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When Hamas rose to power, Israel and Egypt sealed off Gaza’s borders. Ever since, Palestinians have struggled through blackouts, supply shortages and poverty. The Globe met with a generation with little hope for the future but some joys in the present

Painting has helped Palestinian artist Zainab al-Qolaq, 23, to process the trauma of an Israeli air strike that levelled her Gaza City home in 2021, burying her alive for 12 hours. She emerged to learn 22 members of her family were killed.Photography by Anas Baba/The Globe and Mail

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the almost impenetrable land, sea and air blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt, which has turned the narrow, seething strip of land wedged between those two countries into an “open-air prison,” in the view of some human-rights and aid groups.

The blockade started in 2007, a year after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections. In the ensuing battle with rival political group Fatah, which retained authority over the West Bank, Hamas seized control of Gaza, home to more than two million Palestinians.

The punishing siege of the territory shows no signs of easing. Israel claims it is necessary to prevent weapons from reaching Hamas, which Israel – along with the U.S., Canada and the European Union – considers a terrorist group. Egypt’s stand has been somewhat looser than Israel’s.

The blockade means Gazans have to endure no electricity for about half of each day (unless they have generators), undrinkable tap water, slow 2G cellular service and a health-care system near collapse.

Basic household and commercial products, from food items and gas for cooking to new cars and cement, are routinely in short supply. The UN’s World Food Programme recently called humanitarian conditions in Gaza, where almost two-thirds of the population experiences “food insecurity,” as “alarming.”

To go from Israel to Gaza, as The Globe and Mail did at the end of May, is to slip from wealth to poverty in a few metres. In Gaza, many families and street merchants still rely on ponies and carts for transportation.

By now, a whole generation of Palestinians in the territory has known nothing but isolation, deprivation – and bloodshed.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that, between 2008 and 2020, almost 5,600 Palestinians were killed in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and violent incidents, most of them in Gaza. Over the same period, 250 Israelis died. In the 2021 war between Israel and Hamas, more than 250 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, including 66 children; on the Israeli side, 13 people were killed, two of them children.

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the globe and mail, source: graphic news

Mediterranean Sea

Erez

Shati

camp

Gaza

City

GAZA STRIP

Nahal Oz

Karni

Border crossing

Deir

al Balah

Refugee camp

LEBANON

SYRIA

ISRAEL

Khan

Younis

WEST

BANK

Rafah

Tel

Aviv

Sufa

Rafah

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Shalom

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the globe and mail, source: graphic news

Mediterranean Sea

Erez

Shati

camp

Gaza

City

GAZA STRIP

Nahal Oz

Karni

Border crossing

Deir

al Balah

Refugee camp

LEBANON

SYRIA

Khan

Younis

ISRAEL

WEST

BANK

Rafah

Tel

Aviv

Sufa

Rafah

Jerusalem

Kerem

Shalom

0

40

0

4

KM

KM

JORDAN

EGYPT

ISRAEL

the globe and mail, source: graphic news

Virtually no young Palestinians have ever left Gaza. Poverty and unemployment – 65 per cent of Gazans under 30 were jobless at the end of 2020, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics – are permanently at crisis levels. Suicides and suicide attempts are reportedly on the rise, though reliable statistics are hard to come by. A 2020 report carried on the OCHA site estimated that 38 per cent of young people in Gaza have contemplated suicide at least once.

In an interview with The Globe in Gaza City, Helen Ottens-Patterson, the head of mission for Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in the Palestinian territories, said youth trauma – often marked by sleepless nights, high anxiety, aggression, lack of concentration and bedwetting – is pervasive. “Children who are 14 or 15 have only known the blockade, four wars and many escalations,” she said. “They know nothing else.”

Helen Ottens-Patterson of Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) speaks at her Gaza City office.

The Globe spent three days in Gaza interviewing young Palestinians. A few of them felt they had no future; others showed amazing resilience – optimism even – that the blockade could never destroy their spirits.

“The Israelis are trying to shock us, but they forgot one thing,” said Nada Thabet Doghmost, a 23-year-old architecture and interior design student, in a café in Gaza City. “They forgot that we are free spirits and own this land.”

Here are four stories of young Palestinians in Gaza. They are united by the blockade and devising ways to cope with it mentally, emotionally and physically.


Sabah Abu Ganem, 23, and her brother Mohamed Abughanem, 24, search for waves to surf on a Gaza beach.


Gaza has some dazzling beaches along its 40 kilometres of Mediterranean waterfront, so you would think that water sports, and the competitions that go with them, would be popular. They are virtually non-existent.

The Palestine Sailing and Rowing Federation, which was formed in Cairo in 1996 and has been present in Gaza since last year, has precisely seven members – five young men and two young women. The blockade makes it almost impossible to import watercraft of any kind; even wetsuits are not permitted.

“The Israelis always say they have justification to say no to boats coming in,” said Haneen Al Ghazali, the federation’s general secretary. “We wanted to give them the justification to say yes, so we started the federation and a partnership with the Palestine Olympic Committee from the West Bank.”

