If Gaza’s borders were opened, ‘100,000 young people would leave’

Educated Palestinian youths find few economic opportunities amid frustration over political stagnation, reconstruction

Young people play volleyball in Beit Hanun, May 5, 2015. A bruising war with Israel last summer has left whole neighborhoods in ruins, especially in the eastern and northern Gaza Strip.
Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images

Part one of a two-part series looking at life in Gaza. The second segment will focus on economic challenges for the Palestinian territory.

GAZA CITY — Rashid al-Najjar peered over his desk at Salim Marifi, 28, and Abdullah Shahin, 26, students at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. They completed coursework toward degrees in accounting and literature but didn’t have diplomas because they couldn’t pay their tuition. Najjar, the vice dean of financial affairs, slammed a fist on the table.

“The young people are lost. There is no future for them,” he said. Many of the university’s 15,000 students can’t afford even half their tuition, he added. Those who graduate face a 45 percent overall unemployment rate, which rises to 63 percent among youths.

Meanwhile, electricity runs only six to eight hours a day in the Gaza Strip. More than 160,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in last summer’s war with Israel, and 100,000 people are still homeless. International donors pledged to give $3.5 billion in reconstruction funds in October, but barely a quarter of that has materialized so far. Israel’s economic blockade continues, Palestinian leaders are divided, houses lie in ruin, and youths feel unable to escape from or change the situation.

“If the borders opened for one hour, 100,000 young people would leave Gaza,” Najjar said. Shahin and Marifi nodded. “I’d go to Somalia, Sudan — anywhere but here,” Marifi said.

Gaza has an exceptionally high education rate and young population; one-fifth of the population has a bachelor’s or associate degree, and 64 percent are under 25 years old. The literacy rate is 96.9 percent.

The walls lining Gaza City’s University Street are covered with graffiti — school names in rainbow hues, national slogans and cartoons critiquing Palestinian politics among posters about females dressing modestly or advocating a boycott of Israeli goods. Young men and women stream through the campuses, greeting friends, browsing stalls of cheap accessories and munching on snacks.

But they graduate without opportunities. Najjar’s son was salutatorian in the economics department but couldn’t find any work except manual labor in a locksmith’s shop. At 25, he fled to Belgium and sought refugee status. Graduates often work low-skill jobs in bakeries, gas stations and vegetable stalls. Najjar said the best-paying jobs are for doctors and pharmacists, who make about 1,000 shekels ($255) a month. “That’s the best case,” he said. “The rest don’t have work.”

Most young people in Gaza don’t have a job, even though education and literacy rates are relatively high.
Alice Su

In 139 square miles, Gaza has a population of 1.8 million, placing it among the densest areas in the world, and it’s growing at almost 3 percent a year. “It’s like squeezing the entire world’s population into an area the size of Libya,” said Basil Nasser, the acting head of U.N. Development Program’s Gaza office. He said 50,000 people enter the labor force each year, but the job market cannot absorb them.

While war and the blockade strangle the private sector, the public sector is oversaturated and mired in political paradox: 70,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority (PA) were told to stop working when Hamas took over in 2007. Some 40,000 are still in Gaza, taking monthly salaries but forbidden to work, Nasser said.

Meanwhile, another 40,000 civil and security personnel are employed by Hamas’ ministries but haven’t received pay for months. A billboard across from one police station in Gaza City reads, “#employee_without_salary” — part of a social media campaign for workers’ pay. The money isn’t coming because Fatah and Hamas are in disagreement, despite having had an ostensible unity government since last June.

Few people are thinking long term in Gaza. They can’t, Nasser said, because war has become an almost biennial occurrence. “Donors have fatigue,” Nasser said. “They can’t keep paying and seeing Israel destroy what they build every two years.”

Palestinian politicians aren’t thinking long term either, according to Gaza’s youths. “We don’t plan at all here in Gaza. We need true leaders whose only goal is to rebuild Palestine and bring it together,” said MBA student Alaa al-Khatib, 24. Instead, the parties are vying for power. “Hamas and Fatah are struggling, and people are the victims.”

Outside interests make the political situation worse, said blogger Sharif al-Sharif, 31. “We are controlled by regional powers. We are not free to make our own decisions,” he said. “Money is shaping the decisions of leaders in Palestine.”

Anees Mansour, a 29-year-old activist in Rafah, agreed. Palestinians could unite, he said, if not for foreign countries’ financial meddling. “There are so many hands playing the ball,” he said, standing on the roof of a building overlooking a line of now-closed tunnels into Egypt. His friends, all young men in their 20s from Rafah or Khan Younis, pointed out spots in the surrounding buildings where they saw people die.

“Hamas is supported by Qatar and Iran. Abu Mazen has Israel, Egypt and the U.S. Palestinians are just being thrown around in the middle,” Mansour said. His friends were supporters of Hamas, Fatah, Islamic Jihad or no parties at all, he said, but they sit together as one. “We don’t talk about this bullshit. The problem is our leaders, and they pay money for the political numbers.”

