Today is the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of what now is called the Palestinian territories. This shameful milestone is being marked with a plethora of pundit commentary about Trump’s potential role, the continuing division among the Palestinian leadership and—in the background—the ever-expanding Israeli settlements. But in addition to almost no mention of Gaza, there are two basic, alarming truths that are missing: 1) Despite the defiant face they typically show the world, a collective depression is becoming so pervasive in Gaza that the spirit of resistance is struggling to survive, and 2) it’s not war and the threat of it that should bring us out onto the streets but the daily structural violence.
Fighting hopelessness in Gaza
There are a number of stereotypical images of the Palestinians of the oPt I see regularly deployed in the media and elsewhere to serve one agenda or another. One was recently on full display at the 6th International Conference in Support of the Palestinian Intifada, which I attended in February in Tehran. Most of the 600-plus attendees were members of parliaments (although the only representatives from Western governments came from Ireland and Crete), “radical” NGOs or media, and (in the case of Palestine) political factions. I was appreciative of the effort to put the Palestinian cause back on the radar, from which it is repeatedly shoved off by Syria, ISIS and other crises of the moment. But, in addition to the absence of concrete action in the months since then, what I found disturbing was the lack of recognition of just how depressed and even apathetic about life and their ability to make change that many “average” Palestinians under occupation have become—particularly the youth in Gaza. The passion and “fighting rhetoric” I heard from the Palestinian factions in the grand meeting room are largely lacking on the ground—at least among the youth in Gaza, who make up more than half of the 2 million population.
When I anonymously surveyed the young people who participate in my project or who are on our waiting list (a small, skewed sample, yes, but I believe it is reliably indicative), 55 percent scored as likely to be clinically depressed using a National Health Service assessment. Half had lost one or more family members or close friends in a past Israeli assault. On most days, a third said they feel they are a failure or have let their family down. One in five think they’d be better off dead, or contemplate hurting themselves, nearly every day or on more than half the days.
These sentiments are reflected in an assignment the writers completed. When asked to write six-word stories, these are among what they produced:
- For sale: Gazan passport, never used.
- They killed her; something changed: numbers.
- “Let’s study.” The power went out.
- She decides to rot in bed.
As you will note, Israeli wars are not the only cause of their hopelessness, and isn’t even the primary one. It’s not the lack of aid either. When asked what depressed them the most, their answers were the following.
- Inability to travel out of Gaza (77 percent). Note that 69 percent of respondents say most of their friends yearn to live outside the Strip.
- Power outages (65 percent).
- Inability to get a job at all or that pays fairly (61 percent).
- Israeli attacks/surveillance (55 percent).
In fact, in a recent essay written by one of our writers, called “The Walking Dead,” Wesam Al-Naouq wrote, “Youth feel stuck and unable to move on, leading them to wish for another war, instead of nothingness.”
Israeli attacks aren’t the only violence
And that leads me to my other frustration. American and other Western activists turn out onto the streets in droves when Israel launches a war on Gaza. But once a ceasefire is declared, mass attention fades away, except for periodic hand-wringing over the lack of reconstruction, etc. (And yet, governments, international NGOs and even activists wail and moan when Palestinians use violence themselves. What message are we sending, when that seems to be the only time we pay serious attention to Gaza?)
War is actually not what is most destructive to the soul of youths in Gaza. It is the isolation, the lack of prospects, the daily grind needed just to cope, the absence of reason to hope—the nothingness.
Breaking the isolation with ‘We Are Not Numbers’
The will to resist (including against the despots in their own government) is struggling to survive in Gaza. But neither have the people succumbed to the paralysis of victimhood. For the past two years, I have been working in my own, small way to support and nurture the “survival spirit” among the youth in Gaza through a project I founded in 2015, We Are Not Numbers. We pair English writers with professional authors and journalists from around the world to help them tell the human stories behind the numbers in the news.
In just two years, we have expanded to include more than 150 Palestinian writers from Gaza, as well as a growing number from the West Bank, Lebanon and now even Turkey. (It is their desire to connect and collaborate with fellow Palestinians across the diaspora.) We have published more than 350 stories written by the writers with the coaching of their assigned, professional mentors. We are working on a book and have launched a partnership with the faculty of three U.S. universities, as well as with the Black Lives Matters movement. And now, with the fundraiser we have just launched, we plan–with your help, I hope–to employ a few of our best writers and university graduates by forming Gaza’s first, all-youth news agency. Not only will a couple of writers get paid employment each year, but all of them will get training in a type of writing and research that could possibly get them jobs elsewhere and improve their chances of earning scholarships.
Mondoweiss has been supportive media partner since the founding of We Are Not Numbers, and we couldn’t have asked for a more responsive audience than its community of loyal readers. We hope you will stick with us and help us not only continue to exist but expand. Will you donate and share the link with your network?