Palestinians in Gaza are People, Not Props or Pawns
Why bringing more voices into debates about U.S. policy in the Middle East is essential.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is currently on a three-day visit to the Middle East this week at a time when tensions are escalating between Israelis and Palestinians. In visits like these, U.S. officials send most of their time interacting with other government officials, but they rarely hear from the wider array of voices from people whose lives are directly affected by actions and decisions taken by their leaders. This is particularly true for the Palestinian people, especially those who live in the Gaza Strip. The following essay originally appeared in Whispered in Gaza, a project of the Center for Peace Communications that aims to bring a greater diversity of Palestinian voices in Gaza into the discussion.
In the late 1990s, I lived in the Palestinian territories, working at a nonprofit organization that sought to empower Palestinian civil society. Much of this time was spent in Gaza, where I came to know, and become deeply intertwined with, the lives, stories, and travails of people from all walks of life.
Many of their stories were simple ones; some were heartbreaking. One woman, a colleague’s mother-in-law, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Gaza’s hospitals were incapable of treating her, and, despite her age and condition, Israeli security authorities did not grant her a permit to travel to an Israeli hospital. Her family tried everything to save her. At one point, they asked me to ferry tissue samples from the Erez Crossing to a hospital in Jerusalem for a biopsy. Her case required more advanced treatment than was available in the Gaza Strip, and her story ended sadly.
In the years that have passed since then, I often think back to these relationships with ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances in Gaza: how the day-to-day joys and struggles we all face as human beings are present in their lives as much as they are in ours, and how the difficult circumstances Palestinians living in Gaza face have only gotten worse in the past decade and a half.
In my work as an analyst focusing on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, some of the toughest topics to address in recent years have been the ones connected to the fate of the Palestinian people. Too often, Palestinians are used as props or pawns in political and policy debates in America, Israel, and the wider world — if they are even mentioned at all.
With respect to Gaza, a situation has emerged in which the policy discussion focuses primarily on managing the stalemate between Israel on the one hand and Hamas and other Palestinian groups on the other — and Palestinian voices are highlighted or platformed only when their testimony relates directly to that security discussion. As a result, the texture of Palestinian life in all its complexity, and the full range of issues Gazans struggle with today, are not represented. Nor are Gazan voices of dissent from the local authorities — an absence that makes it easier to conflate the people of Gaza with Hamas. The exclusion or marginalization of Palestinian voices from policy discussions in the United States and around the world is a long-standing problem, and there’s no quick-fix remedy to it.
The Whispered in Gaza project offers an approach to begin to fill the vacuum, by helping people living outside the Gaza Strip to understand the perspectives of Palestinians there in their full complexity and nuance.
In the flurry of social media and instant analyses that are often produced in moments of crisis — like the Gaza war of 2021 — one would never hear a story like that of “Layla,” one of the 25 voices in this series. She sought to help her neighbors through their trauma by opening a counseling practice in her home, only to be stifled by a heavy-handed security apparatus fearful of allowing any space for private grievances to air. Among the ideas that local authorities suppress, but which Gazans share in private — according to another speaker, “Yasmine” — is the desire to stop fighting. “If you’re a Gazan civilian who opposes war and says, ‘I don’t want war,’ you’re branded a traitor.” This is a voice that peace activists around the world need to hear.
No single research project or work can replace the perspective one derives from the direct experience of encountering others in person, hearing about their lives, and learning about their dreams and frustrations. But by gathering together dozens of voices and rendering them artistically through animation, Whispered in Gaza offers some of that experience to the many who may never visit the area.
For policymakers, it presents an opportunity to temporarily pull ourselves from the narrow framework through which we perceive the Palestinian people living in the Gaza Strip, then return to our deliberations having acquired a new vocabulary.
I was moved by the testimony from “Iyad,” who describes the experience of walking by so many Gazan walls and alleys covered in murals of Hamas fighters and wondering, “Is this a city, or a military barracks?” On the one hand, he decries Hamas's policies of perpetual conflict with Israel: “Palestine is our cause, and a just one,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean you should keep getting Palestinians killed, again and again, without any result.” On the other, he makes it clear that he is not advocating surrender to the status quo; he rather views nonviolent forms of protest as a more viable way to attain his rights. “Maybe I want to resist Israel using my oud,” he says. “I have an oud, and I play music. I could write a song to resist them. I’m free to do so. But don’t impose on me how to ‘resist.’”
Similar sentiments are shared by a young woman named “Najla,” who says that many Gazans like her feel that “a faction is fighting in the name of the Palestinian people, but not all Palestinians agree with it.” She views herself as a kind of fighter too: “My struggle is to communicate with Palestinians and Israelis and make them understand that I’m a human being here in Gaza — not a beast, a terrorist, or a lover of weapons — because, in the end, weapons won’t get us anywhere.”
Particularly heartrending was the testimony of mothers despairing of the bleak opportunities available to their children. “They’re talented and smart,” says “Amna” of her kids, “[but] I can't even send them to the Qur'anic schools, because that’s where they indoctrinate people, and I don't want my kids to be exposed to that indoctrination. I want them to think rationally ... and live a modern life.”
“Lubna,” a newlywed, recalls the mixed feelings she and her husband shared at family gatherings when relatives repeatedly urged them to have a child. “We felt it would be wrong to bring a child into the conditions we endure. A child is innocent. She doesn’t deserve to be forced to go to government schools teaching lessons that are worthless and deceitful.”
Alongside the sadness and despair are recurring expressions of resilience. Consider the testimony of Ala, a middle-aged man who came home to Gaza after years overseas. While abroad, he recalls, “I said it’s impossible for me to return to the Gaza Strip in light of the injustice and tragedies there. But for us Palestinians, longing for our homeland is sculpted like stone into our hearts.” Determined to take part in rebuilding the coastal strip, he observes, “What is so crushing about this whole thing is that we have the requisite capabilities ... and I hope that those capabilities will be utilized soon, with the world’s help and with the help of ourselves, as Palestinians, working together to improve things.” He knows his dreams are attainable because they are reasonable, he assures himself: “a respectable and simple life where we can live in peace ... [and be] able to sit down with anyone, even those I disagree with, and have differences of opinion but agree about my country, my homeland, and my rights.”
Amid the bitterness of daily life in Gaza, Ala and many others like him are holding onto their dreams for a better future and maintaining a sense of possibility and even optimism. Though their visages and voices have been altered, they nonetheless braved the risk to share this testimony with an international audience.
It is hard to discover optimism in the overall situation that Palestinians in Gaza continue to face. But listen closely to the perspectives contained within this collection, and you will find some hope. It’s the hope for change, better days, and freedom that motivate these Palestinians to take the considerable risk to share their perspectives with you.
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