Surviving under the rubble
Karl Schembri - 09/08/2010
For three years, Gaza’s 1.5 million population has been living under a total blockade, with Israel allowing in mere humanitarian aid that does not meed the needs created by the same Israeli government policy to close off the Gaza Strip, while banning Palestinians from travelling in and out of their
In the last full-scale military assault on Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009 known as Operation Cast Lead, the eyes of the world turned onto the narrow enclave as 1,400 Palestinians were killed and thousands more injured. In 22 days, Gaza witnessed more destruction than ever, with civilian infrastructure targeted as violently as the military.
The trauma and the effects will last much longer than those 22 days, particularly with the younger generation. But in reality Gaza’s youth have been enduring long-lasting violence, with daily incursions and air strikes, and a closure that precedes by years the official blockade declared by Israel in 2007 following the Hamas takeover of the enclave.
With almost half of Gaza’s population made of the younger generation, it is a cruel collective punishment that comes precisely at a time when they crave to study abroad, see for themselves the realities outside of their occupied country and experience the world.
An entire generation of Palestinians will have never got out of the besieged strip, never interacted with foreigners or even met Israelis except as enemy soldiers intent on killing and destruction, with psychologists reporting an alarming rise in violent behaviour. Half of Gaza’s children up to 17 after Cast Lead reported that they thought “often” or “almost always” of seeking revenge on whoever was responsible for the death of close people, according to a study by the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme
Half of the children studied had lost a close relative or friend in the last war, 54% witnessed assassination of people by rockets. Over 90% heard the shelling of their area by Israeli artillery and the sonic sounds of jetfighters, and an equal amount witnessed shelling on the ground and saw mutilated bodies on TV.
“All Gaza’s children are at risk,” said Gaza Community Mental Health Programme senior psychologist Hasan Zeyada. “They are learning that the only way to tackle every obstacle in life is through violence and aggression. They feel helpless and powerless, that parents can’t protect them. That leads them to identify with the fighter or even the Israeli soldier representing absolute power, like God.
“A six-year-old asked me why God created the Jews,” Zeyada says. “They do not even differentiate between Jews and Israelis.”
A particular case highlighted in the UN investigation into Gaza war crimes headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone speaks of a mother whose children aged 3 to 16 had witnessed the killing of their father in their own house. As Israeli soldiers forcefully questioned her and vandalised the house, the children asked their mother whether they would be killed as well.
“Their mother felt the only comfort she could give them was to tell them to say the Shehada, the prayer recited in the face of death,” the report says.
But talking of post-traumatic stress can be misleading as the younger generation is “living an ongoing trauma” according to Hasan Zeyada. Even before the war, the crippling siege and fierce factional divisions were already leaving their toll on children.
“The siege, internal divisions and the war create an overwhelming feeling of helplessness,” Dr Zeyada said. “All the people feel they cannot do anything to stop the violations. It’s a very painful emotion.”
While adult men used to the culture of being family leaders get more withdrawn in the face of helplessness, women are left making important family decisions on their own, says Heba Zayyam an officer working at the UN development fund for women. This is also forcing young girls to abandon dreams of furthering their studies and developing.
“I studied at the University of Jordan 10 years ago,” Zayyam said. “Now sending young women to study abroad is frowned upon. There is a whole new generation who never left Gaza, who don’t know what a cinema looks like, and who don’t know how the world looks like out there.”
As 24-year-old Ahmed Hamad explains, living constantly under threat of war, military incursions and internal fighting while witnessing relatives and close friends being killed and ‘safe places’ being destroyed leaves one simply struggling to survive.
“Unlike other people around the world looking at life from different angles, life here became just the time which you spend looking for safety,” he says. “This is how life became in Gaza, and this has a tremendous negative effect. Every time you want to do something for yourself, spend some time somewhere, your friends and family who care about you stop you for your safety. They will tell you not to go, one day it will get better and you’ll be able to go. And that day never comes. At the same time there are no places to go to, you can walk down the street and maybe get killed while you’re walking. Most of the sports facilities which I used to frequent have been destroyed. Everyone goes to the sea, and even there have been many attacks. And if you find something, it will not last for long.”
Ahmed’s concerns are mirrored in 28-year-old Mohannad Meshal’s views of Gaza as a prison or an isolated island where free time loses its meaning.
“We are all the time watching TV and eating,” Meshal says. Because there is no production, people get money without work. The money comes from the PA, from outside, a lot of humanitarian aid. Everyone here has a full stomach but no rights as a human being. You can raise a pet in your home, like a cat or a dog, and feed it, but you can keep it trapped in a corner. We are just like that. We just eat, get money from regional countries, and produce nothing.
“This is damaging us socially. There are a lot of new problems appearing. When there is nothing to fill your mind and your time, you will end up thinking silly things and adopting a silly behaviour, irrational thoughts.
“Most of young people here are smoking under the age of 12. They are using drugs and strong pain killers, like Tramal, just trying to get away from reality.
“Added to that, after the blockade and the civil war in 2007, there was the war on Gaza. Now most of the people are feeling hopeless. I have principles and values that I carry, but maybe one day I will give up.”
Some young Palestinians still manage to keep a somewhat positive outlook despite all the hardships and lost opportunities that they have been witnessing over the years. Fadi Baheet, 28, and Madi Mohammed Al Masri, 22, belong to one of the few rap bands in Gaza. Fadi is the art director and manager of Darg Team while Madi is one of the rappers in the same group.
“Our lyrics are talking about Palestine, the occupation, what the Palestinian people in the streets suffer from. We talk on their behalf,” Fadi explains. “We did a rap song about unity, inviting both parties to regroup again because with them together there’s a strength that nobody can break, but with them separated it’s the weakest position we can have. We will never get anywhere in this disunity.”
Madi describes his singing and engagement with Darg Team as “a mission”.
“Even when we talk about love, the conclusion always gets back to our situation, because it defines our daily life,” Madi said.
The group also holds rap sessions at UNRWA schools and kindergartens, encouraging children to voice their aspirations and channelling their energy.
“We are all part of the resistance, because we are under occupation, be it writing, singing or armed resistance … Europe has been through its revolutions, we have to go through that,” Fadi says. “We ask children what they think, what their aspirations are. We don’t try to change the way they think, but we try and channel their energy. We don’t want to just complain about our situation. Let’s get out of this bubble. We should be thankful and grateful that we’re still alive. The occupation is not the only problem that we have, and Palestine is not only Gaza.
Madi added: “This is my home. Everything I do is for my home. I resist because I want to live freely in my home. Everyone of us wants to leave, and there’s a reason why. We want to go out, spread the word, spread the face of Palestine, meet people face to face. Many people think we are all terrorists, that we just want to kill the Jews. We want to change all that. We are now sitting in a very nice, modern coffee shop, people watching a football game, smoking shisha, drinking coffee. That’s the perfectly normal thing people all around the world do.”
Mohanned was not that optimistic in his outlook: “Gaza taught me not to think about the next day, because a lot of dreams just vanish. It’s better not to dream and have high hopes, in order not to lose. I’m just living my present – never looking to the past, and never looking to the future.”