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Gaza, a year on: The (mental) siege continues

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Reading Donald MacIntyre’s recent piece on Gaza in The Independent I was reminded of the infamous May 2004 Jerusalem Post interview of Arnon Sofer, the original strategist behind Sharon’s Gaza Strip pullout:

When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day. … The only thing that concerns me is how to ensure that the [Israeli] boys and men who are going to have to do the killing will be able to return home to their families and be normal human beings.

Here are some excerpts from MacIntyre:

Certainly you can see the weakening of secularism on Gaza’s streets. More women are covering their heads; there is a greater sprinkling of them wearing the once rarely-seen nakab, the garment covering the whole face except for the eyes. And the greatest internal pressure on Hamas is not Fatah, which has been effectively repressed in Gaza, but from more extreme Islamist groups. To [businessman Jawdat] Khoudary, these developments are the function of what he calls "a mental siege" in which lack of contact with the outside world is turning Gaza inwards. To take a single example, there has been a complete halt to the once-steady flow of many hundreds of students a year, often to pursue postgraduate studies, abroad or in Israeli universities. Now Israel has used the closure to stop students even travelling to the West Bank, let alone to Israel or foreign countries. Thanks to the tunnels, says Khoudary, and provided you can afford it, "you can order anything you want in 36 hours. But the mental siege is the most dangerous and harmful siege." He asks why Israel fosters a climate which in the long run will encourage extremist groups "worse than the Taliban". "Israel is so stupid," he says. "They are punishing the wrong people."

What gives [UN Relief and Works Agency director of operations John] Ging his high credibility in Gaza is his tireless championing of the civilian population in the face of what he repeatedly calls the "failed and flawed" policies of isolating it. The end of the war, he says, left Gazans "worse than before" because of the "unfulfilled hope" that it would also mark the end of "that era of collective punishment … that had been their daily life for so long". For the war had at least finally generated an international realisation "that it was the civilian population that was paying a devastating price not only in loss of life but [also] in their living conditions".

But rather than an end to isolation, Ging says, the traumatised Gazans have seen that "daily life continues to deteriorate and, as they listen and they read of more talk of war, they see the peace process is in further peril".

Ging acknowledges that this is not a "typical human emergency" made visible by "emaciated bodies and an overwhelmed medical service" – though he points out that 80 per cent of Gazans are dependent on food aid, that the medical services are overloaded but somehow coping, and that the water and sewage infrastructure is on the brink of crisis with 80m cubic litres of raw sewage pumped daily into the Mediterranean, 80 per cent of the drinking water below WHO minimum standards and 60 per cent of people with only irregular access to water. Instead, he says, "the problem here is the destruction of a civilised society and what the impact of that will be for the solution to this conflict".

As a man for whom belief in international law is a driving passion, he has sought to combat this trend with a human-rights curriculum in UN schools which is anything but routine [in its inclusion of Holocaust studies], less than a year after a war about which the Goldstone report accused mainly Israel but also Hamas of war crimes. Ging is convinced about the positive response of Gazan civilians. "You only have to talk to them," he argues, to know that "they are not terrorists, they are not violent people. They are deeply civilised people … not withstanding the provocative nature and injustice of their circumstances."

Their aspirations are not, he says, "vengeance or revenge or violence or destruction – their aspirations are the same as any civilised person on this planet. They want the space to live, basic fundamental freedoms of human rights. They understand the difference between right and wrong and sanctions against those who are in violation of the law, but their claim – which I fully support – is that the innocent should not be sanctioned."

Like Jadwat Khoudary, Ging is fearful however of the extremism that the "devastatingly" negative conditions of Gaza threaten to breed, including among school pupils. "How do we motivate them to achieve their academic potential when their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters have no job and no prospect of a job? They listen every day to rhetoric, very destructive, which capitalises on their physical experience which is very negative – and tries to attach that to violent activity as being the way out of those circumstances." UNRWA, says Ging, aims to counter that through education. But, he adds, "the most important support is to change the circumstances".

The UN Girls’ Preparatory School A in Zeitoun, the very neighbourhood where calamity overtook the Samouni family, helps to illustrate the point. Three of its pupils were killed during the war, 25 injured and many more were made homeless by the destruction. Late last month, it staged a varied day of activities to reinforce another Ging initiative – one that perhaps would not go amiss in many British schools – the Respect and Discipline programme. They ranged from a parade – "We call it ‘military’ because we want the discipline of soldiers without the violence," explained teacher Soha Sohoor – to a playlet set in court in which teenage girls acted the parts of a female lawyer, teacher, doctor, engineer and housewife successfully defending themselves against a judge’s draconian anti-woman ruling. Afterwards, four articulate 14-year-olds discussed issues ranging from domestic violence and the impact of the winter war to the determination of all four to go to university. All said they favoured a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

Shaima Remlawi, who is learning English, wants to be an international interpreter but also sees herself campaigning for women’s rights – particularly against early marriage and fathers who discourage their daughters from completing their education. "I will not marry until I am more than 20," she declared. Afrian Naim wants to be a journalist, "so I can give the message of the Palestinians all over the world." Islam Aqel wants to become both a professor and a "novelist who can write books that everyone can read." And Ahlam Al-Haj Ahmed said: "I want to be a journalist writing about the sufferings of the Palestinian people. But I want to be effective in society, to be a member of the PLC [the Palestinian Parliament], not in Fatah or Hamas but as an independent, so I can tell the others when they are doing well and when they are not doing well." It’s hard not to be impressed with these girls, brimming with healthy ambition. But hard also not to wonder – without that "change in circumstances", an end to Gaza’s siege, mental and physical – how long it will be before their dreams crash into irrevocable disappointment.

"It’s urgent that we change," says Ging. "Because time is against us. A whole generation is growing up."

Sofer’s inhumane vision was only half-true: Gazans, though they are suffering, have managed to maintain their humanity. But the psychological toll the Gaza siege is taking upon them is definitely growing. This cruel experiment Israel is conducting has already left permanent scars on a whole generation.

Till when will the world allow the siege to persist?

Anees of Jerusalem
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