Ayman Nijim is the Solidarity Program Officer for the Middle East at Grassroots International, a global grantmaking and advocacy organization that partners with social movements in the Global South and progressive funders in the US to nurture sustainable and equitable relationships among people, the earth, and all its living systems. Ayman is originally from Gaza, where he has worked at various international and community-based organizations with children who have experienced war and trauma. He holds a Master’s degree in Intercultural Service, Leadership and Management from the School of International Training in Vermont. He currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Gaza Community Mental Health Foundation.
Israel has been bombing Gaza nightly for two straight weeks, and there is only around 4 hours of electricity per day for 2 million people because Israel shut off fuel supplies.
You have family and friends on the ground. What are they saying about what life is like right now?
They are saying that life is intolerable in Gaza. Four hours of electricity per day means there is no time to wash your clothes, no way to watch breaking news about the bombing of your own neighborhood, no light for studying, no way to cool off in 90-degree heat. If you try to take a brief dip in the sea, you risk being targeted by an Israeli sniper or being at the wrong place at the wrong time when Israeli occupation forces drop a bomb.
And now Gaza has been hit by the first COVID-19 outbreak outside of quarantine facilities, adding to the daily terror and threatening the lives of more people. Social distancing is not an option in Gaza, one of the most densely packed territories in the world, where it’s not uncommon for 10 or more family members to share a home. I have been insisting that my family try to maintain distance when checking on my elderly mother, who has underlying conditions and is suffering the unbearable heat with no electricity to at least power a small fan. There are only about 100 ventilators for a population of 2 million people, half of which are already in use, and they would rely on electricity to operate. The dialysis units are operating with minimal electricity, jeopardizing the health of those living with kidney failure. Hospital generators may run out at any moment, which would mean halting c-sections and other necessary surgical operations.
Water in Gaza is not fit for human consumption, so the purification units that rely on electricity will be put out of order, deepening the public health crisis. With the ongoing closure of Israeli-controlled crossings and banning of goods entering the strip, and with more than 68% of Gaza’s population lacking adequate access to food, it is almost unimaginable how dire the situation will get.
The people of Gaza, half of whom are children, endure the daily hovering of drones, and the nightly shelling of their neighborhoods. Recently, an UNRWA-run school was hit early before students arrived. Imagine if the children were there at that moment?
There is a widespread feeling in Gaza that the world is abandoning them and has grown tired of their ongoing ordeal. When I speak to my friends and family there, it is very hard to find the right set of words to comfort them.
In what ways are Palestinian civil society organizations working to meet the urgent needs of people in Gaza given that Israel has cut them off from basic supplies and infrastructure?
I am in touch with a few of our partners in Gaza, all of whom are managing a triple crisis between the current Israeli military assault, threat of COVID-19, and ongoing humanitarian disaster created by years of siege and bombardment. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights has been documenting and disseminating vital information about the humanitarian and human rights crisis so that journalists, international organizations, and others around the world can understand what’s happening on the ground, which is critical given how Israel has isolated the enclave from the rest of humanity.
Another of our partners, the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, is providing vital counseling and resources to a collectively traumatized population that is coping with fears of COVID-19 and Israel’s daily attacks. What is it like to live where warplanes thunder in the skies and the sea is off limits? In a place where everyone knows someone close to them who has been killed or maimed, such deep suffering can almost begin to seem normal due simply to its prevalence, which is why the Programme puts energy into destigmatizing the need for therapy, as well as the need to address individual and collective trauma. Every child in Gaza has experienced more than three traumatic experiences in his or her life – whether it be from war, the imprisonment of a parent, or destruction of a family home. The prevalence of PTSD among children is alarmingly high. Daily, they endure the agonizing noises of drones, helicopters and fighter jets.
When people outside Gaza picture it, they tend to imagine tightly packed concrete buildings, but Gaza is also home to agricultural lands tended by family farmers. The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) has been supporting farmers there. Farmers in eastern Gaza who live near the so-called buffer zone along Israel’s boundary are attacked by the Israeli military in between its larger-scale military assaults on the territory. UAWC works with these farmers to identify their needs and implement strategies to strengthen their resilience so their families and farms are more equipped to survive these frequent incursions. These farmers literally risk life and limb each time they go out to tend their crops or care for their livestock.
