Without Israel's blockade, Gaza would flourish
Young people, in particular those with education and drive, are desperate to exploit this opportunity before Gaza's only gateway to the world is sealed again, perhaps indefinitely.
"People no longer discuss politics," one Gazan friend grudgingly observed about a city whose people used to talk of almost nothing else.
"You hear nothing in the streets but dreams of traveling. Everyone is discussing ways to leave and destinations to pursue." And this, in a world increasingly hostile towards migrants, where prospects of decent survival are fast diminishing. Despite that, most prefer to take a leap into the unknown than squander another minute dying a slow death in at home.
Some do escape, only to give up and return, eventually rejoining the cycle of those trying to leave. "Gaza is nothing but a trap," I am told unanimously, when I broach the idea of returning to Gaza, even for a short visit. "Returning would be the worst decision you make in your entire life. You'll regret it so dearly that you'll think of nothing else but escaping again."
This talk bodes ill for Gaza's future, auguring a mass brain drain and a flight of human capital. Given present conditions there, it is unlikely that such a scenario can be averted.
|If Gaza is a 'human rubbish heap', this is because it was made into one by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade|
International observers have described Gaza as "unlivable", a "toxic slum" and a "sinking ship" that "nobody wants". These depictions are tragically accurate.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
Gaza has so much more potential than the poverty and instability which constitute its present reality. It has proved in the past that it has the infrastructure, service industries and unique sites to make it into a tourist hotspot, if only the restrictions on movement were lifted, and the territory granted a period of respite.
The handful of foreigners who occasionally manage to cross into Gaza are typically shocked by its beautiful coastal landscape, so contrary to the imagined endemic and heartbreaking destruction.
Believe it or not, luxurious four and five star hotels, western-style restaurants, memorable resorts, cavernous shopping malls and museums that showcase its rich history are spread throughout the Strip.
Read more: US eyes Israel's blockade on Gaza as model for Mexico border wall
But they have been gathering dust because no foreigners, not even West Bank Palestinians, are allowed into the besieged enclave, while the local population - 80 percent of whom are dependent on international food aid - cannot afford such luxuries.
|Almond trees blossom in the fields of the southern Gaza Strip, 22 February 2018. [Getty]|
Even when the Rafah crossing opens, passage through it is subject to severe restrictions, and is confined to select circumstances. This means no foreign national can enter through Rafah and no Gazans other than students, patients and humanitarian cases can leave.
Gaza also boasts a fertile agricultural sector that used to export flowers, strawberries and other crops to Europe, before Israel banned virtually all Gazan exports, leading to economic disaster.
If Gaza is a "human rubbish heap", this is because it was made into one by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and a tyrannical pattern of one-off relief projects that prioritise stabilising the status quo and containing popular unrest, over making sustainable improvement to people's living conditions.
|After the Arab Spring, when Egypt eased its part of the blockade, Gaza's economy boomed at a rate that almost seemed like a dream|
Were these political decisions to be reversed, Gaza would develop at a rate beyond all expectation. For this to happen, the blockade has to be lifted, and a long-term truce agreed upon that would encourage international and Gulf donors to invest in secure projects, unthreatened by further conflict.
There is encouraging precedent. After the Arab Spring, when Egypt eased its part of the blockade, Gaza's economy boomed at a rate that almost seemed like a dream. Shopping centres, farms, resorts and even concerts, poetry and plays blossomed across the Strip, seemingly overnight.
Gaza's social fabric proved itself remarkably resilient considering the strain it had endured. Given a half a chance, Gaza began a process of self-healing - restoring social bonds and deradicalising its frustrated youth. Social movements and environmental campaigns went viral, from recycling, street cleaning and painting campaigns, to "make Gaza more beautiful".
At the same time, a people isolated for so long began to reach out and forge connections with the wider world.
|The handful of foreigners who occasionally manage to cross into Gaza are typically shocked by its beautiful coastal landscape|
Horizons expanded through cultural exchanges, in the form of large conferences and non-stop delegations of intellectuals, writers and activists, not to mention an influx of tourists and solidarity groups from all different nationalities.
For the first time in decades, Gaza's French Institute hosted art exhibitions, celebrated new talent and screened movies from international film festivals on a daily basis.
Back then, I used to work at a compound used by foreign charities as a base, where almost every other day a new project was launched, from cattle and fish farms to microfinancing entrepreneurial initiatives. All of this activity flourished, and just a year later, all of it stopped dead when the closure was reinstated in 2013.
If Gaza's torment is to be ended once and for all, and if the immense creativity and talent of its people is to be finally realised, humanitarian efforts must not come at the expense of a broader political solution to the Palestinian situation.
Sustainable development in Gaza should be a stepping-stone towards stability, and then towards a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The reopening in 2012 created space for Hamas to propose a permanent ceasefire with Israel, one that Israel sabotaged by assassinating Qassam leader Ahmed al-Jabari.
Nonetheless, an end to the siege still promises a path to a more lasting and durable reconciliation. After all, we've seen what Gaza can do when given half a chance, imagine what it could do with a real one.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.
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