Three weeks living in the besieged Gaza Strip
The best way to find out how we, the “Friends of Gaza”, can help to support the children in the Gaza Strip, was for me to go and find out for myself. The hardships Gazans suffer and the conditions they have to live in are far beyond what we would consider normal.
Gaza’s main power plant has two turbine generators and only one of them works due to fuel shortages and lack of spare parts; Israel refuses to allow diesel and spares into the region. The blockade also makes for an ongoing lack of essential medical supplies, food and building materials and in fact everything that would enable the Palestinian people to even begin to start leading a normal life. But you will not read about this in your newspapers nor will you see it on the TV: most people think the crisis is all over now because the Israelis said that they would lift the blockade back in July of 2010.
Gaza has been under an all-out Israeli blockade since 2007, and the children find it very hard to learn and study when they don’t even have mains electricity. The air is so polluted by exhaust from small generators that most if not all shops, houses, businesses and schools have to have them, because of the power cuts for more than 12 hours a day. The children find it very hard to breathe, and the noise is so deafening you can hardly hear anyone talking to you as you walk down the street.
I asked some medical staff what the most common medical problems the locals suffer from. They said breathing problems are very common with bronchitis, emphysematous asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, including emphysema, followed by heart failure that causes fluid to collect in the lungs and panic attacks. A shortage of all medical supplies compounds the issues. Some children find it very hard even to play as they suffer with lung diseases caused by smoke from the generators and old cars that should not even be on the road. But it is a problem for adults and children alike. A lot of people complain of suffering from bad headaches which affects their concentration. The Mediterranean Sea along Gaza’s coast is heavily polluted with at least 60 million litres of raw and partially treated sewage being pumped into it every day which results in children picking up other diseases. The roots of Gaza’s water problems lie in the over-population of the area, due to a high influx of refugees in 1948, when approximately 200,000 people fled to the region from Jaffa and Beersheva areas of what is now known as Israel, following Israel’s war of independence. The original population of the Gaza Strip at that time was 80,000, so this represented an increase of some 250%. Now over three quarters of the Gazan population of 1.6 million are registered refugees.Gaza has no basic infrastructure. In addition, missile strikes and ground incursions by the Israelis have repeatedly damaged and destroyed pipelines, and maintenance personnel have been arrested, shot at, or even killed while trying to carry out repairs. Inadequate sewage-treatment infrastructure and damage to waste-water and drinking-water pipelines has allowed sewage water to contaminate drinking-water supplies, leading to sharp increases in water-born diseases in many areas. The mains water supply is so badly polluted that it’s not fit for drinking or cooking, and people have to buy clean drinking water after being treated, which is delivered to the shops and homes every day by small tankers. Just like this man who lives on the seventh floor then has to carry 25 litres up the stairs because no electricity means no lift…
The extra cost of useable water on the family budget affects the children even more, from not having the money to pay for necessary educational needs, such us books, pens, pencils, paper, and reading materials, let alone school uniforms. The majority of the adults are living on an economic knife-edge, which again affects the children. With some 1.6 million inhabitants in this small land, conditions are dire and, as each day goes on, more and more children are suffering from malnutrition, anaemia, acute psychological damage, nightmares, tantrums, obsessive aggression disorder and even internal organ failure. Some children are so traumatised that they have lost the ability to speak. The list is endless. All the people that spoke to me said they would rather have trade not aid, and all they really want is to have their dignity back and jobs to support their families.
I discovered on my last week there that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) had removed many families from their list of the most vulnerable people from receiving the basic food assistance, which adds even more pressure on them. Statistics from UNRWA show that more than 80% of Gaza’s households rely on food assistance and remain food insecure. The poverty caused by the ongoing land and sea blockade has forced impoverished people to become aid dependent.
This story really starts when I received a phone call from the Egyptian Embassy in London on Wednesday 22nd June informing me that the Egyptian Authority has agreed for me to be allowed in to the Gaza strip from the 23rd June until the 15th July. This was something I didn’t expect so soon so, with no time to waste, I had to arrange a flight to Cairo, Egypt then travel down to the Rafah Border by 4pm the next day.
I took a flight out from Heathrow 10am on Friday and got to Cairo Airport by 4pm local time. But once I had landed in Cairo, I was questioned for nearly 4 hours asking me why was I in the country also why did I want togo in to the Gaza Strip, I showed them my documents and answered their questions. After they had checked things out they said I could go on my way. But I was informed that the Rafah Border would be closed on Saturdays and I would have to wait for it to reopen again.
On Sunday I went to the British Embassy to see if they could offer any advice, but they was not much help at all. On Monday morning at 5am I left Cairo to head down to the border. I got there at 10am to find around 300-400 Palestinians waiting to enter Gaza. The Border became very busy and no one was moving anywhere, the border authority said that their computers had broken down and they were waiting for someone to come from Cairo to fix them.
Many of the Gazans waiting were elderly in their 80s or even 90s. Lots of families had been there since 8am, men and women, even some with babies just weeks old. We all had to wait in a very hot and stuffy hall with no air, but there was a small shop which had run out of drinking bottled water but had some snacks left.
