Mahmoud cannot give up
Mahmoud does not know how it feels to live in freedom. When he was born, Israel had already taken control of Gaza. No occupation in the world has been in place as long. Despite powerful resistance from both Israelis and Palestinians, Mahmoud struggles daily to try to ensure that human rights are respected so that the inhabitants of Gaza can live a more tolerable life.
Being young in Gaza today is tough. Those who dare to express uncomfortable truths live dangerously. This was also the case when Mahmoud was growing up. As a 15-year-old he was shot, and a year later he was shot again.
When he was 17 he ended up in prison. His crime: taking part in peaceful demonstrations against the occupation and for human rights.
“We encountered brutality,” says Mahmoud.
Occupation affects everyone in Gaza
That is how it was then, and it is still the case today. The occupation affects all those living in Gaza, every day.
“Normal people are trying to lead normal lives. They want to work, send their kids to school. They want a quiet life, but unfortunately that’s difficult to achieve.”
Gaza residents live in constant fear of being attacked, of being killed. Thousands of Palestinians have died in Israeli attacks over the years. Many more have been injured.
Mahmoud clasps his hands and lets his gaze rest on his thumbs for a while before looking up.
An economy in ruins
Israel’s tough restrictions have suffocated what was previously a thriving economy. Raw materials are not allowed to enter Gaza, and exports are not permitted.
Two thirds of Gaza residents live in poverty, many only surviving by queuing for the food parcels that international organizations hand out.
“It’s incredibly humiliating,” says Mahmoud.
He is of the opinion that Israel must lift the restrictions so that people can start working again.
No opportunity to rebuild destroyed buildings
Ten thousand buildings have been destroyed in Gaza, leaving many people homeless. The buildings destroyed are often left in ruins. They cannot be rebuilt because Israel has stopped the import of common construction materials.
“There are Palestinian families whose homes were destroyed a decade ago but who still haven’t been able to rebuild them.”
The farmers can’t grow crops in their fields; the fishermen are scared to go out in their boats. They risk being shot, harassed and arrested.
“The Israelis say that this is for security reasons, but we find it hard to understand what kind of security risk these small-scale fishermen pose,” says Mahmoud.
He thinks that the reason is instead political, that Israel is endeavouring to get rid of the Palestinians and take over the land.
Difficult to get permit to leave Gaza
Mahmoud talks of how difficult it was when his sister became seriously ill. For two and a half months they waited for a permit to leave Gaza and visit a hospital.
“By that time she was close to dying. It’s clear that the occupying power doesn’t care about people’s suffering.”
All sides of the conflict violating human rights
The occupation is not the only problem. Both the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, and Islamic Hamas, which governs Gaza, are guilty of grave violations of human rights.
Mahmoud works for Diakonia’s partner organization Al Mezan, which criticises all those who violate human rights and international humanitarian law. It is irrelevant whether the perpetrator is Israel, Hamas or the Fatah party that runs the Palestinian Authority.
High price for being a human rights activist
But the price is high. A couple of years ago, Mahmoud was attacked by a group of people who did not approve of his criticism of the governing Hamas regime in Gaza and the armed groups. He was knifed but was fortunately only slightly injured. But he and his family chose to leave Gaza and set up home for a while in the UK.
“Of course I’m worried. I’m married and have children. I want my family to be safe. But I’m not exactly scared. That would shut me up. And that would be even worse. Then they’ll have won.”
Al Mezan’s office is located in the bustle of Gaza City. Each morning when Mahmoud comes to work, he is met by people who want to report being victims of crime, and many want help in taking legal action. He holds courses and provides information to the UN, diplomats and journalists about the latest developments.
“I work long hours, often not coming home until late in the evening.”
Giving up not an option
In spite of all the difficulties, Mahmoud intends to keep on working.
“I have no choice. Giving up is not an option. It would mean giving up my life, my dignity, my family, my children’s future.”
Mahmoud has many Israeli friends and is convinced that Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.
“The fanatics need to stop saying how different we are, and our children need to hear that we are equals – we need to stop dehumanising each other and tackle the problems that exist instead.”