Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

No ‘Happy New Year’ in Gaza

The continuing Israeli blockade and siege of Gaza means that for many Palestinians there can be no genuinely happy new year, writes Ghada Ageel

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last weekend was very cold in Edmonton, Canada. The temperature dropped to minus 30; with the wind chill, it felt like minus 37. My eyelashes froze and so did my toes inside the thick snow boots I was wearing while clearing the huge piles of snow outside my house.

My son’s friend Logan, aged six, arrived for a playdate and the two boys started a game of hide-and-seek. I seized the opportunity to call my family in Gaza to see how they were coping with the cold, the power outages and life under the Israeli blockade. I also wanted to wish them a happy new year.

I was glad that my sister picked up the receiver rather than my overly protective mother, who always tries to filter the news she gives me for fear that it will cause me too much worry, a task that is usually very difficult as the news coming from Gaza is often depressing and even heart-breaking.

The life that was already made harsh and miserable as a result of the occupation has become even more costly and unbearable. There are only four hours of electricity a day, followed by 12 to 15 hours of outages. People living in the besieged Gaza are suffering through a cold winter amidst the devastation and destruction caused by the 2014 Israeli aggression.

My sister told me the story of two young brothers, Khalid and Omar, aged three and four, from a family called Al-Habeel. They paid a terrible price and one that can never be compensated. A fire broke out on 3 January, started by the tiny candle the family was using to light their home in the Shati refugee camp in the west of Gaza City. The two brothers died in the fire.

Omar and Khalid had taken refuge in a closet when they realised their home was on fire. A closet was also the place where my own son Aziz hid from Logan when they were playing hide-and-seek during my telephone conversation.

When Aziz was found, their laughter filled the air in the house. In the Shati camp, the closet where the two boys were was filled only with the cries and tears of innocent souls being suffocated to death.

This accident would have been a normal one had it resulted from carelessness during a birthday party or even a romantic encounter, as sometimes happens in other places in the world. But the candle accident in Gaza was not normal.

Candles are lit there every night to relieve the darkness that 1.8 million people are forced to endure. Since 2006, Israel has imposed its blockade to punish Palestinians for exercising their right to elect their own parliamentary representatives.

During Israel’s last assault, Gaza’s only power plant was deliberately targeted, power lines coming from Israel supplying the enclave’s eastern areas were destroyed, and the restrictions were placed on getting sufficient fuel to operate what little remains of the plant. Along with the Palestinians’ own political splits and financial problems, the Israelis have ensured that Gazan nights are bleaker, longer and colder.

While all of the above-mentioned factors played a part in the Al-Habeel family’s loss, the underlying causes behind the tragedy point to the inhumane blockade masterminded by Israel and maintained by its allies. Omar and Khalid were the victims of the crime of collective punishment, and Western governments have now permitted this to happen and go unnoticed for the ninth year in a row.

The story of these children is one of hundreds that the mainstream media have managed to overlook. The media fail to do justice to the Palestinian victims of the occupation and they help Israel to commit its crimes unobserved. The media also overlook the complicity of the other regional powers that are helping to maintain the blockade and encourage Israel to wade deeper into its oppression of the Palestinians.

The power outages are only one of the ugly realities that Palestinians have had to confront each day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, for many years now. An entire generation has been born and grown up in darkness. It is also a generation that has witnessed three wars in less than six years.

It is a generation that has been left alone in its struggle to overcome the trauma and psychological damage caused by 51 days of Israeli aggression. Meanwhile, the parents of these children are denied the right to rebuild, let alone deal with their own losses and pain.

On the eve of a reconstruction conference held for donors in Cairo in October 2014, the international NGO Oxfam reported that Gaza would need 50 years to be rebuilt if the Israeli blockade is not lifted. The same warning came from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said that achieving stability means “lifting the closure on Gaza” and putting an end to “the half-century occupation of Palestinian land.”

But four months after the end of the slaughter in Gaza and three months after the donor conference, the blockade is still in force and reconstruction is in limbo, leaving thousands of homeless victims sheltering in UN schools or sleeping in tents on the ruins of their homes.

Omar and Khalid were not the first victims and will not be the last as this inhumane blockade continues. On 4 January, the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights, an NGO, issued a report stating that since 2010, 26 civilians, including 21 children, were burned to death or suffocated in the Gaza Strip owing to the ongoing electricity crisis.

Hundreds of Palestinians from the Jabalia refugee camp in the north of Gaza City marched on 5 January to protest against the regular power cuts, border closures, the denial of rebuilding rights and other Israeli policies. These policies have included putting Palestinians on a “diet” (as Dov Weisglass, an Israeli advisor, has cruelly put it) that will force them to explode inwards.

My voice froze in agony for a minute during my phone conversation. As the seconds of silence lengthened, my sister tried to change the topic of our conversation, talking about how her children were preparing for their end-of-term exams at school.

Yet again, and with no intention of doing so, we found ourselves speaking about candles, darkness, children’s educational aspirations being shut down because of the lack of light with which to study, cold weather, the closure of borders, shortages of essential things and, most importantly, the lack of hope that sometimes leads to bitter tragedies.

Zaki Al-Houbi, a 17-year-old Palestinian boy from Rafah, was the first Palestinian victim this year. On 2 January, Zaki was shot and killed by border guards while trying to cross the fence that separates the Gaza ghetto from Egypt, in an attempt to find a better future for himself.

The Rafah crossing into the outside world — the Gazans’ only escape route not controlled by Israel — has been shut most of the past year. Officials apply strict criteria when determining who will be allowed to leave. Since the beginning of 2014, this crossing has been mainly closed, except for a few sporadic days when it was partly open.

Al-Houbi’s hope for a free and dignified future cost him his life. One bullet had a very clear message: Gazans are not permitted to dream, let alone attempt to live their dream. They are not allowed to challenge the status quo, which must be maintained until the expected explosion (which some hope will be an implosion) happens.

Al-Houbi was killed when he attempted to ring an alarm about the worst living conditions that a human being can endure in the 21st century. He was killed to punish his attempt to open a hole through one of Gaza’s many ghetto walls.

These walls surround the bodies and souls of a young population, of which over 43 per cent are under the age of 14. What options remain for these children and teens? They cannot forget that Palestine is dominated by a heavy, Israeli, colonial hand and that occupation and blockade are the main barriers separating them from a dignified life.

Denying a people their aspirations for too long a time is a very dangerous thing, and those governments that are complicit and those that are watching in silence have much to answer for. Everyone can be certain that the besieged Palestinians will not forget. Justice delayed is justice denied.

Fearing for the lives of my own nieces and nephews, I asked my sister to either not light any candles or to blow them out before going to bed. My sister replied that they were now setting the lit candles in a metal container placed in a deep dish of water. If a candle were to go out in the night when everyone was asleep, the family would be safe.

With each tragedy resulting from the Israeli occupation and siege, Palestinians are learning lessons and best practices. With each Israeli-made tragedy, they are determined to do their best to ensure that it never happens again. This battle has been going on for decades. The Palestinians keep on claiming that they are not powerless, that they are still protesting and not forgetting or surrendering, despite what is hoped for by the Israeli leaders.

Despite the agonies that have become the norm in Gazan daily life, my sister wished me a happy and peaceful new year. In reply, I wished her a happy new year too — a year in which Palestine would finally become free of occupation, oppression, blockade and apartheid.


The writer is a visiting professor at the University of Alberta in Canada and an independent scholar and activist.

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