While accompanying a Belgian delegation that came to Gaza to show solidarity with the Palestinian people, we suddenly came upon a long line of people standing outside one of the charitable associations in the Gaza Strip. Old and young, men and women, they had been waiting there patiently for hours in hopes of getting clothes and school bags for their children and grandchildren. Every individual in line was entitled to a school bag and a pair of trousers worth eight dollars.
To me, this scene was typical—neither astounding nor out of the ordinary. Yet for the members of the Belgian delegation, it presented a very disturbing—and instructive—lesson about the dire economic situation in which most Palestinians in Gaza now live.
My Belgian guests asked me: “What makes all those people wait for hours under the heat of the sun in a suffocating crowd for something worth only eight dollars?”
I answered by noting that the unemployment rate had reached 75% in the Gaza Strip and that Israel has imposed a harsh economic siege on the Palestinian people as a form of collective punishment. In addition, I continued, the Israeli authorities prevent over 150,000 workers from reaching their former jobs inside Israel each day. Israel has also destroyed most of the workshops and factories that used to employ Gazans, and has razed thousands of dunums of agricultural lands while confiscating thousands of lands belonging to Palestinian civilians. I concluded my explanation by reminding the Belgians that a majority of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories are now living well below the poverty line as a result of Israel’s draconian occupational policies.
Finally, I told them “The vast majority of the population in Gaza does not complain about poverty. Rather, poverty itself got fed up with them.”
Hundreds of families do not have any source of income at all, and few families have more than a dollar at a time to spend. I told the Belgian delegation that hundreds of fathers leave home very early in the morning looking for work, sustenance, or anything to help their families make it through another day. They dread returning to their homes at night, and hope to find some way to avoid their children’s embarrassing questions about the dire lack of pocket money.
Thousands of Palestinians are anxiously waiting for any form of aid that might satisfy the needs of their children. A society that has always valued large families, healthy children, and generous hospitality is now unable to provide even a minimal amount of milk for its babies.
As I related all of these economic indicators to my guests, I noticed tears starting to appear in their sad eyes. I firmly told them that crying and sympathy will not solve these deep and pressing problems.
This experience with the Belgian delegation reminded me that we all have to think hard about ways of translating the sympathetic feelings of so many people throughout the world, who show strong solidarity with the Palestinian people, into practical programs to change the situation on the ground and put an end to the continuous suffering of children, the elderly, and women.
The international community must realize that it has a historical and moral responsibility toward the Palestinian people and should do its utmost to ameliorate the degrading economic, political, and emotional conditions in which too many Palestinians now live. Through my own work, especially in dealing with the victims of Israeli violations of human rights, and through my knowledge of the conditions of the Palestinian refugees in various camps, I can state with certainty that animals in most Western countries are treated with more consideration and respect than are Palestinians living under occupation.
The members of the Belgian delegation already witnessed with their own eyes the magnitude of the human tragedy unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank. They all shouldered the full responsibility of the international community for not doing enough to end the arduous and unjust suffering of the Palestinian people, and called upon the international community to exert more efforts for the sake of helping the Palestinian people out of their loneliness, marginalization, and isolation. The international community must organize and coordinate with a renewed sense of purpose and seriousness in order to place increased pressures on the Israeli government to halt its brutal treatment of the Palestinians and its daily violations of international humanitarian law.
The Palestinian people have begun to lose all hope and trust in the institutions and mechanisms of the international community. The Belgians agreed that the time has come for all people of good will to stand up, shout louder and say, “Stop the Israeli occupation! Prevent Israeli human rights violations, and save the Palestinians from despair, hunger, and oppression!”
Khalil Abu Shammala is Director of Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights-Gaza