We are not Numbers

Young Gazans between despair and resilience

Team of We Are Not Numbers Gaza Strip

by Alexandra Senfft
Adapted version from first publication in: „Der Freitag“, Berlin July 25, 2019 https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/veraenderung-kommt-von-unten

Despite the misery, the spirit of resistance among the people of the Gaza Strip remains unbroken. For 69 weeks, thousands of Palestinians participated in the “March of Return” at the military barriers to Israel, protesting against the siege and confinement that has now lasted for 13 years. They demand their freedom and the right to return to their ancestral homes. Even the sea is militarily closed beyond the first 6 miles, also true for fishermen. But who wants to swim or fish in it when the sewage from the refugee camps has contaminated everything?

The United Nations warned for years that Gaza will be uninhabitable from 2020. Two million inhabitants live here on a total area of 141 square miles, hardly anywhere else in the world do so many people coexist in so little space. 43 percent of the population is under the age of 15 – a generation of children and youth who have already experienced three wars and countless battles between Hamas and Israel. Psychologists report trauma, post-traumatic stress syndromes and other psychological or psychosomatic problems. Drug addiction, crime and domestic violence have also increased.

Less than 4 percent of Gaza’s water is still drinkable, and electricity is only available for a few hours a day. Medicines are scarce and hospitals overloaded. Over half of Gaza’s population is unemployed, 70 percent of those being under 30 years of age and 80 percent being women. This is the reason why more and more children work and women prostitute themselves. 78 2 percent of Gaza’s population are registered as refugees by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, one in two depends on food aid. With one million consultations per quarter, the 22 health centres are more than busy and the 274 schools overcrowded. “For the unemployed, life under these conditions is no longer humane,” says Matthias Schmale, Director of UNRWA operations in Gaza. “People only survive because of intra-Palestinian solidarity and because they are supported by relatives from abroad, UNRWA and other aid organizations”; in addition, the authoritarian Islamist regime of Hamas prevents the total collapse.

Those who demonstrate and risk their lives Friday after Friday at the border fence are mostly the hopeless. It gives them a sense of being, after all they have nothing more to lose, being the poorest of the poor. Among them are the suicidal who prefer to be shot by Israeli soldiers and become martyrs instead of taking their own lives and leaving their families behind with the shame and unthinkable legacy of the socially unacceptable suicide.

It was a peaceful, constructive approach which Ahmed Abu Artema had in mind when he initiated the “March of Return” in March 2018. “This will be our Ghandi moment,” said one of his friends. In the interview, the journalist repeats: “We want a life in dignity and our rights”. 34 years old, he belongs to the generation of Palestinians who have come to know Israelis almost exclusively as soldiers – or as civil servants who refuse to allow them to leave the Gaza Strip. Yet he feels no hate: “The Israelis and we share the same goals of justice and equality. Jews are not our enemies, it’s the occupation,” the father of four children said recently. He was speaking at the cultural event “Palestine Expo” in London, to which he was connected via Skype from Gaza.

No one expected at the time that Abu Artema’s appeal, spread through the social media, would set more than ten thousand people in motion. The demonstrations have the character of an open-air festival, with tents, food, games and music. Predictably, there would be angry rioters among the masses who could no longer be controlled by the organizers. After US President Trump moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018, the demonstrations took on violent forms, in which Hamas now plays a leading role. Molotov cocktails and stones, burning tires and dragons now dominate the picture and eliminate the peaceful demonstrators from the media coverage. The Israeli soldiers shoot back with tear gas and live ammunition, often aiming at the limbs of the demonstrators. 270 people have already lost their lives, thousands more have been injured and hundreds have lost their legs or arms.

Ahmed Alnaqoub hasn’t been involved in the March for a long time. He just missed the chance of his life and is desperate. The 25-year-old studied English literature at Al-Azhar University in Gaza and won a scholarship in England among hundreds of applicants. In September he wanted to go to Leeds to study journalism. However, at the World Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptians took his passport without giving any reason – and the Palestinian authorities are not issuing him a new one. Ahmed cannot travel without a passport, now his place at university has been given to someone else. “I should be rewarded for my commitment, not punished, but even the Palestinian authorities are not helping me,” Ahmed says bitterly. This blow hits him on the fifth anniversary of the death of his brother Ayman, who had joined Hamas and was killed by an Israeli rocket in the 2014 war.

