Gaza on the Ground
By Mohammed Omer
FOR 9-YEAR-OLD ANAS, standing at the wall in Rafah which separates Egypt from Gaza, there is no attainable world beyond. That world exists only in his dreams. He can go to school and come back home to play—but always in the shadow of this blockade, called the wall. There he can play soccer, as if it is his personal World Cup.
Anas is not alone in dreaming of a world beyond. An entire new generation of Gazans has grown up knowing only the 70-year-old open-air prison/refugee camp in which they are confined. The more than 2 million Palestinians who live there, collectively punished for decades, exist constantly on the edge of mental, physical and economic crisis, as the international children’s organization Save the Children has warned.
“A whole generation of children in Gaza is balancing on a knife edge where one more shock could have devastating life-long consequences,” Marcia Brophy, the organization’s senior health adviser, said in a statement.
Anas said he wakes up in fear every night as Israeli drones patrol the sky above. Like his parents and siblings, he never knows when the drones will fire missiles again to disrupt the life of Gaza’s captive civilians. His teacher worries that his fear-induced stress results in Anas suffering a lack of concentration and focus in school.
“Inside the classroom, he is in another world, but that is not uncommon—the majority of my school children show similar symptoms” said Umm Abdullah, Anas’ teacher in Gaza.
Save the Children surveyed 150 young adolescents, with a median age of 14, and 150 caregivers in Gaza. It found that 95 percent of the children it interviewed displayed symptoms such as feelings of depression, hyperactivity, a preference for being alone, and aggression.
Many children in Gaza grew up experiencing three Israeli offensives, in 2008 to 2009, 2012, and 2014. Not surprisingly, these military conflicts leave deep wounds in most families, with relatives, neighbors and friends maimed, injured or killed, accompanied by massive destruction to Gaza’s infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. Anas’ school was hit in 2014.
The Save the Children survey found that 68 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from varying degrees of insomnia, with 78 percent saying the single biggest source of fear is the sound of Israeli warplanes. Every time Anas hears a drone overhead, his instinct is to hide. Even then, though, he says, “When I go under the bed, I can still hear it, and I am more afraid in the darkness.”
Anas is less fearful during the day, when he makes his way to school. There he is more used to the menacing presence of the drones buzzing overhead.
But daylight does not always bring relief. As 15-year-old Samar, interviewed in the Save the Children survey, said, “I have many horrible nightmares, and a constant fear of being targeted by a bomb, or being shelled, injured or killed. Sometimes during the day, I remember those nightmares.”
The children surveyed also showed signs of resilience, however, with 80 percent saying they could at least express their fears to families and friends, and 90 percent saying they felt supported by their parents. “Much of children’s security was related to a sense of stability that their families were able to offer, with more than 80 percent of the 150 children interviewed saying they did not feel safe being away from their parents,” said Dr. Marcia Brophy, a senior mental health adviser for Save the Children in the Middle East.
In times of war, however, teacher Umm Abdullah admits that “I have difficulty finding peace within myself, because I am surrounded by war, and I can’t hide the constant fear and anticipation of the next attack.”
The 12-year blockade has severely diminished the quality of life in Gaza, where youth unemployment now stands at 60 percent and poverty levels are up from 30 percent to a current 53 percent. The Gaza economy continues to collapse. According to Abu Salaman Al Mughani, mukhtar of Gaza, “The majority of Gaza merchants are in jail in Gaza, because they cannot pay their debts under blockade conditions.”
According to a recent World Bank statement, “The current market in Gaza is not able to offer jobs and incomes, leaving a large population in despair, particularly the youth. Gaza’s exports are a fraction of their pre-blockade level, and the manufacturing sector has shrunk by as much as 60 percent over the last 20 years. The economy cannot survive without being connected to the outside world. Minor changes to the restrictive system currently in place will not be sufficient. Proposed projects to increase the supply of water and electricity are extremely welcome, but unless there is an opportunity to boost incomes through expanding trade, the sustainability of these investments will be in doubt.”
In June, the United States vetoed a Kuwait-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution calling for the protection of Palestinian civilians. Meanwhile, Israeli troops killed at least 132 Palestinians, including 14 children, and wounded more than 13,000 during the Great March of Return, the weeks-long peaceful protests near the fence separating Gaza from Israel. (See June/July 2018 Washington Report, p. 10.)
Save the Children’s research took place prior to the Great March.
While no one knows what the future holds in store for these children, the report found that “the last 10 years have seen families face a host of difficulties and uncertainties in Gaza. The Israeli blockade, as well as three conflicts, has put enormous strain on the economy and key services.”
The tragic result is that, like health care, basic human rights have become a rarity, and a luxury, in blockaded Gaza.