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The Situation in Gaza: An Interview with Brian Barber

[Gaza Boys: Image taken by Brian Barber.] [Gaza Boys: Image taken by Brian Barber.]

Brian K. Barber, PhD, is a New America Fellow in Washington, DC, a Professor of Child and Family Studies, and Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Conflict at the University of Tennessee. His primary field of research has been Palestine, and he has based his work on long residencies and visits with families in and near refugee camps in the Gaza Strip since the early 1990s. Zeina Azzam, Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center, interviewed Brian Barber on February 5 2016, shortly after one of his research visits to Gaza. The information was updated in early April 2016. 

Zeina Azzam: Tell me what you were doing in Gaza the last time you were there.

Brian: I was there much of December 2015 to continue the interviewing of some longtime friends about whom I am writing a book. I was getting some updates on their lives.

Zeina: Who are these people whom you’ve been interviewing, and for how long have you been talking to them?

Brian: I first went to Gaza 20 years ago with the intent of studying youth from the first intifada, which had just ended in 1993. I like to study youth generally, and, for Palestinian youth, I have been very interested in knowing how the first intifada has impacted them. My colleagues and I have done empirical research on thousands of them, but there is also a handful that I have kept in close contact with, have visited regularly, and have interviewed formally and informally over these two decades. They are now nearly forty years old. I am writing a narrative non-fiction about some of these youth of the first intifada now that they have grown into adulthood. The book is going to be centered on two of them and their families, including parents, spouses, and children.

These two men are fascinating individuals. The contrast between them is all the more interesting because, despite the fact that their fathers have been friends and colleagues and that they live is such a tiny place as Gaza, to this day they have never met. They also provide an interesting contrast because one of them was explicitly active in the Intifada. He, Hussam, was the leader of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) youth group in his refugee camp. His early interviews are full of dramatic narrations of the energy and the risk and the excitement of that first intifada. The other one, Hammam, is interesting because unlike most people in that time period, he was explicitly not involved in the political uprising at all. He chose not to be an activist precisely because when he was a young boy his father was in prison. He felt this void acutely. Hammam was too young to appreciate the symbolic value of being a political prisoner. He just knew that he was unlike his friends, who often chided him for being different, wondering why his father was in prison. He made the decision early on, even before the intifada began, that he would never put himself in a position where his children might have the same experience—of him not being available to them. So, Hussam and Hammam embody intriguing contrasts from the beginning. They both have PhDs now in Educational Leadership. But they have starkly different personalities.

Zeina: Talk more about the book that will feature them. 

Brian: The book is centered on those two families, but there will be many other sub characters, many other people with whom I’ve stayed in contact. The book is essentially following the lives of young people through adulthood who have lived in a very unusual place, who’ve had highly unusual experiences beginning in their youth. How have they made life work? What is life like for them? It’s a very non-politically focused attempt to simply present Gaza to the outside world in a compelling way which, in the end, will convince readers that those people off in that mysterious place, Gaza, are really much more similar to the reader than you would have ever known or thought. That is my goal. 

Zeina: You mentioned the uniqueness of Gaza, the unusualness of Gaza. What about the context of Gaza would you identify as salient characteristics in terms of the growing up experience of these two men, and all the other men?

Brian: One device I am going to try to use in the book is to portray Gaza, the place itself, as a character. It has a phenomenal history that goes back millennia; every prominent military leader in history has wanted Gaza and, sometimes after great struggle, taken Gaza. Alexander the Great lost ten thousand men trying to take the city of Gaza. Napoleon was there, many of the Egyptians pharaohs were there. This is because Gaza, geographically, sits right in between the African and Asian continents. It was also the center of the spice and slave trades for hundreds of years because of its location on the Mediterranean. So, it really has its own remarkable history, which unfortunately has centered on conflict. Gazans have always been faced with someone fighting to control them or them fighting to retain control. I want to try to work that in so that readers of the book come away with not only an affection for the human characters described in the book but also for the place itself.

