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‘Who said that I have to be a refugee forever?’–Palestinians in Gaza reflect on living in ‘world’s largest open-air prison’

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Young Palestinians often describe their upbringing in the Gaza Strip as serving a sentence in “the world’s largest open-air prison.” Many struggle to imagine conditions improving after experiencing more than a decade of blockade that began in 2007 as Hamas came to power.

Over recent years, movement in and out of Gaza has tapered off with the number of exit permits into Israel for healthcare and all travel through Rafah dropping to around half of the 2012 levels. Alongside this, frustration and despair became rampant after successive failures between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to reach a lasting peace agreement to end decades of conflict.

One Palestinian told Mondoweiss, he believes the decade long siege that restricts travel in and out of the Strip is “eternal.”

For a generation of young people raised under these harsh conditions, they see themselves as trapped between Israel’s refusal engage in a process that would support Palestinian statehood, and an inactive international community. Many lament Gaza has become an aid project and one that is now under economic pressure from the Trump administration. Of the nearly 2 million who live in the besieged strip, 70 percent are refugees.

In recent months Palestinian youth have protested by the tens of thousands along the fence that separates Gaza from Israel that has locally reopened a conversation about return to their historic cities and villages now part of Israel. During the 26th consecutive week of demonstrations, I asked Palestinians in Gaza what does it mean for them to live in Gaza.

Amira Abu Shrar. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Amira Abu Shrar, 26, communications officer

“Gaza is located a mere 90 miles from Haifa, but for me it might as well be Saturn. We don’t have any idea about our homeland, but girls are named after those cities: Jaffa, Nasera [Arabic for Nazareth], Haifa and Akka. If you think about traveling, you will calculate a thousand setbacks before getting out of this prison. Will the Israeli army arrest you at the Erez checkpoint? Will they ask you to collaborate? Will you be blackmailed? Will they let you come back? Because of this all young people are looking at emigrating to Turkey or to Belgium to restore their lives after Israel has destroyed their minds.

Living this life, everything is forbidden. Forbidden to travel, medical treatment, the import and export [of goods], forbidden to marry the one you love from the West Bank or from the historic Palestinian cities [In Israel].”

Hatem Heji. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Hatem Heji, 29, vehicle inspector

“Living within this concept, of the largest cage, means living like disenfranchised gorillas with a lot of injustice committed against us by the world as a whole, not just Israel. I do not know why the theory of the strong preying on the weak is applied by an independent state that is a UN member and claims respect human rights. Thinking about this is maddening.  It threatens stability in an already collapsed area, who then will take the accountability. Why are we pushed to this point?”

Aya Kassab. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Aya Kassab, 22, elementary school teacher

“The weekly protest might became the last strategy we use to guarantee that our voices are heard. Protesters merely want the Great March of Return, and the decades of consequences [we have been living under] to be included in the rest of the world’s narrative for us, rather than dismissed.

I know that no one will be returning anywhere at the end of this march. Of course they [protesters] have no plans to remove the fence. And of course this protest isn’t an attempt to somehow remove or negate the state of Israel. The last 70 years has turned the Gaza Strip into a prison where everyone is serving a life sentence; and everyone’s children will serve a life sentence too; and their children’s children, and so on.”

Ismail Heji. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Ismail Heji, 32, accountant

“This large prison turns us into a real science project. If one goes back four years and looks at the Shuja’iya residential area [in northeast Gaza] – it looked like Hiroshima after the bomb dropped down from the sky. Those residents have lost all hope in running away from bombs. It was shocking to see these people losing their children, and that no one cares anymore. Such apathy makes it impossible to refresh one’s mind to live the life of a human.

My family’s 0.7 acres of olive tree orchards have been flattened by the Israeli bulldozers four times, that made us lose our last hope that we would be able to stand on our feet again. So this feeling of depression will explode on the Israeli side. The more pressure put on the Palestinians will lead them to mass cross the fence, in which case Israel will lost control the situation.”

Nesma Nazli. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Nesma Nazli, 30, freelance journalist

“What kind of a future waits hundreds of youths who have been turned into amputees by Israeli fire? State practices such as the killing of civilians does not help realize one’s humanity. They [Israeli soldiers] practice sniping in a jungle and do not give us a single human right. We will continue so long as the international community fails, as they have done across decades, to put real pressure on Israel.  They just excels at issuing condemnation statements to Israel without any sanctions or forcing it to give the minimum rights to Palestinians. There is no escape from this large jail except struggling 7o more years, then maybe we can restore our dignity when Israel is forced to self-destruct.”

Deya’a Al-shanti. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Deya’a Al-shanti, 25, folk dancer

“No matter how many times the word ‘Palestine’ is repeated, and no matter how many pompous flag-raising ceremonies are held – at the United Nations or anywhere – we, the young Gazans look around us and see very little reason for hope. I could have been born in one of my grandfathers’ house in Jaffa. Instead, I was born in a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp to the south of Gaza. Who said that I have to be a refugee forever? Israel says that. And this answer must be changed one day. But how?

Muna Al-Sek. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Muna Al-Sek, 34, science teacher

“Israel has turned us into people thirsty for a electrical power.  Many people leave their homes when the power is cut for up to 15 hours, then they come back once the power is up to continue their daily lives. We are thirsty for food aid vouchers, our minds are far away from thinking about our right to return to our homeland. My husband and I feel desperate when we planned to enroll our kids in a private schools to get an excellent education, but our fear of the deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza do not encourage us to do so. You do not know what may happen tomorrow. Perhaps we will need these funds to rebuild our demolished home if a sudden war begins for weeks or months. Nothing here encourages to develop yourself.”

Ahmad Kahlout. (Photo: Mohammed Asad)

Ahmad Kahlout, 29, unemployed

“If you look at into the faces of people on the street, none would laugh with their broken hearts. Misery controls the people of Gaza.  We feel shackled due to the blockade and long years of political failures. It makes us weak-willed. Israel’s policy has converted us into ready–to-travel handbags, wanting to immigrate.

I moved back to Gaza from Syria in 2008, but I was welcomed with the first of three massive wars that killed every drop of hope for a political horizon.”

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So, so much cognitive dissonance. Not an ounce of blame for the Islamic militants ruling in Gaza. And a complete inability to correlate their predicament with claims to and attacks on Israel. And BTW, none of these people are refugees. They self identify as Palestinians and they are living on… Read more »

Thanks, Ahmad, for these eloquent stories. Because they are true and cogent, they inflame people like mondonut. The answer, it seems, is that generations of Zionists and others in Israel and elsewhere (some Jewish, some not) have said that Palestinians must be refugees. Because the U.S. has done so much… Read more »

Shame on the entire world for allowing itself to be intimidated by israel. Shame on the Zionists, shame on israel, shame on israelis. And I continue to be ashamed of my Jewish background.

“Israel’s refusal to engage in a process that would support Palestinian statehood”
How long did Israel try to negotiate a peace deal before it became apparent what the Palestinians really wanted? To accuse Israel of unwillingness in this regard is to be dishonest.

Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling has called Gaza “the largest concentration camp ever to exist.”