When Home Becomes Prison: Gaza's 15-Year Regression

A Palestinian woman sits on part of the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank town of Ram near the checkpoint Qalandia Fe
A Palestinian woman sits on part of the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank town of Ram near the checkpoint Qalandia February 20, 2005. [Israel's cabinet met on Sunday in a pivotal session expected to give the go-ahead to evacuate Jewish settlers from occupied Gaza and for the first time remove settlements from land where Palestinians want a state.]

In the summer of 2000, I left my home in Gaza, Palestine for the U.S. to pursue my education. Watching over Gaza from afar, while keeping in touch with family members, I have seen a lot of things change in the place where I have many childhood memories. Some of these changes are natural due to progression of time. But there are some changes that are unique to Gaza's circumstances. This is not meant to be a conclusive list by any means, but some casual observations from someone who cares about the well-being of Palestinians.

Due to unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty in Gaza, crime is rampant in the Gaza strip. Not a day passes without hearing news about someone being murdered or arrested for a crime. Most of these crimes come as a result of robberies or family disputes. Like that crime that shocked the Palestinians in Gaza when an elderly woman was choked to death in her bed as two unemployed young men broke into her home in an effort of rob her of her belongings.

There are scores of crimes where financial service professionals with a lot of cash have also been targeted. Then there's that famous ice cream factory in the Middle Area where a gang broke in to steal the cash in the safe and ended up violently killing the young and promising son of the factory owner. Stories like these are foreign to the average resident of Gaza, and most people are either baffled or intimidated by such crimes. People are starting to lose trust in one another and now are going out of their way to secure their belongings and property. My brother's business, for instance, invested in CC cameras to watch over their merchandise. They have recovered all kinds of stolen goods as a result.

People who are starving and without water, electricity or freedom of thought or movement do not make perfect citizens.

Prior to the blockade of Gaza in 2007, one hardly ever heard of crimes, as people were busy going about their lives and earning money to put food on the table. Now, very few people have meaningful jobs and they have plenty of time on their hands. Class warfare and social envy are brewing. Crime has gotten so bad that the local authority has promised to start executing people in public in order to send a chilling message to would-be criminals. (Many in Gaza are against capital punishment and the Palestinians Authority has spoken out against it, refusing to sanction what the local government in Gaza plans to do.)

The use of recreational drugs has been skyrocketing. Cheap, strong opioid painkillers are abundant in Gaza and easy to score. Drug dealers are one segment of the population that has lots of work. Their customers are depressed, impoverished people who are looking to escape the reality around them. They are skilled laborers or stonemasons who, before the blockade, used to leave Gaza every day to work at good-paying jobs in Israel. Or they are mothers who have been devastated by the loss of a child or other family member during the many Israeli incursions. The examples can go on and on. Another troubling development is the rise of suicides in Gaza. Every week now there are stories of someone trying to set themselves on fire in protest of the government. But there are also people who hang themselves or jump off tall buildings. That's alarming because Islam seems very strict about suicide being forbidden and it comes with a big punishment. If people are willing to go against those teachings, you know they are desperate. I understand why people want to take their own lives in Gaza -- with everything else outside of their control, this one thing they still can control. This scares the local government in Gaza so they often try to spin the suicide stories and call them accidents.

The social fabric is not what it once used to be. Families are breaking apart because of their financial burdens. Many cannot even afford to buy the customary gift when they visit with their relatives, so they skip such things. Weddings are downsized, where in the past you would cook a huge meal and feed north of 500 people, now people can hardly feed themselves. So there are few festivities to speak of anymore.

It's only logical that people have lost trust in their government officials and in their media outlets where everyone has an agenda or works for someone that has an agenda. Mistrustful and conspiracy-minded people do not build a country. But also people who are starving and without water, electricity or freedom of thought or movement do not make perfect citizens. It's alarming that any Palestinian journalist living inside Gaza who attributes the struggles of Palestinians to Israeli, Egyptian, PA or Hamas policies has to be weary of being blacklisted, bullied or jailed. Most end up censoring themselves to avoid trouble.

Ponzi schemes are widespread in Gaza. Everyone seems to know someone who has lost money to such a scam. Many folks in Gaza have tragically lost their life savings to businesses claiming to be able to turn their investments into massive profits by trading foreign currency. Those who fall for it have no legal way to recover their losses.

Prior to the start of the blockade in 2007, few people needed food assistance and help from local non-profits. Pride prevented most who could use a little help from seeking assistance. But now it seems the great majority of people in Gaza need and actively seek out humanitarian relief. Frequent wars and a strangled economy have made it normal for them to seek assistance. This is a drastic change in culture and norms.

I am still hopeful that one day my family can be made whole again...

Not every development in post-siege Gaza is bleak. There are good things that are happening too. Due to the closure by Israel, Gazans are every day discovering new wellsprings of resourcefulness and finding local solutions for local problems. Recycling, for instance, is on the rise. Every week, I read a story about a local person coming up with a local solution for the lack of water or electricity. Youth entrepreneurship has taken off, as these graduates cannot find salaried jobs; so they create their own fresh ventures. And since many well-to-do Palestinians in Gaza can no longer travel, there are a number of indoor and outdoor theme parks and supermarkets that offer these people the fancy life if they can afford it. Local physicians are conducting major surgeries and operations that they in the past they had to send off to more sophisticated hospitals abroad. Women's employment is even no longer taboo -- it's becoming the norm.

Many in Gaza complain that the siege on them has now officially surpassed the cruel years of siege the prophet Muhammad endured at the hand of a band of disbelievers. They argue that their experience in Gaza tests not only their patience but also their faith. Poverty worries them and worries many of the non-profits working in Gaza and I am often reminded of a saying by one Muslim wise man (Omar): "If poverty was a man, I would have killed him."

Two weeks ago, my cousin finished a postgraduate fellowship in MIT on sustainable cities, a field where he is an expert. As he prepared to go home to be reunited with his family, he told me that "it's exactly like walking into a prison by my own free will." On top of that, he has to undergo the humiliating experience of actually passing through the crossing to get into Gaza: a hell I wish upon no one. Then there are those who want to get out, like another relative of mine who received a scholarship to go study journalism in Malaysia. He keeps getting denied permission to leave -- through Israel or Egypt, where people with terminal diseases or folks with foreign passports are given priority. Sadly his dreams have to be put on hold just like Gaza, whose voice has been drowned out by the bloody conflicts going on around the region.

I am still hopeful that one day my family can be made whole again and I can see my parents and siblings without having to be humiliated or risking being stuck in Gaza away from my work and my home here in the U.S. No one thought this unjust siege on Gaza would be permanent, but it seems all the stakeholders want to make a point at the expense of the people of Gaza.

[Hat Tip Maha Akkeh ]