“We tried,” he said, to create political change. When the Arab Spring happened in 2011, Palestinian youth activists demonstrated in Gaza and the West Bank, demanding national unity, dialogue and reconciliation. But authorities in both territories put an end to the rallies. “Who still believes in the Arab Spring, anyway? Both sides were attacking activists. Hamas arrested us here, and the PA arrested them in Ramallah. We couldn’t make it.”

A billboard in Gaza shows men belonging to Islamic Jihad killed in combat against Israel.
Alice Su

Meera Adnan, 23, a former activist, said she was naive to believe youths could change anything. “The governments are too [messed] up,” she said at a cafe in Gaza City, smoking a cigarette and tugging at her loosened hijab. “The PLO is bullshit and should be dissolved. Hamas, like the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot be politically successful. What’s the other choice? Leftists? There’s no viable option.”

Not all youths are disillusioned. At one meeting with Al-Fakhoora, an organization that provides scholarships to high-achieving students, a group of youths talked about Gaza as if they were reciting motivational sayings — “Change always starts with one person,” “Every day is a new day,” “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

But many were frustrated with Gaza’s reliance on international organizations. Gaza needs development, social security and a private sector, said 33-year-old Shadi Saleh. “I wish NGOs had no role here in the future,” he said. Relief money often goes to programs implemented by foreigners without sufficient financial accountability or input from Gazans, he said. Some programs aimed at mental health issues, for example, often spend money on manuals and group sessions without measurable outcomes.

“If you want to improve people’s psychosocial status, why don’t you employ them?” he said. “Youths in Palestine need to be employed. They don’t need somebody telling them how to debrief and relieve stress. They need money in their pockets.”

Leila Barhoum, 31, a YMCA project coordinator with a master’s in poverty and development from Sussex University, agreed that Gazans don’t have enough say in how aid money is spent. “NGOs are valuable because they employ people,” she said. “But we are lost here because we are applying policies written by players outside of Palestine.” While Gaza spins in cycles of devastation and relief, she said, Gazans rarely decide their own futures. “I’m looking for the point when I can be a Palestinian making policies for Palestine.”

‘NGOs are valuable because they employ people. But we are lost here because we are applying policies written by players outside of Palestine. I’m looking for the point when I can be a Palestinian making policies for Palestine.’

Leila Barhoum

project coordinator, YMCA

Some young Gazans say the lack of collective agency in the territory is their own fault. Gazans are occupied in body and mind, said Saleh Bala’awi, 26. He has an MBA and has worked with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. He lives in Gaza City’s Shati beach camp.

He pulled out a U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs map of the Gaza Strip. “Who is this map for? I’ll give you a hint — there’s no Arabic. It’s for foreigners,” he said. He started knocking on the table in front of him. “You know how Pavlov’s dogs would come for food at this sound? People here are the same. We sit and obey and blame the occupation and beg for help.”

Gazans are unable to think beyond gathering the basic necessities of survival, Bala’awi said. “The problem is not just political. Occupation has become an excuse. We have to take ownership and think for ourselves.”

But people cannot think when they don’t have food to eat, and more than two-thirds of Gaza’s population is food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity. “You can’t ask somebody for political awareness if he can’t get bread for his family,” Sharif said.

In the meantime, even education and privilege can’t protect young people from despair. “I feel empathy for people who allow governments to manipulate them,” Barhoum said, adding that in her opinion many Israelis opposed the war and even more would if they saw its effects.

Not all agree. “But the recent election proves the opposite. Most of Israel supports [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Saleh interrupted. It’s hard to think Gaza will really change, he said, adding that in 10 years, Gaza will probably be the same, only with less water, less electricity, fewer jobs and more despair.

“Did you hear about the 400 Gazans who drowned after the war?” he asked. One of them was Sajed Nafez Hammad, a photographer friend of Saleh’s who had saved to buy his cameras. He had started an independent media office in a tower that Israel bombed to the ground. He decided to get on a boat and head across the Mediterranean along with 500 other asylum seekers, 400 of them from Gaza, all hoping to reach Europe. The boat capsized, and the vast majority died.

Khatib pulled out his mobile and opened Facebook. “That’s him on my second cover photo,” he said, pointing to a picture of the two of them sitting in the middle of a road, with the sun shining.

Everything in Gaza is temporary, said Amal Sabawi, the program coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee, which tries to empower young people in their communities. “Gaza is only living its today, and this is intentional. You have to think about electricity, water, war,” she said. “You can’t build for the future. You just look under your feet.”

The key to youth empowerment is not only scholarships and job opportunities but also enforcing political and legal accountability, she said. The U.N., government ministries and NGOs are all failing to hold one another and Israel accountable, she said. “Israel controls and benefits from everything, and people are waiting. Even if the youth protest, nobody listens,” she said. “It’s not about having an honest leader. We need a system, a rule of law to be applied and respected.”

Otherwise, Sabawi said, young people will turn more and more toward extreme measures — picking up arms, veering toward extremism or getting on boats. “The kids, they try,” she said.

But even those trying to support them are hard pressed to survive. “People don’t have power or hope for the future,” she said. Ask people in Gaza what they think about tomorrow, she said, and the response would be the same: “We do not know.”

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