Two weeks before her twentieth birthday, Asmaa Tayeh wrote, “I have spent my life so far in a prison called Gaza, which is in Palestine. I call it a prison because if you committed a crime and were sentenced to prison for 20 years, you would be unable to do anything except eat, drink, sleep and maybe study–achieving nothing. And that’s all that’s possible here.”
Asmaa’s words echo the frustration of the 1.8 million people living in the Gaza Strip, over half of whom are under the age of 25. Most of them are descendants of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their homes when Israel was created in 1948 and have been unable to return. Making matters worse, for the last 11 years they have been living under a crippling blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt that prevents most of Gaza’s residents from ever leaving their 25-square-mile “prison.”
With the Palestinian leadership in disarray and with no signs that the blockade will be eased, the young people in Gaza decided to take matters into their own hands.
For the last seven weeks tens of thousands of them have participated in nonviolent protests, which they call “The Great Return March.”
Their goal is to call attention to the ongoing plight of Palestinian refugees and to end the blockade on Gaza.
In response, Israeli snipers have killed over one hundred Palestinian protesters and wounded over 2,500. Most of those killed have been young men who entered the so-called “buffer zone” near the electrified fence that hems Gazans in.
But missing from the headlines are the stories of Gaza’s brave young women. Not only have they been instrumental in bringing the Great Return March to the world’s attention, but they are also making important contributions to their society despite the various challenges they face.
Women are central organizers in the other aspects of the Great Return March, including providing medical aid for the wounded, preparing food for the protesters, and organizing cultural events that instill pride in Palestinian culture and heritage.
Since the beginning of the protests on March 30th, hundreds of women have been braving Israeli sniper fire to challenge their incarceration and enter the deadly buffer zone. And they have not been spared Israeli violence: so far over 200 women have been injured, 78 of them last Monday alone, mostly by Israeli sniper fire.
These women would be noteworthy in any society, but they are especially so given Gaza’s grim economic picture. The unemployment rate stands at 42% (though for youth it is an alarmingly 58%), and the the UN has warned that without heavy investments in its crumbling water and electricity infrastructure, Gaza could become “uninhabitable” by 2020.
But unlike many countries with such grim economic indicators, Gaza has a surprising advantage: Palestinians overall hold a high regard for female education.
High school matriculation is higher among girls than boys (88% vs. 78%) and over half of Palestinian university students are female.
As a result, over the last decade thousands of young Palestinian women with technological know-how and creative talent have been pushing against the limits of the blockade. Members of the “Gaza Sky Geeks” collective have used their knowledge of computer coding to launch dozens of start-ups in the area.
Take for example Hadeel Safadi. When she was just 24, she founded her own animation studio, Newtoon, and she has ambitious plans to turn it into the largest animation studio in the Middle East. But because of the blockade Hadeel has not been able to meet directly with investors. The blockade has also decimated Gaza’s electricity infrastructure: without a costly generator, Hadeel has to run her studio on just four hours of electricity a day.
There are thousands of young, technologically-savvy women in Gaza like Hadeel with creative ideas about how to improve their society and the world. But they can’t take full advantage of their talents because of the blockade.
Women are innovative in other arenas as well. Despite Gaza’s conservative social mores, in 2016 three directors established Bozour, a women-led theater group that provides women with opportunities to develop their talents in the performing arts. Bozour’s directors have also worked with children in Gaza’s refugee camps to help them find creative outlets to deal with the ongoing traumas they endure as a result of the multiple wars they have witnessed during their young lives.
Some people may doubt the impact these women can have, arguing that Gaza’s conservatism makes them the exception rather than the rule.
It’s true that many young Palestinian women in Gaza face social and family pressures that can be frustrating for them. But they argue that it is the blockade that truly makes their lives difficult, a conclusion recently affirmed by a Human Rights Watch report. Many young women who receive scholarships or other opportunities to study abroad find their aspirations dashed by permit denials and closed checkpoints.
Other critics stubbornly cling to the belief that the blockade must remain in place as long as Hamas is part of the Palestinian government and is not fully disarmed.
But the blockade has proven to be counterproductive: Hamas has become further entrenched in power as it staves off challenges from more extreme groups.
Even Israel’s top commander in Gaza has admitted as much, calling for a “Marshall Plan” to rebuild the territory and prevent other extremists from taking over.
Despite the profound hardships they face, the Palestinians of Gaza are resilient and unceasingly creative. If we really want to help the people of Gaza and see an end to the conflict, we must pressure Israel and Egypt to lift end their unconscionable blockade on Gaza. They we can all benefit from the immense talent of Gaza’s remarkable people, especially their innovative and creative women.
Maha Nassar, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She is the author of Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (Stanford University Press, 2018).