The Issue of Palestine Seen Through the Eyes of a Gazawi

© Shareef Sarhan/UNRWA Archives
© Shareef Sarhan/UNRWA Archives

For the next season at the Global Oyster I will be dedicating myself to forgotten tragedies around the world. I will report on wars that are less covered by mainstream media, providing analysis on hidden violations of humanitarian law and attempting to voice different points of view by involving affected citizens, mainly young students, to speak up.

With these high objectives in mind, I thought there was no better way than to start with the issue of Palestine.

The question of Palestine is not a hidden one, everyone knows something about it, yet many times ideology and demagogy tend to cover facts and lead the discussion elsewhere. Over the past months, I have been accused of being a Nazi for openly supporting Palestinian positions.

This highlights one thing: the Western perspective on the question of Palestine is totally distorted. If, on one hand, it is true that you cannot take into consideration the issue of Palestine without looking at the Shoah and the post-WW II history, on the other hand these facts – very tragic facts to which everyone should show compassion, remembering how miserable human history has been and putting all the efforts in avoiding similar situations – well, these facts are often taking our eyes away from the pivotal aspects of the question itself. But I won’t talk about this.

What I will try to do with this interview is to offer answers to objective facts about life in Palestine. I will do this thanks to Yasmeen Rabah, a 24-year-old postgraduate student at the London School of Economics from Gaza who collaborated with the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA). Yasmeen has worked alongside a team of refugee youth to advocate for inclusive development and participatory approach. At her young age, she has experienced two Israeli military operations, two Intifadas and one internal conflict- in addition to seven years of blockade.

Hearing from Yasmeen helped me understand the truth and I hope this interview will be helpful also for all the people who read it.

Hello Yasmeen, thank you for allowing me this interview. I will mainly ask you to clarify some aspects of real life in Palestine and specifically in Gaza. I want to start with something that remains unclear to many: What is the citizenship status of Palestinians? And how does your passport and visa process work?

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have Palestinian nationality with passport that is issued by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Additionally, people have identity cards (ID) which are issued also by the Palestinian Authority. I have no idea about people from Jerusalem but I think that they have special treatment. A Palestinian passport is similar to others, in terms of the need for visa or entry permits for most countries. Some countries like Malaysia, Ecuador and Costa Rica offer (free) visas upon arrival for Palestinians. On the other hand, the Schengen area has listed the Palestinian passport under a special category which requires its holder to sign and fill out additional consents and documents.

Recently we heard about the postponement of the school year due to the use of schools as shelters. How is the Palestinian school system – if we can call it this way – affected by these situations and what is it like to pursue an education is such unstable conditions? 

The Palestinian education system is coordinate by the Ministry of Education (MOE), UNRWA and some private schools. However, all schools follow the Palestinian curriculum that was  introduced in 2000 and their students are assessed based on the Ministry’s biannual examinations. As you have mentioned, using some UNRWA schools as shelters hindered the new academic year, something that threatens the quality of education as well as the estimated capacities. When I was preparing for Michaelmas term examinations during my undergraduate degree, an Israeli operation broke out in December 2008. The lectures and exams were then suspended by the university council and were resumed after the operation, with a reduction on the required chapters. Additionally, students who lost their houses and books were given the option to defer the exams to the summer term without any compromise on their grades. This is my personal experience on the repercussions of Israeli raids on education. I have no idea about the MOE contingency plan for the coming academic year, especially  considering that the children are not psychologically ready to learn new concepts. I have read that the first week will include debriefing sessions for the children, with games and physical activities.

What about health facilities and medicines? While the right to health is widely considered and recognised – like at Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control. (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.” – at the same time it is openly violated in war zones. How difficult is it to find medication and medical assistance? 

Medical support is difficult during the war time due to limited mobility of medicine suppliers, as well as the limited capacity of hospitals that can offer basic care for the increasing numbers of patients and injuries. Secondary and tertiary healthcare is limited in Gaza strip and primary healthcare centers also has limited capacities. Many complicated cases are transferred to either Israel, Egypt or Jordan for further treatment and such referrals are covered by health insurance.

Could you describe the situation of food and water availability? How is food aid provided by international agencies and the black market? 

