Washington Post Profiles Wasted Generation of Gaza Stifled by Lack of Opportunity, Employment

In this republished article by journalists William Booth and Hazem Balousha, educated and unemployed Palestinians in their 20s discuss lives bereft of opportunity and hope. Nearly 60 percent of young Gazans are unemployed and most would leave if it were possible. With few stable job prospects and no escape, many have resorted to occasional odd jobs, volunteering, sport, and, in increased numbers, drugs, to endure the harsh conditions of the enclave. This frank portrayal of lives deferred sheds valuable light on the tedium and aimlessness endured by this stranded population.

Trapped between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s wasted generation is going nowhere

They are the Hamas generation, raised under the firm hand of an Islamist militant movement. They are the survivors of three wars with Israel and a siege who find themselves as young adults going absolutely nowhere. In many circles in Gaza, it is hard to find anyone in their 20s with real employment, with a monthly salary. They call themselves a wasted generation.

Ten years after Hamas seized control of Gaza, the economy in the seaside strip of 2 million has been strangled by incompetence, war and blockade. Gaza today lives off its wits and the recycled scraps donated by foreign governments. Seven in 10 people rely on humanitarian aid. Young people say they are bored out of their minds. They worry that too many of their friends are gobbling drugs, not drugs to experience ecstasy but pills used to tranquilize animals, smuggled across Sinai. They dose on Tramadol and smoke hashish. They numb.

Hamas has recently stepped up executions of drug traffickers.

Freedoms to express oneself are circumscribed. But the young people speak, a little bit. They say their leaders have failed them — and that the Israelis and Egyptians are crushing them.

Why not revolt? They laugh. It is very hard to vote the current government out — there are no elections.

“To be honest with you, we do nothing,” said Bilal Abusalah, 24, who trained to be a nurse but sometimes sells women’s clothing.

He has cool jeans, a Facebook page, a mobile phone and no money. He and his friends get by with odd jobs, a few hours here and there. They worked at cafes during the busy evenings of Ramadan in June. They will help an uncle in his shoe shop as the school year approaches in August. They make $10 a day at these kinds of jobs, a few coins for coffee and cigarettes.

“We are the generation that waits,” Abusalah said.

Reporters asked a 25-year-old college graduate, who got his degree in public relations, what he did for a living. He answered, “I stare into space.”

Raw sewage washes onto the beaches. The water looks blue at the horizon, where Israeli gunboats lurk, enforcing a six-mile blockade. But the surf line is a foamy brown. The rappers of Gaza see this as a metaphor. They are literally trapped in their own excrement. Most young people in Gaza have not been out, either through Israel, which is almost impossible, or through the Rafah crossing into Egypt, which has been mostly closed for the past four years.

Electricity service is down to four hours a day. The young activists in the refugee camps who dared in January to protest power cuts? They were hustled off to jail.

In the dusty gray ­cement-colored world of Gaza, now sputtering along on Chinese solar panels and Egyptian diesel, young people spend their days, day after day, playing with their phones, their worlds reduced to palm-size screens, to YouTube videos and endless chat.

Palestinians play cards inside al-Karawan cafe in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/for The Washington Post)
Palestinians play cards inside al-Karawan cafe in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/for The Washington Post)

Unemployment for Gaza’s young adults hovers around 60 percent. This is not just a dull World Bank number. This is a stunning number, the highest in the Middle East and among the worst rates in the world. Think-tank scholars warn that Egypt’s youth unemployment rate of 30 percent is “a ticking time bomb.” In Gaza, the jobless rate for young people is double that.

The Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says what happens in Gaza is all the fault of Hamas, a terrorist organization. Hamas leaders traditionally blame the Israeli blockade for their problems. Gaza is allowed no seaport, no airport and limited exports, mostly fruits and vegetables, alongside some furniture and textiles. Lately the pressure on the strip has only gotten worse, as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently slashed payments for Gaza’s electricity, to squeeze people to reject Hamas.

Gaza’s young people describe their lives as a kind of sick experiment. The literacy rate in Gaza is 96.8 percent, higher than in the West Bank. The “Palestinian engineer” was once the gold standard in the Middle East. In the past, immigration was the door to life. That door has slammed shut. Few get out of Gaza these days. Yet the universities of Gaza are still pumping out graduates by the thousands, even though the least likely person to find work in Gaza today is a college graduate, especially a woman.

The most recent surveys reveal that half of the Gaza population would leave the enclave if given the chance.

“I don’t believe it,” said Mohammad Humaed, 24, who studied cinema at a university but works a couple of nights a week at a coffee shop in a refugee camp. “All the young people would leave.”

Economists use the term ­“de-development” to describe what is happening. Young people in Gaza have a joke to say the same thing. They say their unemployed friends “are driving the mattress,” meaning they spend their daylight hours sprawled in bed. Two years ago, the United Nations warned that Gaza could become “unlivable” by 2020. U.N. officials recently said they had been overly optimistic: The place could collapse next year.

