I have lived all of my 22 years in the tiny, besieged Gaza Strip. I’ve never been allowed to leave; this is the only place I’ve ever known. So, when the first cases of COVID-19 were announced in Gaza on March 22, I wasn’t particularly worried. I grew up with war, occupation, oppression and conflict. How could this be worse?
But when my 73-year-old uncle refused to shake my hand during a visit, I began to think this might be a different kind of threat to which I should pay attention.
Locked down by Israel for more than a decade, life in Gaza is never easy. Unemployment is about 50 percent—closer to 70 percent among youths. People are poor, hungry, bored—and often separated from loved ones with no idea when we will see them. (Three of my siblings now live outside, including a former writer for We Are Not Numbers, my older brother, Said. He left to complete his medical studies in the UK more than two years ago and I have no idea when, or if, we will be allowed out or he can get in without fearing being stuck here.) Our economy is choked off, our health care system is starved for medicine and supplies. We are routinely denied exit permits to get treatment for life-threatening illnesses. Students accepted to top universities in Europe and the United States are capriciously blocked from leaving. Although people from all over the world mob the holy sites of Jerusalem, most Gazans of my generation have never been there, even though it’s just 100 kilometers (60 miles) away. When we protest our treatment, we’re shot like fish in a barrel. It’s common to see young people in wheelchairs or missing limbs – telltale signs of the Israeli snipers deployed along our border to keep us in line.
But what we do have in Gaza is a strong social fabric that holds us together: our families, our faith, rituals and traditions. For Muslims, all of those come together during the holy month of Ramadan. So, when my uncle refused to shake my hand, it shook something deep inside me. If our society frays, what will we have left?
Ramadan is a social time of spirituality and generosity, but this year we can’t go to mosque for Tarawih (night) prayers or gather with family and friends for iftar to break our fast. It reminds me of 2014 when we spent 20 days of Ramadan afraid to step outside our homes. Then, it was Israeli missiles falling on our mosques and homes that kept us inside. Now, it is the frightening specter of an occupier we cannot see, taste or smell—an “occupier” that threatens the last of what we have left.
So now I worry.
I worry about my 64-year-old father, who works as a fabric seller and deals with people all day. Over and over again, I have tried to convince him to stay home, but his shop is our family’s main source of income and each day makes a difference. He tells me not to worry, that he washes his hands every hour, doesn’t shake hands with anyone, and keeps the shop extremely clean.
I worry about my future. I was supposed to enjoy my last semester of university after three and a half years of studying English language and literature. I had so many plans for how to make these last days and moments of university life memorable. Instead, the universities are closed and I’m home watching lectures on Moodle and waiting for the Godot who will never come. (We are trying to do our coursework online, but the frequent power outages that are a fact of life in Gaza causes problems for many students.)
As the number of coronavirus cases increases in the West Bank and Israel, the government has implemented safety procedures to protect our 1.85 million residents of the tiny Gaza Strip.
Wedding venues, restaurants, cafés, institutions and mosques were closed, and 1,000 quarantine rooms set up in the north and south areas of Gaza Strip in which to keep all travelers who enter. "It would be a catastrophe if the virus jumps the quarantine zone to reach the middle of the city," a spokesman for the Ministry of Internal Affair tells us. Fortunately, so far, this practice is working. The only confirmed cases of infection have been in people who recently returned to Gaza, and they were immediately secluded.
The restaurant closures helped me lose 3 kilograms, but the stay-at-home order also meant that thousands of waiters, chefs and cleaners lost their jobs.
Cab driver Loai Ghaben, 35, tells me the stay-at-home order means he drives the empty streets for hours every day and usually returns home with less than 20 shekels ($6 US) – not nearly enough to feed his six children.
Even though the government is allowing restaurants to reopen during Ramadan if they follow safety procedures, most people still feel it’s not safe to gather for iftar outside. So, I’ve tried to welcome Ramadan in my own way. I bought Ramadan lanterns to fill our home with light and covered pillows with holiday fabric to help our family remember the rituals while.
This season, it also feels like the generosity of Ramadan is magnified. Despite the risks, several charitable youth groups are redoubling their efforts to help families hardest hit by the economic effects of the pandemic. One group, Waslet Khaeir, distributed 100 food parcels to vulnerable families during the first days of Ramadan. The group's 20 members contributed their own money and also raised funds so they can bring hope and light to more families in need throughout the holy month.
Looking around us, Gazans see people all over the world experiencing what we live every day: mandatory isolation, unemployment, poverty, rampant illness and death.
We take no joy in that, only hope that once the coronavirus passes and life around the world returns to normal, that people will remember Gaza, still occupied, still isolated, but perhaps no longer forgotten.