The World's Largest Open-Air Prison: Gaza in 2018

Tara Ghandour

 Ina Kim

Ina Kim

In the latest news regarding the ongoing Gaza border protests, Israeli soldiers have now killed over 180 Palestinian protesters, including 31 children. A peaceful demonstration that was initially supposed to last six weeks has now passed the sixth month mark—yet to no avail.  The “Great March of Return” campaign was expected to culminate on Nakba Day, May 15th. This date commemorates the ‘catastrophe,’ referring to the 1948 establishment of the Israeli state and the subsequent expulsion of 700,000 thus stateless Palestinian refugees.

This “Great March of Return,” which officially began on March 30th, was the brainchild of Ahmed Abu Ratima. In 2011, after a visit to the border fence, the Gazan man posted a message on Facebook, pondering what it would be like to sit under a tree that had caught his attention on the other side of the fence. As he shared with Al Jazeera, his visit had reminded him of the “beauty of his stolen lands,[...] the picturesque nature of it all.” Ratima’s nostalgic musings developed into a concrete plan for a peaceful protest at the border, marching for the Palestinian right of return to their homelands and denouncing the blockade in place since June 2007. Ratima’s Facebook posts gained traction over time and his idea finally came to fruition in 2018. But, what triggered this sudden mobilization of thousands of Gazans marching for this cause?

In early May, during a Skype session set up by my Middle Eastern Government professor, I had the honor of listening to Raghda Abu-Shahla, a brilliant Gazan woman who had graciously agreed to speak to our class. Within a few minutes of her describing daily life in the area, it became very clear to me that these protests were just a matter of time. Gaza was a pressure cooker, absorbing blow after blow.

According to a 2015 UN Publication on Trade and Development, “exports from Gaza have been almost completely banned, imports and transfers of cash severely restricted and the flow of all but the most basic humanitarian goods suspended.” This eleven year air, land and sea blockade encompasses both the movement of goods as well as the movement of people. And, with Egypt also imposing restrictions on the Rafah crossing, the Gaza strip is the largest open-air prison in the world, trapping about 1.9 million people on a tiny slab of land. It comes as no surprise that the UN has predicted Gaza will be uninhabitable by the year 2020. Raghda shed light on the reality of the situation on the ground, describing how the blockade has stifled even the slightest illusion of a normal life. With a weary smile on her face, she told us that there is no such thing as consistency in Gaza. With electricity running anywhere from 2 to 4 hours a day and a completely unmaintained sewage system, she explained that every day is a gamble. Showering consists of cold water, if there’s water at all; fridges become nothing more than cabinets with spoilt meat; tap water is not only salty but 96% undrinkable; surgeries and medical treatments are performed without antiseptics or antibiotics due to the insufficient influx of medical supplies; acute malnutrition is at an all-time high with 80% of the population depending on international aid for food assistance; produce such as fruits and vegetables are ridden with pollutants; “and you can forget about washers and dryers for your clothes,” she jokingly added. Returning to a more serious tone, she reminded us that the blockade has all but obliterated the region’s economy. Gaza used to be an export economy. With a skilled and cheap workforce, their export market consisted of hand-sewn clothes, furniture, and other similar goods. Due to their isolation from the world, 65% of Gaza inhabitants suffer from poverty, with unemployment reaching 43%, a historic low for this well-educated and skilled population.

Another major issue plaguing the region is the 1.3 million Palestinians registered as refugees who were exiled from their homelands in historic Palestine. Raghda explained that the number of Palestinian refugee camps has gotten out of hand; the eight camps are inhabited by over half a million people. With one of the highest population densities in the world, an ever-growing surplus of refugees in the camps, and the continuing inability to build houses due to a ban on cement, people are running out of places to live, she said. The new Trump administration has only made the situation worse. With the U.S. cutting UNRWA funding by more than half, she told us that the vital lifeline UNRWA provides for Palestinian refugees in Gaza has been severely handicapped, if not terminated at this point. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ (UNRWA) provisions of education, health care, relief and social services, microcredit and emergency assistance were all hampered due to the whims of our pro-Israel president who defended his actions with yet another angry tweet.

