Thursday, March 6, 2014

How's Gaza?

Having recently returned from spending a year in Gaza working with the UN, one would think I’d have an easy answer. So much has changed for the worse since my last stint in 2011 that it’s hard not to simply reply that the coastal enclave is teetering on the brink of disaster. There is barely a positive indicator to report, and as the international community has all but moved on and forgotten Gaza in the midst of the crisis in Syria and during Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiation efforts, people are wondering why they should hold on to the last bits of hope they have left.

Yet, there is a resilience to Palestinians that cannot be underestimated—especially in Gaza. In them lies the potential for a change in course, but it will take courage, trust, cooperation, and ultimately an end to the blockade to fundamentally transform everything.

Gaza is a daily struggle and a constant feeling of being on the edge of conflict. Despite being relatively quiet since the last significant escalation in violence in November 2012 in which 165 Palestinians were killed, including 13 women and 33 children, there is a tension in the air that leaves you feeling that just a small spark could spin things quickly out of control. Frustration is at its peak and the population is completely isolated. Extremism is on the rise, becoming an outlet as hope dies—even Valentine’s Day was under attack this year.

The closure of the Rafah border crossing and the destruction of the tunnels under the border with Egypt have taken the blockade to a new level, sealing the Strip and cutting the final lifelines. The only imports to Gaza come through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel and are extremely limited, while exports are essentially nonexistent. With two major escalations in three years and crumbling infrastructure, not only has the blockade decimated Gaza’s economy, but it has also made it ever more challenging to rebuild and recover.

Unemployment climbed to 38.5 per cent in the last quarter of 2013 (56.8 per cent among youth) and is expected to rise further. Jobs provided by the tunnels have disappeared and sectors like the construction industry—which saw 20,000 jobs added last year—have nothing left to work with. Fuel and food prices have skyrocketed, and the mostly aid dependent population has been left struggling like never before.


Attention has turned elsewhere, and international funding through the UN and other major humanitarian agencies operating on the ground has been diverted from Gaza. UNRWA, the largest agency working on the ground serving over 70 per cent of the total population, struggled to maintain basic services amidst a $36 million budget shortfall in 2013. Coping mechanisms have been exhausted, and the status quo is simply impossible to maintain, even if aid poured in.

In spite of all this, the people of Gaza are incredibly capable. Well educated and with a literacy rate of 95.3 per cent (nearly 20 percentage points higher than the regional average), the population is doing better in this realm than many of its Arab neighbors, falling only slightly behind Israel’s 97.1 per cent. Time and time again, Ive been told by people that they dont want aid. They want opportunity—a chance to work and build a better life. Even children are acutely aware of this, eagerly telling me they want to be doctors and lawyers and engineers so that they can make things better. The blockade is holding them back.
With few options and no elections in sight, the blockade amounts to collective punishment at best and a humanitarian catastrophe at worst. The international community cannot sit idly by as the situation deteriorates. It is a greater threat to peace, stability, and security than anything else, and has emboldened extremist elements, giving them further ammunition as people lose hope and see no other options. Desperate people have little left to lose.


Gaza must be shifted back into the conversation and into negotiations in a way that might actually move things forward within the political context and realm of possibility. The blockade may not be lifted tomorrow, but there are ways to work toward this and ultimately make any solution more viable. Taking small, positive steps to alleviate suffering and empower people so they are no longer aid dependent should be the short term goal, while ensuring a complete lifting of the blockade is the end result.
At one time, there was trade between Gaza and Israel. Local vendors worked with Israeli partners to export internationally, benefiting civilians on both sides of the border. A simple loosening of the blockade, allowing exports as well as imports would be a start; helping the economy, and building confidence so that an eventual end might be possible. The sectors that could be quickly revitalized or that are already moderately functioning can be identified and focused on.


Allowing for more freedom of movement would mean important advances for the civilian population of Gaza. It would enable people to gain education and skills that right now are limited to the 365 km2 they are trapped within. It would broaden opportunities for so many youth who have never left Gaza, never seeing beyond the concrete walls surrounding them. It could help the growing entrepreneurial sector, giving businesses the freedom to expand and the chance to contribute not only to Palestines economy, but also to the wider world with their innovative ideas.