It is a sad history but it also helps us understand why the people from Gaza are as strong and proud as they are. And the current situation, the occupation of Gaza, is yet another iteration of a long history of battle over that region. So, if that’s the broad history, then its uniqueness at present comes from the fact that Palestine has been fragmented with the ‘48 and ‘67 wars. Gaza became increasingly isolated from the rest of Palestine, literally, physically. When I first went in 1994, there were still people from Jerusalem and the West Bank going to Gaza sometimes. Prior to the first intifada in 1987, I understand that there was actually free interchange. You could drive into Gaza without any special permit. But once that first intifada began, the Israelis started sealing Gaza off more firmly. Before long, by the mid-90s when I got there, relatively few were coming in. One of the oddest experiences for me in this two-decade history with Palestinians has been the plea from people in Jerusalem and the West Bank for me to tell them about Gaza because some of them, even then, hadn’t been to Gaza for five or ten years. Now, many – in fact I would say most – people from the West Bank have never been to Gaza, especially the young people. It’s just not allowed. Gaza has become a dislocated place, and so it’s retained some of its original character. So its people are more orthodox, culturally and religiously, than other parts of Palestine. It has also been free from the influence of Western tourism, which has further protected its native character. Not surprisingly, given the history I outlined, it has been in Gaza where all of the movements have started to try to establish some kind of Palestinian political authority. The epicenter has always been Gaza, whatever the political party might have been. So Gaza plays a leading role in the perspectives and political outlooks of Palestinians in general.

Zeina: How do you get into Gaza?

Brian: I am fortunate enough that the Israeli forces have continued to renew my entry permit through the Erez crossing, the only pedestrian entry into Gaza now that the Rafah crossing to Egypt is most always closed. In order to get this permit to enter through Erez, one must find an organization within Gaza, typically an NGO, to apply on your behalf to the Israeli military. They take from weeks to months to answer that application. If accepted, you are granted a six-month, multiple entry visa. Your name and permit number are registered in the Israeli computer system so that when you arrive at Erez you are cleared to enter. Starting two or three years ago, Hamas also started its own entry permit procedure, so now you need two entry permits. Often it is the same organization within Gaza that applies to both Hamas and to the IDF.

Zeina: You mentioned how the situation of being trapped in Gaza has profound psychological ramifications for the population. Are there particular ramifications for the youth?

Brian: The rules on movement seem even to be stricter on youth, especially if unmarried. Many adults, although in their dreams they would like to be able to travel more or to leave Gaza, have pretty much understood that this is their life and that they are going to stay in Gaza. Sure, they would like to be able to go to Cairo to visit a relative or get treatment in a hospital, but big plans to change life and to make a better life, that is off the adults’ agenda. It is not off the agenda of the young people though. This is enhanced by their access to the internet. Much more than their parents ever could, Gazan youth today make direct connections and establish relationships with the outside world via conversations over the internet, skype, etc., with people all over the world. They know better than their parents knew just what is out there, what they could have a taste of, but that they cannot go right now. Some youth are able to go for reasons of financial benefits, some Gazans have more money than others and some are able to pay their way to Egypt on the few days that the crossing is open. It was open for four days during my last trip in December 2015, and I heard from several sources that the going rate to bribe your way into the group that was allowed to cross was $6000 per person. That’s expensive for you and me, in Washington, DC to come up with $6000. But that’s what it was costing them to assure that they got out on those four days, while thousands of others waited in line to go. Although some get out, most of the young people have no resources and no freedom to leave. So yes, I think it is much more severe on young people because the costs of that imprisonment to them are more obvious.

Zeina: How do the youth, or that generation, deal with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank? Can you give us a sense of their relationship to the authorities in both places?

