Friends and family back home keep asking, “How’s life outside Gaza?” I can’t answer. How to tell people who live on four to six hours of electricity daily that high-rise buildings in New York leave their lights on 24 hours a day, simply because it looks nice? How it feels to live without generator noises, the deafening roar of Israeli military drones at night, or the constant fear of imminent conflict? Or that you can hop on a bus, train or plane on a whim, without needing a permit, and travel across the world?
I was born and grew up in Gaza. My father was a soccer coach for many years and his stories about his travels to other countries always made me want to travel too. But Israel imposed a land, air and sea blockade on Gaza in 2007 and has kept Gaza mostly closed ever since. So I never made it out until now, at age 31, I was allowed to leave — for just a little while.
I work for a global human rights organization and spent months seeking the exit permit from the Israeli government that would allow me to leave, to participate in security and research training sessions, to attend key organizational meetings, and to meet colleagues based just a short drive away in Jerusalem or Ramallah — to say nothing of those overseas. But I faced obstacles every step of the way to obtaining the documents and permissions I needed simply to get out of Gaza itself — until I got a phone call on January 28.
Travel permit requests go unanswered for months, even for those seeking urgent medical care or to visit ailing relatives. Hundreds of traders have been blocked and slapped with travel bans that curtail their ability to do business. Absurd new restrictions were introduced, preventing students and aid workers from traveling with laptops.
Over the past few months, many unlikely characters seem to have started to care that Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis. Except it is not exactly compassion for the people facing the crisis driving the discourse as much as a warning call about the dangers lurking in their desperation.
Israel’s chief of staff, decorated generals, and even its decidedly not-dovish education minister, Naftali Bennett, have said that when Gaza suffers, Israelis are endangered. America is also concerned. In a “brainstorming session” held at the White House last Tuesday with representatives of the international community, US President Donald Trump stated that the worsening conditions in Gaza “require immediate attention.” If it weren’t so tragic, it might be comical considering that these are the same characters pulling the strings and deciding Gaza’s fate.
“When I don’t have enough money for food, I ask around. Sometimes my stepmother lends me 15 shekels. I feel so ashamed. But she says we’re family, that I’m like her son and we have to support each other.”
— Abdel Raheem, a 30-year-old patient
First off, Gaza means confinement. A strip of land 42 kilometres long and 12.5 kilometres at its widest, it takes just an hour and a half to drive from north to south.
Gaza is hemmed in by the sea to the west, a “security barrier” — a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire — to the east, while in the north a wall several meters high has been erected to prevent people from crossing the border. And yet another wall, this one underground, is under construction. This is home to close to two million people.
Many of Gaza’s inhabitants have never been able to leave, particularly since a blockade was imposed by Israel after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2007.
“I’ve only ever left Gaza once. It was for an operation in Egypt when I was eight. I don’t remember a thing!” says 22-year-old Hassan, who was shot on the border in December.
United Nations officials warn that Gaza is nearing total collapse, with medical supplies dwindling, clinics closing and 12-hour power outages threatening hospitals. The water is almost entirely undrinkable, and raw sewage is befouling beaches and fishing grounds. Israeli officials and aid workers are bracing for a cholera outbreak any day.
The payday line at a downtown A.T.M. here in Gaza City was dozens deep with government clerks and pensioners, waiting to get what cash they could.
Muhammad Abu Shaaban, 45, forced into retirement two months ago, stood six hours to withdraw a $285 monthly check — a steep reduction from his $1,320 salary as a member of the Palestinian Authority’s presidential guard.
“Life has become completely different,” Mr. Abu Shaaban said, his eyes welling up. He has stopped paying a son’s college tuition. He buys his wife vegetables to cook for their six children, not meat.
And the pay he had just collected was almost entirely spoken for to pay off last month’s grocery bills. “At most, I’ll have no money left in five days,” he said.
I heard one young woman speak of entering into Israel through the Erez Crossing for the first time to travel to the West Bank for meetings. . . . She was eighteen years old and had never seen an Israeli Jew in person in her life. Up until that time, she said, she had only seen them as “helicopters, planes and bombs.”
I’ve written a great deal about Gaza for over ten years but until this past week, I haven’t had the opportunity to visit in person. I’m enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience Gaza as a real living, breathing community and I’m returning home all the more committed to the movement to free Gaza from Israel’s crushing blockade — now eleven years underway with no end in sight. . . .
It’s extremely rare for Americans to receive permission from Israel to enter Gaza through the Erez Crossing. Permits are generally issued only for journalists and staff people of registered international NGOs. Though I was technically allowed to enter Gaza as an AFSC staff member, I wasn’t 100% sure it would really happen until the moment I was actually waved through the crossing by the solider at Passport Control in Erez.
“I have survived the past three wars, but that is not the problem. In this place, wars come and go. The bigger struggle is not to lose hope. The only way I can do that is to retreat, and create my own world, and become oblivious.”
— Ali, age 36, waiter in Gaza City
Ali was born in Gaza and for almost ten years has been living under a tight blockade on air, land and sea, entering its tenth year in June 2016. The blockade keeps him and the rest of the 1.8 million people of Gaza isolated and locked into a tiny 365 square kilometers-enclave — the Gaza Strip has one of the highest population densities in the world — tormented by extreme poverty and dilapidated by repeated conflicts.
Chronic fuel and electricity shortages, with power cuts between 18 and 22 hours per day, extreme water pollution — 95 per cent of the Gaza groundwater is undrinkable — and devastated infrastructure, as a dire reminder of repeated cycles of armed violence, are the daily reality. Gaza’s people are denied a human standard of living. This was not always the case: before the imposition of restrictions on movements of people and goods, the Gaza Strip was a relatively developed society with a productive base and a thriving economy.
Blockade and occupation have reversed this process, accelerated by repeated Israeli military operations and widespread destruction, and today Gaza is subject to what the UN calls de-development. Located at the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Israel, Gaza could be famous for its palm trees, fruits and white beaches. Instead, it is known for a sewage and hygiene crisis titled by the Time magazine a “ticking global-health time bomb.