When people feel economically secure and are able to take care of their families, send their children to school, and simply live life without the burden of poverty, it increases security and stability for all. It is the only way this region will ever see peace. Extremism and violence gain power when people feel desperate and hopeless. We have to turn that on its head and give Gaza reason to hope again—to give us all reason to hope again.

Julia C. Hurley was a consultant with UNRWA in Gaza in 2013. She now resides in Washington, D.C., serving as a project manager for an international development nonprofit. On Twitter:@JuliaCHurley.

This piece originally appeared in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs' Tahrir Forum.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Op-Ed: The subtle costs of constant Mideast war

Originally published in the Saturday, June 30, 2012, edition of The Record, a North Jersey newspaper, on the editorials page - A13.

Growing up in North Jersey, I have fond memories of summers spent outside playing, laughing, and enjoying my time off from school. I hold memories of weekends at the Shore or the town pool with my family, and of weekdays spent at summer camp with friends.

Yet for millions of children around the world, my reality is only an unimaginable dream.

Last summer, I spent three months living and working in the Gaza Strip at the invitation from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which supports more than 5 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

In Gaza, 1.7 million people live in a sealed off enclave no bigger than twice the size of Washington, DC. More than 1 million residents are refugees and depend on support from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Due to the Israeli blockade, unemployment is at 45 percent, and 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. There is little hope for the children, descendants of Palestinians who, in 1948 fled homes and land in what is now Israel.

With the dire economic situation in Gaza, most families focus on what they need to do to survive.  Finding ways for their children to enjoy their summers off from school is not a priority. Given the conditions of violence and hardship, I could not think of a more important place for there to be a summer outlet for kids.

UNRWA has provided this outlet for 250,000 children each summer with its Summer Games in Gaza- until now. Due to a funding shortfall, the Summer Games in Gaza were canceled this year.

Having witnessed what these games meant to the children, this could not have been a more devastating blow. These kids are constantly surrounded by conflict and challenges, the likes of which, we as Americans cannot even begin to understand. The Games were the only safe outlet available to them each summer. The kids I saw at the Games were full of excitement and energy. From interviewing their families, I knew them to be ever eager to welcome me in and share their stories. I quickly learned that the games were a sort of therapy for them.

At a time when Americans are concerned about our security and hope for Middle East peace, the cancellation of the Summer Games, is in direct opposition to our interests. It leaves 250,000 children and 9,000 teens, who would have been employed for the Games, vulnerable and feeling as though the world has abandoned them yet again. Instead of spending their summer healing, enjoying the company of friends, learning and growing, or earning money, they will now be left with potentially dangerous alternatives. For $50 each, Gaza’s children could have had the summer they deserved. Instead, the international community has decided not to help the most innocent of victims in this conflict.

If there was no siege on Gaza, this would have been a non-issue. The siege is illegal under international law and collectively punishes an entire population for the uncontrollable actions of a tiny minority within Gaza. In talking to Gazans for three months, every single person I asked about rockets fired into Israel (now, by small militant factions, not by Hamas) – Israel’s ongoing excuse for the siege – said they wished they would stop, but it is out of their hands. Instead of being treated with dignity, they are punished, and their children, who deserve this the least, suffer the most.

Without this siege, UNRWA’s normal budget would not have been stretched so thin, and it could have better allocated funds to provide a safe haven for these children, rather than have to worry about ensuring people are fed. The deteriorating situation means the children of Gaza will sit idle this summer wondering why we continue to ignore their plight.

We can do better. Each year, over $3 billion goes to support Israel’s military while the next generation of Palestinians are growing up under siege and occupation, struggling to get by. This is not in the interest of the United States; it does nothing to further the ideals we believe in. It is up to us to insist that Republicans and Democrats alike focus on the next generation of Palestinians if there is ever to be hope for peace.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Julia C. Hurley, a Park Ridge native, is a Washington, DC,-based non-profit professional and human rights advocate who raises funds for projects related to children and development in the Middle East. She serves as volunteer Adopt a School Campaign liaison for the American Friends of UNRWA. 


