Taha Mqat, his wife and seven children have watched their home be destroyed or damaged by Israeli bombs three times. The family lives in Gaza, a strip of land that is 139 square miles — about the size of Detroit. Gaza is home to 1.8 million people, who have endured three military conflicts between Israel and Hamas since 2008.
Mqat was interviewed by Mennonite Central Committee staff as part of an effort to tell the stories of people in Gaza. (Read his story and others at mcc.org/stories.) Often when Palestine and Israel are discussed, Gaza is left out of the conversation. When Gaza is mentioned, it is often equated with Hamas, the Palestinian group with both political and military wings that was elected in 2006. The U.S. has classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.
After Hamas’ election, Israel imposed a suffocating blockade on Gaza, preventing most goods and people from entering or exiting. Egypt, which controls a pedestrian crossing into Gaza, often prohibits exit and entry as well. The blockade of Gaza, together with destruction from the military conflicts, has led to a humanitarian crisis.
According to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 96 percent of the water from Gaza’s aquifer is undrinkable. The blockade makes it difficult to repair and maintain Gaza’s water and sewage infrastructure. Bottled water is costly, and many Gazans become sick as a result of drinking contaminated water.
Electricity is available at best for 12 hours a day. The lack of electricity makes it difficult to store food and run businesses. But it also has less-obvious effects. Education is highly valued in Gazan society, but in the evenings, children are often unable to finish their homework due to lack of light. Families sometimes use candles instead, but this can lead to accidental fires.
U.S. policies toward Gaza have made the situation worse. In 2018 the U.S. cut off all bilateral humanitarian assistance to Gaza and the West Bank, bringing programs that provide health care, clean drinking water and food assistance to an end. The same year the U.S. also ended support for the United Nations agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees — including emergency food assistance to half of Gaza’s population.
At the same time, the U.S. provides about $3.8 billion each year in military assistance to Israel, with few conditions attached. The standard U.S. response to Israel’s actions in Gaza is that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
Under international law, that right extends only to killing armed actors such as members of Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It does not justify killing unarmed protesters or imposing a blockade as collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza has not made Israelis more secure. A better way forward would be for the U.S. to restore humanitarian assistance and to work with Israel and Egypt to lift the blockade. When people are able to live in dignity and to meet basic needs, everyone is more secure. Longer-term, the U.S. needs to support a negotiated solution that is acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis and that respects the full rights of all people in the region.
Taha Mqat, whose home was destroyed three times, told MCC staff, “It is a miracle we are still alive.” He simply wants to live like any other human being: with a job, no war, in peace and security. These dreams are shared by many across the globe, and the people of Gaza deserve them no less.
Rachelle Lyndaker Schlabach is director of the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office. Story originally published on November 11, 2019. Reprinted with permission from Mennonite World Review.
Photo: Taha Mqat (left) is pictured with his children at their home in Gaza, Palestine. MCC photo/Mostafa Al Naffar