Gaza. A place that many people know about only in the context of the complex and sometimes bloody conflict with Israel. Movement into and out of Gaza is severely restricted. Gazans cannot leave and most non-Gazan residents cannot enter. Two years ago, I was granted permission to enter Gaza for a solar energy assignment for Mercy Corps, a non-profit humanitarian organization. Views expressed here are my own. Here is what I learned when I visited Gaza.
The Entry Into Gaza Is Through a Cage
There is only one crossing, the Erez Crossing, where people can move between Israel and Gaza. To traverse the crossing, one must pass through three checkpoints. Documentation to enter or exits is scruntinized at each checkpoint. The first is the Israeli checkpoint. In what felt like an empty airport passport control area, a young Israeli soldier reviewed my passport and paperwork and gave me permission to proceed.
I then walked through a long caged enclosure. The enclosure was littered with rodent and bird carcasses. Between the bars, I could see the wall between Gaza and Israel. Prior to the Gazan side of the wall is the buffer zone – a “no go” zone dictated by Israel. It is somewhere between 1000 feet (ft)/300 meters (m) and 1 mile (mi)/1.5 km wide, depending on the area. The Gaza Strip is 3 mi/5 km to 7.5 mi/12 km wide. It is essentially an open-air prison.
The second and third checkpoints, the Fatah and Hamas checkpoints, were simpler but intimidating. Fatah is the Palestinian Nationalist Social Democratic Political Party which rules the West Bank. Hamas was elected in 2006 to rule the Gaza Strip. Following failed negotiations to share power and a civil war between Fatah and Hamas, Hamas took over control of Gaza in June 2007. Visitors are sometimes intensely questionned at both checkpoints. Thankfully, my documentation was accepted and I entered into the occupied territory.
Rockets Are a Part of Everyday Life in Gaza
Following the crossing, I was transported to the Mercy Corps office. I was immediately provided a security briefing. Described to me was the difference between the sounds of an incoming rocket, an outcoming rocket, and the fireworks that would go off near my beach hotel for celebrations. The first two were horrifying and the latter seemed bizarre. Who would set off fireworks in a country that was regularly bombed? This was my first indication of the joy and hope that Gazans maintain, even in horrific circumstances.
Gaza is Very Densely Populated
During my trip, I visited a number of rooftops and got a birds eye view of the Gaza Strip. The density is impossible to miss. The area of Gaza is small (139 square miles), about half the size of the 5 boroughs of New York City. The image below shows the area of Gaza overlaying New York City.
The population of Gaza is approximately 1.9 million people. With a population density of 13,069 people per square mile, it has a similar density to Boston (population 685,000). 1.4 million Gazans are refugees. 600,000 of the refugees live in one of eight refugee camps. Any bomb sent into the strip will undoubtedly hit civilians.
Gaza is Developed
Decades ago, Gaza had a developing economy and was a tourist destination. In the early 2000s, 15 percent of Gazan workers commuted to and were employed in Israel. Tourists visited to see relics of Gaza’s rich religious history. They dined on fresh fish along beautiful Mediterranean beaches.
Literacy rates in Gaza are some of the highest in the world. There are 18 universities in Gaza. Over half of enrolled university students are female.
Life in Gaza is Hard
The population of Gaza has been regularly bombed for almost 15 years. Israel controls every item that goes into Gaza. When I discussed solar projects with local engineers, there were questions about how long the approval for the import of solar panels and other components would take. Only one known lithium-ion battery had been allowed into Gaza, preventing the storage of energy.
At the time of my visit, Gazans have power for between 3-17 hours per day. As a result of the May 2021 round of rockets into Gaza, five of Gaza’s 12 high voltage lines were destroyed. Entry of fuel to Gaza was restricted by Israel. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities were severely affected by the bombings. An estimated 800,000 people are now lacking regular access to safe piped water.
The unemployment rate in Gaza is high: 49%. They are staggeringly high for youth: 63% for young men and 92% for young women. The poverty rate stands at 56%. As a result of prolonged closure and military operations, between 2007 and 2018, GDP per capita shrank by 27%.
Gaza has been ravaged by COVID-19. In April, there were more than 1,000 new infections per day. Positivity test rates were between 30 – 38% for all tested people. Dr. Ayman Abu Al-Ouf, the head of internal medicine at the largest hospital and leader of the COVID-19 response in Gaza, was killed on May 15th, 2021. The one COVID-19 testing lab was destroyed.
Gazans Remain Hopeful
The most amazing thing I experienced during my trip was the hope that Gazans maintained. Residents cheerfully talked to me about solar energy. Their hospitality was boundless – I was offered an endless supply of tea, coffee, and snacks.
I had the opportunity to visit with the Gaza Sky Geeks (GSG) community. The GSG is a Mercy Corps affiliated technology community. It includes a co-working space, a coding academy, a freelancer academy, and an incubation and acceleration program. The GSG youth hold onto thoughts of the future. I had a large and rapt audience as I lectured about blockchain and energy. We discussed the power of social media to open up a world beyond the walls in which they were stuck. They expressed their disdain for the conservative culture forced upon them by Hamas. More than anything, they seemed like “normal” educated youth – eager to gain opportunity and improve their situation, while having laughter and love in their lives.
These hopeful youth live through terrifying times. In May 2021, at least 230 Gazans were killed and thousands were wounded. As long as they survive, the youth of Gaza will pick themselves up and will once again work towards a better future. We hold a responsibility to the youth of Gaza to help them fulfill their dreams of health, safety, employment, freedom, love, and joy.
How Can You Help?
Support First Responders
Donate to these reputable organizations helping the injured and distributing essentials to homeless families:
- Palestine Red Crescent Society
- Palestine Children’s Relief Fund
- Medical Aid for Palestinians
- Doctors Without Borders
- UN Population Fund in Palestine
Educate Yourself, Your Representatives, and Your Community
Oxfam, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, among many others, provide analyses of rights violations. Read the reports of Adalah and Gisha, organizations mounting legal campaigns in Israel for disenfranchised Palestinians and those confined to Gaza. View infographics from Visualizing Palestine. Read the piece “A Day in the Life of Abed Salama” published by Nathan Thrall (until recently of the International Crisis Group) in the New York Review of Books. Follow correspondents and writers for the Associated Press, NPR, AlJazeera, The Economist, Washington Post, Reuters, and other voices from Gaza and Jerusalem. Call your legislative representatives and discuss the situation in Gaza with your community.
(Excerpt taken from recommendations from the Director of Gaza Sky Geeks)
Support Job Creation and Investment in Palestine
The bombing in Gaza has stopped, for now. Gazans must deal with destroyed homes and injured family members. They also must earn income to support themselves and their family. Gaza has a nascent start-up scene that helps employ, and inspire, young Gazans. You can support, through investment or donation, these organizations.