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Abdalaziz Okasha , Comment is Free, The Guardian, UK , 11 September 2008
This was supposed to be my first year of medical school. Instead, I am stuck here in Gaza, in my father’s house inside the Jabalia refugee camp, with few options and no way out. After I finished high school last year, I decided to become a doctor. Gaza cries out for bone specialists, but the training I need is available only abroad.
When I won a place at a medical college in Germany, my parents were proud. I was excited to follow my older brother, who is already studying there. In February, the German authorities granted me an entry visa. I wasted no time in asking the Israeli authorities for permission to travel to Europe. But I was told that only patients in need of emergency medical evacuation would be allowed out – not students.
Hundreds of other young people trapped in the Gaza Strip have won admission to study abroad. For many of us this is our only opportunity to continue our education. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth, and one of the poorest – 1.5 million of us live on a patch of land about 41 kilometers long and 6-12 kilometers wide. The local hospitals lack the equipment needed to perform many important procedures, like radiation treatments for cancer patients and heart surgery.
Universities in Gaza are overcrowded and starved for supplies. Many subjects are not even taught, and there are few post-graduate programs. Instructors from abroad cannot enter Gaza. Without the ability to go overseas, we cannot learn.
In June, after the United States pressured Israel to allow Fulbright scholarship winners to leave the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military announced that it would grant exit permits for a few more students with “recognized” scholarships – but not “hundreds.” So hundreds of us are still waiting, most without prestigious scholarships to draw the world’s attention. I am sure to be one of the many who will not be allowed to leave. Life in Gaza has bled away my optimism. My father is a teacher and owns a children’s clothing shop. My mother is a housekeeper. I have six brothers and three sisters. We returned to Palestine in 1996 from Saudi Arabia, where my father had been working as a teacher. That was at the height of the peace process. My parents put their hope in the Oslo Accords signed in 1993, and decided that they could give us a better life here.
But when I was 10, the second intifada began. The peace process was collapsing throughout my teenage years. During my third year of high school, the Israeli authorities closed off the Gaza Strip. Israeli border controls have reduced the flow of people crossing the border to a trickle, and have suffocated Gaza’s economy, choking off imports and exports and cutting fuel deliveries and electricity. There is no clothing left in my father’s shop, which was supposed to support my brother and me during our studies.
With the backing of the US, Canada and the European Union, Israel has maintained its blockade in an attempt to defeat Hamas, which won the elections in Gaza in 2006. But the blockade only makes people more desperate.
Hamas and other armed groups, I know, have launched rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip that have killed civilians in Israeli towns and villages. But I also have witnessed how Israel has retaliated with air strikes and armed incursions into the Gaza Strip, including Jabalia. Israel’s blockade amounts to collective punishment. It is hurting all of us, whether we support Hamas or not. It is also destroying my dream to write “Specialist in Bone Medicine” after my name.
Sometimes, I am sorry that I am from Gaza. But my hope is still to go abroad, learn skills, and return to help others here. Sometimes, when there is electricity, I watch television and see how people live in other places. I ask myself why they have the opportunity to travel, to study, to take vacations, when I cannot go abroad even to learn medicine.
We are students, not soldiers. We are not fighters in this conflict. Why doesn’t Israel let us go study? Why do Europe and America support a blockade of young minds? Soon, my fellow classmates at the medical college will be starting classes. When they do, I will probably still be here in my father’s house, waiting for the blockade to end.
Abdalaziz Okasha graduated from high school in the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
In cooperation with Project Syndicate, 2008