As we entered the classroom, a group of girls performed a lively traditional Palestinian dance for us, with a colorful mural as the backdrop. The dance class is sponsored by the Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA), which receives support from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). Along with dance, CFTA offers many other activities for youth including photography, painting, music and poetry. I was able to visit CFTA’s programs in March, along with several other advocacy staff from MCC.
The creativity and exuberance evident in these youth is not the typical image of Gaza for many of us in the West. When Hamas took control of Gaza 11 years ago, Israel imposed a suffocating siege on the territory—a narrow strip of land about the size of Detroit that houses two million people.
Entry in and out of Gaza is controlled by Israel and Egypt, who open and close the two pedestrian crossings at will. Imports and exports are tightly restricted, stifling Gaza’s economy. Israel maintains the closure is necessary for its security, citing the launch of rockets and, more recently, burning kites into southern Israel.
The blockade has resulted in a humanitarian crisis for the people of Gaza. Ninety-six percent of Gaza’s water is unsafe to drink. Daily there are just 4-5 hours of electricity. Half of Gaza’s residents receive emergency food assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides services to Palestinian refugees.
Despite this crisis, which the United Nations has called “unprecedented,” the U.S. government announced on August 31 that it would stop all funding for UNRWA. This followed an announcement that the U.S. would stop $200 million in funding for U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) projects in the West Bank and Gaza.
The U.S. says these moves are meant to pressure Palestinian leaders to accept a peace deal. But taking away food assistance and the opportunity for children to go to school is hardly a path to peace. It is vital that U.S. policymakers hear from their constituents that this funding must be restored and that the blockade of Gaza must end.
Despite experiencing three wars in six years and the ongoing stress of the blockade, the staff and youth of CFTA are resilient. CFTA’s director, Mariam Zakoot says, “We still have dreams of hope.” Support those who dream and work for a more just and peaceful future for Palestinians and Israelis by giving to MCC and contacting your government officials.