Gaza's young people have long borne the brunt of Israel's blockade of the territory, negatively affecting their health, education and future prospects, writes Stephen McCloskey
August 16, 2012
The Gaza Strip is inching towards a humanitarian crisis as Israel's five-year blockade of the territory has been exacerbated by a dispute over fuel supplies. Gaza's young people are on the front line of this crisis as failing utilities like water and electricity and an inadequate diet have seen rampant rates of anaemia and diarrhoea. Meanwhile, the main provider of food, healthcare and education in Gaza, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), has come under political attack in Israel and the United States, threatening the main institution that fills the gap between poverty and utter destitution.
Hadi Mattar is a five-year-old boy playing among hundreds of young people in Gaza's YMCA. He is easily distinguished from his peers by his bandaged hands covering severe burns sustained at home from a domestic electricity generator. Hadi, like most of Gaza's children, is paying the price of Israel's blockade of the territory, which allows only a trickle of basic humanitarian items into the territory and has been exacerbated by a fuel crisis that has shut down Gaza's electricity supply for up to 12 hours a day.
The blockade has already shattered Gaza's economy, which is denied access to external markets and starved of investment and jobs. Most of Gaza's 1.7 million population has been propelled into chronic poverty, and children are on the front line of the blockade, their lives made even harder by the fuel crisis. Yasmine El-Khoudari, a young blogger from Gaza, recently described herself as being part of a "blindfolded generation", physically separated from the outside world and psychologically damaged by the effects of isolation and disempowerment.
Electricity cuts have been a constant feature of life under the blockade, which was intensified by Israel in 2007 and has severely restricted the supply of fuel for Gaza's only power plant. The Hamas government in Gaza came to depend on supplies imported through the smuggling tunnels between Egypt's southern border at Rafah and the Gaza Strip. But since February the length and regularity of cuts have increased as Egypt has clamped down on smuggled fuel.
The ostensible reasons given are a shortage of fuel in the Sinai region and Cairo's insistence that the tunnels are an unsuitable and unsustainable means of importing industrial goods. However, what may also underpin this new regime is a sense that Israel's ulterior purpose in maintaining the blockade is to have Cairo assume increasing responsibility for the welfare and movement of Palestinians -- a responsibility that legally resides with Israel as the occupying power in Gaza.
What have been indisputable are the effects of the crisis on utilities and hospital services, with the UK NGO Oxfam suggesting in February that Gaza is "inching towards a total collapse of essential services", with the health situation reaching "catastrophic proportions". For children, the crisis has created a new of set of problems to be negotiated. Without electricity, water is not pumped to domestic consumers, which regularly imposes on young people the task of collecting water in buckets for sanitation, cooking and washing. For those homes with access to fuel for domestic generators, there is the endless drone of their engines and the health hazard they represent for children.
However, for most of Gaza's young people, the main frustrations presented by electricity cuts are the lack of light for reading and studying at night and reduced access to computers and the Internet. In a territory where education is considered the primary means of escaping from poverty, electricity cuts can be at once disabling and dispiriting, negatively impacting on classroom performance and the development of young people.
HEALTH, SANITATION AND EDUCATION: There are also worrying health implications for children resulting from the fuel crisis. In addition to the reduced water supply, there are the effects of stalled sewage pumping stations and waste-water treatment plants and desalination units on the quality of Gaza's water.
Fadel Jouda, director of the Al-Awda Hospital in Northern Gaza, the primary source of healthcare for Jabalia, the largest of the territory's eight refugee camps, said that the majority of child cases presented to the hospital involve diarrhoea and anaemia. The former cases are mostly caused by parasites in an untreated water supply and the latter by an iron deficiency in the children's diet. Jouda believes that the processed food smuggled into Gaza through the tunnels is designed for long shelf-life and lacks nutrition, thus limiting the dietary intake of the children.
