Gaza, Gulag on the Mediterranean

At this time last year, as the missiles and bombs rained down in Israel’s lopsided seven-week war against Gaza, I wrote about our struggle to survive during the holy month of Ramadan. This year, another Ramadan has passed, Eid al-Fitr is over and the reality on the ground has changed very little.

The same dreadful conditions are creating desperation among Gaza’s inhabitants, whose lives are terrorized by war and stunted by the long blockade of this spit of land, 25 miles long and six miles wide. The only difference now is the absence of the smell of gunfire and explosives, and of the smoke trails from missiles fired by Israeli F-16s crashing down among civilian homes.

I recently visited some of the most heavily damaged areas of Gaza, starting with eastern Rafah, where massive destruction is still visible and bullet holes spatter the walls of houses. Up the road, in the half-ruined village of Khuzaa, the legacy of physical and emotional trauma has yet to be addressed.

Gaza, Gulag on the MediterraneanInternational donors at a conference in Cairo last October pledged $5.4 billion to rebuild Gaza. Instead of permanent new homes, however, people in Khuzaa have received only prefabricated temporary shelters. When it rains, sewage leaks into rooms.

Farid al-Najjar, 56, whose orange-colored taxi was destroyed in the conflict, regards the Cairo conference as a joke. Reconstruction grants have not touched his life.

Traveling north to Shejaiya, the only sign of change is that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency — in a project funded by Sweden — has started removing the rubble. A year later, not one of the damaged or destroyed homes has been completely rebuilt.

Hassan Farraj, 61, stands in what is left of his house — the walls that remain are peppered with holes from automatic rifle fire and tank shells. The bare ground around the home resembles the shaven head of a vulnerable child, with no sign of anything growing back.

Everyone expects Israel to be back for another “trim,” or to “mow the grass,” or whatever deadly euphemism is in vogue the next time Israel deems it time to show us who really controls Gaza.

Our children grow up not in neighborhoods, but in ruins, as Israel continues to block sufficient reconstruction materials from entering Gaza. According to the United Nations, 9,161 Palestinian refugee houses were classified as destroyed and 5,066 others severely harmed. Another 4,085 homes were judged to have suffered major damage, with another 124,782 that had sustained minor damage.

Palestinians in Gaza need economic development. Talk to most young people and they will describe circumscribed options and a limited ability to save and plan for marriage and a family. The sense of Gaza as a gulag on the Mediterranean only increases political frustration among Gazan youth, fueling their determination to resist oppression and demand access to the outside world.

Extremism feeds on desperation. A youth in Gaza has already survived three major Israeli offensives since 2008. Scarred by memories of pain and loss, and with no realistic future to look forward to, young Gazans are more susceptible to extremism.

Radical groups like the Islamic State target the vulnerable and alienated. While some in Gaza are attracted to the jihadist ideology, their numbers are extremely low. The failure of the Islamic State to take root here is partly because of nationalist sentiment and the focus of Palestinian demands for freedom from this remote-control occupation and endless siege.

It is also in part thanks to the diversity of Palestinian society; Christians have always been integral to it. And Palestinians embrace interaction with people from other cultures: Those imprisoned in Gaza yearn to see the world and to welcome visitors to what could be our flourishing home by the sea.

The Israeli military, despite its withdrawal in 2005, remains the de facto occupying power in Gaza. As a result, the Hamas administration struggles to exercise what amounts to little more than municipal authority. Like Fatah (the faction that controls the Palestinian Authority) in the West Bank, Hamas brooks no rival in Gaza, whether secular or Islamist. Its tough action against Salafist groups has provoked violent resistance.

At the same time, the jihadist insurgency just across the border with Egypt, in Egyptian Rafah and the northern Sinai region, is making life in Gaza even more difficult. Palestinians continue to hope that the Rafah crossing will open, but continuing violence in Sinai has caused Egypt to keep the border closed. Approximately 17,000 people in Gaza — from cancer patients to students and those who want to travel abroad — have applied for travel permits since May, with little success. Since the beginning of the year, Egypt has opened the crossing on just a handful of days.

Hamas officials understand that to limit the appeal of extremists, they must address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, as well as maintain their claim to lead resistance to Israel’s actions. Thawing relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia could enable both.

The Saudis might persuade Egypt to open the Rafah crossing more often and allow some freedom of movement to Gazans. A rapprochement with Saudi Arabia — at a time when Hamas’s relations with Tehran are strained — may also open the way to more financial aid from other Persian Gulf states.

Ordinary Palestinians in Gaza, however, are often overlooked amid these political calculations. Locked in this open-air prison, they face a triple burden. Denied the right to choose their government, they are subjected to continued rule by a party whose electoral legitimacy long expired. Lacking freedom of movement, they remain caged by a brutal siege imposed by Israel and Egypt. And in the absence of any international will to end their oppression and occupation, they receive continued promises of aid that never materialize. The so-called world powers look on as Gaza, divided from the rest of the Palestinian territory, slides further into misery and oblivion.

After last summer’s horrors, most Gazans simply want to secure a better life for their children. International donors, including Arab states, must transform pledges into facts. The United States and the European Union must find a moral commitment to assist Palestinians who are striving for freedom and control over their lives.

Until then, Mr. Farraj insists that his Palestinian flag will continue to flutter above the ruins of his family home.

Mohammed Omer, an independent journalist in Gaza, is the author of Shell-Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault.

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