A year after Operation Protective Edge, I traveled from Israel to visit my family in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinians are suffering from high rates of unemployment, violence, and drug use.
By Thair Abu-Rass
This past week I experienced one of the most formative events of my life: a three-day visit to Gaza for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. Entering the “largest prison in the world,” as Gaza’s residents call it, came after the Israeli authorities’ eased access for family visits between Israel and Gaza.
I am a quarter Gazan: my grandmother’s family was expelled from the southern village Hirbiya in 1948, where the kibbutzim of Zikim and Karmia lie today. Overnight, my father’s family went from being landowners near Ashkelon to refugees in Jabaliya, Shuja’iyya and Khan Younis. For many years, we were forbidden from visiting our family members in Gaza, and only last week did we finally receive a permit to enter.
The Israeli government has become friendlier with the Hamas government in Gaza, and as a result the former has issued more entry permits into the Strip. According to reports, over 500 Israeli citizens received permits to visit family members during the holiday, leading to the the highest number of Israeli citizens in Gaza since the disengagement in 2005.
Unemployment, drugs, and violence
Israel and Hamas’ relationship is a direct result of the stagnation we have been experiencing since Operation Protective Edge. Israel cannot find an effective way to make the Hamas regime crumble, and the movement itself is struggling to maintain a normal life for the residents of the Strip as a result of war and a shortage of goods.
Israel and Hamas’ new policy is a blessing. However, if both sides are truly interested in long-term calm, they must first deal with the daily struggles of the average Gazan as I witnessed them.
The most important, strategic challenge is unemployment. Although no official statistics have been published, one can assume that the vast majority of Gaza’s residents, and especially those under 40, are unemployed. In every single home I visited, most of the people were unemployed, and the phenomenon especially affects women. The lack of jobs is a direct result of the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure during the war, and the freeze on funds slated for the Strip’s rehabilitation. Residents are hoping that Qatari and Turkish money will speed up the rehabilitation process, which could also reduce the unemployment rate.
Unemployment has to led to an increase in dangerous social phenomena, including drug use and violence. A large percentage of young Palestinians in Gaza use heavy drugs, and according to residents, Hamas cooperates with drug barons in both Gaza and Egypt in order to kick back profits to the regime. Violence is another issue that many Gaza residents are talking about, and which many believe is a direct result of a siege that creates poverty, unemployment, drug use and a high number of refugees.
When we think about the Gaza Strip, we immediately picture the wholesale destruction of entire neighborhoods, especially those near the border with Israel. Entire neighborhoods were erased, and tens of thousands are still homeless. UNRWA schools have been converted into shelters for refugees from the northeast of the Strip.
In Shuja’iyya, Maghazi and Khuza’a, three towns in Gaza’s east where entire neighborhoods were flattened during the war, one can still see signs above the destroyed homes listing the names of the homeowners. The purpose of the signs is to prevent the authorities and criminal gangs to take over the empty homes. Very few families remain in the destroyed homes, fearing that they may not be able to return should they leave.
The war did not skip over highways, medical institutions, schools and cultural centers. In Shuja’iyya, for instance, a school for autistic children was hit by an Israeli airstrike, killing some of the children. Those who survived remained homeless and without the necessary care.
The most prominent symbol of the war and the siege are the daily power outages in the Strip. The average Gazan goes 8-10 hours a day without electricity in his or her home. The power outages take place at random hours, including in the middle of the day, when the heat and humidity become unbearable. The dream of every resident is to buy a battery-powered fan in order to deal with the power situation. Unfortunately, those fans cost NIS 250 in a place where the average citizen makes NIS 30 day.
The next round is just around the corner
Traveling through Gaza, one notices a plethora political signs in the streets. Posters with dead fighters are plastered alongside political slogans and graffiti decorate nearly every corner. Propaganda posters in the public sphere are reminiscent of the communist propaganda in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Each of the Palestinian groups put up signs with the names of their dead fighters and the date of the military actions they took part in. Flags belonging to the different factions fly everywhere.
A popular Israeli claim says that the Hamas regime is facing an existential risk, and that the siege will lead to the end of the movement. When visiting Gaza, however, one gets the feeling that this is far from the truth. While there is great anger at the current regime, especially when it comes to issues of corruption and mismanagement, Gazans still do not see an alternative to Hamas.
Hamas’ ability to maintain order and internal security in a relatively effective manner, alongside its grip on the local mosques and the internal split inside its rival Fatah movement, have turned the movement into the Strip’s official guardian. While many of Gaza’s residents may wish to replace Hamas rule, not many wish to see the group destroyed.
I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised from the lack of religious coercion in Gaza’s public sphere. Although Gazan society is a religious one, and Hamas makes sure to instill Islamic values, the public sphere remains fairly immune.
One can characterize the situation in the Gaza Strip as a humanitarian and political disaster that will come back to haunt Israel. The rise of groups affiliated with ISIL, the increasing unemployment, the lack of hope and the unbudging Hamas rule will lead to another round of violence in the near future. And while Gazans hope Qatar and Turkey’s plan for a long-term calm will succeed, many believe another conflagration is coming.
Thair Abu-Rass is a doctoral student of political science at University of Houston. This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.