The latest round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip came shortly after a grim milestone was marked in the coastal enclave: 15 years since the beginning of the blockade imposed on Gaza following Hamas’ violent overthrow of the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
As the years have passed, more than 2 million Gazans have lost their ability to move freely as Israel and Egypt (which both border Gaza) have imposed strict limitations on Gazans’ ability to get in and out of the narrow strip.
For Salwa, a 29-year-old single mother who lives in Gaza, memories of life before the area was cut off from the world come back often, even 15 years on.
“I was 14 years old when it started,” she told Haaretz in an interview last month. “I remember a time when it was possible to leave Gaza by sea and go to Egypt quite easily. My mom did it in 2004 because she had to go for a medical procedure in Egypt – you could just pack your bags and go.” Today, getting out of Gaza to visit Egypt involves crossing by land through the Rafah crossing, which is often closed, and requires special permits from both Hamas and the Egyptian authorities.
Salwa also remembered going on a school trip outside of Gaza during her elementary school years, which was an exciting experience for her as a child. “I had to ask my parents to sign a paper permitting me to travel outside of Gaza. All of the kids were so excited about this. Today, this option doesn’t exist for kids in Gaza.”
Like many families in Gaza, before the border was shut Salwa’s family relied on work in Israel as a main source of income: her father used to cross the Erez border crossing almost every day to work inside Israel. When the border was closed in 2007, her father became unemployed. “He’s been out of a job until this day,” Salwa said. “My mom used her skill for sewing clothes, and turned it from a hobby into a source of income.”
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But even that wasn’t so simple: With severe limitations on Gaza’s ability to trade with the world, the raw materials her mother needed for her business to grow were out of reach.
Israel has imposed these limitations, claiming that materials intended for civilian purposes were being confiscated by Hamas’ military wing and used for digging tunnels into Israel or expanding the organization’s rocket arsenal.
“When this siege started, I didn’t understand as a teenager how much it would affect our everyday life,” Salwa said. “Now, it has even affected my dreams and ambitions. It feels like with each passing day, the situation only gets worse here.”
Our conversation, it should be noted, took place before the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad earlier this month that killed 17 Palestinian children.
In 2021, the Israeli government decided, for the first time since 2007, to give a limited number of Gazans work permits – which allows them to enter Israel and look for a job. The current number of permit holders is some 14,000, though not all of them have succeeded in finding work inside Israel. One complicating factor is that Israel requires them to return to Gaza at the end of each workday, making it difficult to find a job that’s not in the vicinity of the Erez crossing (which closes in the evening).
Mays, a 23-year-old Gazan who works in graphic design, doesn’t even remember what life was like before Gaza was shut off from the world. She was in fourth grade when the isolation began. “I don’t remember much from my childhood,” she said, but does have a strong memory of Israeli warplanes attacking Gaza time and again.
“Childhood memories for me all consist of war, bombs, dead kids, houses getting destroyed, people crying over loved ones and moms over their children. It’s painful. Since I was 10 years old, I always lived with an expectation of another war breaking out, another conflict. These are the memories I have,” she said.
Growing up in a northern neighborhood of Gaza, not far from the Israeli border, her family has often been ordered to leave its home during times of war out of fear that Israeli shelling would destroy it. “The best day is always the day a cease-fire is announced, but we still wait for the next tragedy to arrive,” she said.
Mays says she dreams of being able to travel outside of Gaza and to see the world, but discussing it only makes her frustrated. “Of course I would love to get out of Gaza and visit places, explore other cultures and also study abroad. But at the same time, I’m afraid of not being able to return and see my family. It’s scary. Trying to get a special permit to leave is hard – but also risky. What if a war breaks out when I’m away and I won’t be able to help my family and make sure they stay alive? It’s very hard to get out of Gaza. But even if it was possible, I’d still live in constant fear.”
Mays tried to leave Gaza a few years ago, in order to get eye surgery in Egypt, but failed to receive a travel permit to go. “The siege is a reality you live with on a daily basis, it affects so many aspects of your life,” she said. “The bottom line is that, except for very rare cases, there’s just no such thing as getting out of Gaza for young people.”