Brian: It is an appropriate question and on some levels hard to answer, and on some levels easy to answer. To the degree that I have accurately come to understand Palestinians my perception is that Palestinians, especially Gazans whom I know best, are much less interested in formal, political structures than they are in simply having a dignified life. So, back in the day, in the early days when I went there during the Oslo period, people on the inside were less politically motivated than those of us on the outside thought they ought to be or presumed that they were. Most Gazans have never cared much more about life other than being able to educate their children, to have clean water, to be able to have open spaces where their kids can play, to be able to go to the beach (they used to not be able to go to the beach during the intifadas), to have a family, and to be sure that family has some kind of decent future ahead. That is all that matters. And I think that is the non-political explanation for why the political process ended up electing Hamas. It was not a vote for the ideological/political principles of Hamas. It was, in fact, a vote against the Palestinian Authority for having had, by then, thirteen years, to make life better for the population, and they failed to do so. And so it was, “Khalas, enough of you, you’ve had your chance. The only other option we have is this other group.” This is why they voted Hamas in. My point is simply that it was not driven by political ideology, it was driven by “who is going get us out of this prison and make life a little bit better.”

So with that as the background, we can see that Palestinians own several levels of themselves, like we all do. Anthropologists call it a narrative and we have different levels of narrative. So there is a master Palestinian narrative, which every Palestinian, inside and outside, shares: wanting self-determination and dignity for the Palestinian people in a place in the world which they can call Palestine. Every single Gazan shares that – it is just part of the master narrative. In a sense, that’s still the only operative narrative. But on the ground, you do have to make decisions as to the best way to proceed in achieving this goal. And there have been, and still are, significant differences in how Palestinians view the solution to their problem. You have people possessing that same master narrative who endorse or trust a different avenue, whether as outlined by Hamas, Fatah, or otherwise. So you have natural divisions with people sharing the same goal. But when it comes down to it, if you ask anyone in Gaza, or anywhere else in the territories, “What matters more to you, having a dignified life with potential in it, or having a Palestine/Palestinian state?” the answer is always going to be the former.

That said, we are now witnessing a high level of desperation. In the two decades that I have been studying the youth of Gaza–this period happens to have coincided with the Oslo accords and beyond–there has been a steady and systematic degradation of the quality of life there. The people’s sense of a future has fragmented; who knows what some of them might do in order to get out of the box. A classic example now are the people in East Jerusalem and Hebron and other parts of the West Bank who are striking out violently and in unpredictable ways, with the slashings and the killings of Israelis. These are primarily young Palestinians who have become so convinced that there is no future, and convinced by practical realities – not by ideologies – of severe restrictions on movement, mistreatment at checkpoints, etc. They have become convinced that there is no future for them, and so some of them decide to do something dramatic. It’s become a new form of martyrdom; it’s exactly the same logic that underlay the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada. So, politics matters, to be sure, but the abstract level of political structures is not the primary driver, and it’s therefore not the solution. The solution to this problem is not getting John Kerry back and re-starting negotiations for two states; the solution is freedom, food, water, play spaces, ability to travel and finish education….

[Gaza Destruction: Image taken by Brian Barber.]

Zeina: How does the very high unemployment rate in Gaza factor into all of this?

Brian: It is a very powerful contributor to the desperation because Palestinians by nature, like all diaspora populations, put a huge premium on education. It is the thing you do because it is your way out. So historically, Palestinians have been highly educated, relative to other populations, and Gaza no less so. The literacy rate is extremely high relative to other countries. You therefore have this teeming group of intellectually adept and eager young people, competing for few university slots and even scarcer jobs. There’s nothing for them, there’s no way to use your training within Palestine. I know one young Gazan who left Gaza in my early days to come get his graduate degree in the States, got his PhD, and decided to stay. He has wanted desperately to go back and relocate to Gaza where he and his wife were born and raised. But he can’t make the move because it’s just not a smart move for his family – there is no guarantee that he is going to get reliable, steady employment even though he has a PhD and could be a university lecturer. It is just too precarious, even for the best trained. And then you picture a young person coming out with a BA from the Islamic University or Al-Azhar University, two of the main universities in Gaza. What are they going to do with these degrees?

Zeina: You said that Hussam and Hammam have PhDs. What do they do now? 

Brian: They both were fortunate to be able to leave to get their graduate degrees outside. Hammam is getting his PhD, he’s almost there, in Cairo. And Hussam ended up getting his in Malaysia. The struggles of getting out to make the various deadlines in PhD programs in Malaysia, in Hussam’s case, were frightening. He had his dissertation defense scheduled in Malaysia and he was in Gaza and they wouldn’t let him out. Three days in a row. He had to buy and then re-book his ticket, paying penalty fees that go with changing tickets.

Zeina: And they have jobs?

Brian: They do. Hussam is the Assistant Dean of one of what we call a junior college. He is an extremely confident man, so more and more responsibilities are placed on him. It’s wearing on him a bit. But he is thrilled to have a job. Hammam is a school principal of a young boys’ school and also lectures occasionally at the two main universities. Very fortunately, they have been able to have jobs for most of their lives and, even though their standard of living relative to what we know in this country is exceptionally low, relative to their peers in Gaza, they have a good life.

Zeina: How have the wars and violence in Gaza over the last several years affected family structure? How is Palestinian society changing since the family–the social security net of the society–has been suffering from such profound pressures from outside?

Brian: I am sure that the wounds are apparent even in that primary social bonding that you’ve described. But relatively speaking, at least when you ask Palestinians to talk about their levels of family satisfaction or of feeling part of a community or even marriages, you get remarkably high proportions reporting continuing positive relationships. In the large survey study that we have done of nearly 1800 men and women of this generation – most recently published in the Spring 2016 issue of the Journal of Palestine Studies – we asked participants to indicate the quality of their life across its many domains: psychologically, socially, politically, economically. The findings show great hardship and suffering. That notwithstanding, they also reveal continuing high levels of social cohesion. One explanation, which I find interesting, is that for some of them, it is actually the only way they can resist the occupation – to defy its injury and say that, “We are going to be even closer because of you, the occupier.” Another is that people, when they are suffering, tend to congeal and get support from each other. So those would be some of the reasons why it is as high as it is. This is so across the Occupied Territories.

[Gaza home destroyed with flag: Image taken by Brian Barber.]

Zeina: The West Bank, you mean, also? 

Brian: Yes. One thing that the JPS paper admonishes, in fact, is that while we focus our honorable efforts to attend to Gaza’s enormous suffering, we should make sure that we don’t get distracted from the very difficult lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In certain ways, our data show that their lives are harder than those of Gazans. I worry sometimes that we neglect them because Gaza’s suffering is so much more prominent and, in some ways, more dramatic, especially because of the wars. But that doesn’t in any way mean that life is rosy elsewhere. In fact, upon visiting Jerusalem and the West Bank, like I often do, I have profound fears based on the evidence and conversations with many friends and colleagues there that Palestinians are suffering and degrading – if I can use that term – just as fast, if not faster, in those territories as in Gaza.

Zeina: During your last trip to Gaza, what did you see in terms of reconstruction from the last war (in the summer of 2014)?

Brian: Well, this is one of the perverse pains of Gaza. If I understand correctly from Bill Corcoran, President of ANERA, only one house has been reconstructed since the war. This makes some sense because of the perverse reality that the people or entities that have previously donated money to rebuild Gaza are no longer willing to do it a third time because they fully expect that their investment is just going to be blown up again. And here is another part of the paradox: I could take you to Gaza tomorrow and if I carefully tailored the itinerary of our trip there, if I drove you down the right streets and in the right areas, you would say, “This can’t be Gaza! There’s nothing wrong here!” There are brand new streets with curbs, there is a road along the beach which has been widened and paved and has a brightly colored rail fence in the middle with long, Western-style grass growing. You would say, “What is the problem here?” This is all money from Qatar, and its decision has been to invest in the infrastructure of Gaza, particularly the roads. And there is good logic in that for long-term investment and the benefit of having better infrastructure. But they don’t fund reconstructing houses in the Eastern side. So it is not the case that there has been no improvement in Gaza; there has been substantial improvement in certain sectors. But it stands in rude contradiction to the sheer rubble that constitutes the whole Eastern side of the strip and has for the last year and a half.

Zeina: What about the Israeli blockade of Gaza? How do people live with it?

