Middle East Eye / June 15, 2022
On the 15th anniversary of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, Middle East Eye talks to the young people who since birth have been trapped in the ‘open-air prison’.
This year, Jabr celebrated his 15th birthday during his regular 14-hour shift at his uncle’s seaside cafe, where he works as a waiter to support his family.
Growing up under the blockade, Jabr’s birthday wish was to cross the land beyond the borders of the impoverished Gaza Strip.
“I don’t know what being out of here feels like. I have never travelled and I don’t think I will be able to do so anytime soon,” Jabr told Middle East Eye.
“But my brother, who migrated to Turkey a year ago, video calls me every day and shows me the streets and restaurants there. It’s a whole different world.
“I dream of travelling. I just want to travel for even one day to see my brother and then come back to Gaza, but it’s complicated and my family can barely afford our daily basic needs.”
Jabr’s father, who used to work at a tailor’s shop, lost his job a few years after the blockade was imposed.
After Hamas won the legislative elections in 2006, Israel imposed a blockade on the coastal enclave. It tightened the restrictions one year later, after Hamas had taken control of the Strip.
The Israeli government restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, under what it calls “the separation policy”.
The policy, which aims to limit travel in and out of Gaza to avoid transferring “a human terrorist network” according to the Israeli authorities, has had a catastrophic impact on the economic and social life of the enclave’s two million residents.
Following Israel’s measures, tens of thousands of Palestinians lost their jobs due to the exacerbating economic situation, causing unemployment to soar to 50.2 percent (one of the highest in the world) by the end of 2021, compared to 23.6 percent before the imposition of the blockade in 2005.
One year after the imposition of the blockade, the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) prepared a document that detailed Israel’s “red lines” for “food consumption in the Gaza Strip”.
Cogat was forced to release the document in 2012, following a legal battle brought by Israeli human rights organization Gisha.
The document calculated the minimum number of calories every Palestinian needed to keep them from malnutrition.
As a result of Israel’s restrictions, two-thirds of the Gaza population (64.4 percent) were food insecure by the beginning of 2022.
“Once the summer vacation begins, I come to my grandparents’ house and stay there for three months because their home is close to my work,” Jabr said.
“I don’t have any friends and I don’t have time to hang out due to my work. Sometimes I get to work at 6am to start preparing the place for customers.
“I work until eight or 10 at night, and I get 20 shekels ($5.80) per day, or 560 shekels ($160) per month. I do not have any weekends; I work every day nonstop.”
Struggling with debts
The monthly minimum wage in the Gaza Strip is 656 shekels ($189), compared with 1,036 shekels ($300) in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
“On the first day of work when I received the 20 shekels, I came home and gave my mum 15 of them and kept the remaining five. I am glad that I can make money and support my family, but I am mostly happy that I can meet my own needs,” Jabr said.
“I bought this mobile with the money I made by working here.”
Although Jabr’s work is exhausting for a young man, he sometimes refuses wages from his uncle, who is struggling with debts.
“I feel sorry for my uncle who has to pay me and four other workers 20 shekels each,” he said. “Sometimes the cafe does not even make this amount of money, and he must pay the rent and other expenses, in addition to repaying his debt to merchants from whom he bought the chairs and umbrellas.
“I do not work for money only. I also want to support my uncle’s business. He works very hard, but his business barely makes a profit.”
According to a 2021 report by the United Nations humanitarian affairs office (OCHA), the average debt among the poorest refugee families in the Gaza Strip is more than twice their annual income.
The report found that 25 percent of families in Gaza were at risk of imprisonment due to debt and 23 percent reported feeling unsafe regarding their debt.
Jabr, who has survived four devastating Israeli military attacks on the Strip, says that he has gotten used to a “life of fear” in Gaza since Israel’s first assault on the strip in 2008.
“When the first offensive was launched [in 2008-2009], I was still a baby. I do not remember anything about it. But I certainly do remember the three that followed,” he said.
“I get scared sometimes because of the massive explosions, but believe me I am no longer scared of death. But I do fear for my family.”
Following Israel’s 11-day attack on the Strip in May 2021, a human rights report found that nine out of 10 children in Gaza suffered some form of conflict-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Living in better socio-economic conditions, Nabil Saeed of the same generation believes that the tight blockade threatens his own future in the strip.
“Next year I will finish high school, and I have to choose a university major that would later help me find a job. But this is not as easy as it sounds in Gaza,” he told MEE.
“For example, I dream of studying veterinary medicine, but it would be extremely difficult for me to work as a vet here because the majority of people can barely secure a living or buy food. Would they pay part of their daily income to treat their pets?
“Many majors are also not offered at Gaza’s universities. So I may have to travel abroad to pursue my degree, but travelling outside of Gaza is yet another challenge.
“I hope that I can travel and get some fresh air outside of Gaza, but the restrictions imposed, especially on male Palestinians, make it hard for us to travel as a family.”
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on the 15th anniversary of the blockade said that Israel’s policies that make the Gaza Strip an “open-air prison” are part of its crimes against humanity.
“As many people around the world are once again travelling two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Gaza’s more than two million Palestinians remain under what amounts to a 15-year-old lockdown,” said Omar Shakir, HRW’s Israel and Palestine director.
Saeed, who will take the high-pressure tawjihi (high school) exams next year, feels frustrated that he will have to spend another summer vacation at home.
“The older I become, the harder it is for me to travel due to the restrictive measures imposed on the borders,” he said. “I always tell my dad that I need to travel before I start tawjihi. I feel stressed about being in the same place for all these years.”
A recent Save the Children report, addressing the consequences of Israel’s 15-year blockade, found that four out of five children in Gaza were living with depression, grief or fear, while more than half had contemplated suicide.
According to the report, the blockade has sparked a mental health crisis for children, increasing the percentage of those who reported feeling fearful to 84 percent in 2022, compared to 50 percent in 2018.
Maimana al-Naouq, 15, from Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, says she dreams of meeting new people and getting to know different cultures outside of Gaza.
She has never experienced travelling.
“The economic circumstances and the difficulties linked to the restrictions and the blockade made travelling a wish that is unlikely to come true,” Naouq told MEE.
“After students finish high school, they usually choose between universities inside their country or abroad. They may end up studying in their own country, but at least they have a choice.
Naouq said that she wished to be a journalist so that she could visit new places and meet different people.
“All these circumstances that have isolated us from the outside world are caused by the occupation,” she said. “We are aware that other people our age live differently outside of Gaza; they must feel free and optimistic about their future.
“Here, I grew up with the siege and I don’t know much about the outside world. I wish I could travel to the cities I see [on the internet] that seem way bigger and more developed than Gaza.”
Maha Hussaini is an award-winning journalist and human rights activist based in Gaza