There are tiny, discrete pockets of wealth in Gaza, if you know where to look, alongside a gritty middle class. The universities of Gaza are overflowing with students striving to join their ranks. This is the generation that grew up immersed in the rhetoric of the Hamas version of the Palestinian resistance, a moralistic message of piety and opposition to Israel hammered home in Hamas-controlled mosques and military-style summer camps for children and teens, who were taught first aid and how to throw a grenade. But in many interviews, in their torn-just-so jeans and fresh white sneakers, Gaza’s young people today say they would rather fight for a job in Tel Aviv than fight Israelis. “If the borders were open, I’d work in Israel in a minute. I got absolutely no problem with that. Everybody would work in Israel,” said Iyad Abu Heweila, 24, who graduated with a degree in English education two years ago but now spends his days hanging out.

“I have no achievements,” he said.

Heweila asked if he could make a confession. “I know it’s bad, but sometimes I wonder, if there’s another war with Israel, maybe there would be work for translators?” Heweila asked. “That is sick, I know. I tell you this to show how desperate we feel,” he said. “I want a job. I want money. I want to start my life.”

Yearning for the outside world

This summer the nights are inky dark, now that power service has been reduced to three or four hours a day.

Every evening a group of friends gather on a rooftop. They sit on cheap plastic chairs or pieces of cement block. It is cooler up there. The night sea breeze rattles the fronds of date palms, and you can hear some Hamas official on a radio program playing in a nearby apartment. Nobody on the roof pays any attention.

Asked what he did that day, Ahmed Abu Duhair, 25, said he slept until late afternoon.

Ahmed Abu Duhair, 25, left, smokes with Mahmoud al-Sweasi, center, and Iyad Abu Heweila, 24, on a roof in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/for The Washington Post)
Ahmed Abu Duhair, 25, left, smokes with Mahmoud al-Sweasi, center, and Iyad Abu Heweila, 24, on a roof in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/for The Washington Post)

He lives for the night. “Just talking, laughing, smoking on the roof to make us a little bit happy before we die,” Duhair said.

“We are closer than brothers,” he explained, as they passed the water pipe around and took deep huffs of apple-spiced tobacco. “We’re not lazy guys. We’ve been working since we were kids.”

They began to tell stories about their first jobs, selling cigarette lighters in traffic, helping vendors at the market. Asked how old they were then, they answered they were 8 or 9 or 10.

They were envious of their friend Tamer al-Bana, 23, the only one among them who was married. Bana has two young children and a third on the way. He had to borrow $7,000 from a relative to wed, a debt that would take him years to pay off.

If the young men on the roof are desperate, so too are college graduates. Mona Abu Shawareb, 24, graduated with a degree in psychology a year ago but hasn’t gotten her diploma yet because she owes the university money.

Shawareb tries hard to keep busy. She takes free English classes at a Turkish charity; she volunteers at an organization that works with street youth; she did an internship with the U.N. refugee agency and learned Microsoft Word and Excel. But like many unemployed young people here, she lives on the Internet, feeding friends and followers a stream of updates on Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook and Snapchat.

Like most women in Gaza, Shawareb dresses conservatively when she leaves the house. But she confessed that when she looks at the Internet and sees women in the West running in athletic clothes, “I feel envious,” she said. “I want to jog.”

Mohammad al-Rayyas, 25, said his heart aches for Cairo, where he received a degree in accounting. In the two years he’s been back home in Gaza, his life has stalled. “It is more than boring,” he said, struggling to find the words. “It is very slow. The time. It seems different here.”

He has tried to find work in his field — at businesses, banks, international aid agencies. No luck. “No wasta. You know what wasta is?” It is an Arabic word that, loosely translated, means connections or clout, and it often underscores a system plagued by corruption or nepotism.

Rayyas is unique among his contemporaries. He’s traveled, he’s gotten a taste, he’s lived abroad.

Mohammad al-Rayyas rides his bike in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/for The Washington Post)
Mohammad al-Rayyas rides his bike in Gaza City. (Wissam Nassar/for The Washington Post)

It is a cliche to call Gaza an open-air prison, but to many people it feels not only as if there is no way out, but also that the walls are closing in. Gaza is just 24 miles long on the coastline — less than the length of a marathon. At its narrowest it is just four miles, an hour’s walk. The enclave is surrounded by Israeli perimeter fence, bristling with cameras, watch towers and remote-controlled machine guns. On the Egyptian border, once ­honey­combed with Hamas smuggling tunnels, there is now a broad buffer zone, scraped clean by bulldozers, as forbidding as a no man’s land.

And the sea? Gaza fishermen are blocked by Israeli gunboats and forbidden to venture beyond six miles. For young people, the sea that once brought relief is now so polluted by untreated human waste that the Health Ministry has warned bathers to stay away.

Many young men in Gaza try to expend their energy playing sports. Rayyas even more so. He awakes at 5 each morning in his bed in his family’s apartment and goes out to run six miles along the corniche. In the afternoons, he rides a bicycle his father bought for him.

Many days, he pedals all the way to the Egyptian border.

Before turning back, Rayyas imagines what it would be like if the border gates magically opened.

He said he’d pedal all the way to Cairo.

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