Treading water in a sea of despair
Where futures are never planned and seldom lived out, the continuation of what has been relegated to a mere passive existence is the order of the day for Palestinian refugees. In Gaza’s eight refugee camps, dreams and aspirations are dismissed as an exercise in futility. The individual finds himself drowned out by the chaotic drum of everyday life. The longstanding trials and tribulations facing Palestinian refugees are such that an interminable despair reigns within the confines of the camps’ narrow, detritus-laden streets. The housing is inordinately miserable and in a state of decay; 66 per cent of the Gaza Strip’s 1.7 million population are confined to barely habitable, makeshift dwellings that would be deemed unfit for the most nefarious criminals in the civilised world.
Children play freely amongst swarms of flies and mosquitoes, oblivious to their putrid surroundings and blissfully unaware of the greener pastures on offer just the other side of the imposing artificial construct separating them from the land of their forefathers. Age brings with it a reluctant acceptance of reality. Having come to terms with the hopeless situation that has ensnared their optimism in a cycle of despondency, children from the age of ten grudgingly assume a melancholic disposition akin to that of their family. Their right to a happy childhood has been robbed from them by an indiscriminately malevolent oppressor, unforgiving in their demarcation of the boundaries to the Palestinians’ moral wellbeing.
The Shati refugee camp is situated along the coast and is the third largest in Gaza. On a busy summer afternoon, navigating its crowded mercantile centre is an overpowering affair for the senses. Huddled tightly together by the monotonous grey of reconstituted concrete, the uncontrollable human traffic makes it very difficult for people to manoeuvre their way through. Loitering idly, lifeless expressions can be seen on the faces of the bored and unemployed; a phenomenon that has been unrelenting in its intensification ever since Israel imposed its blockade on Gaza when the Hamas government came to power in 2006. The Israeli government reacted to their election with sweeping economic sanctions. The people of Gaza have been force-fed this diet ever since.
Hope behind bars
Hamdy Saleh Awad labours to sit comfortably surrounded by buckets of pickled vegetables. A 58-year-old refugee from the village of Hamama, located 24 kilometres north of Gaza in modern-day Israel, he has a hard time reliving the same routine day after day:
“We wake up every morning, we see yesterday as today and today as tomorrow. All the days are similar. We walk in the street, we see children asking their parents for one shekel and they can’t give it them! We meet our relatives and friends. Sometimes, we spend the whole day in the streets.”
Each home holds an average of ten persons in the Shati refugee camp and Hamdy’s family is no exception. He lives with his wife, five daughters and seven sons, six of which are married. In his opinion, however, the gloom by which Gazan society has been engulfed is not restricted to its refugee camps:
“We live in Gaza under the same conditions, we live the same tragedy, even people living in the centre of Gaza city, such as in Al-Remal neighbourhood.”
All work and no play
Traces of forgotten dreams can still be found amongst the rubble of the optimism that once stood in the Palestinian refugees’ consciousness. In a small room hidden away from the hustle and bustle on one of the camp’s side streets, a group of young men are gathered playing on a games console, hoping that one of the tedious hourly electricity cuts doesn’t strike, bringing their fleeting escape from banal procrastination to an abrupt halt.
Mohammed Abu Hajjaj is a 26-year-old graduate from Al-Azhar University with a diploma in Journalism and Public Relations. As is customary in the local culture, he is currently looking for a fiancée but he worries as to whether he will be able to support such an undertaking due to the untenable financial situation he and his peers find themselves in. He currently works as a nighttime security guard at a restaurant and speaks of the frustrations he has endured looking for work in his chosen academic field:
“Someone graduating with a BA might end up working in construction; someone with a Masters might end up working as tile layer. University degrees are useless.”
He speaks of how the refugees at the camp can ill-afford to miss even a day’s work due to illness or fatigue, missing out on a day’s wage can be the difference between a family’s negligible upkeep and starvation. The all-encompassing military and economic siege is the primary reason for the desperation at the heart of the Gaza Strip.
In spite of the endemic impossibility facing Palestinian refugees in their quest to lead a normal life, it is inspiring that their morale remains sufficiently intact to allow for jokes to be made. With a wry smile, Mohammed speaks of the unpredictable nature of Israeli military strikes. In jest, he says that at one moment he could be sat at the computer and the next, propelled by a missile, end up on the beach. Adding:
“In my opinion, the only good thing that came out of the war was that Jawal Telecoms Company gave everyone 10 shekels free credit.”
Misery in a memory
Across the road, a rare first-hand account of the lamentable events that have plagued the Palestinian people since 1948 (and before) is found in the diminutive lethargy of a hundred-year-old woman.
In 1948, al-Nakba, or “the Catastrophe”, took place and with it the forced displacement of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Over 500 Palestinian villages were depopulated, 81 of which were completely razed to the ground. A direct consequence of one of the greatest atrocities in history, the displacement of what was half of Palestine’s population at the time remains a criminally under-reported fact. To this day, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine has been systematically upheld and rigorously consolidated by a merciless legislative infrastructure imposed by Israel. Details regarding the illegality of the sanctions can be found in the Goldstone Report, compiled and published the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, led by Justice Richard Goldstone.
In the mind of Sirriya Ramadan Khalil Abu Halabia, from Beit Jirja, life before al-Nakba remains a vivid memory. She yearns for the farmland her family used to tend. With its figs, dates and grapes, she reminisces about a time where financial considerations were not so important. People looked after one another, especially the needy and she mourns the day she was made to leave her home. Having installed military barracks in her village, the Israeli invaders would shoot at men, women and children. The bodies of the dead were left on the ground until nightfall, as the villagers were scared for their personal safety in collecting them. Under cover of night and the relative safety it brings, the lifeless victims could be tended to. The darkness of night would later allow for a frightened getaway:
“Afterwards, they attacked us and we were all forced to leave [fearing] for our lives, we used the darkness of night as cover and fled with nothing but the clothes on our backs.”
Her voice is faint yet her pain is tangible. In every laboured syllable is the anguish of decades of grief and persecution. In her suffering, she is united with the rest of her people; displaced from their land and excommunicated from the historical narrative and political dialogue by their Israeli persecutors. The emotional attachment to a motherland from which their family has been evicted still holds strong within the hearts of the millions of descendants of these initial Palestinian refugees; second, third and fourth generation refugees themselves still share the same longing for a rightful return to a homeland that lives strong in their hearts but not in their exclusion from familiar surroundings. The Palestinian refugees’ right of return has been acknowledged by the United Nations. First in the UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in December 1948 and which recognises their “right to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours […] at the earliest predictable date.” In 1974, UN General Assembly Resolution 3236 added that this was an “inalienable right.” These resolutions, however, are not binding in international law and the calls of these resolutions have fallen on deaf ears ever since their publication.
Israel has shown no signs of compliance with the demands of the widespread international condemnation of the siege it has imposed on the Gaza Strip. The refugees at the Shati camp scrape by from day to day despite having the most basic of provisions they require tightly restricted by the surrounding Israeli occupation. Denied the perceived luxury of a fair hand and starved of ambition, Palestinians are aware that it is their very existence, their struggle for acknowledgement, which is the strongest weapon in their arsenal against the tidal wave of Israeli war crimes that has washed up upon their shores.
photography by Annamaria Bruni