Since The Record never published the piece online, here's an image of the print version.

Rebuttal by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach found here: http://www.northjersey.com/news/opinions/israel_070812.html

Thursday, January 12, 2012

That Suit Isn't Going to Be Here When You Die

People are constantly asking me why I do what I do. The simple answer is "because I should," but the more complex answer lies in a comment I made to a friend today after she posted an article about the Gates Foundation's contribution to a polo-free year in India:

I'd love to see more wealthy people doing their part. Too many of them love running around the globe and spending $10,000 on a suit. Why not save children's lives and better the world? That suit isn't going to be here when you die, but the next generation will.

That, right there, is why I do what I do and why I believe more people should be doing the same. I remember growing up thinking "I want to be the CEO of some huge international corporation and make lots of money and travel the world and have a big old house and lots of stuff!" While that's all well and good and I do believe those who work hard should enjoy the benefits of said hard work, why not give back as well? You make all this money, why not do something truly, truly, worthwhile with it? 

I'm a girl who grew up comfortable. I'm from suburbia New Jersey and live in one of the richest counties in the country. My parents provided for me above and beyond what they needed to and still do sometimes. The money I've seen in my life thus far is insane. I'm surrounded by huge houses, BMWs, private schools, Amex cards with no limits, and designer clothes. I would be lying if I didn't tell you that I sometimes look at all of those things and go "Oohh pretty! Wouldn't it be nice?" but then I draw a line in my head and think "How many kids could I help with what that cost?" I think of the smiling faces of the hundreds of kids in Gaza who were able to receive school because of $17,000 worth of donations, and to me, those smiles are worth more than any of the shiny things I could covet at any moment. Those smiles, and knowing I helped to improve their life, even a one thousandth of a percent, is worth everything. 

I've always wanted to help people, and that definitely comes from how I was raised. My family was always doing what they could for others, and many times, doing it quietly. It wasn't about recognition, but simply about doing good. The tipping point for me was in time spent overseas. Seeing the rest of the world and getting outside of my bubble made me realize that how I was living wasn't even remotely close to normal. Having seen more of the US as well now, I know its not even normal right here at home either. I made my first trip abroad when I was 14 and then 9/11 happened and my world was turned upside down. September 11th made me acutely aware of what poverty can drive people to take part in. Although I took a hard-line stance after that, I also still felt an extreme empathy toward those who were much less fortunate than me and  simply trapped by circumstance. I'm the girl who cries at UNICEF commercials. My friend Maura can attest to the time I called her up crying because I had just seen a commercial for the 2004 tsunami victims. (She thought someone had died until, between gasping breaths I muttered, "the...the...kids....the the tsunami....its so sad!!!") I wanted to help, but I had no idea how. Then living in Cairo for five months in 2007 and seeing REAL poverty, sent my head spinning. Never in a million years, could I imagine seeing this in the US or imagine living on less than $2 per day. Then to go on to see what I saw in Palestine and and the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan during that same trip left me feeling absolutely compelled to do something. 

It's this same tipping point that I think is missing in the US. Those in this country who are struggling, have an excuse. They have their own lives to focus on....their own problems....their own poverty even. But those living a comfortable life have no excuse except ignorance and their inability to look outside their bubble. How can you sit back and spend exorbitant amounts of money on things that make your life more and more cushy, yet not give back? And when I say give back, I don't necessarily imply giving abroad. You need to find your passion and what is important to you, but you need to be doing something more. Period. The clothes, the house, the cars, the gossip, the bullshit, isn't going to be here 100 years from now, but your legacy can be. The children you help could grow up and cure cancer or be the next Gandhi or Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Mother Theresa or whomever else you could think of that could make great contributions to our world. Your great-great-great-great grandchildren won't be able to play with your BMW, but they will be able to live in a polio free world or a world where there is actually peace. 

