From my first visit in 1993, the latter days of the first intifada, I have had difficulty describing the people and environment in the Gaza strip. As I wrote in 2009, “[D]espair, destruction, extremism and violence are terms easily at hand, but they do not do justice to life in Gaza today.” Writing from the balcony of the Al-Mathaf (the Museum), a brand new beachfront hotel with a fantastic museum housing an archeological treasure trove documenting the history of Gaza, I still feel incapable of accurately conveying the essence or details of life in Gaza today.
Thirty minutes after seemingly beaming (as if from one planet to another on Star Trek) from the developed to the underdeveloped worlds, a prominent Gaza attorney spoke of his daily challenges: “[W]e exist as people physically segregated from the rest of the world. We do not live in a country but have two governments [the Hamas-run administration in Gaza and the PLO – led Palestinian Authority from Ramallah]. But neither administration controls our borders. As a lawyer, I have to work through Israeli administrative regulations, British Mandate laws, and directives from our two governments. And, I want an independent judiciary system with no corruption.”
Visiting the American International School- yes, such a school does still exist- serves as a little intellectual oasis. Today, about 300 boys and girls, grades K-12, in matching white-and-blue uniforms still attend daily classes in an old building that was once the British Consulate. The school doubles as community center for those families looking for a better life for their kids. It was hard not to be emotional as we watched the faculty first hear about a new project from the United States Agency for International Development that will support scholarships and enhanced academic services that should lead to international accreditation – as one parent put it, “finally, a way forward for our children in this mess.”
A female colleague of mine, who accompanied me with some trepidation, was so overwhelmed not only by the needs but also by the determination of the school community amidst isolation and extremism, that she is now considering staying in Gaza to help manage the USAID-sponsored education project.
The intifada generation may be lost. For Gaza to be successfully reincorporated into the world community, much more in the way of resources and international assistance must be dedicated to prepare the younger generation to be productive members of society – providing for their family and appreciating other people and cultures without violence or resentment. The American International School serves as a test case whether or not such development projects can be successfully implemented in Gaza prior to tangible progress in either Palestinian reconciliation or the Peace Process.
Despite the dire warnings, there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Food is plentiful for those that can afford it. Consumer items, including cars, motorcycles and appliances come through the tunnels from Egypt every day. On the other hand, the socio-economic fabric, what it was, has been shattered. The lethal combination of unemployment, underemployment, massive dependency on outside assistance, and younger demographics (75% of the population are under 25) make the status quo untenable. The families of the American International School in Gaza understand that the hope for a durable peaceful and prosperous future largely rests on the next generation. Policymakers from both side of the aisle need to understand this as well.