A Trócaire programme officer reports on a recent trip to Gaza where she met with partner organisations and programme participants who are working to rebuild and improve living conditions in the aftermath of the 2014 offensive which killed 2251 Palestinians.
Photo: A girl walks past a school which was destroyed during Operation Protective Edge in 2014
It is hard to imagine, when passing through the 1km tunnel which leads from the Erez crossing to Gaza that Tel Aviv is only an hour away.
Walking through the tunnel itself is a surreal experience. The wall spreads out on either side behind you, as you are guided through empty land towards more checkpoints.
Our walk was briefly interrupted by the sound of warning shots being fired from an Israeli watchtower at a Palestinian who had gotten too close to the fence.
Photo: The 1km long walkway at Erez checkpoint, leading into Gaza
Once through all of the checkpoints Gaza itself is full of life, and life for the 1.8 million inhabitants must go on despite the delayed recovery following the 2014 Israeli offensive, which saw 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, lose their lives, of which 299 were women and 551 children.
During my time in Gaza, the youth of the population made the biggest impression on me. Around 60 percent of the population is under 25.
Each child aged eight and over has now been through three wars. I wondered if any of them understood what life is like for people outside the fence.
Trócaire’s partner, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, took us on a tour of Shija'ia, one of areas worst hit during the 2014 offensive.
Photo: House in Shija'ia
Signs of reconstruction are now visible, most of the rubble has been removed, but there was also obvious frustration with the speed that work is taking place.
Many still live in metal container-like caravans, which are unsuitable for the seasonal temperature fluctuations.
The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, which was set up in the wake of the 2014 offensive, to which USD 3.5 billion was pledged, has been criticised as being too slow, due to the restrictions imposed by Israel on certain goods transported into Gaza.
This has resulted in some residents of Gaza undertaking the arduous labour themselves - breaking down the remains of shelled buildings, turning the former concrete homes back into gravel to be made into cement, and straightening out the iron bars to be reused in reconstruction.
Although the visual signs of reconstruction are welcome, the psychological damage remains.
The highly pressured environment in which people live has resulted in increasingly worrying trends in Gaza, such as a rise in gender-based violence.
Furthermore, the economic situation has put intense pressure on families. Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world at 43 percent. More alarming is the situation of youth unemployment which soared to more than 60 percent by the end of 2014.
Bringing an end to the ongoing siege, now in its tenth year, would contribute to the economic recovery of Gaza, and would help to relieve some of the daily stresses which are associated with higher levels of violence against women.
Since the 2014 offensive, Trócaire has looked to increase its work with women in Gaza.
It has just completed a project with its partner the Women’s Affairs Center which promotes women's rights and combats gender-based violence in the Gaza Strip.
One of their activities to achieve this is training young graduate women in women's rights, gender, and violence against women.
We met with some of these women during the trip, and their passion, enthusiasm and desire to change the context in which they live was very inspiring.
These women take the skills they learn home to try to raise awareness of women’s rights and change perspectives in their own communities.
Photo: Meeting at the Women’s Affairs Center
Trócaire is also working with the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme on a confidential phone service for women.
This phone service is particularly important in a very conservative society.
An Action Aid report from October 2015, which examined violence against women in the Gaza Strip after Operation Protective Edge in 2014, found that the most frequent coping strategy used by women is to try to solve the problem by themselves, for example by asking perpetrators to stop, or by asking family for help.
Around 28 percent of abused women do not speak to anyone about it.
This phone service will hopefully provide an important, and private, channel by which women will be able to receive psychosocial support, and get referred to other services if needed.
I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to go to Gaza, to meet the people living there, to see their resilience and experience their generosity, but also, I feel privileged to have been able to leave, which is not the case for many Palestinians living there.
When asking the people that we met there the question, ‘Have you ever left Gaza?’, the answer is invariably ‘No’.
Each person has a story of an opportunity to leave: a visa interview, a university place, a conference, but due to the ever increasing requirements to be able to leave the Strip they have been unable to go.
Trócaire works with Gisha, an Israeli NGO, to increase support for greater access to and from Gaza and to raise awareness of the restrictions of freedom of movement for those living in Gaza.
We at Trócaire are lucky to work with amazing partners on the ground, who work under such difficult and adverse conditions, but who continue to persevere and fight for justice.
Learn more about the work of Trócaire and its partners in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.