As far as I remember, there is no famine in the Gaza Strip. Supermarkets and stores have different kinds of food, from basics such as rice, bread and milk to luxurious chocolates and snacks. Some are manufactured in Turkey, Egypt, Palestine (local production) as well as Israel. Therefore, there is no scarcity of food. However, in times of Israeli operations and border/tunnel closure, you can easily spot empty shelves in the stores. Main providers for food stipends are the UNRWA and Ministry of  Social Affairs and they are targeted to help those in a state of chronic poverty. They tend to distribute food aid on a regular basis. In terms of the black market, it is more important for fuel and gas supplies, rather than food. As far as water is concerned, its supply is affected by electricity shortages where the pumps stop working. People have developed alternative solutions to address this problem, although I do question their sustainability. Some people drilled water wells in their housing area, while others purchased big storing barrels. Additionally, tap water is not drinkable in Gaza Strip but all houses have water filters which allows them to get drinking water.

What are the main restrictions imposed by the State of Israel?

There are different kinds of restrictions.

– (1) Movement restrictions: These control the Erez/Beit Hanoun border in the north of the Gaza Strip, where it denies most people entrance to the West Bank. At the same time, plenty of checkpoints have been established across the West Bank, something that turned what used to be a 30-minute drive into a two-hour one. This is all  in addition to the Apartheid Wall that has divided villages, houses and lands and made the movement of people very difficult, if not impossible.

– (2) Fiscal restrictions: According to the Oslo Accords, Israel collects taxes from Palestinians who still live in Israel. However, it does not transfer them smoothly and fairly to the Palestinian Authority, but rather it uses these taxes for leverage in moments where the PA is attempting to pursue policies like membership applications in important international organizations and bodies.

– (3) Trade barriers: Israel also controls goods borders along the Gaza Strip. It places many restrictions on the quantity and quality of goods and materials entering the Gaza strip. It denies entrance some products or prolongs the bureaucratic procedures. The latter leads to huge losses for some traders and farmers, especially when the ordered goods are linked to special seasons like Eid Fitr or if they are food items that have a short life cycle. Predictably, Israel does not compensate these people and the affected parties do not have the necessary legal rights to claim anything or protest.

What really happens in an Israeli raid? 

Actually, it is exactly as the media and news agencies describe. Suddenly, you hear sounds of shelling and ambulances and then radio broadcasts announcing the details of the place, injuries and martyrs, if there are any. When it is prolonged into a military operation, it is often accompanied by a shortage of basic needs and limited mobility as well as unclear criteria for targeting. The previous factors increase the climate of general anxiety and deprive the people of a normal livelihood.

What is the situation of the Palestinians working in Israeli territory, do they have the same salaries and workers rights as Israelis? Is it true that they might introduce Palestinian-only buses for the workers from the West Bank? 

I know very little on this issue, except for what I read on news websites. This is because Palestinians from Gaza strip were prevented from pursueing work in Israel after the Second Intifada (2000) and thus I could not construct any point of view in this. I would recommend asking someone from the West Bank.

What do you think about the position of European countries and the US? On one hand they countries try to help Palestinian with humanitarian aids and humanitarian support, but on the other they politically support Israeli positions. For instance, last July the UN Human Rights Council voted on: “Ensuring respect for international law in the Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”; all European countries abstained and the US voted against. What is the feeling in Palestine towards this? 

People are disappointed, especially by the European Union, since they tend to be strong advocate for human rights. On the other hand, they are well aware of the US’ unconditional support for Israel. However, there is a glimpse of hope due to the BDS movement and the rising public opinion in Europe, as well as in the US. Personally, I believe people-power is becoming more effective and might spread to decision makers soon.

The situation in your country is so difficult, and even more so if we consider that, for the international community, you don’t even have a real country. Would you ever go back to Gaza? 

Definitely. After all, it is my country and homeland. My experience in the United Kingdom has further enhanced the value of homeland and it has highlighted the potential we have as Palestinian youth, something that could lead huge progress in our communities. The difficulties back home, especially in Gaza Strip, might push me to stay abroad for a longer time, but only on temporary basis.

These moments of truth are crucial so as to understand the world that we live in, so thanks again to Yasmeen for sharing with us what the issue of Palestine looks like from the eyes of a Gazawi.

 

Agnese Cigliano

 

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