Survival is a word that sticks with us Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip. In the last thirteen years alone, we have survived five major Israeli aggressions and other minor attacks.
Shortly after the latest Israeli attack, which ended around midnight on August 7, 2022, many of the people here posted on their social media: “Good morning world. were alive. A new life to make our dreams come true.”
Although physical survival is a blessing, it doesn’t mean we’re fine on the inside. The heavy dose of military attack we have endured and living under a strict blockade is itself mentally draining. People rarely have the luxury of finding ways to deal with these circumstances. It becomes a burden that destroys us from within.
The Burden of Survival
We are the ones who expect to carry the torch, to keep up the fight, to stand firm in spite of it all, to bear the legacy of every martyr and the responsibility for justice. Often this constant struggle and the daily struggle for a normal life becomes too difficult. Sometimes it feels enough just to keep surviving.
In all this anarchy, I have watched my people react to the tremendously difficult circumstances they live in and wondered how they do it – how do they recover after each attack? How do they keep their sanity amid daily power outages, travel restrictions, denial of access to proper medical care, unemployment and a lack of horizons?
Some choose to return to life because it is the only viable option. After each aggression, they express their stubbornness to stay here, no matter how hard the oppressor tries to uproot them. They pick up the pieces of their lives and rebuild them.
“Nothing can deter us in the face of occupation,” they say almost bravely. “If they destroy our homes, we will rebuild them. We will remain rooted in our country.” That is the opinion of many people whose lives were destroyed in one way or another during the attacks. They have been uprooted and displaced before and cannot imagine going through that again. They also can’t see each other as if they “live in each other’s free country and be treated like the other.”
For others, they’re trying to find a way out of the open-air prison.
With repeated military attacks, abject poverty and rampant youth unemployment, it is not surprising that many are leaving the country. Instead of dying a slow death, they search for new lands in the hope that those lands would give them a chance at life.
Young people find that Gaza, under the suffocating siege, is too limited for their skills and dreams – and offers them no real chance to develop and improve their skills.
“If Gaza were open to the outside world…”
One of them is GB
GB., 27, lived in Gaza for fifteen years and spent part of her childhood in the Gulf. She says that “due to the siege, cultural diversity and opportunities in Gaza are limited. I volunteered, studied and worked wherever I could. But then I felt that all my chances dried up. I decided I had to travel – to escape the siege.”
She wishes for the siege to be lifted and points out that “if Gaza were open to the outside world, I would easily go back and live there”. She explains that she currently lives in Turkey with her husband, but still misses Gaza. “I miss my family and I miss them, but only for a visit. Although I left Gaza behind, it is still the place that has enriched my life in many ways. But I can never go back and live there unless I see a Gaza Strip open to the whole world.”
Still, GB doesn’t see that the outdoor life has given her everything she dreams of. “There’s a lot of racism that you have to deal with that robs you of the stability that you need.” The siege follows you.
Whenever I see someone leaving Gaza, I am torn between sadness and happiness. It’s good to know that some people are finding great opportunities outside, but it’s agonizing to see Gaza losing talented people. Still, a generation raised under siege cannot be blamed for trying to escape from open-air prison.
Tarneem Hammad, 28, also expressed the same sentiment – she doesn’t want to leave, but if she finds a better job opportunity out there she would have no choice. After studying in the UK for a year and a half, she decided to return to Gaza.
“It certainly hurts to leave your family, culture and home, but there is no other option. You can’t get married, you can’t get a job, you can’t rent a house, you can’t start a new life. Young people are leaving Gaza because their hopes, feelings and energies are focused on leaving Gaza.”
“Even if they don’t know what they’re going for, it’s a goal for most youngsters,” she adds. “It breaks my heart to know that Gaza is losing some of its talented youth. But in the end, everyone has the right to choose where to build their life. I wish things would ease up and the blockade would be lifted. Then surely many of the youngsters will choose to stay and build their lives alongside their families.”
Day after day, sixteen years of siege have eroded people’s tolerance in many ways. Some have steady jobs, but they still feel the siege coming their way. Some of my close friends have made this clear.
“Security comes first, then freedom of movement,” says one of them. “We want to be able to travel freely, like people do in other places. In Gaza, a person has to register months in advance of travel and endure inhumane circumstances while traveling through Egypt.”
Then there are those who act on a whim, with no sure and tangible plans, and risk leaving at all costs, and they may end up drowning in a capsized smuggler’s boat. Others are more patient and weigh their options.
Issam Adwan, 29, understands this desperation very well. “With the devastating economic conditions, rising unemployment, repeated Israeli attacks, we have become more convinced that the only solution for those without a livelihood is emigration,” he said. “That’s especially true for young people. I think emigration is a tool that people can use to deal with the difficult reality.”
For Issam, the decision to go or stay depends on the opportunities that present themselves. “For me, emigration is not an end in itself. As long as there are alternatives in my country where I can be with my family and friends, I prefer to stay,” he says. “For me, emigration is closely linked to the goal I have in mind. As long as I have a secure job here, I won’t go. As a journalist, I can do my job better from Gaza. But if I had the opportunity to help Gaza while living outside, I wouldn’t hesitate.”
In order to appreciate your homeland, you sometimes have to leave it
Amidst the differing views, one thing stands out that everyone agrees on: the close social ties to which they have become so accustomed are unique to Gaza. Families get together, friends meet and the sense of community is strong.
Samia Elswerki, 28, wishes that her daughters could grow up in the family in the Gaza Strip. This is something she misses deeply.
“I traveled to Turkey a year ago, applied for various positions and was thrilled when I found one. I have already built up a network here that has benefited me on many levels. But I miss my family terribly in Gaza and if I ever get a good job there I would not hesitate to return. I like to think that one day I will. I have two daughters, 3 and 5, and I keep telling them that one day we will return. If you ask me, I’m really prejudiced against my homeland.”
The man-made blockade imposed on Gaza over the past fifteen years has pushed people to this point. Many took illegal routes and attempted to be smuggled out, in many cases resulting in disasters at sea. Many drowned, others made it. Many of the survivors became refugees in the countries where they sought asylum. They had to go through lengthy and lengthy procedures before being granted a decent life.
The siege also affects all aspects of life. It causes many skilled employees to leave the company and the brain drain is real. University lecturers are not spared this reality either: special permits must be obtained for travel to conferences or workshops. Many of them are denied travel permits for no apparent reason. At other times, groups of lecturers apply for the same seminar, but only one receives approval from the Egyptian authorities. So if it isn’t the Israeli side that is impeding our lives, then it is their allies.
Our children grew up in this besieged, poverty-stricken, war-ravaged environment and that is all they know. When a child finishes school and college and finds himself in a dead end, he falls into despair. He is faced with the question of whether to seek the uncertain path of finding some kind of livelihood outside, or stay here and survive.
But sometimes you have to leave it to realize the value of your homeland. And to do that, you have to have the freedom to go. Our children should be able to see the outside world. If lifting this illegal blockade means they can travel to other Palestinian cities, then perhaps they simply see that a bright future awaits them in their homeland.
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