Textbook injustice in Gaza

Schoolchildren are stuck for basics as Israel blocks supplies

As the 456,000 schoolchildren in the Gaza Strip start their academic year, they face chronic shortages of everything from paper, textbooks and ink cartridges to school uniforms, school bags and computers, the result of the Israeli blockade. At the same time, severely overcrowded classrooms are having to accommodate students whose schools were destroyed or damaged in the last siege, early this year.

The only supplies on the market are smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt. Yet even when materials are available, many cannot afford them: 80 per cent of Gaza's 1.5 million people live below the poverty line. The ministry of education has instructed teachers not to expect pupils to have "too many textbooks", but Ahmed Abdelhameed, who has eight school-age children, says that "teachers still ask for the full quota of school supplies, as if we were living in Sweden".

"I can no longer understand why we need to suffer, why textbooks and pencils are not allowed," he says. "Does Israel see these as threatening weapons, too?"

Shared stationery

The paper available is of poor quality. Abdelhameed says one of his daughters is just starting school and he has bought smuggled notebooks for her. But "when she uses an eraser, the paper tears", he says. "This makes a mess of the next page, too." With such quality problems, supplies run out fast, which raises the cost. "What gets through is never enough," he explains. "I will have to continue next week to roam around the Gaza Strip looking for stationery and school bags for the kids.

"I am lucky enough to be able to afford some notebooks, but I hear stories from my daughter about kids in her class having to use pieces of palm leaves as rollers and garbage bags as school bags."

A maths teacher from Khan Younis says that "some of the students share stationery. Others use old notebooks."

The deputy director of the chamber of commerce, Mahmoud al-Yazji, says Gaza faces a grave problem in getting supplies to students. He estimates that 90 per cent of the student population is affected. "Israel is deliberately aiming not to allow stationery into the Gaza Strip," he says. "Occupation forces blocked 1,750 containers of school supplies and stationery worth US$150m."

Merchants in the occupied territory have ordered tens of thousands of school bags from foreign suppliers, but Israel is still blocking all imports. Opening the Israeli-controlled crossings to Gaza, he points out, is the way to secure supplies for the students.

Effects of Israeli assault

A higher education spokesman, Khalid Radi, is adamant that his department has instructed teachers not to pressure students, and in the meantime is in contact with humanitarian groups from the Arab world and beyond to find ways of getting stationery into Gaza. But "all [the] latest attempts from human rights groups have failed", he says. "It makes me wonder if these pupils holding a pencil are viewed as more dangerous than if they were holding a rocket."

In the last assault on Gaza, 18 schools were destroyed and at least 280 damaged. Many are still in need of building materials to complete repairs, say UN sources. Radi says the shortage of materials is affecting students badly. "The weather is getting colder. We don't have replacements for damaged school windows, and students will suffer the effects of the last assault on Gaza throughout the coming year, with destruction in their heads," he says. The ministry of education reports that classes often have to squeeze in up to 55 students.

"The blockade has caused untold suffering to children in Gaza," says Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories. Dr Fadel Abu Hien, a professor of psychology at al-Aqsa University, says many students stop attending classes due to shortages of books, pens and paper. "Israel is using the control over Gaza's borders to cause psychological destruction among students who want to study and learn."

No relief for refugees

Human rights groups have criticised Israel's restrictions on the Gaza Strip and the limits placed on supplies. Only basic food and rudimentary materials are allowed through. The groups describe these as "inadequate for the needs of over 1.5 million people". UN officials say that instruments and equipment for school science laboratories are also in short supply. The humanitarian co-ordinator representing UN aid agencies in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), and the Association of International Development Agencies (Aida), represented by at least 25 NGOs, have demanded full and unfettered access into and out of Gaza in particular to restore the education system.

Maxwell Gaylard, of the UN Special Co-ordinator Office for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO), concedes that Gaza needs more school supplies, despite the efforts of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to bring in basic school stationery. Gaylard says UNSCO has repeatedly asked the government of Israel urgently to facilitate entry of construction materials and schools supplies in the coming weeks, It has also requested that students, teachers and trainers be allowed to move freely in and out of Gaza so that education can progress. Asked if the information about the shortage of essential materials is reaching the higher levels of the Israeli government and the UN, he says: "Yes, but it seems that Israel has a different definition of humanitarian needs from the definition that we use at UN."
The shortage of supplies is just another example of the frustration imposed on Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

Mohammed Omer
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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood