Happy birthday Firas… …or the tale of an everyday childhood in Gaza News

Happy birthday Firas… …or the tale of an everyday childhood in Gaza

Happy birthday Firas… …or the tale of an everyday childhood in Gaza

Happy birthday Firas! You’re one year old today. With your big, jet-black eyes and your chubby baby cheeks, you’re babbling your first words and, as you hold onto the edge of the table, you manage to pull yourself up and stand all on your own. You’re so pleased with yourself!

Firas, you’re just like any other kid.

But your birthday will always be a bit special. You were born one year ago, on the 8th July 2014, in Gaza. It was the day when the bombing started.

During the first 51 days of your life, 2,132 people living in your region were killed in a war. 501 were children. 12,400 houses were destroyed, one of them your parents’. We really want to believe you were so little that, as the bombs rained down, you didn’t suffer too much from your mother’s anxiety, from your brothers’ and sisters’ nightmares, or from the terror and frustration felt by your parents who didn’t know how to protect you anymore. We want to believe that you won’t remember any of this. But, in all honesty, we really don’t know.

Already your first birthday, and your home still hasn’t been rebuilt. 17,600 families like yours are put up in temporary accommodation—caravans and tents—while they wait. On yours there is your family’s name and a photo of the building where you used to live, so as not to forget.

At your tender age, you’re probably not aware of what’s going on, but we’re concerned. You live in a land subjected to a blockade. You’re going to hear that word a lot, doubtlessly as soon as you learn to speak. Blockade is a word that has thousands of meanings for everyday life. For example, it means that, even now the war is over, it’s still difficult to bring in construction materials from the outside. Will your nursery school be rebuilt in time? Will the clinics be refurbished for the day you get sick? Blockade also means that the water you drink isn’t clean, that you have access to electricity just eight hours a day and that there’s no guarantee of being able to get the medication you need. At your age, you’re probably not aware of what’s going on, but we are concerned.

But most of all, Firas, we’re wondering how we’re ever going to be able to explain it all to you, when you’re old enough to start asking questions. We’re going to have to tell you that you were homeless because there were so many restrictions imposed on importing cement to your land that an extremely complex system had to be devised to even contemplate bringing in materials to build your first bedroom. But it won’t take you long to understand. You won’t be allowed to leave Gaza. You won’t see your family who live in the West Bank, just 60 kilometres away. You won’t play too close to the border, so that you don’t get shot at. And neither will you play in the rubble of destroyed buildings because there could be an unexploded bomb left over from the latest war. Your father will tell you about his business that went bankrupt soon after the beginning of the blockade because he could no longer export anything. He’ll be very sad when he tells you about it, and you’ll have to understand why it’s so hard on him. Being jobless weighs heavily on a man, on his pride and on his heart. At 44%, Gaza has the highest unemployment rate in the world. No, it won’t take you long to understand.

The blockade was imposed eight years ago to prevent anything getting in or out of Gaza. GDP (gross domestic product) has plummeted by over 50%, there have been three wars in the past six years, 80% of Gazans now rely on international aid, 39% subsist under the poverty line and 70% are food insecure. That’s a lot of statistics for a kid your age. You’d better get used to them—mention of your blockade is never made without an avalanche of statistics. But you Firas, you get to live them.

Firas, we wanted to wish you a happy birthday, but we’re sure you can tell it’s kind of tricky. Obviously, we’re an aid organisation, so we’ll carry on doing whatever we can to help you. And, as individuals, we’ll always be impressed by your capacity for resilience, to adapt and cope, in spite of everything. Because we know for sure, you’ll be strong and determined like your parents, your brothers, your sisters and your neighbours.

But what bothers us, Firas, is that there’s no inevitability to what you’re enduring. The blockade was imposed by Israel, a partner of France and the European Union, and because of its indiscriminate impact on civilians—and that includes women and children— it is a “collective punishment”. Our countries have signed international treaties declaring it illegal, as people shouldn’t be penalised simply by virtue of where they happen to be born. No security argument can justify you having to live like this. And anyway, we’ve known for a long time that this situation doesn’t make anyone more secure: wars keep breaking out, there is no obvious correlation between the exchanges of fire and the frequency of controls, and the mounting frustration felt by both sides is hardly a recipe for stability.

France wants to revive the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. But, Palestine means Gaza too. How can peace be envisaged, Firas, without respecting your most fundamental rights? Without respecting the rights of one third of Palestinians who are surrounded by soldiers and trapped in a minute piece of land?

Ok, let’s admit it, Firas, you don’t exist. You’re not a child who’s just turned one in Gaza. You are the hundreds of thousands of children confined in Gaza we want to tell about—to the French, to the citizens of Europe, to the political leaders planning to soon negotiate your future. Because we would like them to look beyond the statistics, to take you into account too and at long last demand an end to the blockade and the sustainable reconstruction of Gaza.