They have access to about 20 ancient, beaten-up surfboards, one tiny, decrepit sailboat and four ungainly non-competition kayaks. They were all smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through Hamas-built tunnels, which the Israelis call “terror tunnels.”

Haneen Al Ghazali is general secretary of the Palestine Sailing and Rowing Federation.

What they lack in watercraft, they make up for in enthusiasm and creativity. Take Mohamed Abughanem, an athletic-looking 24-year-old with no job. Four years ago, he wanted to learn to surf but couldn’t find a board. “So I made my own surfboard out of a fridge door,” he said. “I extracted all the foam [insulation] from inside the door with a knife and tried to reinforce it. It broke in half in the water.”

His sister, Sabah Abu Ganem, 23, a mother of three, faced different challenges in her effort to ride the waves. “It took me six years to convince my husband to allow me to surf,” she said. “It’s not about the blockade for me. It’s about community pressure.” She and her brother are to take part in the first local competitions this month, waves permitting.

Besan Raed Zoghra, 17, practises in the sea off Gaza City.

Most Gazan athletes, in any sport, find it difficult or impossible to get exit visas to take part in international competitions. Besan Raed Zoghra, 17, is a rare exception. She was invited last November to an Arab rowing event in Sharjah, near Dubai, and went with her father via Egypt.

The sleek rowing shell she was to use in the competition was new to her – there was nothing like it in Gaza. “I couldn’t even balance the boat, so the referees gave me 30 minutes of training.”

Her race was a disaster – and a triumph. She placed dead last by a long shot. But her father had cheered her on, running alongside her on the beach while he carried a Palestinian flag. He and the other teams gave her a resounding ovation when she crossed the finish line. “My father hugged me, and the all teams clapped for me,” she said. “We were just so happy waving the Palestinian flag.”


'No one in the war lost so many members of her family. No one had the experience I had,' Zainab al-Qolaq says of the 2021 air strike that buried her alive.


Zainab al-Qolaq met with The Globe at a breezy seaside coffee bar. She had resisted coming, since she did not want to endure questions from a foreign journalist so close to the anniversary of the event that destroyed her spiritually. Thanks to the pleading of The Globe’s Palestinian photographer, she agreed.

Ms. al-Qolaq is 23 and studied English at university. She has a quiet, withdrawn, crestfallen air about her, which is perfectly understandable.

On the night of May 16, 2021, an Israeli air strike destroyed her home on al-Wehda Street in Gaza City. She was buried alive for 12 hours under three floors of rubble. She could barely move in the blackness and was bleeding, drifting in and out of consciousness.

She said the attack came with no warning. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces told The Globe that the IDF was trying to destroy underground Hamas military structures in the area. “The underground military facilities collapsed, causing the foundation of the civilian houses above them to collapse as well, leading to unintended casualties,” the spokesperson said.

She had her phone and, before the battery died about three hours later, was able to make several calls to friends, paramedics and civil defence teams. “At first no one believed it was me, trapped underground.”

When the digging teams finally uncovered her and sent her to the hospital, she was told that 22 members of her family had died in the attack – her mother, sister, two brothers, two grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. “No one in the war lost so many members of her family,” she said. “No one had the experience I had.”

Ms. al-Qolaq has not healed and is convinced she will be killed when Gaza is bombed again. “I don’t think I will be alive in five years,” she said. “There will be more and more attacks. But I will do everything I can before then to expose the occupation.”

Paintings at Ms. al-Qolaq's exhibition.

She is doing that though her art – paintings that depict her hurt, her rage and the trauma she still endures. In late May, her paintings were assembled for a two-day exhibition in the offices of the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor in Gaza City. At the event, she described herself as “a corpse in a gown.”

The Globe only saw photos of the paintings (they are on her Instagram site). They are haunting. In one, the ruins of her destroyed home are depicted inside a human head, presumably hers. “They may have removed the rubble above me, but who will remove the rubble from my heart?” she wrote in her Instagram post next to the photo of that painting.

She said the paintings are not a form of therapy; they are meant to expose the horror of the bombings. “Nothing will make me feel better.”


Aseel Kamal, Ghaidaa Qudaih and Nadin Akram – known collectively as the Green Girls – pick tomatoes at their greenhouse east of Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.


In Gaza, young women come under enormous pressure to get married at an early age, often in their late teens, and raise families – on average they have 3.6 kids, more than double the rate in much of Europe. The ones who want to fight the culture and find jobs often can’t because of the atrociously high unemployment rates.

This reality was not lost on three young women in southern Gaza. Aseel Kamal, Ghaidaa Qudaih and Nadin Akram – all close childhood friends, university-educated and in their 20s – did not want to raise big families right away and struggled to find jobs when they finished school.

