Driving through Gaza City last weekend, in an armoured UN land cruiser, I ask our guide what the ubiquitous green flags symbolise. ‘Hamas,’ he replies. And the black ones? ‘Jihad.’ It is almost five years since Hamas won 74 out of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council election, in a massive rejection both of the corruption of Fatah politicians and of the peace process with Israel. Since then, under a land and sea blockade imposed ostensibly to protect Israel from rocket attack and Egypt from Islamist contagion, Gaza has sunk ever deeper into a mire of victimhood and fundamentalism.
It’s an alarming thought: young Gazans — 60 per cent of the population is under 15 — are growing up in an environment tailor-made for radicalisation. While there is no longer an acute humanitarian crisis, the combination of Hamas rule and Israeli blockade has accelerated ‘de-development’ of the territory’s institutions and economy. The UN Relief and Works Agency is struggling to import the construction materials it needs to re-house refugees and build schools. Unemployment is over 45 per cent, up from 35 per cent in mid-2009, lowering the cost to Hamas of recruiting militants. Half of Gazans are under the official poverty line; there are electricity cuts for 12 to 16 hours a day; 90 per cent of water is undrinkable; and a third of the homes are not connected to the sewage network. Literally and metaphorically, Gaza stinks.
Jihadi iconography is ubiquitous. Militant murals and portraits of machine-gun-toting ‘martyrs’ cover even the walls of Al-Shifa Hospital. No wonder. Construction of an extension has stalled for lack of cement and in the Prince Naief Radiotherapy centre, million-dollar Siemens gamma cameras stand unused because the hospital cannot import ‘dual-use’ radioisotopes and calibration tools. Zahair Nafal, director of nursing, is himself suffering from colon cancer. Pallid and sweating, he wants to go to Jordan or Turkey for radiotherapy now unavailable in Gaza. Permission denied. Dr Mohammed Al Kashif, director of hospitals in Gaza, claims Israel is using access to treatment as an instrument of control.
‘Life in many other countries around the world, such as Sudan, for example, is much more difficult than it is in Gaza,’ acknowledges Unicef head of mission Diane Araki, ‘but it’s a different kind of difficult here.’ There is a high incidence of medical problems associated with communities where there is a lot of intermarriage within narrow gene pools. One UN official refers to the large number of ‘funny-looking kids’ at school and unusual rates of galactosemia. Although isolation has kept the prevalence of HIV/Aids low, many in Gaza are hooked on Tramadol, an antidepressant smuggled through the tunnels.
In a patriarchal, conservative society, father figures are losing status, decapitating traditional family structures. Unable often either to protect their families or to provide for them, many fathers are instead abusive. ‘Kids now look outside the family, to the imam in the mosque and the militant groups,’ says Dr Eyad al-Sarraj, a Maudsley-trained psychologist who runs the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, which saw around 5,000 children last year. Fifteen per cent are suffering from post-traumatic stress, while 20 per cent over the age of six have a problem with bed-wetting, a level unheard of elsewhere.
‘Suicide bombers are often those who lost their fathers in childhood or saw them humiliated by Israeli soldiers in the first intifada,’ says Dr al-Sarraj, who is building a database that will analyse the motivation of suicide bombers. ‘The worst thing children experience is watching their fathers being beaten. It shatters their world. Thousands and thousands of children are now being caught up in a new wave of radicalisation and violence.’
Until the blockade relaxes, there are not many alternative careers on offer. Gaza’s airport —Yasser Arafat International — was destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force almost a decade ago. ‘Legitimate businesses are feeling better because they don’t have to deal with the criminal gangs running the tunnels, but Israel must end the siege, not adjust it,’ says John Ging, UNRWA’s charismatic head. ‘We can’t leave it until 800,000 kids have grown up to be extremists.’
Long the most powerful recruiting sergeant for Muslim extremist groups, the Israel-Palestine conflict is now also ensnaring what could be a new breed of self-radicalising loners in the West. Questioned four hours after she knifed the East Ham MP Stephen Timms, Roshonara Chaudhry made clear that anger about Iraq was not her only motivation. It was out of ‘loyalty to [her] Muslim brothers and sisters in Palestine’ that she dropped out of King’s College London and set off on her murderous mission.