GAZA — In the West, policymakers tend to focus on one intractable Middle Eastern conflict at a time. Syria’s vicious sectarian civil war tops the agenda today. But that doesn’t mean the others conveniently disappear.
Since last November’s explosive escalation of hostilities there, Gaza has been reduced to a political sidenote. Funds for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, have been cut by $55 million as assistance is diverted to Syria.
In Washington, Gaza has become an impolite word, and a topic seemingly best avoided at Middle East conferences. In the media, Gaza is represented by a combination of terrorists and tunnels.
But what is it really like? And can we afford to just ignore it?
It’s little surprise that few people speak about Gaza, because even fewer see it. Entering Gaza is extremely difficult. Israel allows only a thin trickle of aid workers and locals to enter and entering itself is a harrowing experience. My own recent experience is one I won’t soon forget.
Visitors walk through a mile-long cage that winds through bulldozed farmland, watched by balloon-mounted cameras high in the sky. Gun towers are perched atop the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Israeli security checks are at one end and Hamas is at the other, with the Palestinian Authority between them. It was the most disturbing mile I have ever walked.
Beyond the cages and walls, however, Gaza is vibrant. In this strip of land, only 10 by 40 kilometers, 1.7 million people live with a population density twice that of New York City. Unemployment and poverty rates are high. Families spend 50 percent of their income on food and fewer than half can meet their nutritional needs; yet the literacy rate is above 95 percent.
Contrasts abound. The Mediterranean is beautiful at sunset, but bathers swim in raw sewage. Famous seafood dishes fill restaurant menus, but the fishermen of Gaza can work only in six nautical miles that are overfished and polluted. Cars compete with donkey carts for road space. Modern buildings stand beside bullet-ridden wrecks.
The youth are an overwhelming sight. Young people comprise the majority of Gaza residents. More than half, about 900,000, are 18 or younger; 43 percent of them are under 14.
These contrasts exist because Gaza is an artificial state maintained by politically enforced boundaries. The government is controlled by Hamas, a political entity that does not have majority support. Polls suggest around 67 percent of Gazans support regime change and, overall, only 20 percent of Palestinians support Hamas — a number that continues to drop.
During my visit, my colleagues in Gaza told me their focus is on food security. This year alone, they provided food aid to more than 85,000 citizens of Gaza through the World Food Program. I have seen this team twice put their own lives on the line to assist the most vulnerable; in their words, “it is the right thing to do.” Unlike me, they can’t leave after two days.
There is a political status quo, but not a human one. By 2020 the population in Gaza will be 2.1 million, but it will likely run out of water by 2016. The humanitarian crisis in Gaza hasn’t gone away, even though media attention largely has. The reality is that the situation is only getting worse.
The Israel-Palestine peace talks are going ahead behind closed doors and the role Gaza is playing in these vital talks is unknown. For Israelis and Palestinians both, Gaza is an integral issue. This intractable conflict cannot be replaced by long-term peace without a solution that includes Gaza at its core.
The international community cannot afford to look away and cut assistance. This is policy blindness that will only exacerbate the situation. We must work together to find a resolution to the situation in Gaza.
David Humphries is a director at Global Communities, a community-based international development nonprofit that has worked in Gaza continuously since 1995.