The people of Gaza are trapped, waiting for change

Caught between the blockade and the territory's own leadership, ordinary people are forced to live lives of poverty and stasis

TOPSHOT - A Palestinian protester throws a stone towards Israeli forces during clashes on the beach near the maritime border with Israel, in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 1, 2018. The border protests since March 30 have been labelled the "Great March of Return" because they call for Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes inside what is now Israel. / AFP / SAID KHATIB
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It has been more than a year since the Great March of Return began in Gaza.  What started as a non-violent protest to draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people has now been, in many ways, hijacked by Hamas, which rules the territory.

This has played right into Israel's hands. The nation's far right, which could win the elections in September, can now effectively say that the march and the agenda prove that Palestinians are Hamas, and are therefore all intent on bringing destruction to Israel.

The truth is that many people voted for Hamas back in 2006, simply because they wanted some kind of change and preferred Hamas’s social system to that of the Palestinian Authority.

Gaza is much more than Hamas. It has been three decades since I first went there as a young academic. Since then, it has endured the first and second intifada, the failure of the Oslo Accords and three wars. Yet, I have never ceased to be amazed by the resilience and resourcefulness its people.

The Great March has had devastating effects: since March, 2018, there have been more than 32,000 injuries and hundreds of deaths. The rubber bullets, the live ammunition and the tear gas canisters all represent an indiscriminate use of force.

The injuries sustained by protesters are brutal. Many have suffered severe joint injuries or amputations, owing to a policy of shooting protesters in the legs. Jacob Burns from Doctors without Borders showed me x-rays of how their bones were split apart – wounds that take years to heal and often produce untreatable infections along the way.

“The level of pain these people go through is unthinkable,” Burns said.

The spirit of the Great March has dwindled, but people still go on Fridays, some almost treating it as entertainment to ease the dull monotony of their lives under a 12-year blockade. Boys and young men go to the fence armed with slingshots to hurl rocks at Israeli soldiers. Many of them end up being shot and wounded. Their mothers and sisters stay behind in tents, eating pumpkin seeds and listening to Hamas-inspired rhetoric by the organisers.

All this is bad news for Gaza, a place so littered with misery and hopelessness. The split between Fatah and Hamas in Gaza since 2007 has had a punishing effect on the Gazan people. Not only are they economically blockaded by Israel and Egypt, they are being punished by the Palestinian Authority. It is hard to understand, if you are young and Gazan, what to do to make your life more liveable.

Palestinians are among the most educated people in the Middle East, but when they graduate they have nowhere to go

The collective punishment by the Palestinian Authority comes in the form of withholding passports, government salaries and not taking care of vital infrastructure: drinking water, sanitation, roads. President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner are taking that one step further, by pressuring American aid to be withdrawn from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has effectively taken care of Palestinian education and healthcare since 1948, and withdrawing US Aid from Gaza.

The result is a mosaic of desperation, particularly among young people, among whom unemployment sits at 70 per cent. At university graduations this week in Gaza, the young and talented marched to get their diplomas in economics, computer science, microbiology and English literature, yet there are no jobs for them.

Palestinians are among the most educated people in the Middle East, but when they graduate they have nowhere to go – especially in Gaza, from which they are not allowed to leave.  My driver this week is a sociologist. He considers himself fortunate to find a job driving a foreigner. If he is lucky, after renting the car and paying the fuel, for a day of hard work, from early morning until late night, he gets 70 shekels (Dh73). And he’s grateful.

This has had a horrendous effect on society. Gaza lives in a debt economy. To get married, a young man must pay a dowry, hire a wedding hall and buy the wedding gold. Most people borrow and remain in debt all their life. And that is just the middle class.

The poor, and the injured – especially the amputees from the Great March – face lives alone because they can’t afford to have a spouse. They feel they are burdening their already hard-pressed families. At one point, there were mass wedding where people split the costs and 20 people married at the same time. The suicide rate is rising, and depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are widespread.

The other enemy is migration. Dr Caitlin Procter, a Harvard researcher based in Gaza, tells me that the patterns of leaving have shifted drastically. Once, people left Gaza to work abroad, sending remittances back to relatives, coming home for summers and eventually returning when they grew old. That has stopped. Partially because of the blockade, which makes freedom of movement impossible, but also because there is nothing to return for.

In 2018, the UN special rapporteur said that Gaza would be unliveable by 2020. No one paid much attention.

“In fact by any metric, Gaza is already uninhabitable,” Ms Procter says.

What can be done?  In the years since I began working here, Gaza has gone backwards.  A simple solution that the Israelis will never abide is the lifting the blockade to allow economic freedom and freedom of movement for Palestinian labourer inside Israel (some of them were able to move across the Erez crossing to work before Hamas’s election in 2006).  Gaza also desperately needs more youth initiatives and small businesses.

The international community needs to step up, too, and not just with Mr Kushner’s unworkable economic plan. More international pressure must be applied, in order to end the split between Hamas and Fatah. Ultimately, of course, Israel must lift the occupation and stop swallowing up the West Bank with illegal settlements.

This, of course, is a far-away dream.

Until then, as they have been doing for seven decades, the Palestinians will be forced to wait.

Janine di Giovanni is a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute. She is the author of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria. Follow her on Twitter @janinedigi