A recent report by the NGO Save the Children found that 58 per cent of school children in Gaza suffer from anaemia, with 10 per cent of children under 10 subject to "chronic malnutrition". In regard to sanitation, the report found that "in 2012 alone, three children drowned in pools of open sewage that cannot be adequately addressed as long as the blockade hinders sanitation development," with sanitation-related diseases like typhoid fever and diarrhoea on the rise. The report emphatically found that "the blockade has been the single greatest contributor to endemic and long-lasting household poverty in Gaza." It added that, "as a matter of urgent priority for the health and wellbeing of Gaza's children, Israel must lift the blockade in its entirety to enable the free movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, including to the West Bank and East Jerusalem."
Regarding education, with 44 per cent of Gaza's population under 14 years of age, the region's beleaguered education system has been struggling to cope with the number of students. UNRWA provides health and education services to Gaza's 1.1 million refugees, as well as food aid and cash support. It has become a major provider of education services to Gaza's children and currently has 221,000 elementary and preparatory students in 243 schools staffed by 7,700 teachers. These schools teach the local curriculum, but they have introduced additional programmes to target falling standards in mathematics and Arabic, as well as a dedicated human rights curriculum.
The headteacher of one of UNRWA's preparatory schools in Gaza city outlined some of the problems faced by his staff and students in such a highly populated and endemically poor region. A core issue is class-sizes, with teachers struggling to work with over-crowded classrooms and unable to provide the kind of one-on-one attention needed by pupils. Moreover, the size of the student population and lack of new buildings has meant that 90 per cent of schools operate double shifts, meaning that pupils attend school for half-a-day to make way for more children using the same building in either the morning or afternoon. As a result, it has become extremely difficult in these schools to offer any kind of extra-curricular activities to pupils, who sometimes receive additional tutelage in local youth and community centres.
Schools are also struggling to cope with the psycho-social problems of the children, many of whom are experiencing the residual psychological effects caused by the trauma of Israel's bombardment and invasion of Gaza in 2008-09. According to the Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem, 344 minors were killed by the Israeli military during "Operation Cast Lead" from a total of 1,390. But the abuses toward children have continued since then, with the NGO Defence for Children International documenting another 30 cases of minors shot "whilst collecting building material or working near the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel" in the period 26 March 2010 to 27 December 2011.
This exposure to violence and stress has resulted in mental health problems for young people manifested through fear, sleeplessness, hyper-tension and a lack of motivation. While UNRWA has recruited 228 counsellors to work in schools, health and community centres, it is not enough given the kind of long-term counselling needed to manage stress and the size of Gaza's school population.
Sadly, the most meaningful recreational outlet for children, UNRWA's annual summer games programme, was cancelled this year owing to funding cuts. Summer games are normally offered to 250,000 children in a safe and structured play environment that offers art, theatre, sports, music and dance in 200 different locations. The programme has been badly missed by children over the hot summer months, with life in the over-crowded refugee camps severely limiting opportunities for diversion from Gaza's bleak concrete environment.
UNRWA UNDER ATTACK: The loss of the summer games reflects UNRWA's worsening financial situation, caused largely by the failure of donor countries to fulfil their financial obligations to the agency. Robert Turner, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, has identified an immediate funding shortfall of $20 million needed to sustain emergency food aid programmes beyond September 2013. Should UNRWA be forced to reduce significant numbers of its 12,000 workforce in Gaza and implement cuts to emergency aid, then food riots and social upheaval are a real possibility in a region where the UN believes "international assistance fills the gap between poverty and utter destitution."
UNRWA's budget and remit in the occupied territories has also recently come under increasing political scrutiny and attack. United States senator Martin Kirk has questioned the designation of "refugee" being applied to the descendants of those who were directly affected by the 1948 and 1967 wars. UNRWA, he suggests, "exists to perpetuate the refugee problem, not to solve it". In May, the US Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously passed the Kirk Amendment as part of the state department and Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill for 2013. The bill requires the department to specify to Congress, for the first time, what proportion of the five million Palestinians supported by UNRWA were actually displaced from their homes and what number are descendants of those refugees.
