x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Gaza's children in an 'unliveable' siege cannot wait for 2020

The people of Gaza don't want pity, they want to be treated as human beings with respect and dignity.

Last week, the United Nations released a report questioning whether or not Gaza will be liveable by 2020, with the conclusion that if the siege continues, then living there will become literally impossible. Gaza's development has been thrown off track, and "de-development" has set in, leaving the UN saying that "even if the political situation were to improve dramatically over the next years, the issues identified in this study would still need to be addressed as a matter of urgency".

To me - as an outside observer who lived in Gaza for three months last year at the invitation of the United Nations Relief Works Agency - Gaza is barely liveable right now, let alone eight years from now. This isn't news to the 1.6 million people of the tiny coastal enclave. It isn't even news to the 50 per cent of the population that is under 18, who have lost their innocence entirely too young. Gaza is a prison, with a rapidly growing population, and a prison guard that expects a trapped population to care for itself.

The situation is man-made. It is not a drought in sub-Saharan Africa, or the aftermath of a tsunami in south-east Asia, or a hurricane in the United States. Gaza's unliveable state has been a political choice, and was imposed, according to the Israeli government, to force Hamas from power. But the only people suffering are ordinary Gazans who are now angrier than ever with the Israeli government.

Despite this, the majority of people I met never had a violent or hate-filled word to say. They know that it won't help them, and so many are frustrated by the rockets being fired because they know violence only makes it worse. People in Gaza simply want to live.

I met fishermen, schoolchildren, teachers, non-profit workers, businessmen and women, lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers and even tunnel owners, all of whom embodied what I've come to expect from Palestinians - warm, welcoming, open people who just want someone to pay attention.

Facing unemployment at 45 per cent, poverty levels around 80 per cent and an ever-tightening siege, they all wanted the same things as anyone else in the world: peace, security, opportunity, a good education and bright future for their children, and the ability to care for their families. So simple. So human. Yet, the siege continues to deny them these opportunities, and they have been so dehumanised that the world somehow sees this as acceptable.

Nowhere else would it be acceptable letting people suffer like this, especially when the solution is at hand. I remember having a conversation with one of my friends, Mousheera, about her future. She feared getting married because she didn't know if her husband would be able to work, and whether he would be able to return home each day.

She worried he could be killed by an Israeli air strike; she feared having children because she didn't know if she would be able to get them medical treatment if they needed it, let alone be able to support them. She didn't want to raise a child under siege.

These are preventable fears if the international community would step up, end the siege and help Gaza make progress in development instead of continuing to let it fall back in time.

The situation is about to get much worse. With the attack on Egyptian soldiers last month in the Sinai, the tunnels, which became a lifeline for Gaza, have been closed. Building materials, medical supplies, clothes and even food were coming through, and that is going to stop completely. Gaza is going to be choked even more, and unemployment will rise further, as the tunnels provided jobs and some economic activity, even if it was a black market.

One can't help but wonder if 2020 will come sooner than we think.

The hardest thing to witness in Gaza was not the economic deterioration, the air strikes, the electricity outages, the undrinkable water or even the complete poverty. The hardest thing was the effect all of this had on the most innocent victims in this conflict - the children. I visited schools and UNRWA Summer Games activities, and despite all that these kids face on a daily basis, they have spirit and unparalleled hope.

My favourite question to ask children was: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Without fail, children amazed me by saying they wanted to be doctors or lawyers or engineers. When asked why, the response was the same: "Because I want to help my people."

The children of Gaza are acutely aware of the situation. They have lost their innocence at a young age coping with poverty, violence and a simple lack of free movement.

Yet, they still dream big, and they still want to contribute in important ways. They know that Gaza will be unliveable by 2020. They probably even think it is almost unliveable now. But that does not stop them from wanting things to get better, or hoping life will improve.

This hope is at the core of Palestinians, especially in Gaza. They want life to improve. They want to be treated like human beings with respect and dignity and the opportunity to develop their homeland. They don't want aid or pity, they want opportunity, and that cannot come until the siege is lifted.

 

Julia C Hurley is a Washington DC-based human rights advocate and fund-raiser for projects related to children, education and development in the Middle East

On Twitter: @JuliaCHurley