Having recently returned from spending a year in Gaza working with the UN, one would think I’d have an easy answer. So much has changed for the worse since my last stint in 2011 that it’s hard not to simply reply that the coastal enclave is teetering on the brink of disaster. There is barely a positive indicator to report, and as the international community has all but moved on and forgotten Gaza in the midst of the crisis in Syria and during Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiation efforts, people are wondering why they should hold on to the last bits of hope they have left.
Yet, there is a resilience to Palestinians that cannot be underestimated—especially in Gaza. In them lies the potential for a change in course, but it will take courage, trust, cooperation, and ultimately an end to the blockade to fundamentally transform everything.
Gaza is a daily struggle and a constant feeling of being on the edge of conflict. Despite being relatively quiet since the last significant escalation in violence in November 2012 in which 165 Palestinians were killed, including 13 women and 33 children, there is a tension in the air that leaves you feeling that just a small spark could spin things quickly out of control. Frustration is at its peak and the population is completely isolated. Extremism is on the rise, becoming an outlet as hope dies—even Valentine’s Day was under attack this year.
The closure of the Rafah border crossing and the destruction of the tunnels under the border with Egypt have taken the blockade to a new level, sealing the Strip and cutting the final lifelines. The only imports to Gaza come through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel and are extremely limited, while exports are essentially nonexistent. With two major escalations in three years and crumbling infrastructure, not only has the blockade decimated Gaza’s economy, but it has also made it ever more challenging to rebuild and recover.
Unemployment climbed to 38.5 per cent in the last quarter of 2013 (56.8 per cent among youth) and is expected to rise further. Jobs provided by the tunnels have disappeared and sectors like the construction industry—which saw 20,000 jobs added last year—have nothing left to work with. Fuel and food prices have skyrocketed, and the mostly aid dependent population has been left struggling like never before.
Attention has turned elsewhere, and international funding through the UN and other major humanitarian agencies operating on the ground has been diverted from Gaza. UNRWA, the largest agency working on the ground serving over 70 per cent of the total population, struggled to maintain basic services amidst a $36 million budget shortfall in 2013. Coping mechanisms have been exhausted, and the status quo is simply impossible to maintain, even if aid poured in.
In spite of all this, the people of Gaza are incredibly capable. Well educated and with a literacy rate of 95.3 per cent (nearly 20 percentage points higher than the regional average), the population is doing better in this realm than many of its Arab neighbors, falling only slightly behind Israel’s 97.1 per cent. Time and time again, I’ve been told by people that they don’t want aid. They want opportunity—a chance to work and build a better life. Even children are acutely aware of this, eagerly telling me they want to be doctors and lawyers and engineers so that they can make things better. The blockade is holding them back.
With few options and no elections in sight, the blockade amounts to collective punishment at best and a humanitarian catastrophe at worst. The international community cannot sit idly by as the situation deteriorates. It is a greater threat to peace, stability, and security than anything else, and has emboldened extremist elements, giving them further ammunition as people lose hope and see no other options. Desperate people have little left to lose.
Gaza must be moved back into the conversation and into negotiations in a way that might actually move things forward within the political context and realm of possibility. The blockade may not be lifted tomorrow, but there are ways to work toward this and ultimately make any solution more viable. Taking small, positive steps to alleviate suffering and empower people so they are no longer aid dependent should be the short term goal, while ensuring a complete lifting of the blockade is the end result.
At one time, there was trade between Gaza and Israel. Local vendors worked with Israeli partners to export internationally, benefiting civilians on both sides of the border. A simple loosening of the blockade, allowing exports as well as imports would be a start; helping the economy, and building confidence so that an eventual end might be possible. The sectors that could be quickly revitalized or that are already moderately functioning can be identified and focused on.
Allowing for more freedom of movement would also mean huge gains for the civilian population of Gaza. It would enable people to gain education and skills that right now are limited to the 365 km2they are trapped within. It would broaden opportunities for so many youth who have never left Gaza, never seeing beyond the concrete walls surrounding them. It could help the growing entrepreneurial sector, giving businesses the freedom to expand and the chance to contribute not only to Palestine’s economy, but also to the wider world with their innovative ideas.
When people feel economically secure and are able to take care of their families, send their children to school, and simply live life without the burden of poverty, it increases security and stability for all. It is the only way this region will ever see peace. Extremism and violence gain power when people feel desperate and hopeless. We have to turn that on its head and give Gaza reason to hope again—to give us all reason to hope again.
Julia C. Hurley was a consultant with UNRWA in Gaza in 2013. She now resides in Washington, D.C., serving as a project manager for an international development nonprofit. On Twitter:@JuliaCHurley.