Notebook - Crossing into Gaza

Salaam Kanaan works for Save the Children in the occupied Palestinian territories. She shares notes from a busy week, amid overcrowding so bad, it makes you feel you’re suffocating.

My story is typical for Palestinians of my generation. I was born in Nablus, so I am a “West Banker”, and from the city that used to see itself as the economic hub of the West Bank. My father was a dentist in the city – until he was deported to Jordan when I was six. My parents always wanted me to be educated, and in the 1980s I headed for higher education. The American University in Beirut gave me a BA in public health and an MSc in education – and a sense of vocation for helping people, especially children. I came back to Palestine in 1993 and now live in Ramallah, the heart of the West Bank and headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, with my husband (who is from Gaza) and two children. I started working for Save the Children UK in 2007.

Crossing purposes

The difficulty of travel defines Palestinian life. If I’m not the only Palestinian who managed to have breakfast in Amman, lunch in Ramallah and dinner in Gaza, I must be one of the very few. For a Palestinian with a “Palestinian” identity card, it is already difficult to move between the towns and villages on the West Bank. So, travelling between Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza in one day is a bit of a nightmare.

I was in Amman visiting my family when I received a phone call from the Save the Children security co-ordinator saying my permit to Gaza was ready. I can only enter Gaza on a certain day and at a certain time, and leave two days later on a specified day and at a set time. I travelled from Amman to Ramallah early on the day my Gaza permit would be valid, hoping to drive my two girls to Ramallah and then take a taxi down to Gaza. Well, I wasn’t exactly driving, as Palestinians are not allowed to drive between Jordan and the West Bank, nor between the West Bank and Jerusalem, nor between these places and Gaza. Movement and access follow a strict permit regime marked by checkpoints, walls and guns.

The crossing between Jordan and the West Bank was extremely busy and it took us about six hours to cross. By the time I arrived in Ramallah it was 3.30pm. The taxi to drive me to Gaza was delayed at Qalandiya checkpoint – the main crossing between Jerusalem and Ramallah. I started the journey to Gaza at about 5pm and at 6.55pm I arrived at the Erez crossing, where I was admitted into Gaza.

Growing needs

I had not been to Gaza for four months. Though the Gaza Strip is one of the most crowded places on earth, I was struck by the emptiness of the dark streets. For the past three months, Gaza has been suffering from shortage of fuel. You see only a few cars driving down the roads. The queues outside gas stations stretch for more than one kilometre. Added to that, electricity cut-offs for more than 12 hours a day make things even worse.

The overcrowding in Gaza creates connections between people, whether they like it or not. Despite the open sea, the place feels like it is suffocating. The average family has about six children; the needs are growing. Schools run two or three shifts a day, so you always see loads of children out on the streets.

Gaza is a unique mix of the extraordinary and the ordinary. Extraordinary for its political situation, but ordinary for the acts of daily life that make it bearable.

The right to dignity in life

It has been hard to work for Save the Children, faced with such challenges of poverty and access, and amid conflict, violence, checkpoints and a four-year blockade of Gaza. Children are unable to escape the continual threat of violence. Across the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT), one in three families cannot afford one balanced meal per day, and basic supplies and medical equipment are in short supply. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children in Gaza are forced to live in camps and 80 per cent of families are reliant on humanitarian assistance such as food and cash handouts.

To support a child’s right to a dignified life, Save the Children implements projects aimed at improving access to quality services for the poorest children and their families in the OPT. Those programmes include health interventions, with a special focus on mother and child health and nutrition and children with special needs. In addition, we run programmes focusing on access to quality inclusive education, as well as ensuring the availability of protection services to the children in the OPT.

The work is difficult. We co-ordinate with other organisations – local and international NGOs and the United Nations. There are forums, venues and systems to make life easier, and to guarantee that work is being done.

I am in some ways an outsider, working for an international NGO, but as a Palestinian I am also treated like an insider. We set our priorities with local people. We know about the politics, but we have to keep out of it. So we work with independent groups that reach out to mothers or provide services to children. My job is to make sure that the money reaches the people it is intended for.

Silent spring

The Arab spring has put the Middle East in the news – but not in a way that has helped Palestinians. I applaud the growing freedom of people in the region. But I can see that the Palestinian cause has slipped down the agenda. We are not in the news and for some people we are no longer the issue of the day.

Salam Kanaan is the outgoing country director for Save the Children UK in the OPT. She holds the position of programme director at Medical Aid for Palestinians in the OPT