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In Gaza, A Living Purgatory - Part 1

First published November 15, 2017 in Middle East Sight Magazine

Lila Farsoun checks the time, then her phone’s battery level, and sends out her first tweet of the morning. She could be any one of the millions of Twitter users who share the minutiae of their lives on the platform except rather than type out a humorous anecdote, or share a cute picture, it’s 3am and Lila is tweeting about hearing Zionist Occupation Forces (1) gunboats fire on Palestinian fishermen offshore. She wasn’t suddenly woken by the sound of cannons. She was doing the laundry because the electricity was on and the otherwise mundane household chore couldn’t wait another twelve hours before she would be able to run the washing machine again.

Lila has lived in Gaza City for the last ten years and recently this has become a fairly ‘normal’ routine for her. Such a routine would be starkly abnormal and unacceptable to any of the residents of Sderot, an Israeli town just seven miles away. Few, if any, of them would care to note or even feel concern for the regular attacks, incursions, and harassment that residents of Gaza and the West Bank face from ZOF and illegal settlers on a daily basis. During the last war on Gaza in 2014 (Operation Protective Edge), a few of them even celebrated the bombing, watching with food and drinks from a nearby hilltop, cheering the explosions, pausing only to threaten CNN journalist Diana Magnay should she critique their macabre voyeurism.

When a rare if puny retaliatory rocket does exit the strip headed towards Israel however their sense of outrage and insecurity is inflamed existentially, even if it lasts for little longer than the sirens sound. They otherwise sleep well at night, protected in theory by the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system, enjoying the privilege of twenty-four hour access to electricity and clean water. The can come and go as they please. For the people of the Gaza Strip, there are few reliable legal means of escape unless through an ZOF or Egyptian checkpoint. Welcome to the world’s largest open air prison that, for the ZOF, apparently doubles up as a convenient weapons testing ground.

As the owner and curator of the @OccPal-Gaza twitter account, a key part of Lila’s active citizenry as a Palestinian takes the form of sharing not only the effects of the occupation she has personally witnessed but also those incidents which would otherwise receive little to no coverage in international media. With over twenty-three thousand followers, her timeline of updates, usually in English, is a popular source of information, and a running database of sorts, on the occupation. As well as related international and domestic political and economic news and commentary, she catalogs a wide range of incidents from contraventions of international law and human rights, to ‘low-level’ aggressions and violations of basic dignity against Palestinians across  the occupied territories, and within Israel itself (in 2013, one in five citizens in  Israel was Palestinian or ‘Israeli-Arab’). A snapshot of Lila’s twitter timeline is a soul-crushing list of daily provocations and unprovoked violence.

Like many Palestinians currently trapped in Gaza, Lila’s family did not originally hail from the coastal enclave but from the town of Yibna, which was ethnically cleansed by Yishuv forces such as the Haganah in 1948. Five Israeli villages now occupy Yibna’s land and the Mamluk-era minaret dating back to 1337 is all that remains (its attached mosque was blown up by ZOF in 1950). A home maker fluent in English and with dual US citizenship (she studied there before returning to Gaza), Lila is in many ways a representation of a new generation of Palestinians, particularly women; young, very well educated, active, persistent, connected, and IT savvy. Whilst Linda Sarsour is probably the most famous face of this generation, Lila and hundreds like her across social media and academic networks, on campuses and in NGOs around the world, are working to raise awareness of the situation in Palestine without mainstream media fame or attention. It is not easy, it is seemingly never ending, it’s dangerous, and requires considerable mental strength and focus.

“Social media is a great way to spread news on what happens here on a daily basis”, she explains. “From what I see, world news generally covers major events that happen here and doesn’t give a good view on what it is like daily to live under occupation. Of course with that comes the mountains of death threats , insults, trolling etc but I think it is worth it to be able to connect with people around the world. I definitely self censor for security reasons not only because of Israeli occupation surveillance but also because of Hamas who has a habit of arresting people who speak out against them. I tread a thin line. Also I remain anonymous because of the growing issue of anti boycott legislation in the US. I want to preserve options for my future so I think it is smartest and safest to be anonymous. I try to stay away from giving information about my personal life which of course has a downside because you lose the human aspect and connection. Overall however, social media is a fantastic platform to educate people who would probably not know the truth about what happens in Palestine.”

Life has been better for Lila, relatively speaking, than in recent years when a power struggle between Hamas and Fatah, the two largest and most influential Palestinian factions, led to a collapse in electricity supply to the Gaza strip that not only caused a foreseeable humanitarian crisis but also ended up also producing severe environmental problems. “Life was definitely more positive before” she tells me. “I felt there was more hope for everything, for ending occupation, for a future, for my family. Before money was not an issue & money could be made.” Now, she says, the situation is very different. “I have nephews with advanced degrees who drive taxis or work to paint houses. I have sisters with degrees who can’t find anything as work. My brother is an engineer who has worked around the world, now he struggles to find work by crossing into Israel. Every few months he is stressed wondering if Israeli occupation would allow his work permit to be renewed or not. One brother was detained 2 months ago by Israeli occupation on his way back to Gaza from work inside Israel. They  questioned him and confiscated his permit for ‘security reasons’. He had never been in trouble. They use ‘security’ as the excuse for everything. No evidence needed. All he can do is reapply in a few months and see if it is approved. I can’t go to family in the West Bank because I am not old enough under the rules of the blockade. I can’t go to Al Aqsa.”

Describing herself as broadly liberal and socialist, Lila has never been a member of either Hamas or Fatah, and sees economic development, specifically ‘trade not aid’, as a route for Palestinians to ‘escape’ the occupation, or at least ameliorate its most confining and identity-erasing impacts. “Israelis used to come into Gaza prior to the disengagement for business, which was helpful to our economy”, she points out. “Now since the blockade most people have no options. Why start a business and not even know if you can get a steady supply of materials imported? At any time Israeli occupation can confiscate your shipments and then what? You have nothing. The tunnels with Egypt made a few families and Hamas very rich. The problem with the tunnels is that they were not reliable either. Plus, why should we be reduced to smuggling goods just to make a living? It its dehumanising.”

Health is another big issue. “Many treatments are not available here because the Israeli occupation will not allow the import of equipment. Getting referrals to leave for treatment takes time and is very costly for travel even with the Palestinian Authority paying for treatment, not to mention how hard it is to leave Gaza”, she says. “Most people don’t want to go to Israel even for hospital and leaving through Egypt has been hard. Hopefully that will change now with Palestinian Authority taking control of borders but there is the issue with DAESH in Sinai also. I wouldn’t feel safe traveling across Sinai now. Many medicines are not readily available in Gaza and have to be ordered and brought in, which can take time.”

Additionally, a core issues for Lila is a lack of quality, original, goods. “Most things imported are cheap and there’s not too much of a selection. The best pair of sneakers I have found in ten years were previously owned and from an re-sell store of Israeli goods”, she tells me. “It is impossible to find real name brand goods. We have many imitations but not real ones. It might sound silly but as an athlete I need good sneakers and something as simple as that isn’t available. Other things like heath supplements & beauty products are also imitations which can be quite dangerous. Under Hamas there has been no regulations of these products either. It’s not having access to simple things when you need them that just puts added strain on people. The blockade has damaged and stunted growth of Gaza.”

Rather than take a politics-centric approach to the question of Gaza’s future, Lila sees economic relations and unemployment as top priorities ahead. She identifies an ‘aid culture’ for creating dependency and a lack of challenges to excel owing to the lack of work or entrepreneurial opportunities. “We are over educated for the available opportunities here. This hurts the people as a collective.”, she states. “This comes back again to Israeli occupation. Each year we lose more than three billion dollars because of Israeli occupation. If we can’t control our own economy then we can’t control our future, and we will never have freedom. In recent years there has been more attention put on technology and start ups here and that has given some hope to people but it is a drop in the bucket.” Gazans and Palestinians need to focus on strategies to make themselves independent from aid, she says. “We cannot be at the mercy of donor countries- countries that have normalised relations with the occupation.”

Continues … Part 2

(1) – In international media, it is a convention to call the State of Israel’s military by their official name – the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Many Palestinian writers and activists prefer to use Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) or simply ‘occupation forces’.  The author wishes to make a clear distinction between the terms ‘Israeli’ and ‘Zionist’, of which the latter is the formal State ideology of the current reimagined State of Israel that is occupying Palestine. Since the function of these military forces is to ensure the security and continuance of the occupation of Palestine and justified through the lens of Zionism, the correct description is ZOF.