I have not set foot on Palestinian soil since 1967, two months before the Six-Day War, and I have never before been to Gaza. You might say that it was inevitable that I would feel some emotion as we Elders visited this week.
Indeed it was extremely troubling to see the extent of the poverty in Gaza. The token easing of the Israeli blockade has made little real difference. We were told that 80 per cent of Gazans, for example, receive handouts from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and other donors. Construction materials are still not allowed in and it is clear as you drive through the streets that thousands of Gazans live in dire conditions.
What angered me most, however, is that the future of Gaza’s youth is being compromised by a political crisis for which they bear no responsibility and over which they have no control. Palestinian factionalism is adding to Israel’s collective punishment and is stifling society. The international community is failing in its duty to ensure that young Gazans have access to education and opportunity.
No new schools have been built in Gaza for four years, despite the fact that over one hundred schools are needed, especially after the destruction caused by Israel’s brutal attack in December 2008/January 2009. UNRWA has to turn away 40,000 children from its schools because it doesn’t have enough classrooms to teach them in. We visited an UNRWA school where children were packed into classrooms built from shipping containers. They were sweltering hot – I cannot see how a child can possibly learn in such conditions.
Half of Gaza’s population is under 18 years old and they are being terribly let down by the international community. UNRWA is experiencing a funding shortfall of about 25 per cent of its total budget this year. I for one refuse to believe that 80 million dollars cannot be found to help it provide education to the thousands of children who are denied it.
We also met university students who are filled with disappointment and anger. They told us of the education that they dream of, and of the education that they receive in reality. They lack the tools and experiences that other students take for granted - such as laboratory equipment, good computers, and opportunities to study abroad. When they complete their education, unemployment is so high that they are unlikely to find work.
Most of all, young people told us of their frustration. Division among those who call themselves their leaders denies opportunity to all young Palestinians, in the West Bank as well as in Gaza. If Palestinians are brought up surrounded by such bitter division, how will they ever learn to accept the other?
As a young man, I was part of a liberation struggle; the young students we met reminded me of those days. They are angry and disappointed, but they believe that they can build a safer and more prosperous future for themselves and their country – and they have the energy and capability to do so. I told them that they must raise their voice. They must show that Gaza and the West Bank’s large youth population is their biggest asset and the international community and Palestinian leadership must harness this now. We cannot continue to let young Palestinians in Gaza or elsewhere down.