Einat Wilf, a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, has also taken up this mantle and suggested that "only UNRWA grants an unparalleled automatic hereditary refugee status" and aims to appeal to Israeli parliamentary committees that approve UNRWA contributions to disconnect aid from refugee status.
Victor Kattan, director of Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian policy network, argues that "the real goal of the (Kirk) amendment is clear: it is an attempt to redefine the number of Palestinian refugees receiving aid from UNRWA with a view to limiting its budget, which is heavily dependent on US aid." He adds that UNRWA's definition of a Palestinian refugee "is recognised by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and is the organisation's standard practice for all refugees around the world." By reducing the number of refugees, the Kirk Amendment may also be aiming to limit the Palestinian right to return to those directly forced from their lands in 1948. With the right steps taken, Wilf sees the "deflated" number of refugees "lowered to 30,000".
COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT: While these political machinations continue, hopes for any kind of rapprochement or meaningful dialogue towards ending the Middle-East conflict seem as distant as ever. Israel's blockade of Gaza, now in its fifth year, is regarded as a form of "collective punishment" within the territory despite protestations from Israeli spokesman Mark Regev that "our goal is to try to hurt the Hamas regime, not to see the people of Gaza suffer. We don't see the people of Gaza as our enemy."
However, the evidence points to spikes in support for Hamas on the back of Israeli aggression in Gaza. For example, an opinion poll taken by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in Gaza and the West Bank following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09 showed Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh receiving the majority of support (47 per cent) from those canvassed. It is unlikely, therefore, that a continuation of the blockade will loosen Hamas's control of Gaza, but it will undoubtedly worsen the plight of its people. As Chris Gunness, UNRWA's spokesman, put it, "it is hard to understand the logic of a manmade policy which deliberately impoverishes so many and condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution."
Three factors have helped to release the pressure valve on Hamas within Gaza. First, the tunnels have allowed imported goods into Gaza, even if Israel's blockade has tightly restricted exports. Second, the removal of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from power has seen a relaxing of the movement of Palestinians from Gaza through the Rafah crossing. And third, Israeli's deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara, the flagship of a Gaza flotilla of vessels aiming to break the siege, caused international outrage and a slight easing of the blockade in 2010.
However, Hamas's recent dispute with Egypt over fuel supplies shows that the tunnels are not a sustainable means of supplying Gaza with domestic and industrial goods. Moreover, Hamas's decision in July to suspend the registration of voters in Gaza for a forthcoming election is likely to further delay the prospect of reconciliation with Fatah and a more unified Palestinian approach to governance and negotiations.
For Gaza's youth, the political wrangling over fuel and internal disputes between Fatah and Hamas have worsened their living environment and increased their vulnerability to poverty, sickness and stress. The primary factor underpinning this humanitarian crisis has been Israel's blockade, which, according to the human rights group Amnesty International "constituted collective punishment -- a breach of international law Ôŕ" and particularly affected children and the sick." The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) believes that "the illegal closure of the Gaza Strip has become institutionalised. Through the provision of aid, international organisations are underwriting the cost of the occupation and this illegal policy." The PCHR has called for advocacy that moves governments beyond international aid and that tries to manage the effects of the blockade towards concerted political action that will lift the siege.
This has to be a priority for campaigners around the world, particularly through the non-violent political action of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. BDS is supported within Palestinian civil society and gathers endorsements from civil society movements across the world. Civil society organisations regularly have to point international governments in the direction of justice and human rights, as the campaign against apartheid in South Africa vividly demonstrated.
BDS campaigners can draw upon the resolve of Gaza's young people like Shahd Abu Salama, who said "no matter how much Israel's oppression escalates, their plans are bound to fail. Their inhumanity does nothing but increase our humanity. We're ready to take the challenge and fight for what we have always deserved: justice, freedom, and equality."
The writer is director of the Centre for Global Education, an NGO.