Let Gaza’s kids be kids

At the recent Gaza Summer Games, the next generation demonstrated to the world that it could show its true potential, just like children anywhere.

UN summer camp 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
UN summer camp 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In late July, thousands of children in Gaza romped into the Guinness Book of Records for the third time. Some 7,000 simultaneously flew kites, more than doubling the previous record they set a year ago. Just one week before, 7,203 children went to the destroyed airport in Gaza and bounced their way into the record books by simultaneously dribbling basketballs for five minutes. Two world records in just one week – and three in a year – is surely another world record in itself.
These events engendered iconic images that were emblazoned across the media in Gaza, Israel, and beyond.
Here were thousands of children, grouping together cooperatively, smiling and laughing as they worked in rapt concentration, in an act of celebration and achievement to be number one in the world. Here was the next generation in Gaza demonstrating to the outside world that, given the chance, they could show their true potential, just like children anywhere. Such symbolism will not have been lost on the millions around the world who have become accustomed to the contrasting imagery of destitution that usually emanates from the Gaza Strip.
THE WORLD-RECORD breakers were part of the Gaza Summer Games organized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. In nearly 150 locations across Gaza, roughly a quarter-million children have been taking part in sporting, recreational, and cultural activities. For the fourth successive year, thousands of UN teachers have given up their summer holidays to allow Gaza’s children simply to have fun like children anywhere; to have a sense of normality despite the abnormality they face in their daily lives, owing to the bitter legacy of the fighting a year and a half ago.
The subtext was clear for all to see. When Gaza’s children are given the opportunity to strive to reach their full potential, their energies can be channelled into world-class achievement; beyond kite flying and basketball dribbling, to be full members of thriving and peaceful societies.
But the odds – both financial and logistical – are stacked against us and the children of Gaza. The UNRWA has a budget shortfall for this year alone of about $100 million. In Gaza, with the restrictions on humanitarian goods we have been unable to build any new schools for years, let alone repair old ones. Over 80% of all schools in Gaza are “double shifted”; one physical building, but two completely different sets of pupils and staff, class sizes are as high as fifty children per class.
Unable to build schools for an expanding population, we have been turning away thousands of five- and six-year-olds whose parents want them to receive a UN education. With the much-trumpeted changes to Israel’s blockade so far making little impact on Gaza’s battered education system, the prospects seem bleak, with profound consequences for the next generation.
ALL IS not lost. UNRWA remains steadfastly committed to its human-development goals; assisting hundreds of thousands of children in one of the world’s most unstable regions achieve their full potential, giving them a sense of selfrespect and a belief in a peaceful and dignified future.
But Gaza children are set to enter a job market beset by more than 40% unemployment.
Over 3,000 businesses have gone under in the last three years. A once-thriving export economy has been decimated. An under-educated, under-employed population in Gaza is in no one’s interests. The economy must be revived. Exports have to be allowed out of Gaza if the next generation is to be gainfully employed, self-reliant, and ultimately able to create a prosperous and stable society.
The time has come for vision.
The world needs to look to those iconic images from the UNRWA Summer Games – children being children – as pointers to where the future could lie for the next generation in Gaza.
The writer is a senior official of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency based in Jerusalem.