3 Ahmed found a way to express his grief and disappointments. On the internet platform “We Are Not Numbers” he and other young authors publish their stories. They describe their experiences and feelings. Behind the walls and fences of the siege, cut off from the rest of the world, they present their perceptions, their resilience and their unbroken resistance. This way, anonymous numbers and statistics turn into faces: People in Gaza are not numbers, but people like you and me. Ahmed is proud to be one of the managers of this project. It helps him to preserve his dignity. In May, he and his team members organized the “Gaza Vision” while the Euro Vision took place in Israel: The gifted presented their voices in the ruins of the bombed houses. The winners were 23-year-old biomedical technician Jehad Shehada and 24-year-old pharmacist Ghada Shoman.

Karama Fadel is among of the many talented authors of “We Are Not Numbers”. She talks about child labor and about the social disadvantages of colored Palestinians. Karama’s father was black. He died as a result of internal Palestinian feuds when she was four years old. Her mother was able to bring up her six children with the help of UNRWA. Karama studied English at Al-Azhar University. To finance her studies and improve her English, she taught Arabic to foreigners living in Gaza. “I come as your teacher,” she told her students, “but really I am your student”. That was an icebreaker”, she says laughing. These contacts with strangers, who soon became friends, radically changed her, her view of the world and her values. Karama never left Gaza in her entire life. Getting her master’s degree in 2011, she developed her career as an Arabic teacher. In 2018, together with two young partners from London, she founded the “Gaza Learning Cooperative”, a start-up teaching Arabic online. The independent 30-year-old radiates with enthusiasm and energy. She is now the main breadwinner of her family and she is not married: “I wouldn’t be a suitable wife, I just work too much,” she says, giggling. It is determined to demonstrate the outside world that the people in Gaza are neither stupid nor fanatical nor terrorists, but actively prepared for peace. “Do you know that my first name means “dignity”?”, Karama adds.

Her friend Majd Mashharawi founded the company “Green Cake”. The successful engineer developed unbreakable bricks from the rubble and ashes of the houses destroyed by the Israeli army so that people could rebuild their houses. Majda also introduced solar energy panels in Gaza (“Sun Box”), so that several families can jointly afford alternative sources of electricity. Another young gifted woman, Loujain Sharhabeel Alzaeem has just completed her second degree in law, in London. The 26-year-old is a member of one of the privileged families in Gaza, her father Sharhabeel is a well-known lawyer, and she is fortunate to be able to work in his law firm. In spite of a privileged life, she and her brothers also suffer from unpredictable living conditions, travel restrictions, the wounds of war and the constant fear of further war. When Loujain was 15 years old, her schoolmate was killed in a bombing, a shock haunts her since. For her, the “March of Return” is out of the question. “A lot would be better if the young people had more opportunities and prospects for jobs, if they received scholarships and if they could get to know the world not only through the social media, but in reality,” she says.

Despite pervasive despair, there are many encouraging examples of young people who have grown up with the Internet and make creative use of modern technology. Start-ups such as the IT training center “Gaza Sky Geeks” or “Unit One” bear witness to the huge potential of man power that could make Gaza a thriving place. 4 But Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian politicians and officials continue to abuse Gaza’s people as pawns and hostages to the Middle East conflict.

Free journalist and peace activist Rami Aman and his friends want to overcome the blockades in people’s minds. They founded the Gaza Youth Committee. Through various activities, they try to make peace among their own people, divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank. And the also reach out to Israelis willing to make peace. On 21 June, Rami organized a bicycle marathon with members of the Youth Committee on one side of the barrier and Israelis on the other. Soon there were accusations of legitimizing the Israeli occupation and contributing to normalization. Rami and two of his comrades-in-arms were arrested and spent 16 days in a Gazan prison. “We have lost confidence in the politicians and institutions on all sides and no longer want to give in to their power struggles. We want to make a change. Change comes from below, from ourselves, and the first thing we have to do is restore internal peace,” explains Rami’s friend Jawdatt Zuhair Michael. “No one is responsible for his origin, and no matter where we were born, we should ally ourselves with all those who share our vision of peace with us.” The 27-year-old Gazan, who works in the administration of Istiqlal University in Jericho, is determined to build a peaceful grassroots movement. He strongly believes that a young generation of individualists with independent minds will eventually bring back to Palestinians a life in dignity.