Categorized | Palestine Affairs, ZIO-NAZI, Gaza

Gaza’s generation blockade: young lives in the ‘world’s largest prison’

Anger and frustration for generation of Palestinians who have spent their entire lives in the fenced-off territory

Khaled al-Nairab collecting fresh water.

Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha 

Cruising south along Israel’s coastal highway, there are almost no signs that you are approaching Gaza. Two million people live trapped on a thin slice of land along the Mediterranean, but someone could easily drive right past and miss it altogether.

For visitors to the strip, restricted mainly to diplomats, aid workers and journalists, the last stop in Israel is a service station, where Red Sea-bound tourists and commuters sip lattes and eat chocolate croissants at an American-style coffeehouse. Walking back to their cars, they may glimpse the only hint of Gaza’s existence – a white orb high in the southern sky, a tethered surveillance balloon that provides the Israeli army with a 24-hour overhead view of the enclave.

Down a lonely road past green fields, the Erez crossing, the only land route for people going in and out of Gaza from Israel, resembles a disused airport terminal. Inside, only a couple of counters are open. Once past passport control, a turnstile cuts through a concrete wall leading to 900-metre caged walkway before emerging into what its residents call the world’s largest prison.

Israelis are replaced with Palestinians. Freshly paved roads with bright white markings are replaced with sand-swept tracks, crumbling under the sun. Shimmering cars are replaced with juddering rickshaws and wooden donkey carts.

Khaled al-Nairab, a 22-year-old from Gaza City, has another phrase to describe the territory: “A cemetery of talent”.

He is from a generation of Gazans, now finishing their education, who have spent their entire lives in the fenced-off territory. Unlike their parents, who will remember a time when thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel, very few have met an Israeli.

Their lives have been blighted by three major conflicts with Israel, regular battles between Israel and Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, and infighting between Palestinian factions. Nairab and his peers are thrust into in an economy with more than 70% youth unemployment, a healthcare system that has collapsed, and a society in which people drink poisonous water and face relentless power cuts.

Israel and Egypt, Gaza’s other neighbour, have maintained a crippling blockade, locals say “siege”, on goods going into the 25-mile-long territory. Israel, which recalled its forces occupying the area in 2005, says the restrictions are for its security. But the UN says the blockade constitutes collective punishment.

It is this life that has driven tens of thousands to protest along the Israeli frontier each Friday for almost a year, throwing rocks and bottles of burning petrol in vain at Israeli soldiers on the other side. The protests have called for an easing of the blockade and also the right of return for Palestinians to ancestral homes in Israel. The Israeli army has responded by shooting more than 6,000 people and killing at least 180.

Nairab understands why people so willingly risk everything. Like most in Gaza, he comes from a family of refugees who fled from or were expelled from their homes around the time of Israel’s founding in 1948.

He wrote poetry at a young age, leading him to rap. Now, about to graduate from a multimedia course, he faces listless Gazan life. “Imagine going somewhere every day at the same time, meeting the same people. If you want to travel for any reason, you cannot.”

Khaled al-Nairab collecting fresh water.
 Khaled al-Nairab collecting fresh water. Photograph: The Guardian

On the surface, Nairab can live a life of his choosing in between rounds of bombings. He sleeps at his friend’s apartment, wakes up late, drinks Coke and edits music videos, looks for a rare paying job, records rap songs in a small downtown studio when he has spare cash, plays pool. But like all young people in Gaza, he has no real control over his life as the blockade affects even the simplest task.

What is available to buy in Gaza changes on the whims of what Israel and Egypt allow. When protesters began burning tyres, Israel restricted them and prices went up threefold. During the worst weeks, batteries are unobtainable.

Transferring money in or out of the territory governed by Hamas, which the US designates a terrorist organisation, is extremely difficult. Even the local currency is controlled by Israel, with shekels still in circulation. Tattered notes are held together with tape as fresh cash is rarely brought in. Meanwhile, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority cut civil servant salaries to punish its political rival.

