As the Middle East crisis deepens, former Durham University student Yousef Al-Hajjar describes how life has become almost intolerable in Gaza.
YOUSEF al-Hajjar was born in Gaza City in 1981 and grew up in a middle-class family with four brothers and three sisters - a typical Palestinian family. Last year, Yousef obtained a scholarship from the Durham Palestine Educational Trust to study for an MA degree in Arabic/English translation at Durham University. Today, he lives in a rented flat in Gaza with his wife, Samar, and five-month-old son Mohammed.
He has not been paid for his part-time lecturer post for four months because of the financial crisis which has hit the newly elected Hamas-led government. He earns some money working as a freelance translator.
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"LAST August while I was doing my MA degree at the University of Durham, I watched closely and waited earnestly for the moment the Israeli settlements were evacuated and checkpoints removed from the Gaza Strip. This gave me a lot of hope for peace in the region as the border with Egypt would be open and Israel would allow the Gaza seaport and airport to function. None of this has happened, except that the concentration camp in which the Palestinians live has become a little bigger.
Although my wife and I abstained from voting for either Fateh or Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections on January 25, I worked as an assistant and interpreter with a long-term international observer. All international observers who visited Gaza testified that the Palestinian elections were fair and candid. However, the Palestinians were soon punished for democratically electing Hamas. America and the EU cut off their financial aid. As a result, civilians were the victims as they lost their salaries. The freezing of salaries for four months has left most Palestinian families sinking into debt.
The situation has worsened since the abduction of an Israeli soldier from a military outpost and Israel targeting everything Palestinian. It has targeted the few bridges in Gaza, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Palestinian Ministry of Interior, and the major Palestinian power station, which was built over a period of five years, at a cost of $150m.
Consequently, Gazans have been going through terrible conditions as power has affected the way people eat and live. Mothers buy the necessary foodstuffs on a daily basis as they cannot store anything in refrigerators and fear that food will perish quickly. People use candles, kerosene lamps and gaslights to light their houses. All the available batteries in order to listen to the news on the radio have been bought. Children are seen on the streets carrying small radios to follow breaking news.
Now the substantial question which has to be faced is why Israel targets civilian facilities and uses excessive force, killing children who constitute 52 per cent of the Palestinian population? A more crucial question is why the US has vetoed a resolution that condemns the Israeli carnage perpetrated by the Israeli occupation forces in the Gaza Strip? This leads to Palestinians not trusting or believing in the American assurances of allowing the Palestinians to create their viable state, when it gives Israel the green light to destroy the infrastructure of this prospective state.
We are badly in need of an unbiased super power that would bridle Israel, but as long as America is ruling the world, the Palestinians must not dream of anything. As George W Bush has reiterated many times: "Israel has the right to defend itself." But why don't the Palestinians have the right to defend themselves when they are attacked?"
Gazan Ahmed al-Madhoun, 30, says: "Has our world forgotten the footage of Huda Ghalyia, 12, who was moving hysterically among the dead bodies of her family at Gaza seashore? Has our world forgotten that Israel rejected the Arab peace initiative put forward by Saudi Arabia in the Beirut Summit in 2002? Has our world forgotten who killed our peace partner, Yitzhak Rabin and why?"
As I write, 24 Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip without any condemnation from the world community. Many people are living in fear. We already have a harsh economic situation since Hamas won power, but now we are not safe on the streets or even in our homes.
My aunt's house was turned into an Israeli military barracks during a ground offensive in the north of the Gaza Strip. An Israeli tank tore down the wall of the house and bulldozed the trees. All the family members, including my aunt, uncle, and their daughters, were held in one room for two days until the troops pulled back.
When I called my aunt afterwards she said it had been her worst nightmare and that my cousins would never forget those two horrible days. "I wish my children could live like all other children - without fear," she says.
A university lecturer, his wife and seven of their children were killed when an Israeli F16 warplane dropped two bombs on their building, causing large-scale destruction and injuring 40 people from the nearby houses. Is this done because of the abduction of an Israeli soldier by the Palestinian resistance? What about the 10,000 Palestinian prisoners inside the Israeli jails (including 96 women and 313 children)?
Nabeel, a tailor, says: "This senseless destruction and these heinous crimes should have been prevented since they cannot guarantee the return of the snatched soldier to his family. Israel has taken this incident as an excuse to justify its actions. And now it is worse as the eyes have turned to Lebanon and the Israeli tanks can roll into any Palestinian town and kill innocent civilians. This is a serious situation as Israel can commit any crime without being punished."
Samah, a mother of six, says she has lost hope in the United Nations. "It cannot put an end to the crimes perpetrated by the Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the West Bank," she says. "Also, I lost all hope in Arab governments, who used to condemn the Israeli assaults against us, but now they are unable to deplore the killing of Palestinians. It seems that the whole world is against the Palestinian cause."
I have big dreams and hopes of furthering my education in America, but this depends on getting a full scholarship since I cannot afford the tuition fees. But, by this, I could escape the miserable conditions in Gaza. The Palestinians in Gaza are living in a big concentration camp, a big prison. Borders are closed, two thirds of the Gaza Strip has no electricity and there is a shortage of drinking water after the bombing of water and power plants.
But the question which keeps buzzing in my mind is: 'For how long will our world sit by and watch us being killed by the Israeli military machine?'
The Palestinians have been furious about the carnage perpetrated by Israeli warplanes in Qana, southern Lebanon, since they are the only people who can feel and sense what has really happened because it is the same American-made missiles and the same American warplanes that hit Gaza many times before and killed civilians.
I feel really bamboozled when I see the Americans paying the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organisations hundreds of thousands of dollars to help them hold workshops and training courses on democracy and human rights. But in the meantime, America itself rejects the Palestinian democracy that elected Hamas and also supports Israel to kill Palestinian and Lebanese children.
My son, Mohammed, is only five months old. He must have a better life."
* See tomorrow's Northern Echo for an interview with Pat Boyes, whose husband, Labour MP Roland Boyes, died last month of Alzheimer's disease.