The U.S. is trying to thwart Hamas by turning a cold shoulder on Gaza in its entirety. And although most Americans associate Palestinians with Hamas, Raghda was very clear on her stance regarding the fundamentalist organization. Acknowledging the group’s violent tendencies and misrepresentation of the Gazan people, she asked: why should I be punished for the actions of a party that I’ve been against since the beginning? Indeed, she was referring to the January 2006 elections for the Palestinian Council, wherein Hamas won 74 of the 132 parliamentary seats, defeating Fatah for the first time with only 45 seats. According to David Remnick, a journalist who travelled to Gaza during the elections for a New Yorker article, Hamas was able to win by distinguishing itself from the corruption of Fatah. He recounts that “although in the past decade Western and Arab governments have poured billions of dollars into the accounts of the PA, most Palestinians believe that, thanks to the corruption of Fatah, they have been systemically robbed of much of that aid money.” In addition, he shares the hypothesis that Hamas was able to secure 78% of the vote because it had built a grass-roots “shadow civil society long before it won a reputation for suicide bombings.” Hamas was first and foremost known for its social welfare projects—operating schools, hospitals, orphanages, and soup kitchens. Therefore, even if the population had given the majority vote to this violent organization, a vote for Hamas did not necessarily translate into a vote for violence or even a vote against the two-state solution. In fact, in a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) two months after the elections, a shocking 75% of the respondents from both West Bank and Gaza “wanted Hamas to negotiate peace with Israel” with a majority supporting “a mutual recognition of Israel as the state for the Jewish people under conditions of peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state in a two-state solution.” The PCPSR webpage explicitly stated that “despite Hamas’ electoral victory and despite the added increase in its popularity after the elections, public support for the peace process is on the rise,” thereby bolstering the theory that Hamas was voted in as a reactionary movement of Fatah’s believed corruption and inability to secure Palestinian territory, rather than an open encouragement of suicide bombings and rocket campaigns.

In any case, in the following years, Hamas has revealed itself to be as much of a disappointment as Fatah. Raghda stated that the majority of the inhabitants of Gaza are both disillusioned and exasperated, supporting neither Fatah’s Abbas nor Hamas’ Sinwar. The sentiment she described on the ground is mirrored in the most recent PCPSR polls (March 2018), with “almost all Palestinians viewing conditions in the Gaza Strip as dire” and placing responsibility “first on Israel, then the PA, and finally Hamas.” This sense of outrage and desperation is only reinforced by the lack of stability in the area.

Indeed, of all the hardships hurled at this small but mighty strip, Raghda stated that the most significant challenge to a normal life is the ever-looming fear of another Israeli attack. Raghda told us that for all she knows, she might be killed tomorrow. In a very humbling moment for the whole class, she recounted the times she has feared for the lives of her family, telling us how she would try to shelter her young relatives under tables. “When the bombs start falling from the sky, there is no place to hide,” she said. In a sincere tone, she called to our attention that teens even younger than us have already experienced three wars in their lifetime. According to a 2017 report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, the Israeli military operations from 2008 to 2014 (Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014) have claimed the lives of 3,745 Palestinians and wounded an additional 17,441. And, the 24,000 tons of explosives utilized by the IDF in the span of these three attacks have not only murdered thousands of civilians, they have also wreaked havoc on the infrastructures of the region. As if the living conditions were not deplorable enough to begin with, in each of these attacks, Israel has specifically targeted civilian infrastructure. In addition to the bombing of Palestinian homes, shops, and small businesses, Israel aimed explosives at electricity, water, and sewage sanitation plants. And, even though the last airstrike campaign was four years ago, the omnipresent threat of a spontaneous Israeli attack is embodied by the constant buzzing of the drones circling Gaza. Giggling, Raghda said that people there call the drones the “nosy neighbors” because they film everything and know what everyone is doing at all times. The funny nickname doesn’t disguise the sense of anxiety she emitted when describing these piloted aircrafts that permanently police the sky.

Raghda explained that all these factors, from the lack of electricity to the overpopulation to the ever-present fear of an attack, have taken a heavy toll on the morale in Gaza. She told us that more and more people are committing suicide because life in Gaza is simply unlivable. And, this blow on mental health has affected all age ranges. Substance abuse, suicide, depression, anxiety and PTSD have unilaterally increased amongst adults, and nightmares, eating disorders, intense fear, and bed-wetting have unilaterally increased amongst children. UNRWA estimates that “a minimum of 30% [of Palestinian refugee children] require some form of structured psychosocial intervention.”

