“You will not find children here — only adults in small bodies,” said a 13-year-old schoolgirl named Amal (her name has been changed to protect her privacy), whom we met in Gaza last month.
She has survived three wars and speaks with maturity far beyond her age. She told us about the severe restrictions she faces on her ability to travel, study and even play.
“Why am I treated differently from any other child?” she asked. “We are afraid to play in the streets or go to school because we don’t know if we will be bombed.”
This is the daily reality for her and other Gaza Palestinians, who live in fear of another Israeli attack that may throw their lives into complete disarray again. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, where many Palestinians took shelter during the 2014 war, is preparing for the worst by equipping its schools with showers. Survivors suffer from widespread cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The worst part about the occupation is isolation,” Bassam Nasser, the Gaza field manager for Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told us as he drove us through bombed-out neighborhoods in Gaza, which has been under a land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007. “The only way Gazans see the outside world is through their television.”
And television is the only way most of the outside world sees Gaza. Few foreigners are given permission to cross from Israel. Immediately upon entering the Gaza Strip, we could see the effect of being cut off from the rest of the world. We saw boys and men scavenging in rubble along the towering wall that divides Gaza from Israel. The landscape is still defined by these massive piles of rubble from demolished homes and factories. Gaza’s economic situation is dreary, with the highest unemployment rate in the world. The most fortunate skilled workers sweep streets through cash for work programs. The U.N. has predicted that Gaza could be uninhabitable in five years if the blockade isn’t lifted.
The primary obstacle to rebuilding Gaza isn’t financial: It is the significant Israeli restrictions on construction materials such as cement and wood. We visited several of the nearly 400 shelters built by CRS and the international humanitarian organization Islamic Relief in some of the most devastated neighborhoods. The shelters were built by joining two pieces of wood 2.5 centimeters thick, to comply with Israeli guidelines. According to CRS, that specification has been reduced to 1 centimeter, making it nearly impossible to use even for temporary housing.
Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza after the Palestinian armed group Hamas seized power by force. Israel considers Gaza a hostile entity and has allowed only limited construction materials into the territory, saying Hamas would use them for military purposes.
However, banning construction materials did not stop Hamas from building tunnels. The group continues to use wood and concrete from the black market for tunnel reinforcement. Israeli officials say Hamas is also making tunnels from clay.
It is true that some unmonitored construction materials allowed into Gaza for rebuilding could be used to fortify tunnels. But that should not prevent 1.8 million Gazans from rebuilding their homes. The international community must not condemn the more than 100,000 people who lost their homes in the 2014 war to a life of enforced homelessness. Thousands of men, women and children who now sleep on the rubble of their bombed-out homes will benefit greatly from rebuilding efforts if Israel lifts the ban on construction materials.
Shortages of electricity and clean water exacerbate the crisis. Palestinians in Gaza receive only six to eight hours of electricity a day. As a result, children attend school in two shifts. Amal’s classmates complain that those attending the afternoon shift don’t have enough light to study or finish their homework. And Gaza’s beaches are covered in sewage because of the lack of sufficient electricity to treat it. The U.N. warns that the Gaza Strip may run out of drinkable water by the end of 2016. Families would be forced to either buy overpriced water or drink contaminated water, as many already do.
Clearly, rebuilding Gaza cannot wait. The eight-year blockade on reconstruction materials must be lifted to allow Gazans to secure such basic human necessities as water, electricity and shelter. This is an issue on which some members of Congress and President Barack Obama agree. During his first 48 hours in office, he said, “As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce.”
Obama should honor this commitment before leaving office and ensure that the blockade on Gaza is not handed off to the next president of the United States, leaving children like Amal with no hope for the future.