Sami Abdel-Shafi: The strife of a people stripped of dignity

The conflict in Gaza is led by ordinary people, sickened by the indignity they are made to suffer


A number of days ago, I had the honour of participating in a meeting in Gaza City between a handful of people from the Palestinian private sector and a dignitary from the EU parliament. Our meeting showed how much Palestinians share with the international community, yet how distant they have been made to be.

Driving back, my honour quickly transformed into disgrace. A family feud 100 metres ahead broke into violent gunfire. I slammed on my brakes, reversed, stopped by the sidewalk and jumped out of the car seeking shelter in the stairwell of a building close by.

I had not imagined that I had just invaded the privacy of a number of rats congregating over a nice meal in the pile of garbage behind me; municipal workers were on strike as they had not received a salary for a long time. Gaza was never like this!

As I write this, I have two fresh bullets by my laptop. They come from the gunfire that has filled Gaza since this morning; having been deflected, they fell outside my office. The Minister of the Interior has ordered a security unit, thought to be loyal to Hamas, to break any salary-related protests by other security units which are thought to be loyalists of Fatah, using force if necessary. These protests started last Tuesday and turned chaotic as Gaza's streets were blockaded with burning tires and debris. But saddening as they are, these symptoms are all too predictable.

Israel has brought a new phenomenon to life in Gaza: "The strife of the undignified." This conflict is led by ordinary people who, whatever their convictions and professions, have been sickened by the severe indignity they have been made to suffer in their daily lives. These are people whose prospects for development and prosperity have been shattered for years to come.

The strife of the undignified is neither about the imposed financial bankruptcy of the Hamas government, nor about big hopes that a Palestinian national unity government would substantially alleviate the current financial strain. The grave inadequacy in education, health, social and municipal services and security, together with a dying private sector and a thin-stretched banking industry are all bad news that unfolds by the day. Worse news, however, is that even if a new, internationally accepted Palestinian government takes charge and the financial crunch is eased, the core of Israel's policy of prolonged indignity against Palestinians will not necessarily end.

Israel's continuing silent but ruthless war against Palestinians, which started long before any of the widely debated home-made rockets were ever launched, created all the circumstances necessary to make Palestinians look bad in the eyes of the world.

Pushed into an almost no-cash economy, Gazans have regressed into using unusual barter. A painter was recently offered payment in guns and ammunition in return for his services and a real-estate seller was offered ammunition supplies to retain as a guarantee for delayed payment! The emergence of such stories is especially alarming in that parties to such transactions were, once, ordinary people. The innovation and resilience of Gazans is going the wrong way.

Beyond politics, Israel has altered the character of Palestinians. The assistance of the international community, including the announcement of 20 September that the Quartet will extend emergency funding for Palestinians for another three months and that it will request the release of about $500m (£265m) in Palestinian customs and tax monies held up by Israel, is much needed. However, this inadvertently prolongs the image of Palestinians as a needy liability rather than a nation with a fair case that needs resolution and a people with tremendous potential if given a chance.

All the while, worsening conditions have trapped Palestinian officials in no-win situations. Palestinians have found themselves unable to enact reform or even contain the decline; a snowball that could have been stopped not too long ago.

A reasonably equitable political resolution would probably be achievable through social reform of a broken-down society and economic freedom for a deprived people; but new political initiatives will prove futile as the siege on Palestinian livelihood strips any other effort of its authenticity. Palestinians do have the basic fundamentals to be productive citizens of the world. Israel is not only preventing them from demonstrating their viability and productivity and, thus, their worthiness of their human rights, but is also moulding their image as a violent liability.

Israel's long-term closure of the Gaza Strip is largely rooted in its full awareness of the communal makeup of the Gaza Strip and the spirit of its people. Gaza's social structure is one of low individualism and high peer influence and this leads to domino effects. The negative sentiment resulting from Israel's siege and deprivation has led to chaos that spreads easily.

However, this tight social structure is also one of the assets necessary for Palestinian recovery if the communal makeup is employed positively. Maintaining a tight closure on Gaza's crossing points, airport and coast largely rests on Israel's knowledge of the remarkable ability of Palestinians to reconstruct their lives and forge ahead if given freedom of movement.

Considering the high economic dependency rate in the Gaza Strip, depriving one person from income affects the welfare of many more. Conversely, allowing Palestinians to move in and out of Gaza, export their locally produced goods and services, and to become productive participants in the region's economy would positively impact the welfare of a greater number of people than those who actually generate income.

Israel continues to stonewall Palestinian hopes to pull themselves out of their imprisonment under whatever pretext is convenient at the time. Not only that, but it continues to shape international opinion as it takes advantage of the symptoms of the prison mentality it has created in Gaza. Israel's policies demonstrate how far it is willing to go to maintain an economic upper hand over people it has made impoverished.

The strife of the undignified will be poignant and will add to the glaring necessity of peace. The hope is that it will be non-violent but urgent enough for world economists, psychiatrists and social experts to address while Israeli politicians and their military continue to carve their questionable legacy.

The writer is co-founder and Senior Partner at Emerge Consulting Group, LLC., a management consultancy in Gaza City

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