Is the blockade on the Gaza Strip a blockade of stomachs or a blockade of minds? Are store shelves empty of goods or are library shelves devoid of modern Arabic books and newspapers? Does the blockade on Gaza — which was imposed by the United States, Israel and most European nations after Hamas took control of the strip by force of arms in 2007 — prevent the organization's ministries, institutions and schools from development and knowledge, and leave the arena open for the ideological financier, who maintains a religious vision, to implement its agendas?
Raed Fatouh, the director of the Coordination Committee of Crossings in the Gaza Strip, speaking to Al-Monitor at his office at the Ministry of National Economy, said that the blockade on the Gaza Strip has never been a blockade on food. Staple food items such as sugar, flour and milk were never stopped from entering. Although there was a blockade on certain types of chocolate and snack foods, such as chips, even these materials were allowed to enter after the incident involving the Turkish Marmara ship in October 2009. He also pointed out that medicine was not prevented from entering the Gaza Strip.
He added that three of Gaza's six border crossings are currently operational. These include the Rafah crossing for those traveling from Gaza to Egypt and the outside world, the Karam Abu Salem commercial crossing connecting Gaza to Israel — through which goods from throughout all the world are brought into Gaza — and the Beit Hanoun crossing (Erez crossing) between Israel and the Gaza Strip.
He said that the list of forbidden items comprises about 20% of imported goods and includes 65 products, mostly heavy equipment and some medical devices they could be used for security purposes, or other materials such as cement and building supplies. Recently, sewing factories have been prevented from importing fabric for bags, which Israel contends could be used for the lining of bulletproof jackets used by the resistance. Fatouh, however, noted that all of these forbidden items are brought into the Gaza Strip via tunnels along the border between Rafah and Egypt.
Teaching guns and religion
Thus, the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip is a political, developmental and cultural blockade whose consequences are not easily measured. Yet if we look at the situation of public schools, six years after the onset of this blockade and the isolation between foreign funders and decision-makers, we find that the majority of the curricula applied in these schools is of a military or religious nature.
Mohammad Siyam, the director of educational activities in the Gazan Ministry of Education, told Al-Monitor that the blockade has impacted the overall performance of the Ministry of Education, and its activities in particular. While in the past there were a variety of activities supported throughout the year, these activities can now be barely described as modest, due to the lack of support after the international embargo was imposed on the government. He said that while occasionally there are activities supported by UNESCO and UNICEF, these are very few in number.
Regarding current activities, he said that there is a new activity that began in September 2012 and is named "Al-Fatwa." It is currently in boys' schools, but will be introduced into girls' schools later on. He explained that this activity involves physical training and learning about different types of weapons, self-defense and first aid. It is been presented to 36,000 students in the Gaza Strip through lectures held during school hours. This program was later followed by a summer camp during mid-year vacation; participation was optional and required the advance consent of the student's father. He stressed that these activities contributed significantly to reducing the students' problems at home and increased their respect for their families and the school administration.
Regarding the "religious soul food" activity, Siyam told Al-Monitor during a meeting in his office at the ministry that this activity was implemented two years ago and is based on moderation in religion and keeping students away from extremism. Topics for this activity are chosen by the Ministry of Education, while the religious figures who teach the activity are chosen by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. This activity, which involves religious sessions three times each month during the school's morning announcements, is important because it ensures that the students maintain physical, psychological and spiritual balance. He pointed out that this activity was implemented based on opinion polls carried out within the schools; there were demands for increased religious activities. He explained that the topics center around prayer, following the example set by the Prophet Muhammad, women's dress and respect for others.
Taysar Muhaisen, a developmental specialist, told Al-Monitor that the isolation of the Gaza Strip is increasing because its residents no longer have access to the cultural spaces or incubators that were once open to them. This includes working in Gulf countries, studying in former Soviet Union states, traveling, meeting Palestinian refugees from all of the world, and geographical contact with the West Bank and the 1948 territories. He added, "Currently, there are many universities in the Gaza Strip, but little educational achievement. This is unlike the 1970s, when there were few universities but a lot of educational achievement. Is studying at a university in Gaza the same as studying at Moscow University?"
He explained that the isolation of Gaza and its new generations of residents has now increased with the blockade and the political polarization of parties. This has contributed to the decline in political discourse and cultural debate alongside an increase in empty slogans. This ultimately benefits fundamentalist religious forces because people are resorting to religious thinking and behavior, abandoning intellect and creativity. We find that this is true despite the fact that residents are educationally and militarily capable. Muhaisen warns, "This is what I call negative adaptation, which comes with the isolation. Thus, to some people, the city of Al-Arish has become more important than the West Bank. All of this is now being compensated for through tunnels, cyberspace and the firing of rockets."
Muhaisen told Al-Monitor that the solution is to merge the people of the Gaza Strip in natural contexts with others in the West Bank and abroad. This involves re-establishing communication rather than repression, which has recently increased in a dramatic way. Suppression in Gaza has multiplied in Gaza and prisons have compounded. Reintegration should be a top priority for national reconciliation.
We don't sell books
Regarding the import of books, Al-Monitor met with Khamis Abu Shaaban, 91, the owner of the first bookstore in Gaza — the Al-Hashimia Bookstore — which opened its doors in 1942. He said: "In the past books would arrive from Jerusalem; our bookstores were supplied with newspapers and magazines. In 1946, however, the head of distribution in Cairo decided that my bookstore — the Al-Hashimia Bookstore — would be the certified distributor for the Gaza Strip. Newspapers and books would arrive daily via the train connecting Egypt and Palestine. There were many cultural projects that came to a halt because of the Israeli occupation; they closed printing presses, arrested the presses’ workers and imposed high taxes. This was done with the aim of keeping residents ignorant." He noted that later on newspapers and magazines would enter the strip three times a week, whereas in the past they had come daily. This lasted until 2007, when their import completely stopped and was cut off and in a semifinal manner. They would enter through the Rafah Crossing rarely, sometimes only once a month, and the issues would not be new.
During a meeting at his bookshop in Gaza he told Al-Monitor: "Throughout all of the decades that I have lived, I have not felt as much pain and sadness as I do during this period, when people no longer buy or import books. Yet despite this, I still come to the bookshop daily and stay until 2 p.m. I remember my friends that would come to the bookshop; we could converse, they would take magazines, and we would hold cultural seminars, until they all passed away."
For his part, writer Tawfiq Abu Shomar told Al-Monitor: "The most dangerous type of blockade is a mental, cultural and cognitive blockade. It has psychological and social effects, and we find that Gazan society has been forcefully transformed from a civil society to a tribal one. Thus, the heads of families and clerics have unprecedented authority in our society. Authority is now based on the length of one's beard and the frequency with which he attends mosque; we have moved from a stage where clerics had influence in their sermons, to one where they intervene in people’s daily affairs."
He adds that when minds are empty and have nothing to fuel them, they look for something to fill this void. In Gaza there is a lack of knowledge production, book publishing and translation. This results in a return of religious production in a semi-cultural template; it is injected into the minds of children and adolescents in kindergartens and schools. Moreover, these people use religion to create new jobs, profiting from the use of historical tales to terrorize and intimidate people. This is not only happening in Gaza, but in other Arab countries as well.
Such is Gaza, where you can easily find the finest European chocolates, but it's difficult to find a new book, novel or foreign magazine.
Asmaa al-Ghoul is a journalist and writer from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.