The Gaza Strip is a difficult place to begin a trip. In Gaza, the full impact of the occupation hits you smack in the face the very second you reach Erez. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world…if not the most. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), one of GRI’s partners, approximately 1.3 million people are living on 365 square kilometers of land. Nearly 900,000 residents are considered refugees, about half of whom are living in the 8 camps in Gaza. 61% of the population is under 19 years old and the average family size of 6.9. In a recent publication, B’tselem, an Israeli human rights group, reports that more than 77% of Gazans now live below the poverty line – almost double the number before the intifada -and that some 23 percent of Gazans are in “deep poverty,” meaning that they do not reach the subsistence poverty line even after receiving aid from international agencies.
Decades and decades of living under occupation have left Gazans with a particularly keen appreciation for the tragic comedy they are living out. On our first night in Gaza, we went to dinner with some friends. One of them leaned over to ask what we thought of Gaza and before we could answer he began telling a joke…two Gazans meet in jail. The first one turns to the other and asks, “Why are you here?” The second man responds, “I killed my commander. Why are you here?” The first responds, “I cursed my commander. When are you getting out?” The second man answers that he is getting out on Tuesday. “Tuesday??!!” the first man asked incredously. “How is that possible??!! I get out only 2 years from now! How is it possible that you are here for such little time when all I did was curse my commander?! The other responded…”I am being hanged on Tuesday.”
Our friend’s joke was, in fact, a thinly veiled analogy for life in Gaza…the only escape from Gaza is death and despair undergirds everyday life in Gaza.
On Monday we traveled south to Khan Younis along the coastal road. It is a beautiful stretch of road that in almost any other place would have an incredibly developed tourist infrastructure, complete with luxury high rise hotels, expensive restaurants, broad sidewalks and beach clubs. Because this is Gaza, there exist only a few old hotels with mostly vacant rooms and the road crumbles off into the sand. As our taxi careened towards donkey carts laden with fruits and vegetables, concrete security barriers and oncoming traffic, I found myself wondering about the statistics for deaths in fiery automobile accidents.
We eventually arrived safely at Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC)‘s office in Khan Younis. More on this visit soon!