Generation Gaza: The Young Have Pride Despite Privations

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Gaza’s latest conflagration, back in May, was ruthless, deadly—and, somehow, inevitable. After Israeli police tried to expel longtime Arab residents from East Jerusalem, Palestinian demonstrators took to the streets in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself. Jewish settlers marched in response. When violence spread to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam, Israeli security forces clamped down, using rubber bullets and stun grenades on worshippers. There was a global chorus of indignation.

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Soon, Hamas and the group Palestine Islamic Jihad sent cascades of rockets onto Israeli settlements, the first major escalation since 2014. Israel, concerned for the security of its citizens (13 of whom would be killed), answered with a sustained bombing campaign, pounding Gaza brutally for 11 days. The result: 261 people dead, according to the U.N., 130 of them civilians, of whom 67 were children. On one day, May 16, on one street—Al-Wahda—44 people were killed.

Both sides were taken to task. Hamas, some said, had needlessly escalated the conflict by resorting to rockets. The Israelis, others argued, started it and then did the inexcusable with an excessive and relentless use of force in their assault on the citizens of Gaza. Under the scrutiny of social media, Israel seemed to have crossed a dangerous new threshold, prompting condemnation far and wide, from Western capitals to the halls of Congress.

Whatever the case, the nightmarish carousel of retaliation came, as it always had, with a chilling and predictable frequency. Indeed, local schoolchildren can track the armed confrontations like clockwork, as if reciting their math tables: 1987, 2000 (the first and second uprisings, referred to as the intifadas), 2008 (the first Gazan war), followed by three subsequent Israeli military engagements in Gaza.

Those schoolchildren? They were part of the very same bright-eyed generation that many viewed as the Palestinians’ best hope. But hopes here are often dashed. As the months went on, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be supplanted in the news cycle by other wars and flare-ups. And the young people remained in place. In fact, nowhere in the Middle East were Arab youths more continually confined and concentrated than in the Gaza Strip, the seven-mile-wide, 25-mile-long stretch of Mediterranean land adjacent to Israel that is home to some 2 million Palestinians, two thirds of them under the age of 25. This confinement is part of a crippling siege imposed by Israel and neighboring Egypt, resulting in untold privations and a restriction of movement that amounts to perpetual detention.

Gaza’s 20- and 30-somethings, it so happens, tend to be highly educated, multilingual—and jobless. Sixty-four percent of the youth labor force is unemployed, largely due to the occupation. Nonetheless, year after year, they have proved indefatigable. I came to Gaza this past summer to find out how—and why. I met with young entrepreneurs and farmers, artists and actors, environmental activists and computer coders, athletes and academics. With many women, I talked about their being powerful change agents in a male society. And everyone I encountered spoke not only about their sense of claustrophobia and fear, but also about their pride in what they’ve sought to accomplish in the tiny tinderbox they call home.

Night descends on Gaza City, urban center of the Gaza Strip.Photograph by Fatima Shbair.

I have been reporting from Gaza for more than 30 years. I arrived in 1989, during the first intifada, which began in a Gaza refugee camp and spiraled into a six-year rebellion against the Israeli occupation, lasting until the historic 1993 signing of the first Oslo Accord between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. The first intifada was nicknamed the Revolution of Stones because young street protesters used slingshots against gun-toting Israeli soldiers. In those days, I sat on the floor with children at the Gaza Community Mental Health Program with a visionary doctor called Eyad el-Surraj and asked them to draw pictures of their lives. Without prompting, they made sketches of stick figure people taking their fathers away in the night. Or planes dropping bombs. Even though these children rarely cried, I will never forget that many had the thousand-yard stare that I would later see in young soldiers in conflicts I covered—sometimes for Vanity Fair—in Afghanistan and the Balkans, Rwanda and Somalia, Iraq and Syria.

The tragedy, it turned out, was that these deeply traumatized children—or the teenage stone throwers I met years ago—would become the same grown-ups who now comfort their own children during bombing raids. At times I have found myself interviewing the sons or daughters of people I encountered two generations back. This is a forbidding cycle of transgenerational trauma.

There is also an agonizing sense of wistfulness, of a people conscious of a world outside that they can never see or experience. Many Gazans have never even been to Erez, the crossing point between Israel and Gaza’s northern point, which has grown into an airport-style terminal. As for Hamas—the militant organization that governs Gaza (and which the U.S. and Europe have designated as promoting terrorism)—most people are frustrated with the leadership, yet the population’s options are limited. Speaking out against Hamas or the Palestinian Authority (P.A.)—the entrenched, largely corrupt party that oversees much of the West Bank—is dangerous, and trying to forge new young Palestinian leaders can be perilous. Last June, Nizar Banat, a Palestinian activist who frequently criticized the P.A. and was cited as a future change agent, died in “unnatural” circumstances while in P.A. custody, according to a local justice minister. His family has accused the P.A. of assassinating him.

In short, the people of Gaza, young and old, are at a fourfold disadvantage. The P.A. frequently exercises collective punishment on all Gazans because they are effectively under the rule of Hamas, which is waging an ongoing battle with the P.A. Hamas has not effectively governed or been able to provide basic public services for years. Israel imposes its own harsh restrictions on those who live in the territories. And Gaza’s closest Arab neighbor, Egypt, often treats it with disdain. This all leads to a debilitating collective impotence. “There is a sense of constant helplessness,” says Yasser Abu Jumei, a Gazan psychiatrist. “They have disappointment for many reasons, but mainly it’s about the human rights violations that are happening. Why is humanity watching and doing nothing? It makes [Palestinians] feel more pain.”



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