Kirsty Hughes is Head of Oxfam GB Advocacy and Policy Team
In a week when US efforts to promote peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians have collapsed, an optimistic way ahead to a political deal looks hard to see. But visiting the Occupied Palestinian Territories in November, including two days in Gaza, underlined for me that everything here is political. Out of a population of 1.43 million, 80 per cent depend on aid – that’s political. The economy and private enterprise is battered and struggling, with around 40% unemployment – that’s political. Health, education, water and sanitation services are struggling and deteriorating – and it’s all political.
In many countries where Oxfam works, we are looking for ways to promote development in the face of deeply entrenched poverty or to provide humanitarian aid in the midst of an earthquake or a flood. But in Gaza, it is the blockade – keeping people in (while letting few visitors in), and letting a restricted trickle of goods in and almost none out – that is stopping development and creating humanitarian need. For Israel, the blockade is a security measure – as is the so-called buffer zone on the inner perimeter of Gaza. But seeing the reality of ‘de-development’ on the ground (with social and economic structures and standards of living jumping backwards), it’s hard to see how effectively locking up a whole population within a small territory and blocking the means whereby the economy can grow and prosper within that territory can promote security or meet any basic human rights or international humanitarian law criteria.
Visiting Gaza for the first time in November, for just two days, to visit Oxfam programmes there, I come away with a whole host of impressions.
First are the many visual images. I cross with Oxfam colleagues at the Erez crossing into northern Gaza. As we walk down the one kilometre walkway from the border post, the most striking first sight is men and boys with donkey carts. They are labouring away by the road and on the uneven sandy ground dotted with bits of tired-looking green grass that stretches into the near distance finishing at the perimeter wall.
The wall is the second striking site – a grim concrete construction that takes me straight back in time to living in Berlin 21 years ago before that wall came down. This one has remote-controlled guns on it – controlled according to a recent UN report from Tel Aviv by a group of female soldiers acting as remote lookouts. One of the soldiers says of how it feels to fire remotely at someone: ““It’s very alluring to be the one to do this. But not everyone wants this job. It’s no simple matter to take up a joystick like that of a Sony PlayStation and kill, but ultimately it’s for defense”. There is an unmarked buffer zone from the wall (or border patrolled by Israeli tanks for areas where there is no wall) that stretches between 500 to 1500 metres around the whole Gaza inner perimeter.
The men and boys are breaking up rubble to put on their donkey carts. This sandy waste land used to be the main industrial zone – now with buildings and jobs destroyed, they are collecting what they can to use as construction materials. And despite the huge destruction from the Israeli bombing of Gaza in January 2009 (which the Israelis call ‘operation Cast Lead’ and the Palestinians refer to as ‘the last war’), no construction materials are allowed in for rebuilding through the blockade, so the rubble here is valuable. But it’s high cost too – anyone who comes too close to the unmarked and varying limits of the buffer zone risks being shot at from the remote-controlled guns, there are frequent injuries and deaths as a result.
The buffer zone also takes up over a third of Gaza’s agricultural land – high quality farm land lies untilled, hundreds of orange trees have gone, destroyed. And when we finally see the sea – a sparkling Mediterranean coast line – it’s one more curious visual image of the political crisis Gaza is enmeshed in: an Israeli-imposed limit of 12 nautical miles has been cut to 3 miles – Israeli patrol boats are visible. It’s a sea polluted by sewage from a system that has mostly collapsed through a combination of destruction, long daily power outages, and lack of equipment and materials for maintenance (something Oxfam has been working to reverse as far as it can). And the seawater is also leaking into the falling freshwater aquifer below Gaza – according to the UN, only 10% of Gaza’s drinking water reaches WHO safe water standards.
In the rundown looking port area, a few worn fishing boats are at anchor, another couple are on their way out to the small, overfished bit of sea that the Gazan fishermen can access. Every view has a story within it. Girls in black and white dresses and headscarves returning from school at lunchtime could be a sight from many places round the world. Here in Gaza, so many buildings including schools were destroyed in 2009, that many schools run two or even three shifts a day in an effort to keep education open to as many children as possible – so the girls we see are the end of the morning shift.
Industrial workers, farmers, fishermen, schoolgirls – a collapsing economy, 40% unemployment: what we see, and what we can no longer see, tell a devastating economic story. But it’s an economic and social story driven by politics and needing a political solution.
And despite all this, the many different people I meet in Gaza are not only warm and welcoming but many of them show a resilience that is striking. We meet one extended family in a poorer area of northern Gaza – we are offered tea, pressed to sit down, but the health problems coming from the lack of mains sewage connection in that area are only too visible in the facial skin problems of one young toddler clinging to his mother’s arms, her face also badly pockmarked.
Almost everyone we meet talks about the lack of jobs, the lack of income – many are indebted borrowing as they can from families or neighbours. One man in another area, who has been doing some temporary work on an Oxfam ‘cash for work’ scheme, tells us without self-pity that if it was just him alone facing these problems he would commit suicide, but since everyone is in the same boat, he struggles along as part of the community. People here want to work and they want to retain their dignity – we are told repeatedly that people do not want to be dependent on aid.
We meet a number of businessmen – they are determined entrepreneurs. Many business establishments were destroyed by the 2009 bombing, but we visit one small factory that has repaired enough of the damage to employ 60 workers and restart production. But the challenges are huge. Even with some slight easing of the blockade – mostly allowing some more consumer goods in – factories cannot get the raw materials they need or import new processing equipment. And they can’t export their products either, their only market is within Gaza. And getting finance to develop within these constraints is a challenge too: if your factory has been destroyed and your business shrunk, what collateral do you put up, one businessman says to us, to get a new loan? He explains that they need ‘political insurance’ too – if they reinvest savings again in somehow rebuilding bombed factories, what if they are hit again? It’s a string of problems – but they are not economic challenges of growth and development, they are challenges again and again of fighting against de-development driven by a political and security agenda.
It’s also hard to run a business – or a school or a hospital – if you are geographically and physically isolated. If people can’t go out to make business connections, find markets, or get trained, and outsiders cannot come in to train an operative on a machine, a nurse or doctor on new equipment and techniques, or a teacher on a computer, then services and skills degrade and deteriorate. We ask people about the Rafah crossing into Egypt – more open now than two years ago. It’s not an encouraging story – they tell us of small numbers allowed across but most need visas for a third country, they then get a police escort from the border to the airport, are kept in a room there until their flight. Normal travel or free movement it is not.
Over half the population in Gaza are under 18 – most of these have never been outside Gaza. It’s a young generation that is growing up with little hope, with isolation, with physical and mental trauma from conflict, with alienation and anger. Some of the adults we talk to say that they still want to see a peace process, many would support a genuine two state solution. But they wonder what the new generation of young adults will be ready to accept after growing up in the de-development and closed borders of Gaza.
We leave Gaza through the Erez border crossing – a huge concrete hangar where Israeli border guards watch us unseen through remote cameras. Metal doors set into grey concrete walls slide open – but with no guards or officials in sight – and we walk through into the first of a set of security checkpoints operating through remote control with no interaction with a human being until near the end. I end up, past the full body scanner, locked temporarily in a metal pen with doors from chest to knee height, my boss is in the pen next door. It’s the most dehumanising border I’ve ever crossed, though it reminds me once again of Berlin and the clanging metal doors and grey walls of Checkpoint Charlie that once kept the East Germans in.
It’s hard to see where the hope lies – but political solutions only come where hope and resilience remains. We met people in Gaza who have somehow retained some hope and some resilience. But in the face of isolation, imprisonment and de-development, how long can that last?