At first, they considered opening a women’s products shop. But they didn’t have enough capital and feared the blockade could deprive them of the products they would need for their shelves. “The only idea we had left was to start a farm,” said Ms. Kamal. “Our part of Gaza was an agricultural centre. We believed in ourselves, the three of us, and felt that if we worked together, we could achieve anything.”

The GreenGirls operation grows vegetables on 6,000 square metres of land with help from male volunteers, some of them relatives.

Last year, they launched the GreenGirls label and opened Instagram and Facebook accounts so they could market and sell their crops through social media – a remarkably progressive idea for Palestinian farmers. They set their ambitions high: to create an organic farm whose watermelons, tomatoes, mangoes, beans, lettuce, spinach and other crops would be exported to Israel and the West Bank.

Too ambitious, as it turned out.

They leased 6,000 square metres of land but couldn’t go organic because they would need fertilizers and pesticides to boost yields. The May, 2021, war with Israel prevented them from getting enough fertilizer, water and imported seeds. Most of their carrot crop did not survive. The water they purchased at great expense from nearby farms was too salty – they now know they have to drill their own wells. They don’t own cars or trucks, and the cost of hiring taxis for deliveries helped ensure they lost money – still are.

Today, the worst is over – they are learning from their mistakes – and their dream of operating a large organic farm that sells produce outside Gaza is still intact, even though it may take years to achieve that goal. Their project has inspired other Gazan women to start their own farms, they said.

“We are happy,” Ms. Kamal said. “We had no choice since we couldn’t find jobs. We had to adapt. The situation in Gaza can kill any plans, dreams and hopes, but it will not kill the Green Girls. We cannot be depressed. We have to accept the reality that we are Gazans.”


Mohammed Mahdi, 33, surveys the ruins of the warehouse where his family's clothing business once stood, until Israeli forces destroyed it last spring.


In the early afternoon of May 15, 2021, the Israeli military phoned the occupants of the 12-storey al-Jalaa building in Gaza City to issue a warning: You have 40 minutes to clear out before the entire structure is taken down by smart bombs.

Israel claimed the building housed Hamas intelligence assets, though the allegation was denied by the property’s owners and tenants. The building was filled with commercial offices, including those of the Gazan bureaus of the Associated Press and Al-Jazeera, plus some 30 residential apartments. Among the residents was the extended family of Jawad Mahdi, a wealthy Palestinian clothing entrepreneur and property owner who had built the tower in 1994.

One of his sons, Mohammed Mahdi, 33, who is the general manager of the two Mahdi men’s fashion stores in Gaza City, told The Globe the warning immediately triggered a panic among the tenants, including his own family.

“My father begged the Israelis to give us another hour,” he said. “They told him, ‘Leave now!’ We took nothing. We didn’t have time.”

The ruins of the al-Jalaa building lie about 200 metres from the main Mahdi clothing store.

The Mahdis fled to the nearby Mahdi shop, about 200 metres away – and waited. Mr. Mahdi used his phone to shoot video of the building crumbling in stages after it was hit by several missiles. No one was killed, but one casualty made Mr. Mahdi groan with despair: his clothing warehouse, covering 400 square metres, on the first floor.

All that was left of the building, including the warehouse, was smoking rubble (a second, much smaller warehouse survived). Mr. Mahdi showed The Globe photos of him picking up shredded clothing from the ruins. Neither the building nor the contents were covered by insurance.

For the Mahdis, the destruction of the al-Jalaa building was the second near-fatal blow to their clothing business.

Jawad Mahdi started his clothing empire in the early 1970s. Back then, he owned factories that sent products to the West Bank, Israel and beyond. Two decades later, competition from an onslaught of cheap Chinese clothing forced him to close the factories and rely on imports. He hedged the business by building a small property empire.

The troubles began when Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006. The blockade that followed a year later almost wiped out his business. He suddenly found it difficult or impossible to collect payments and – worse – 20 containers stuffed with Chinese-made clothing for the Madhi stores were stranded on the border. “We lost three-and-a-half-million dollars,” Mohammed Mahdi said.

The Mahdis filled the financial hole by selling some properties. They eventually got around the blockade by dealing with Israeli wholesalers, but even then, there were difficulties. For instance, the blockade meant that green clothing could not be imported, apparently out of fear that Hamas militants could use it as camouflage. “We cannot import army colours,” Mr. Mahdi said. “Three years ago, we mistakenly received a shipment of 200 green vests. The Israeli army burned them, and we had to pay a fine.”

Today, the Mahdi family has found new residences, and their stores have largely recovered from the destruction of the warehouse. “After last year’s attack, we started from the bottom, and we are exhausted.”

They fear that another war between Israel and Hamas could wipe out the business for good.

What’s the solution? The Globe asked. “My father always wanted to live in peace with the Israelis,” Mr. Madhi said. “We have to stop the extremists on both sides.”

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

In May, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in what Palestinian officials said was a targeted attack by Israeli troops and Israel blamed on Palestinian gunmen or errant Israeli fire. Josef Federman of the Associated Press wire service spoke with The Decibel about her death and its wider context. Subscribe for more episodes.

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