Furthermore, Raghda stated that by completely isolating and ignoring Gaza, Trump is playing a dangerous game. Not only is he enabling the misery of an entire people, but he is also pushing the disillusioned, depressed youth into the hands of ISIS, stationed just a few kilometers away in Sinai. Outraged by the shortcomings of Hamas and unable to receive any international attention, many young people have given up on their future and see no difference between taking their own lives or joining ISIS to fight Hamas. An Israeli report recently estimated that a dozens of Gazans had left the strip to fight for the Islamic State. Raghda says that the mere fact that more young people haven’t joined ISIS is a testament to the unparalleled Palestinian resilience. No matter the hardships that come their way, the people of Gaza will never stop believing in the Palestinian cause. The list of adversities that have accumulated over the years have only hardened Palestinian resolve, thus explaining the shift in mentality from 2011, when the “Great March of Return” was first introduced in a Facebook post, to its implementation in 2018.

Palestinians are marching to the fence, unarmed and very much aware of the IDF bullets headed their way, because they can no longer live in fear and in silence. Raghda said that first and foremost, this is a plea to be heard by the international community, not as Hamas or Fatah or Jihad supporters, but as Palestinians. This unity is demonstrated by the campers at the border dressed in traditional embroidered garments or the women at the front lines yelling slogans of solidarity with West Bank hero Ahed Tamimi.

Thus, the fact that Hamas, who is losing support, may be using these protests as a strategy to ensure their political continuity, should not be the main focus of the international community observing these protests. With their speeches deferring the attention from the Palestinian right of return and focusing on factionalism, Netanyahu and Trump disguise their blatant role in human rights violations all the while undermining the Palestinian plea for a chance at a normal life. Distracting outside viewers from this horrendous crisis of human consciousness by focusing on the internal division in Palestinian politics is the equivalent of silencing 1.9 million people living in ubiquitous instability in order to shine the spotlight on a few corrupt political elites. Israel, with the help of the US, is trying to turn this very concrete, very real denunciation of unthinkable injustices into a “war of words” in order to win the approval of the international opinion. And when it comes to words, it seems that Israel will do anything in its power in order to prevent truthful words from coming out of Gaza, whether it be the censoring of Palestinian social media accounts, the nonsensical ramblings by Israel’s ambassador to the UN that UNRWA supports Hamas propaganda and encourages hate, or the blatant shooting of at least 15 journalists with a PRESS vest documenting the protests at the fence. When concluding the conference call, in a genuinely curious tone, Raghda asked us a single question: “When you read American news, do you hear about all these things I have told you?”

It has been nearly 6 months since our class spoke to Raghda. And, while I read the daily news every morning, I still find myself thinking about this question. Every week or so, ABC news or The New York Times will publish a report stating that another Palestinian child was shot, that a Palestinian medic was caught in the crossfire, or that ‘nonessential’ UNRWA workers had to evacuate due to security threats. Yet, when it comes to the legislative and executive actions, the news reads something like this: Trump shutting down Palestinian peace negotiations, Israel passing a law in which only Jews (not Arabs) have the right to self-determination in the country, or Abbas missing an opportunity to shed light on the Gaza crisis at the UN General Assembly just last week. The worst is reading these two types of news reports back to back—the devastating news reports listing Gazan casualties coupled with articles reporting the sheer stupidity and inefficiency of politicians. Learning about the latest developments brings me such anger and sorrow that I truly don’t know what to do with myself. So, I start talking about it.

There reaches a certain point where this no longer becomes a question of ‘not wanting to get involved in Middle East problems,’ as I’ve heard from so many American friends. And, although I feel there are no words to describe this nightmare Gazans are enduring, I think of Raghda, of her determination to be heard, and I start the conversation. I initiate discussion with anyone that will listen, from peers to professors. I am not a policy-maker, but I am a human with compassion, and this crisis is humanitarian before political. At the end of the day, it’s very simple: you are either pro-humanity or pro-silencing humanity. In ten or twenty years, when the world finally punishes Israel for all the crimes it has committed (and this day will come), which side of history will you have been on?