This is why I do what I do. I believe in a better world and I believe that we can't stand around and wait for other people to make it better. We have to take matters into our own hands and do something. If you can go volunteer, awesome! If you can only give $5, amazing! If you have deep pockets and can give thousands of dollars, you may have just saved hundreds of lives. Enjoy your own life. Enjoy the material things and the luxuries you are able to afford, but make sure there is a balance there. I got a Michael Kors bag for Christmas and I absolutely love it. It's pretty, it's functional, and it's kinda nice to have a really good bag for once, but I've also sat here numerous times since getting it, wondering what I could have done with the $250 it cost, and then turned around and kept moving forward with all the volunteer work I do. This is what I mean by balance. You shouldn't be penalized for gifts or for working hard and earning wealth, but you should, without question, always think of others and give what you can. That suit or car or purse or wild night out in New York City isn't going to be here when you die, but the impact you have on people's lives, your legacy, could be. The one child you help tomorrow could be the one child who grows up into the one person who is able to bring peace to the world. Think about that the next time you make a big purchase, and ask yourself what you're going to do to balance it out. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Reflections on Gaza begin....


Sitting here reflecting on my time in Gaza is both challenging and bitter sweet. I met so many amazing people and did so many incredible things, that I know there will always be a special place in my heart for Gaza and its residents. The challenges faced as well, leave me feeling an odd sense of freedom and relaxation now that I’ve left though, and leave me wondering if I would have made it staying there for the long haul like I considered at one point. Perhaps if I’d been more consumed by an actual job it would have been a different feeling, but those moments of idleness and the inability to be fully myself, and fully independent, are what made it difficult.

Despite that, I will forever miss the beauty of the people and the simplicity of life, and don’t honestly think you can experience such warmth and openness elsewhere. My last few weeks in Gaza really stand out when I think about this and I think about the family I had the opportunity to share them with. They were beyond wonderful and welcomed me as soon as I walked in their door. At a point in my time in Gaza where the stress of daily life and some of the dramas that come from living in a place where society is closed off from the world by a siege, this family made me feel safe and secure…loved and cared for. I’m forever, forever, grateful for them, and that is what I will miss about Gaza. The countless cups of tea, the moments of laughter with those I was meeting with and those who welcomed me into their homes to share their stories and their lives.

Nothing about Gaza is easy. The electricity cuts, the airstrikes, the strain of feeling imprisoned by the siege, and at times the conservative society, the salty showers when all you wanted was a fresh cool shower to cleanse yourself of the dirt and stress of the day to day. The security concerns and the knowledge that someone was always watching your every move left me feeling like I had to retreat at times. But when I could let go of that, and do what I was there to do, life in Gaza was beautiful. I will never ever forget what I have seen and heard and am in awe of the strength and resilience of the people I met and those I didn’t even have the opportunity to meet. Their stories and their hopes and dreams are what I will share. I’m inspired by them all.

Gaza is so complex and it is going to take me weeks to truly reflect on all I’ve learned from it and to understand fully how it has impacted my life. Today, for the first time, I woke up from a nap in Cairo, and breathed in fully and relaxed with my independence restored. Now the thoughts are flowing into my mind and I’m trying to make sense of everything and completely see what my full purpose was, as I know my time there was just one step in a journey and one piece of what I now owe to Gaza and to the world. Some of life in Gaza was shared in my blog, and I can only hope it opened people’s minds and hearts to the reality of the situation they face and what we, as Americans, have done to create it. There is so much more, though, and by no means have I done all of what I need to do to repay Gaza, which welcomed me, and allowed me the chance to understand. My life will never be the same.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Give a man a fish....


I'm normally not a big proponent of aid. I don't think it always helps, and can actually be counter-productive at times. The saying, "give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime," always comes to mind when considering it. There are certain instances when it can be a vital part of life and a necessary component of development; however, and I saw this first hand over the last week while visiting an UNRWA school in Khan Younis, where over 2000 students from the Khan Younis Girls Prep C and the Khan Younis Co-Ed Elementary attend classes on a double shift – the girls in the morning, and the co-ed elementary in the afternoon.