Brian: Well, one instructive anecdote is when I met with Dr. Yasser Abu Jamei [a psychiatrist and executive director of Gaza Community Mental Health Program] a year and a half ago in Gaza. I was on my way out of Gaza to speak at a mental health conference in London, and I knew people were going to ask me to offer some answers as to what is the best solution to the mental suffering of Gazans. So I asked Dr. Yasser, who himself lost over twenty members of his own family during the 2014 war and runs a prestigious clinic to help the mental suffering of people. I thought that he, of all people, would have a good answer to this question. His answer regarding what Gazans need the most for their psychological well-being was “stop the blockade.” This was a profound answer from a mental health expert.

The blockade has been massive in its effect. The effect has been to make profoundly real this sense of entrapment. Very limited goods are coming in. Gazans are not starving on the streets, they’ve got just enough to get by. But medical supplies and building supplies, all those things have been stopped mostly during the early years of the blockade. In response, Gazans developed a massive trade with Egypt through the supply tunnels. They were able to survive relatively well, especially those who had some resources. A lot of things poured into Gaza from Egypt, which helped sustain them. But now Egypt has curtailed virtually all such supply routes. I understand there are still some tunnels operative but very few, whereas before there were hundreds. These have now been closed completely and that has been like locking the door of the prison, and not just psychologically but now practically as well. This has heralded a new level of suffering for Gazans. They are now completely reliant on Israel’s decisions about what to bring in or not.

Zeina: What should the United States be doing?

Brian: The United States should remove the siege, and here again I’m just reiterating what people like Dr. Yasser have said. It is both the physical and the psychological entrapment which is causing the suffering. If access is given – even economically to export, import, have some kind of direction over economic productivity, not to have to be hostage to Israel’s restrictions on trade and so forth—that would bring a sense of freedom and potential prosperity, and would get more goods in at better prices and so forth. Further, getting Egypt to open the crossing, letting people go to Cairo as before is crucial.

Zeina: So the United States should be pressuring both Israel and Egypt on this?

Brian: Yes, their grips must be loosened. Or even stalwart Gazans are going to disassemble.

Zeina: Do you think the blockade has created the conditions for the infant mortality rate to rise in Gaza, like the UN announced recently?

Brian: It has to be the reason. If we were to study the flow into Gaza of medical supplies following Sisi’s rise to power, you would find every evidence necessary to explain any of the health problems that are growing. These statistics are available.

Zeina: Can you talk about the degree to which youth are being imprisoned, and how that affects them and their psycho-social environment?

Brian: We actually published a paper on this very topic last year in the Journal of Traumatic Stress; using the data from our large survey of first intifada youth who are now adults. We were able to test the question of what is the long term impact of being imprisoned. Twenty-six percent of that generation of men were imprisoned at some point in their lives since 1987, women less, of course. We wondered if it mattered when during their lives these men were imprisoned. Thus, for example, if a young man were imprisoned as a youth, would this affect the rest of his life because it interfered with his formative years (as some psychological theory would suggest)? Or, alternatively, could early imprisonment positively impact a young person’s growth because of the social cohesion and training he received in prison? The findings are that there is no lasting impact on those who were imprisoned early. The prisoners who are suffering most now, broadly in their lives, are the ones who were imprisoned most recently as adults. Therefore, since the Second Intifada, if you were imprisoned never before in your life and then imprisoned after the Second Intifada, then you’re likely to be having a much harder time than if you had been imprisoned as a youth in the first intifada and never again.

There are lots of ways to explain that, one simply is that the imprisonment is more recent. But another important point is that when you are imprisoned as a young person, you have less to lose than when you are an adult – because when you are imprisoned as an adult you have a life, you have children, it is more costly to be confined. And there is a second reason, a less pragmatic one, which is that the psychological symbolism of being imprisoned has changed. Being imprisoned as a young man during the First Intifada was perceived as a badge of honor; young men felt proud of that. Of course they didn’t seek it out, but because it was a badge of honor, they could emerge from prison having served as the valiant supporter of the cause, and psychologically that’s a very proud moment. At present, however, it seems to be that being imprisoned as a Palestinian has lost a lot of that kind of symbolic value of being a fighter.

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