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Life’s hard, but hope springs eternal in Gaza

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My paternal grandmother, Eisha, was expelled from Jaffa in 1948, during what Palestinians call the 'nakba', and since then four generations of hers, of us, have lived as refugees.

BY: Atef Abu Saif

“Are you still living in Jabaliya Camp, Gaza Strip?” he asks.

“Where else should I live?” I answer.

It’s the same conversation I have every time I catch up with this one Palestinian friend in France. Same question, same answer. Life in Gaza is hard. Then it gets worse and we think it’s intolerable. Then it gets even worse.

According to the World Bank, youth unemployment in Gaza hit 58 per cent in 2016, and nearly 80 per cent of the territory’s 2 million residents received aid. The United Nations has warned that the place might collapse. Despite a reconciliation deal in the fall, tensions remain between Hamas that runs Gaza, and Fatah, which leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Recently, there was what looked like an assassination attempt on the Palestinian prime minister as he travelled to Gaza, and Fatah leaders are blaming Hamas.

“You must be tempted to leave,” my friend says.

When so many basic things are so fundamentally beyond your control, you sometimes do feel like giving up, saying goodbye to both country and past, and letting Palestine go. The problem is, Palestine won’t let you go.

My younger brother Ibrahim studied English literature hoping to become a teacher.

It’s been nine years since he graduated, and he still has had no teaching job. He recently started working at a TV repair shop after trying reporting, translating and being a cashier in a supermarket. He spends most of the day fixing satellite dishes in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where he and I and our other eight siblings grew up, and where most of our family still lives. “It’s better than nothing,” he says. Many people here say that.

I teach political science at Al Azhar University. My introductory course sometimes has 200 students. When I ask them what they want to do after graduation they say, “nothing.” When I meet former students years after they have graduated and ask them, “what did you end up doing?” they, too, say, “nothing.” Even the brightest ones end up jobless, or at least careerless, scratching a living from dirt.

One of my current students is so smart – I know that in any other place he would have a great career in academia ahead of him. But for that he would have to do research and take posts abroad, and he can’t leave. “I am rotting in Gaza,” he says.

He’s been trying to leave, legally, through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt for five years. But the border is closed much of the time – last year, it was opened for a total of just over 30 days – and his name never makes it to the short list of those who get permission to go. (In February, some 660 people reportedly made it through, most of them medical patients.)

The other exit is via Erez, into Israel, and then onward to Jordan. That’s an even harder way to go. “Should I leave by boat?” he asks. He’s joking: The Israeli military patrols the sea off the Gaza Strip as closely as the land border.

All of this may seem like an old story, just more of the same. But things haven’t improved for so long that they can’t help but get worse. My paternal grandmother, Eisha, was expelled from Jaffa in 1948, during what Palestinians call the ‘nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’ and since then four generations of hers, of us, have lived as refugees in Jabaliya. The restrictions on Gaza have affected every generation here – even the dead.

The other day I was driving through the western part of the city with my five kids.

Suddenly my five-year-old daughter shouted: “Dad! Dad! Pizza! Pizza!” She was pointing to a shop on the other side of the street. She wasn’t hungry; it’s just that seeing a pizza drawn out on a storefront sign made her think of a cartoon she watches. I was thrilled to see her make a connection between the image and the word.

Children are different from us adults: They’re wired to find some joy in everything. It’s my daughter’s hope that makes me stay in Gaza. It belongs here, this hope, not elsewhere. It belongs to Palestine.

  • Atef Abu Saif is a political scientist and the author of ‘The Drone Eats With Me: A Gaza Diary’. Source:

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