It was a very long day: 2pm came and went; 4pm came and went. Then just after 5pm suddenly the computers came back on again and they started to allow us to go through to Gaza. Once outside in the heat of around 40ºc we had to buy a bus ticket to take us all of 50 to 60 yards to Gaza, as one is not allowed to walk across that road… This cost 15 Egyptian pounds (£1.50), but there were no tickets to buy at first but then a man came by with tickets in his hand and then it was free for all… By the time the first lot of people had got on the bus it was well past 6pm; I got through into Gaza about 7.20pm.
After having a good night’s sleep I relaxed most of the next day after my long trip from England. I spent all of Wednesday morning trying to find the Government Office to make arrangements for me to leave on the 15th of July, as the Egyptian authorities wouldn’t allow anyone to leave Gaza without a pre-booked date. But I was told that I didn’t need permission to leave as I held an international passport.
Mr Saba and I went to the YMCA and saw over 400 children playing at their summer games. I met and talked with the management team and found out how the games are funded, talking with many of the children and hearing how they lived and what they thought was needed for them to have some kind of a normal life. Issa Saba and his father have worked and supported the YMCA for over 30 years (incidentally, his father was put in an Israeli prison when they occupied the Gaza Strip, for not registering with the Israeli authority). The YMCA is well funded by YMCA International from around the world, but like other charities they can always use more money.
It was great to see the children dancing and singing at the Palestinian Association for Development and Heritage Protection. About 100 children use the centre which helps relieve the negative effects and stresses to which the children are exposed, and to raise children’s awareness of the value of their cultural and archaeological heritage and the importance of its preservation. They hope to start IT training for the students but like everywhere they need more room as well as funds. Last year they planned a new play garden and also built some small out-houses from mud because Israel is not allowing any proper building materials through the borders.
The next day I went back to the Palestinian centre to watch the children learn about their heritage and culture with some dancing, singing, drama, creative writing and lots of music. They even got me up dancing with them!
Other places I visited were the Islamic Relief Association in Gaza city, they are Based in the UK and I met up with Mr Hatem Shurrab, who is their Media and Public Co,ordinator. From there we went on to see the Palestinian women’s Union in Gaza City. It opened in 1964 and seem to be well supported, they said they are look after poor Families who needs help. They are looking for help and Money to buy a bigger generator for their Computer Programme, as everywhere Electric is one of the big problems throughout Gaza strip.
And then on to Alqattan Center for Children in the heart of the City, a centre started up by Mr Abed Almuhasen Alqattan, a Palestinian man who lives in Britain. All these charities need a lot more money to keep them going.
To try to understand Gaza, you have to understand the land, its people and its history. When you hear the name Gaza, most people think its people are all Muslim, but in fact there are Christians there, too, just like Mr Saba and his father. Christians have been in Palestine as long as Muslims, just as the Jewish people have been before, just after the 2nd world war on May 14, 1948, Israel declares independence. These religions live side-by-side and work together for the sake of the community as a whole. In fact if you ask a Christian person what they think about what’s going on in Gaza, the answer would be “I’m Palestinian, and Gazan, and we are all suffering together” Religion doesn’t come in to it.
I went from the north, where the Israeli Border is (Erez Crossing), down to the south with the Egyptian border (Rafah Crossing) and Dier Elbalah in the Middle of the Gaza strip. Also to Muntaar Hill in the eastern part of Gaza, near the border the highest part of the strip, from where you can see the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel to the east and to the north. The Egyptian border is 25 miles to the south. 1.6 Million people in this small land in dire conditions. All you see from here are rooftops of houses and yet more houses.
There are no open areas for the children to play. The only outlets they have are the centres and the narrow alleyways to play in.
To see these children still trying to have some kind of normal life is heart breaking, but you don’t have to look far to see the fear in their eyes, these children never know if and when the Israelis will bomb their home’s again. Another centre I went to is a place called Heker Aljamaa, in the middle area of Gaza, in the town of Dier Elbalah. There I saw a very small place where children were having their summer camp. The welcome these children and teachers gave me was overwhelming just as I had received at the other centres. But here I noticed a young boy just sitting and looking at the floor, and he seemed to be scared to move. The other children tried their best to enjoy themselves, they showed me one of their dances, and they were just trying to have fun. You won’t see these children playing with games consoles and laptops: all they had were a few sheets of paper and some pencils. Most of what they had to play with was recycled materials, the kind of things we would throw away as rubbish, such as empty tins, bottles, cardboard and bits of old plastic Lego bricks. This centre gets some help from a French charity but as with all the other charities they need so much more help.
A day at the beach was good for the children from three refugee camps, who were trying to get their kites flying simultaneously. They won’t be smashing any Guinness World Records (UNWRA did that in 2009), but over 280 children and I had a fun day. Since the Blockade in 2007 and the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, by the Israelis, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of many parts of the Gaza Strip, and with parents being out of work the children have suffered even more poverty than before.
