An American in Gaza

Patrick McGrann Contributor
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Isn’t it a shame about what happened to the humanitarian aid intended for Gaza last week? Damn shame, I’d say. But then again, I say that every week, as I’m an American in Gaza who stubbornly insists we can do something better.

Life in Gaza is never easy. The siege, continually breaking livelihoods and busting futures. And the fundamentalists, feeding themselves from yesterday’s mistakes and today’s sorrow. And then there’s the cacophony of booms. Sonic boom. Artillery boom. IED boom. But the worst for me is the breaking of my own quixotic heart, as I know that even with the tragic significance Gaza represents amidst the nexus of global opinions, the true shipwreck here is American.

As a university professor in Gaza, as well as the de-facto American representative on the street, I’m constantly requested to explain why my students “can’t study and travel and pursue life like everyone else.“ “Why can’t we be free?,” they ask.

To such fundamental questions I have no easy answers. Of course it’s tempting to say American leaders have no real confidence in our founding ideals, that daily convenience runs roughshod over idealism, and that some societies must be sacrificed for the greater good. Or maybe they’re just weak.

Instead I’ll stick to the local issues I’m more intimately familiar with, after spending practically every day amongst the people of Gaza. For example, if for some larger strategic reason the siege must continue, then why don’t we work within that parameter and still encourage the values we, as Americans, stand so proudly behind? Why not at least combat the second, internal siege, and lead the charge against the fundamentalists’ perverse stranglehold over the people of Gaza? Why don’t we act?

To start, surely we, as a proud and compassionate nation, are supporting Gaza’s million-plus bystanders trapped in geopolitical conflict. We are still the proud architects of the Berlin airlift, are we not? Hardly. After war decimated Gaza 18 months ago, a mere $50 million was allocated by Washington to help revive the shattered society. Not humiliating at first blush, until you calculate that such a total spread over the entire crisis averages around a nickel a day for each Gazan, after administration. Add in Washington’s leery oversight locally and each Gazan’s share falls further to around a penny a day. Not exactly the Berlin airlift.

Beyond generosity, the Berlin airlift was also inspirational. Uncle Sam in Gaza today is neither. You see, all that tired bureaucracy eats up more than humanitarian funding: it also consumes any hope for dialogue, innovation, and progress. To the point that no US Government employee can legally set foot in the Gaza Strip. The government seemingly excels at criticizing political challenges within Gaza, and then avoids any meaningful engagement towards solving those problems directly.

Yet that political detachment agonizingly extends on to humanitarian aid as well, as most efforts within Gaza are hobbled and half-hearted through the same bureaucratic apprehension. All of us advocating for moderation are in a daily fight for the hearts and minds of Gaza, yet rule number one from the US Agency for International Development is don’t talk to anyone who doesn’t already agree with us. Better yet, don’t even go.

After spending the last year and a half in Gaza trying out new ideas in conflict resolution, I, as an American, can confidently say the US Government is my last stop when seeking help furthering American ideals. Embassy support helping progressive experts obtain entry permits into Gaza? Laughable. USAID backing to help Gaza’s best and brightest university students gain a better understanding of the United States – impossible. Even last month, organizing the Gaza World Cup soccer tournament, we were on our own. Media outlets from around the world heralded the event as a huge success, as it featured the first time the American flag had been raised over Gaza (without being burned), and even included five minutes of local crowds chanting “U-S-A!” Imagine the potential if the US Government would have participated, if even just to connect with regular Gazans. But of course open dialogue through sports is too controversial for the US Government, so we all lost yet another opportunity to bridge a larger divide.

And now, with our next project, we’re encouraging the moderation of Gazan youth through a new radio station – Radio Free Gaza. Ironic then that Hamas will not object to such relatively aggressive commentary and discussion right under its nose, yet our government, specifically USAID, will absurdly never seriously consider the value of such efforts. It would seem as though there is an intentional plan to slowly forfeit Gaza’s 1.5m people to flag-burning fanatics. Our timid government has certainly been doing nothing to slow the descent.

So instead of focusing solely on the humanitarian aid flotilla that was commandeered by Israeli forces last week, let us also consider our own deficient efforts within the Gaza Strip. If current humanitarian approaches to Gaza are any indication of our good judgment, perhaps it’d be better to stop distracting ourselves with Israeli mistakes and look more deeply into the role we’ve honestly been playing in Gaza.

Let’s get to know the Gazan people, and let Gaza get to know us. There are hundreds of thousands of moderates within Gaza reaching out in partnership, but unless we back up our concern with audacious engagement and transformative investment, we’ll not only lose them to fanaticism, we’ll also lose a part of ourselves.

Patrick McGrann is the founder of non-profit toy company Kitegang.org and most recently organized a Soccer World Cup in the Gaza Strip, a 16-team tournament that brought some normalcy to Gaza around the region’s favorite past time. His toy company has temporarily relocated to the Gaza Strip for two years.