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Gaza and Hala's story

I have just visited the Gaza Strip. Before leaving for my solidarity visit I was well aware of the statistics of the territory, which has been under siege since 2007. More than 50 per cent of households in Gaza face food insecurity, with 38 per cent of the population living below the official poverty line. Due to a serious fuel shortage, the Gaza Power Plant runs at 45 per cent capacity, leading to daily blackouts of eight to twelve hours. The Gaza aquifer provides 90 per cent of water for the Strip but only ten per cent of that water is suitable for human consumption. Unemployment stands at 45.2 per cent, with only 40.3 per cent of working-age Palestinians in Gaza in the labour force. Youth unemployment is higher, at more than 47 per cent. However, no matter how aware of the statistics and well-prepared you are, seeing the devastation of an entire population living under a constant land, sea and air siege is another matter altogether.

We arrived in Gaza to face the gruesome reality of the funeral of a three and a half-year-old girl, Hala AbuSbeikha. Hala was killed when an Israeli tank fired at her home. The death of someone so young in such violent circumstances is nothing new in Gaza. When Israel attacked and invaded the Gaza Strip in 2008/9 it was circulated widely on the news that 313 Palestinian children were killed; the world tends to forget that Israel murders babies and that figure of 313 became a mere statistic to use in order to expose the racist ideology that governs the state today, Zionism. I had forgotten the real meaning of that number, which is so quick to say but carries such a depth of emotions and consequences. I had forgotten that 313 little angels, innocent of any crime besides that of being Palestinian and not Israeli, had not been allowed to live the lives they were expected to have.

Arriving at Hala's house in Al-Meghazi Refugee Camp, not far from the border with Israel and so a frequent target for Israeli soldiers, I woke up to the stark reality of what the death of one small child meant. One side of the house was destroyed completely; it was the middle of winter and very cold. Hala's family not only had to contend with the cold gap left in their hearts by her death but also the physical cold of the harsh Gaza winter. We stood in little Hala's garden where she was playing innocently with two of her sisters, both of whom are in hospital due to the injuries they received, when the tank shell hit their home; Hala's blood was still on the bricks, evidence of the shrapnel that pierced her neck and stole her life away.

Meeting Hala's mother was a privilege; her strength as she held one of Hala's younger sisters was enough to move mountains. She stood there, the epitome of resilience and faith, representing what I would soon come to realise lay in the heart of every Palestinian in Gaza; an unconquerable degree of hope and steadfastness that you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world. We witnessed Hala's funeral as the community of Al-Meghazi lay to rest a three and half year-old girl amongst the olive groves; there was an air of resignation in something that the community has clearly had to do before. Would the world have stayed silent if Hala had been an Israel girl? Or an American, even? Most probably not.

We drove past a school in an area called Al-Fakhoora. During the massacre of 5 years ago many children slept over at this school and stayed away from their homes, their parents thinking, quite reasonably, that it would be a safe haven for their little ones. Little did they know that Israel's indiscriminate killing and targeting of a civilian population knew no limits; the street outside the school where a group of children were playing football was bombed. Forty youngsters were murdered in an instant. It was surreal driving through the street still cloaked by the world's silence and hypocrisy towards the people of Gaza.

Surviving Israeli onslaughts is not the end of the matter for Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. Many, almost 80 per cent, suffer from trauma as a result of what they have witnessed and experienced. "There is a significant deterioration in the psychological well-being of Palestinian children who are living in the Gaza Strip, especially after the recent wars," said Ayesha Samour, the director of the Psychiatric Hospital in Gaza. According to a study by NGO Ard Al-Insan in Gaza, the psychological and behavioural disorders include psychological trauma, nightmares, bed-wetting, high blood pressure and diabetes. According to Samour, the children in Gaza are being denied a normal childhood because of the insecurity and instability of their environment. A culture of violence and death has pervaded their mentalities, making them angry and aggressive. Trauma attacks are triggered by the sound of low-flying Israeli aircraft and helicopter gunships, all too common in Gaza these days.

This was the sad reality of the start of our trip to Gaza. We knew all about the fuel shortages due to restrictions on goods and basic necessities imposed on the 1.8 million-strong population and while we were there they became more apparent. We arrived in Gaza in the evening, having been held on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing for 4 hours. The Gaza Strip was in total darkness; its intensity was so extreme that you could barely see your hands in front of you. Each household was receiving just 6 hours of electricity a day; by the time we left, 8 days later, this had been reduced to just 4 hours. What did this mean in practical terms? If electricity was restored at two am, mothers had to wake up to complete their household chores. With sunset at 5pm, households were plunged into complete darkness for the night, forcing everyone to rely on candles. This included students who had exams to prepare for using candlelight or whatever other means were available; they persevered. Sadly, the use of so many naked flames in densely-packed housing also means an increase in the number of fires and resultant deaths and injuries; we were shocked to hear of the death of a 6-year-old girl due to smoke inhalation while we were in Gaza.

Personally, this trip was a huge eye-opener. Gaza is not about statistics; it is about human beings who live there. It is about their very real day-to-day struggles to survive. The truth is that they have to bury their children and survive under abnormal conditions, starved of basic amenities which the rest of the world takes for granted. Through all this, it is the warmth of their hearts; the unbelievable strength of their spirit; and the unrelenting desire to live that moved me most. The democratically-elected Hamas government rules Gaza in the best way possible under the circumstances. Creating acceptable living conditions for their citizens is obviously their prime concern, but this is a very difficult, if not impossible, task under severe siege conditions.

Nevertheless, Gaza is very much alive. The faith and hope of the Palestinians does not allow them to give up in a situation in which you and I would probably have given up long ago. That has to be a reason for optimism.

The writer is the Vice Chairperson of the Media Review Network, South Africa

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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