Older people remember a time when there were rubbish trucks. Now, with restrictions on vehicle imports, many neighbourhoods have horse-drawn carts to pick up the stinking waste. Gaza also used to have cinemas, but trees now grow in their aisles. And while the blockade or ineffectual Hamas authorities cannot take away the stunning beach, a broken sewage system means the water is too dirty to swim in. Much of the fish is farmed on land.

Among all this, Nairab reads pdf books as importing them is difficult. He raps about Gaza’s problems, but needs to be careful as Hamas gives little space for critical voices and its strict Islamist ideology rarely permits public concerts.

“Look, I’m a rapper, I cannot sing about all subjects … I cannot stand in the street with a mic and speakers and start singing.”

He has friends who absconded across to Egypt through underground tunnels, which have since been destroyed, and then paid smugglers to take them to Europe by boat. That is too risky for him but he understands why people escape.

Frontier rallies will not save Gaza, he believes. “The mistake is not demonstrating, but the way of protesting. You are defenceless in front of a soldier carrying a weapon,” he says. “In the end, my price to them is just the price of a bullet.”

Palestinian protesters throw stones during clashes with the Israeli army on the border.
 Palestinian protesters throw stones during clashes with the Israeli army on the border. Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

Ghadeer Ayoub, a 27-year-old aspiring beautician, shares his outlook. “Instead of sending these kids to their death, we should teach them about their rights. Their right to live,” she says. The protests began on 30 March 2018 as a six-week campaign, but have continued well beyond that date.

Ayoub spoke at a coffee shop in Gaza Capital Mall, a three-storey shopping centre with squeaky clean floors, and stores selling clothes that mirror the latest Turkish styles. Occasionally, there’s even a BMW parked outside. For the few in Gaza with a little bit of income, the indoor plaza, opened in 2017, is a step towards a life they may expect elsewhere in the region.

Ayoub has moments when she forgets what she sees as the uniquely cruel trap for Gaza’s residents. But realisation bites at unexpected moments. One day, she was perusing videos on the internet and found one of a talented chef in Istanbul. Impressed, she showed the film to her father, thinking he might enjoy it. But his expression saddened. “He said: ‘We are not truly living here.’”

Life is further constricted by societal restrictions on women, she says. “I want to run in the street, but I can’t. Sometimes I wait until there is a storm, when the streets are almost empty, just so I can run on the beach.”

Hassan Zyada, a psychologist in Gaza, says: “People feel they are living in an uncontrollable environment. There is a feeling of powerlessness, helplessness and hopelessness.” In some cases, he adds, patients experience intense pain with no discernible cause.

The huge number of injuries from the recent protests has exacerbated a looming mental health crisis, but Zyada says Palestinians in Gaza need, from a mental health perspective, to feel they have agency.

“Engagement in a struggle, it’s very important psychologically. You cannot be a passive victim. Psychologically, you need self-respect, you need self-esteem,” he says.

Israel’s army blames the bloodshed at the frontier on Hamas. A bullet shot from inside Gaza has killed one soldier. Israeli forces have also bombed groups launching balloons and kites attached to flaming cans of petrol that burn farms on the other side.

Mohammed Wadiya limps down the street in Gaza City. The 29-year-old was a taxi driver who got “caught up in the emotion” and joined in the protests last May. Throwing stones, he eventually made it to the fence, where an Israel sniper shot him in the calf.

Wadiya sold his car and now moves around with metal rods in his leg. “I was a hero,” he says, “but after the first week, nobody cared about me.” The whole movement was “a lie”, he says.

Asked what he would have done if he made it through, he replies casually: “I would beat soldiers.” What about civilians? “Anybody,” he says. “They are the occupier.”

Over several months of interviews in Gaza, protesters have given different answers. They say they want to cross into Israel merely so they could stand on ancestral land. Others have run up to the fence and cut it or hoisted a Palestinian flag. In some cases, individuals have lobbed explosives to rip the wire apart. When one group made it across, they ran around hysterically before returning.

Still, Zyada, the psychologist, is not shocked by Wadiya’s answer. He sees Gazan life for young people as is one of continuing trauma. The result for some, as he understands it, is clear: “Life becomes meaningless.”

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