Government is all about statistics, but life is about people. That disjunction explains a lot about the cynicism and disaffection with politics that characterizes much of the world nowadays. And, while domestic problems may seem intractable, distance increases the confusion and fatigue induced by seemingly intractable international problems. As usual, the people who suffer are those who most need the world’s attention.
This is notably true of the 1.5 million people crowded into the Gaza strip, locked between Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean Sea. The West has already isolated Gaza’s Hamas-controlled government. This week, the US Congress will discuss cutting off aid to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. But this is a time for more international engagement with the Palestinian people, not less.
The statistics say that 80% of Gaza’s population is dependent on UN food aid. The youth unemployment rate is 65%. The Web site of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has a comprehensive database that shows how many trucks, containing different kinds of supplies, have been allowed in by the Israeli authorities.
The situation of the people – or rather the fight about their situation – is periodically in the news, most recently when violence broke the otherwise reasonably effective ceasefire in August. But Gaza has become the land that time – and the wider international community – forgot.
It is for this reason that I took up the offer from Save the Children to visit the Gaza Strip last week. I had not been able to visit while serving in government for security reasons. Now I wanted to get a sense of life, not statistics. The purpose of the visit was not to meet politicians or decision makers, but to get a glimpse, albeit brief, of how people there live.
And there is real life. Boys in Western football shirts – mainly Lionel Messi of Barcelona. Restaurants overlooking the Mediterranean. Schoolgirls in white headscarves wherever you look. Barbers, clothes shops, fruit stalls. And a good deal of traffic – with new cars smuggled in through tunnels beneath the “Philadelphi Route” that runs along the Egyptian border.
But real life is also traumatic and limited. We saw buildings – not just the former Hamas headquarters – still in rubble. Houses are riddled with bullet holes. There is no electricity for up to eight hours a day. Shortages of schools and teachers have pushed class sizes to 50 or 60, and the school day is restricted to a few hours to allow for two or even three shifts.
The consequences of war are encountered everywhere, nowhere more so than for those caught in the crossfire. We met the niece and son of a farmer caught in the “buffer zone” between the Israeli border and Gaza. She had lost an eye and he a hand to Israeli shells in the war of 2008-2009.
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Save the Children, obviously, is most concerned about the 53% of Gaza population that is under 18. The statistics say 10% of children are “stunted” – so undernourished before the age of two that they never grow to their full potential.
We saw what Save the Children is trying to do about it, at a nutrition center serving mothers and children in Gaza City. The needs are basic: promoting breastfeeding, food supplies for young children, and medical attention for mothers. But not all those who need help are coming to get it, so Save the Children funds outreach workers to encourage families to use the services.
There is remarkable work being done to create opportunities, as well as to prevent catastrophe. The Qattan Center for the Child is a privately funded library – and drama, computer, and youth center – that would grace any British community. The director told me it is dedicated to the credo of “building people not buildings.” The center is a true oasis.
The situation surrounding such oases represents the ultimate failure of politics. After the war ended in January 2009, the international community was preoccupied with opening up Gaza. Nearly three years later, there is only stalemate – to match the wider stalemate in the search for a Palestinian state that can live alongside Israel.
The responsibility lies, first and foremost, with Israel. The UN’s Gaza peace resolution (which Britain authored) calls on the Israeli government to open up the supply lines, but this has been heeded only in small part. That is why the tunnels do such a roaring trade, which Hamas taxes to fund its activities. The Israeli government would retort that the parallel call in the resolution for a halt to the flow of arms into Gaza also has not been heeded. That is true, too.
Yet the international pressure is muted. The focus has shifted. But Gaza’s people and their needs remain in what British Prime Minister David Cameron last year called an “open prison.” Surely there is room across divides of party and nation to address these pressing humanitarian needs, which otherwise would only fuel future political trouble.
What makes the situation in Gaza even more infuriating is that the status quo is actually irrational. It is not in anyone’s political interest. Israel doesn’t become safer, nor do Hamas or Fatah become more popular.
One young mother at the nutrition center told me that she was just completing her accountancy degree – but there was no work. Yusuf, age nine, working on a computer at the Qattan Center, told me that he wanted to be a pilot. These people are not a threat to peace in the Middle East. They are actually its hope. What they need is a chance to shape their own futures.