Don’t believe what you hear about Gaza — you can’t understand the situation, not unless you see it in person.
Nagham Mohanna and I are standing at the Erez Border Crossing, the primary point of passage for anyone going from Gaza into Israel. She’s a Palestinian journalist for The National newspaper, and I happened to catch her on her way out of the strip. Behind us, a group of Bedouin drivers are speaking in Arabic, and ahead of us, shrouded by a high barbwire fence, looms the Erez border terminal building. It’s a lot like something you’d see at an airport, huge, with room to hold 45,000 people, but it’s practically empty. It was built during a more hopeful time — a time that seems to have passed.
Since the 2014 Gaza War, the political situation between Israel and Gaza has become increasingly more complex, but the same can be said for the socioeconomic situation inside the strip itself. According to Nagham and UN reports, Gazans only have power for about 5 hours every day, after which they must use rechargeable batteries. The average worker’s daily wage is 30 shekels — about $8 USD — and half of the population is unemployed. “The reason nobody on the outside can understand Gaza is because there’s more than just Israel and Hamas,” Mohanna explains. “It’s internal conflict between Palestinians, too. People are poor and they feel hopeless. Most people want things to be better but they don’t know what to do.”
It’s not only Gazans who suffer the effects of the conflict. Since 2005, almost 8,000 rockets have been fired from the strip into Israel, a good percent of which get directed towards border cities like Sderot. The physical casualties are easily evidenced by crumbled buildings and rubble where rockets touched down, yet there’s invisible traumas, too. Sderot now has the world’s most bomb shelters per capita — less of a precaution, and more of a necessity.
Kibbutz Sa’ad to the southwest is suffering something of the same. Sa’ad has been on the frontline since its founding in 1947, and today, residents have between 5 and 7 seconds to make it to a shelter room before the rockets touch down. It’s a fact Sarah Pollack — a second-generation resident of the kibbutz — is profoundly familiar with. “We’ve dealt with [attacks] since my family moved here… it’s made us resilient,” Sarah tells me. “People work and kids go to school even when there’s tension with Gaza because it’s always tense. But when you walk down the street, always in the back of your mind, you are asking yourself where the closest shelter is… what would we do if we hear the ‘red alert’ siren.” Even after the 2014 war and the rise in rocket attacks, Sarah says she doesn’t blame the Palestinians in Gaza. “[The Palestinians] have no power… nothing. In Sa’ad, we get the support we need. People have come with bags of toys to donate to us, for our kids. It makes me sad to know the kids in Gaza aren’t getting toy donations like that, too.”
The kids in Gaza, however, need more than toys right now. Recent reports estimate that the nearly 1 million children in the strip are in ‘unlivable conditions’, a result of poverty and the power crisis. Untreated sewage frequently backs up into the waterways, and the explosive exchanges between Israel and Hamas have fostered an unusually high rate of adolescent psychological trauma.
Thankfully, there are groups of Palestinian Gazans who refuse to accept that reality. I spoke over Skype to Rami Aman, founder of the Gaza Youth Committee and a Palestinian activist working hard to connect the Gazans to the world outside the strip. “We need to talk to other people so that they can know what is going on here,” he says from his small office in Gaza City. “We need specialists who can be our partners in making things better.” During Rami’s most recent effort, an initiative called ‘Skype With Your Enemy’, hundreds of Skype calls were organized between the Gazan youth and Israelis living across the border. These initiatives were a prodigious success, but they also put Rami at a huge risk — he’s been arrested and questioned by Hamas eight times in the past decade, and there’s always a chance that one day, he won’t be released. This hasn’t discouraged him in the slightest. “I am not afraid of Hamas. I will keep working. Even if I am gone there are others who will continue this work. But Palestinians need strong leaders. We have nobody but Hamas.”
Today, the peace process is on pause. The passage of people through the Erez Border Crossing is a trickle at best, and after Nagham departs for Ben Gurion Airport, the place becomes lonelier than before. As the empty terminal building casts its multi-million dollar shadow on the concrete barricades behind it, so too does it cast a shadow over Israeli-Palestinian relations, but hope for a peaceful future won’t be so easily snuffed. It’s kindled by people like Sarah, Nagham, and Rami — people willing to look past their differences and work together towards a lasting compromise. For the sake of the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the children on every side of the fence, that compromise needs to come sooner, rather than later.