David Lepeska
The National
January 21, 2010 - 1:00am

More than a year after Israel’s extensive bombing campaign, life inside the Gaza Strip is growing increasingly desperate.

Four out of five Gazans depend on some form of foreign aid. Lorries carrying medical supplies are often refused entry by Israeli officials, who enforce a three-year-old blockade of the Strip. Sick and dying patients face weeks-long delays for permission to leave for necessary treatment. Education is lagging, as nearly half of Gaza’s schools remain damaged, and unemployment stands at 40 per cent, according to a December report from the United Nations.

“The human cost of the crisis will be felt for generations,” said Dr Abdul Karim Jouda, a Palestinian and a senior officer for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, speaking in Doha this week. “Containing the humanitarian crisis is only the first step on a long road to rebuilding the shattered lives of Gaza’s residents.”

In response to the festering crisis, Qatar has hosted a series of events over the past week.

A three-day workshop at Qatar Science and Technology Park, which ended yesterday, focused on developing housing and technology solutions to help rebuild Gaza. Designers from Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar joined officials from Habitat for Humanity and UNRWA to consider innovative possibilities for reconstruction in the war-torn territory.

Days before, about 200 students from the US, UK, Egypt, and the UAE, along with a handful of students from Gaza, attended a conference organised by the Al Fakhoora Campaign, an initiative to protect and restore education in Gaza. The Qatari first lady, Sheikha Mozah Nasser bin Missned, launched Al Fakhoora a year ago, just after the Al Fakhoora school in Gaza was hit by an Israeli bomb, killing 40 children.

According to its website (www.fakhoora.org), donations to Al Fakhoora had reached $111 million (Dh408m) as of yesterday. And last week, Al Jazeera Children’s Channel held outdoor screenings of its documentary Aicheen (Still Alive in Gaza). The film, which will compete at the Berlin International Film Festival next month, highlights both the strength and desperation of Gazans: while his mother treats his wounds, a boy calmly recounts how he and his friends were struck by shrapnel from an Israeli bomb; rowing out into the Mediterranean to pull in their fishing nets, two boys find a small fish and share it with hungry men on the beach; clowns perform for schoolchildren minutes after a bomb explodes nearby, making light of the danger.

The Qatar events dovetail with a wave of international support. This past weekend, several dozen European parliamentarians visited Gaza, calling for an end to the Israeli blockade and urged the international community to begin reconstruction. In Beirut, several hundred Lebanese protested Egypt’s construction, with US support, of an underground barrier to block smuggling tunnels. The tunnels are a lifeline to Gazans, providing much of their food, medicine and other necessary supplies.

And earlier this week, Amnesty International, a London-based human rights watchdog, released a report entitled Suffocating: The Gaza Strip under Israeli blockade.

“The blockade constitutes collective punishment under international law and must be lifted immediately.” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director.

In Doha, Mr Jouda spoke about the challenges Palestinians and the international community face in trying to lift Gaza back to stability. “We are self-reliant and have never waited for outside help to any situation we’ve had to face,” he said, pointing to the current crisis as an exception. “Without the siege being lifted, with the Palestinian people being denied basic human rights, the current situation we are facing because of the blockade can only get worse.”

Mr Jouda urged the international community to redouble humanitarian relief and called for strategies for long-term reconstruction, sustainable development and equitable growth – efforts that he said would help Gazans return to self-sufficiency.

But it all came down to one thing. “Investment in education is the only way to build our children’s future,” Mr Jouda said.

The keynote speaker of the Al Fakhoora conference agreed. Aymen Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera English’s Gaza correspondent, said: “It is critical that the world, through organisations like the Fakhoora Campaign and the work of these students, sends a very clear message that the people and students of Gaza, despite being isolated under siege, will not be abandoned.”

More than 280 of the territory’s 640 schools remain damaged or destroyed. Those that are open offer outdated materials, overcrowding and frequent military disruptions. As a result, according to Mr Mohyeldin, only 20 per cent of Gaza sixth graders passed recent standardised exams.

A faltering education system is particularly serious in Gaza, where half of the population is under 18 years of age. The result is scenes like one in the film Aicheen, in which three teenage boys pass an afternoon on a swing at the zoo. One blames Israel for his lack of education, then considers the most likely outcome.

“With no education, we will end up mujahideen,” he says as his friends nod in agreement.


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