The bottom line is that UN agencies, other intergovernmental bodies, and humanitarian organizations have been doing what they can to provide for people’s basic needs, but there will be no end to the suffering until Israel is pressured to cease its military aggression, occupation, and siege of Gaza. Until then, it is like putting tiny bandages on a gaping, life-threatening wound. We must find a way to make the bleeding stop.
What are you hearing about how fisherfolk are being impacted by Israel’s ongoing bombardment and siege of the territory?
When Israel is bombing Gaza, as it is doing now, it is not safe to fish the waters off the coast. Harassing fisherfolk—the breadwinners for thousands of families—has been a fixture of Israel’s suffocating siege. By routinely shifting restrictions on how far into the sea they can fish, for example shifting from 8 to 5 nautical miles, then a total ban, Israel is strangling the economy, contributing to food insecurity, and psychologically tormenting fisherfolk.
Grassroots International works in many regions of the world. How is some of what you’re seeing in Gaza similar to challenges that other family farmers and Indigenous communities face?
The Brazilian military’s recent attack against Quilombo Campo Grande, a thriving community of around 450 formerly landless families that had built homes and farms on an abandoned sugar plantation, reminds me so much of the violence and injustice perpetrated against Palestinians. According to the Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), our partner on the ground, the military shot tear gas at the families and destroyed their houses and crops. The Eduardo Galeano Popular School, where children, youth and adults study, was also destroyed the day before.
Social movements like MST and UAWC, for example, are working to strengthen their communities in fundamental ways, such as providing the resources people need to secure land and food sovereignty. This is why they are so frequently threatened by the Brazilian and Israeli governments, which view them as threats to the current social and political order, which has only inflicted harm on their communities. We support these social movements because of their visionary, systemic approach to creating and modeling a way of life that is in harmony with people and the planet. It is the opposite of the temporary band-aid solutions so often imposed by well-intentioned international agencies.
What are some concrete ways that folks can support the Palestinian people in Gaza?
Having lived in Gaza, I do appreciate emergency relief to help meet our most urgent needs. We have set up an Emergency Relief Fund for Gaza, and I encourage anyone who’d like to help to make a tax-deductible contribution there.
At Grassroots International, we follow a solidarity philanthropy approach, which to us means advancing social movements through solidarity-based grantmaking, encouraging our peers to mobilize more resources toward social movements, and standing up with social movements.
Meaningful solidarity is powerful, so I also encourage social movements outside of Palestine to reach out to Palestinian organizations like the ones mentioned here, which are working against tremendous odds to create a more dignified way of life for their people. A great example of this solidarity in action is UAWC’s membership in La Via Campesina, an international peasant movement made up of 182 organizations and 200 million members. Through its participation, UAWC both shares and absorbs strategies and resources that benefit its own farming communities in Palestine as well as family farmers and Indigenous communities throughout the globe.
The climate justice movement is also becoming increasingly aware, albeit slowly, of Israel’s devastating destruction of the environment. In Gaza alone, the collapsing water, sewage and electricity infrastructure caused by Israeli policies has created a public health crisis due to groundwater contamination, pollution and other impacts. In the West Bank, olive trees are destroyed to make way for illegal Israeli settlements. Greater awareness and solidarity among climate justice organizers about the devastating impacts of Israel’s military occupation on the environment can lead to meaningful mutual solidarity between social movements inside and outside Palestine.
Since the summer of 2014 when Black Lives Matter protesters were in the streets of Ferguson at the same time that Palestinians in Gaza were under attack, we’ve also experienced a resurgence of Black-Palestinian solidarity. In fact, Friday, Aug. 28, one of our Palestine partners, Jamal Juma’ of Stop the Wall, will be in conversation with Angela Davis regarding the connections between Black Lives Matter calls to defund the police and abolish the prison industrial complex, and Palestinian calls to tear down all apartheid walls and free Palestine. The conversation will be hosted by Palestine Legal, and is open to the public.