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Walking Through Cages: Entering the Gaza Strip
Published 11/18/2013 by Global Communities
Walking Through Cages: Entering the Gaza Strip
By David Humphries, Director of Global Communications
This story originally appeared on CNN iReport.
For most people, the Gaza Strip is a blighted mystery associated with terrorism and perpetual conflict. Governments warn against travel there, and both entry and exit are restricted by the Israeli authorities to a trickle of aid workers and locals. So it is unsurprising that few people understand what the Gaza Strip actually looks like and how people live their lives under a blockade that has been enforced since 2007. In the dark, our imaginations come alive and build images of this war-torn zone based on news stories of terrorists, tunnels and, indeed, “terror tunnels.”
I just visited, and for me all of that has changed.
I met our guide in a coffee shop in a strip mall close to the sole entrance to Gaza from Israel, the Erez Crossing. There was no sense that we were near a forbidden zone – it looked like California. But as we approached, our guide pointed out the first sign – a white balloon hovering high above us, equipped with cameras that monitor all movement around the entrance to Gaza.
The Erez Crossing looks like an abandoned airport terminal. Our passports were checked outside by the Israelis and we passed through one gate and waited; then they were checked again, and we went through another gate and waited. Then another. I lost count of the number of security gates. But at the end, a final steel door opened and I was suddenly confronted with the most disturbing mile-long walk of my life.
I was in a cage amid a wasteland of rocks and shrubs. The cage stretches and bends for 1.5 kilometers through an area of land that has been completely bulldozed. Behind me, there was a fence with gun-towers along the duration. Outside of the cage, there is a 500 meter no-go zone. If you are out there, you can be shot. Beyond that, the danger zone stretches another 500 meters – bullets don’t magically stop after 500 meters, after all. Nevertheless, we saw young men risking their lives to feed their shrub-grazing goats. The Gaza Strip is only 10 kilometers wide, and this bulldozed area, which runs the length of the Strip, destroyed 30 percent of arable land. They have to feed their animals somewhere.
At the end of the long, hot walk, we had our passports checked again, this time by the Palestinian Authority, then we took a rickety taxi another half kilometer, where they were once again checked and our bags were searched by the “other” Palestinian authority – Hamas.
Entering Gaza requires walking through a mile-long cage through a bulldozed landscape with gun towers perched along side.
And then, suddenly, we were in the one of the most densely populated, bustling places on earth.
I was visiting my colleagues. Global Communities has worked in Gaza since 1995, through conflicts and blockades. During my trip, I met community beneficiaries of our work, international and local partner organizations and other humanitarian groups operating in Gaza. It was education by immersion.
In this strip of land, only 10 kilometers by 40 kilometers, there live 1.7 million people, creating a population density twice that of New York City. Unemployment and poverty rates are high. Families spend 50 percent of their income on food and fewer than half can meet their nutritional needs – and yet the literacy rate is above 95 percent.
What struck me most were these kinds of contrasts. The beautiful Mediterranean Sea at sunset – except, bathers beware, you are swimming in raw sewage. Famous seafood dishes – except the fishermen from Gaza can only operate in six overfished, polluted nautical miles. Cars compete with donkey carts for road-space. Modern buildings stand beside bullet-ridden wrecks – but there is city planning and broad roads. During my visit, the smugglers’ tunnels to Egypt had been completely closed, creating the full blockade as it was originally intended. That day, they were about to run out of fuel to run the electricity generators. I saw men attaching a propane tank to a generator to get power – ingenious and hazardous in equal measures.
The single most overwhelming sight was that of youth. The majority of the population in Gaza are children. More than half are 18 or younger, 43 percent are under 14. That’s around 900,000 children. There are nearly as many children living in Gaza as in my entire home country of Scotland.
These contrasts demonstrate that this slum-like environment is not the natural state of Gaza, but an artificial state maintained by politically-enforced conditions. The people may be governed by Hamas but the vast majority do not support them. Polls suggest around 67 percent support regime change and, overall, only 20 percent of Palestinians support Hamas – a number that continues to drop. There is a political status quo, but not a human one. By 2020 the population will be 2.1 million, but they will likely run out of water by 2016. The humanitarian crisis isn’t going away – it is getting worse.
Global Communities’ team in Gaza provided food aid this year to more than 85,000 citizens of Gaza through the World Food Programme. I’ve worked with this team for five years, and seen them twice go out during major conflicts to assist the most vulnerable people in Gaza. These incredibly brave souls have risked their lives not because it is their job but, in their words “because it is the right thing to do.” Unlike me, they can’t leave after two days.
The most disturbing mile I ever walked would be the happiest one for them.
And meeting these committed men and women made me think a lot of about “the right thing to do.” The international community must work together to find a resolution to the status quo in Gaza before it gets any worse. It can’t be ignored or shut away, barricaded between a lethal wasteland and a rancid sea. I don’t pretend to have a solution that would satisfy everyone. But I know that one, which doesn’t involve keeping nearly a million children in these appalling conditions, would be a good start.