This school is one of the poorest in the UNRWA school system in Gaza, with over 50% of students being classified as abject poor, meaning they come from families that are no longer able to feed themselves, even with UNRWA assistance, and typically survive on less than 1 USD per day. They are the poorest of the poor here in Gaza and many of the families have been driven to this point because of the lack of employment and the stagnant economy, which is a direct result of the Israeli siege. Now, the students depend on the School Feeding Program implemented by UNRWA through its Emergency Appeal for sustenance, and are about to lose this lifeline due to lack of funding.

The School Feeding Program provides basic food for the students, and while it is not a huge meal, it is a help, and takes a bit of the burden off of the parents, filling the bellies of hungry children in Gaza so that they can get the education they deserve. These children who may go hungry at home, now have the opportunity to eat before their classes, which can drastically impact their ability to learn. It is something that the students and their families have become dependent on, until the siege is eased and the economic situation can improve.

The importance of the program truly struck me while I was speaking with the principal of the Girls Prep School after she informed me that the School Feeding Program has been on hold since the beginning of the school year because funds are not available. The result has been one or two students fainting during the school day, - every day - since the beginning of the month, and numerous students complaining of hunger related headaches.

These kids deserve so much more than this. They are victims of circumstance, and have dreams bigger than most of the children I know in the US. While conducting interviews of over 35 students in both schools, the one question I asked that repeatedly shocked me by the answers I received was “What do you want to be when you grow up and why?” The vast majority of the children wanted to be doctors and engineers and teachers, and all for the same reason: they wanted to help their people. Where else do children have dreams like this? In the US, where 90% of kids do not go to school hungry, or face abject poverty of this level, the children want to be famous celebrities or singers or reality TV stars. As Americans, we take this all for granted. In Gaza, kids just simply want their lives to improve…somehow. If the way to begin this process is through a simple meal before school so that they can focus, and learn, and achieve their dreams, I can’t, for the life of me, understand how we cannot support it.


For more information and a chance to donate visit American Friends of UNRWA: http://friendsunrwa.org/our-programs/education

Thursday, August 18, 2011

BOOM!

We all knew it was coming. We knew we'd be hit hard tonight. As soon as the news from Israel broke....the first attack on the bus....I KNEW Gaza was in for it. Whether or not anyone from here had actually even carried out the attack, we were going to feel Israel's wrath. We're an easy scapegoat. Seal up the borders, keep the media quiet, and have some fun...

Rafah, in the south, was hit first, before sundown and 7 were killed, including a child and the leader of the Popular Resistance Committee. Then we got reports of tanks on the border, and by the time iftar (the breaking of the fast at sundown during Ramadan) came around, we were all braced for more. F16s and drones were overhead all evening, but that was it. Nothing more. I spent most of the night staring at my screen between conversations with friends....tweeting and Facebooking trying to make sure someone....anyone....was paying attention when all hell broke loose. I was fighting off rumors about an UNRWA evacuation and then trying to confirm whether or not the US embassy in Tel Aviv had told Americans to leave Gaza....the former not being true and the latter being true.

Finally, just before midnight, my friends walked me home from the cafe we were hanging out at, and within 20 minutes, the bombing had begun. As soon as I opened my computer, I was reading reports of strikes all over Gaza, but especially in Gaza City. Then the electricity went out and suddenly BOOM! boom boom! I shreeked in terror as I felt a gush of air rush through the window I had cracked open hours before (thank God!!) and felt the ground shake under me. Still shaking, I grabbed my phone, called one of my friends and proceeded to just go "holy shit! that was so close! holy shit!" repeatedly as we both laughed. He was laughing with me out of amusement because this was normal to him and I was laughing out of panic because I didn't know what else to do and desperately didn't want to cry. I knew in that moment, why people here are so angry with Israel and with the US. If nothing else, this was terrifying! And try having it happen repeatedly just because some jerk you don't even know decided to fire off a rocket or carry out some pointless attack in the southern part of Israel....and not be able to run away from it. We're trapped here. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

