Magazine article The Christian Century

Sealed Off

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sealed Off

Article excerpt

WHEN I LEFT the developed world of Israel at the Erez border crossing, I instantly entered the Third World--a crowded, tense and anxious Gaza Strip. What was surprising, however, was discovering that in this "hot house" crisis environment, one of the ways Gaza residents are coping is by spending their afternoons watching Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey.

I was also surprised to learn that the much-feared kidnappings, although usually motivated by the desire to inflict terror, to achieve calculated revenge, or to win profit, are sometimes acts of dare and challenge by bored young people.

"We have no place to go, we have too much free time and we have nothing to do," said Mohammed Ismail, 22, an unemployed English major who aspires to better things--a graduate degree, for one--but acknowledges that being young and having grand visions in Gaza is frustrating at best, embittering at worst.

Gaza can break your heart: so much unused youthful energy and potential are being wasted. "Gaza is a troubled place, which is why [the Israelis] gave it up," Ismail said as he and acquaintances spoke in the Beach refugee camp about life in Gaza.

Palestinians compare Gaza to everything from a mental asylum to a prison, created by pressures from the outside (Israel officially withdrew in 2005 but has been imposing sanctions since Hamas's victory in Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006) and from the inside (the ongoing conflict within Gaza and the West Bank between Hamas and the more established party, Fatah).

As I spoke with Ismail and his friends, power went out for about a half hour, leaving us to chat and drink tea in the darkness of early evening. It was the close of a normal day in Gaza, even though this socializing happened just as the territory was about to be engulfed in a new wave of violence that would claim dozens of lives.

A few days later, 13 members of a Palestinian family in the Gaza town of Belt Hanoun were killed in an Israeli military attack. There was an international outcry about continued Israeli incursions into Gaza, with the Israeli government responding that Hamas has not retreated from its declared aim of destroying Israel and replacing it with an Islamic state. Israel has also affirmed its right to protect its citizens from crude Qassam rockets fired from Gaza--though it later acknowledged that the attack on Beit Hanoun stemmed from a military mistake.

The situation prompted a call in mid-November by a coalition of nine Israeli human rights organizations for the protection of human rights in Gaza. The coalition, which included B'Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories), Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli chapters of Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights, noted that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is abysmal: 80 percent are living in poverty (on less than $2 daily); about seven out of ten in the territory's potential work force are without jobs or sources of income; and much of the population is experiencing daily electrical blackouts since Israel bombed Gaza's sole independent power station, the source of nearly half of the territory's power supply.

The human rights groups noted also that despite its 2005 pullout, Israel still wields effective control over much of life in Gaza--over movement in and out of the territory, over air space and territorial waters, and over much of the territory's taxation system and trade. …

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