The three weeks I was there, I would sit at night watching the F16s flying over Gaza and at no time did I see or hear any rockets leaving Gaza, Over four nights Israel bombed Gaza. On Wednesday night Israeli attack came hours after two Palestinians were killed and a third was injured by a drone attack on central Gaza strip in what the Israeli army described as a preemptive strike to stop a projectile attack. Israel had carried out airstrikes targeting the northeastern part of the Gaza, these attacks occurred in the early hours of Saturday morning, Israeli warplanes also attacked the the southern part of the Gaza Strip early on Friday, injuring people. I felt the ground shaking when we heard the bombing. The Israelis frequently bomb the Gaza Strip, saying the actions are being conducted for defensive purposes. However, disproportionate force is always used, in violation of International Law, and civilians are often killed or injured. the naval siege of the Gaza Strip remains in place, exports are banned, cutting the Palestinian people off by sea, land and air.
One evening I went to Islamic University to see some friends pass out with their degrees, very interesting evening seeing all the students being so happy to receive their diplomas with excellent marks. Our friends Mona, passed English and received (92.2%) the highest marks this year and Sahar also passed in English, receiving very good marks, regardless the living condition they are all exposed to the Bombing and lack of Educational materials, these young people are now looking for jobs, Jobs that are almost very hard to find.if not impossible. ( over 200 students passed out that night.)
Read More from Mona: The Difficulties I Faced in my Academic Journey
I was invited to meet up with the Dean, Dr Ghassan Abu Orf, and some young students at the UNRWA training college, in Khan Younis in the southern part of Gaza. These young men built a sports car from scratch for an event held in England in July called Formula Student.
Going that Extra Mile
Resilience is all part of the job when living in Gaza but, although the residents there are trapped inside what is effectively a caged region, that doesn’t stop them thinking outside of the box as it were. And this was proved recently by some very special students at the Khan Younis Training Centre.
Their college dean is a very special man by the name of Dr Ghassan Abu Orf who had previously lectured at Sunderland University. While working in the North of England, he had involved his students in a prestigious event called Formula Student, a contest held annually by the fabled Institution of Mechanical Engineers and presided over by Formula 1 guru Ross Brawn, OBE. The competition is for students around the world to build a single-seater race car. But that is only part of it: the premise is simple ‘assume that someone has asked you to build a race car’. Then design, build, generate sponsorship and manage the whole project… That may be fine for a group of students in England, Germany or America but in Gaza where the average wage is between $2–3 dollars a day the problems start building up. But Dr Ghassan was not dissuaded and soon he had two groups ready to swing into action: one pulling together the engineering and one fund raising and looking after the business side. And this wasn’t an all-male affair, either.Mr Mohammed agha was the driving force as far as fund raising was concerned and helped raise several thousand dollars.Soon afterwards orders went out for the componentry needed for the design – but that is where the wheels started to fall of the project almost before it had even started… A big order for much of the racer’s running gear was placed in Italy but the company had no dispatch listing for Gaza and the parts instead went to the occupied West Bank where the Israeli authorities duly sent them back again. Dr Ghassan went out to Italy to see if he could help, but he could only bring the bare minimum in with him.
So, at the end of May and with the competition in mid July, a contingency was put into place using anything they could recycle to finish the job. So a crashed Honda motor cycle provided the power unit and water pipes made the tubes for the chassis. But it all came together so that at the beginning of July the tired band of students, who had been working non stop for days, could give their machine a test run. That they didn’t have any money to get them or the car to the competition mattered not: the feeling of accomplishment was reward in itself.
Good news is often hard to come by in a place like Gaza where many locals depend on UN food aid simply to survive, so when the car was given its first drive, it was picked up not only by local press but by Arab TV network Al Jazeera who featured it on their news broadcasts. Immediately, offers came in to help the group from way beyond the strictly enforced Gazan borders and, in spite of the inevitable trouble with visas getting them out, at the last minute the KYTC students and their car were on their way to England. Apart from Dr Ghassan, none of the 11-person team had ever stepped foot out of their homeland, which measures just 25 miles by 7 miles, but soon they were in Birmingham, before dropping down to Silverstone, just a week after it had hosted the British Grand Prix, for the contest.
Under the strict rules of the competition the team were penalised heavily for missing the deadline for submitting their design, which cost them a top-ten place in their division.but they won third prize for what was described as their “brilliant business plan”, which was part of the international racing competition in which they came an overall 13th. But it mattered not. Here was the living embodiment that ‘it is not the winning but the taking part that matters’. And even if the Gaza recycled machine didn’t have the clockwork-like precision of some of their well funded rivals, just about every other competitor came up to wish them well and, more importantly, offer help and materials for their next year’s project. Indeed the friendship and praise that was heaped upon them will live with the students for years to come.
And it didn’t end there. The team were invited down to London to visit the House of Commons by Christopher Gunness who works for UNWRA. Not even typically English mid-summer torrential rain could dampen their enthusiasm. But their effort is best summed up by Dr Colin Brown, Director of Engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: ‘It really is inspirational to see a team working so hard with the odds stacked against them like this. Formula Student is a massive challenge in its own right, but to be working with almost entirely recycled parts in one of the most deprived areas in the world is remarkable’.
What a winner for Gaza, and for the guys,girls from Khan Younis Training Centre.
Click on link below for more information in Gaza.