I'd felt strikes before, but nothing so close that I felt the air pressure go nuts and thought the windows would explode. It finally hit me what it was like to be here. I watched the images unfold on TV of women and children, covered in dust, being brought into the ER of Shifa Hospital, where I had been just a couple days ago collecting information and conducting interviews for a piece on the health crisis. It was surreal in a way....but it also left me feeling frustratingly helpless. I'm here. I'm an American, on the ground, in Gaza, as it's being bombed like mad, and there was absolutely nothing I could do. I could tweet. I could report. I could absorb it all. But that was it. What could I have possibly done to save the life of the 13 year old who died 15 minutes from where I live? What could I have done to comfort the mother I saw screaming on TV carrying her injured child to an ambulance? All I have for now are my words. So please take them, share them, and understand that innocent lives are being lost. Every Palestinian killed today is a human being too. One life lost is too many. I don't care who you believe is right or wrong. This is life and death.....there's no room for politics anymore.

My most retweeted tweet tonight....


Julia C. Hurley
I'm officially in hell. TV screen filled with death. Bombing next to my house. F16s & drones overhead. Welcome to . Thanks ...
2 hours ago via web

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

We're still here screaming....even after 15 hours of silence....

Can you imagine living in New Jersey and having the federal government tell you that you couldn’t go to New York City for a lifesaving medical procedure? 

Welcome to Gaza. 

Welcome to siege. Welcome to the crux of it….the lack of freedom….of movement….of all of the things that we as Americans take deeply for granted. The siege isn’t just about the humanitarian crisis unfolding, with 80% of the population living on less than 2 USD per day and 45% unemployed, or the desperately needed medical supplies not being allowed in. It is about the basic human rights and freedoms that Israel and Egypt, in a sense as well, are denying Gazans. They can’t get in, they can’t get out. Mail can’t get in or out. A tunnel economy has unfolded as the only means of real survival, thus destroying Gaza’s actual economy. This. This is siege. It is the slow, methodical closing off of an entire population from the world….a slow choking of the life out of the 1.7 million people living here.

Last night, we experienced a complete and utter siege as our last whisper to the world was cut…we lost internet, mobile phones, and international land lines. The cause is still unknown, as the Israelis have continued to deny, but it is being speculated that an Israeli bulldozer digging on the border hit a communications line, severing Gaza’s ties to the world for over 15 hours. At first we thought nothing of it. Must have been some sort of small glitch and it would be back on soon. But hours later, when I finally went to bed last night, windows cracked in case of bombing, and a flashlight next to the bed since we’d been running on a generator with no electricity for almost 24 hours, I was nervous. I live alone and could no longer reach anyone…even inside Gaza. I truly and deeply felt like a prisoner.

Worst case scenarios have now been the topic of discussion on Twitter all day as we all try to figure out what happened. Israel wanted a media blackout during the last war so that the world wouldn’t know what they were doing…much like Syria right now….but people were still able to get word out with communications open. Was this a test run to finally shut us up? Close us off completely? Not even a whimper of despair could be heard now. If they struck, it could be a massacre, and the world wouldn’t know until it was too late. The internet and mobile phones are our lifeline. The only way the world knows Gaza is still alive. The only way we can still shout that the world must pay attention. If that is cut for any length of time, there is no telling what could happen. That was the fear gripping Gaza as we went to sleep last night.

In an email home this morning, I compared the relationship between Israel and Gaza to a case of domestic violence. That may seem like an extreme, but I don’t know how else to explain this to the outside world. Gaza is the battered wife and Israel, the abusive husband. You go to sleep every single night wondering when they will strike again and how hard. Wondering if you will wake up alive the next day. Wondering if something is going to piss Israel off enough to wake you up from your slumber and drunkenly beat you down with all their might. We just sit here and take it, and take it, and take it, and every now and then, someone musters a bit of strength and fires a rocket** back trying to say “enough!” Then we’re beaten down even harder. There is no winning here. I wonder sometimes if this truly is going to end like many instances of domestic violence when the husband will finally go over the edge and kill his wife. Will Israel finally lose its cool enough to choke the last breath out of Gaza? Was last night the test run? It seems like just a matter of time….


**Please note that I do not support violence in any form. I understand why the rockets are being fired, but do not condone them nor do I feel they are a useful form of resistance, particularly due to the fact that they are completely unguided and do not usually hit military targets.