Sami El-Yousef is CNEWA’s regional director for Israel and Palestine.
After several months of endless waiting, uncertainty and waning hope, we were finally granted the permit to go to the Gaza Strip. Seven months have passed since our last visit in July 2011 as all our earlier efforts to get entry permits failed. It is still a mystery to me why they were not approved, but that is part of the challenge of doing business in the Holy Land; what is logical and makes sense anywhere else in the world does not make sense here.
Nevertheless, my colleague Gabi Kando and I were eager to get to Gaza to follow up on several ongoing projects, including the Pontifical Mission’s student sponsorship program for Christian students, and to launch our new project with four local institutions. This new project will provide hands-on training and short-term employment opportunities for hundreds of unemployed young Gazans who have very few prospects and who suffer from the current political situation and blockade.
We also had some surprising visits to new institutions, as well as other observations of the conditions inside the Gaza Strip.
We officially launched our training and short-term employment opportunities project soon after we arrived in Gaza, by signing four agreements. Two are with the NearEast Council of Churches, to train and offer employment for about 50 recentuniversity graduates, in addition to employment for around 100 graduates with vocational training. The third agreement was signed with the Ahli Arab Hospital to provide training and employment opportunities to about 70 health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, as well as other administrative and support staff. The fourth agreement was signed with the Society of Women Graduates to provide training and employment to about 80 women graduates of various universities in Gaza. There was to be a fifth and final agreement with the Myrrh Bearers Society to set up an income generation tailoring factory that would also provide 10 permanentemployment opportunities. For technical reasons — and as a result of the election of a new board at the time of our arrival — it was not possible to sign this agreement. This will be completed as soon as possible, however.
Needless to say, our presence in Gaza and the launch of this important project — thanks to the generous support from Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Luxembourg, Secoure Catholique/Caritas France, Misereor Germany and CNEWA Canada — brought a ray of hope to our Gaza partners, in a place where hope is very difficult to find. All those we met were encouraged and thankful that we continue to consider Gaza a priority and that they are not forgotten. Thus, I feel a great obligation to return as soon as possible to listen, encourage and bring hope.
I cannot help but reflect on the many observations that I made as we drove through the crowded streets, spoke to many people and visited institutions both new andold.
It was very clear to us that a serious reconstruction effort is taking place in Gaza. Most of the sites of the 6,500 or so structures that were damaged during the war four years ago have been cleared and, in many instances, are completely rebuilt. Although some of the building supplies have been smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt, Gaza is still short of necessities that cannot be smuggled in — such as road asphalt, fuel and electricity. Fuel is one commodity that everyone relies on, yet it is severely in short supply. Gas stations either lie closed or have long lines of cars if they still have fuel. The availability of electricity continues to be one of the most serious problems, since the supply from the electric company does not exceed six to eight hours per day; the rest of the time, individuals and institutions (including hospitals andclinics) must rely on electrical generators. Moreover, these generators run on either petrol or gasoline; when those are in short supply, electricity grows scarce as well. A desperate situation, indeed!
We drove 40 minutes from Gaza City to the Near Council of Churches Vocational Training Center in Qarrarah near Khan Younis to inspect the works that were completed there as part of a grant from the Swiss Holy Land Foundation. During the trip, we observed the following details:
- There are many brand new cars on the roads with models not familiar to us in the local market. Our hosts explained that some come from Egypt, while many others were from Libyan dealerships, obtained at the height of the Libyan civil war. The tunnels evidently are alive and well, even growing in size, as they canhandle goods the size of a car.
- Many old orange groves and other types of agricultural land are quickly disappearing as open spaces between major cities are being replaced by new commercial, industrial and housing construction. With land prices beyond reach in Gaza City, and given the scarcity of land, people are expanding outward. A stripthat is already crowded is getting more so with each passing day.
- One can’t help but notice that donkey carriages and motorbikes hauling large trolleys (better known in Gaza as “tuk tuks”) are becoming the main mode of transportation, since they need little or no gas.
- Halfwayalong our drive, we could see a crowd of a few hundred people (if not over a thousand) lined up in front of the offices of the Ministry of Social Affairs food distribution center, all pushing and shoving to get their ration of free food supplies. We could not determine who these people were, what criteria are being applied to receive the rations, or what is being distributed. But it was a very sad sight in this day and age.
- Drivingby the Rosary Sisters School, we noticed the construction of four new schools for UNRWA on the former site of the Preventive Security Forces that was bombed and completely leveled during the war.
Once we arrived at the training center, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the works completed.