the Israelis abandon the settlements that they built here in breach of international law.

Photographs of the unseen Gaza

Large banners and posters have gone up on the main roads in towns and cities the length of Gaza. They carry slogans like, "Let's Build Our Homeland".

But the banners - swaying above the busy streets - catch your eye with big photographs of the best of everyday life in Gaza.

One shows a boy fishing from a skiff just off the beach - the sun on his smiling face.

And there are many more glossy photographs in a well produced Gaza information pack that is being handed out to foreign journalists and other visitors.

"The aim was to create a different image - not only for the international media, but most importantly for Gazans themselves," says Diana Buttu, a Palestinian Authority spokeswoman.

She said that after decades of hardship and turmoil it has become difficult for people here to see the best in the place.

Other side of life

The banner project draws on the work of a photojournalist living in Gaza, George Azar. He made his name as a war photographer in Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere.

He remains very much involved in covering the news, but he has also been focusing heavily on the other side of life in the strip.

To me Gaza is special because it's Palestine on the sea ... and it's filled with exuberant, wonderful people
George Azar

Mr Azar realised that when he showed people in the West his work from the first Palestinian uprising, there was nothing in it that revealed why he liked the Middle East.

"Nobody could understand why I loved being there. They weren't getting that information from their TV screens or their magazines. There was really very little depiction of the time in between news events in the Arab world - so that's what I set out to photograph."

Much of Gaza is a great mass of apartment blocks - flung up to house the exploding population.

There's very little green space, and almost every wall has its political graffiti - the slogans of groups like Hamas, or names of those killed in the course of the intifada.

Mr Azar says that on the surface Gaza is one of the most scarred and desolate corners of the world.

Seeing differently

But he says it is possible to start seeing beyond the harshness if you understand something of the richness of Gaza's past - standing as it does at a crossroads in the Levant.

Banner across a Gaza street
Gazans are being encouraged to see the brighter side of life
"You start to see Gaza in a different way. You see the old crusader structures that then formed themselves into Islamic structures. You visit the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Turkish baths and the alleyways of the city at night. You see the place with a different resonance.

"To me Gaza is special because it's Palestine on the sea. It retains its seafaring heritage. But it's also a land of the desert. If you love the sea and the desert, then you'll love Gaza - and it's filled with exuberant, wonderful people.

"But that's not to say that I don't see the problems - that I don't see the blood. I've spent the last 20 as a combat photographer, so I know Hamas, and the security services. I see what they do - and what's done to them. I know all of that."

With the settlers leaving, Mr Azar says that this is a time of anticipation in Gaza.

And he says that if Israel backs off completely - and gives the people of the strip easy access to the outside world - then there will be hope.




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