What is it like to live in Gaza? From what you generally hear in the United States, you might not have an easy time answering that question. Even when Gazan people are in the news, we tend to treat them as little more than pawns in the Israel-Palestine conflict — relevant only as talking points in our endless arguments about the conflict and which side bears moral superiority.
This discourse makes the lives of Gaza Palestinians feel less real, and thus less meaningful. It should not be necessary to say this, but it is: The lives of Palestinians in Gaza do have intrinsic meaning, just like the lives of everyone else. At the same time, those lives are indeed shaped by the conflict that physically surrounds them. Recognizing that fact without reducing Gazans' lives to their place in the conflict is difficult, and we in the media almost always fail at it.
Lauren Bohn, a journalist and a friend who is working with the GroundTruth Project, has a story in the New York Times that succeeds in capturing the experiences of Gazans as shaped by the conflict, as well as the ways that they are more than the conflict. It's about a technology startup accelerator in Gaza — the territory's first — and the people who are attending it.
I would really urge you to go read the story now. But there are two details that stuck with me. First is a bulletin board that Bohn saw in the startup accelerator's offices. At the top of the board is a question. Attendees are encouraged to pin postcards with their answer. The question is, "What would you do if you weren’t afraid?"
Normally, this question is part of the vernacular of the tech startup world, a way to describe the burdens of expectations and norms that can hold back creativity. In Gaza, though, it takes on a very different meaning.
What would you do if you weren't afraid? It is a question that speaks to the conflict that has so suffocated the lives of many Gazans — unemployment is 43 percent, rubble is still everywhere from the last round of fighting, travel in or out is difficult — that it is considered daring to even imagine a life beyond fear. And yet, as the mere fact of the board and its pinned postcards show, Gazans have not given up imagining an answer.
The other moment from a story is this quote from Omar Jouda, one of the attendees (he's working on a very cool-sounding app that you can read about in Bohn's story):
"I wasn’t even sure entrepreneurship was an option for me. Everyone goes through a period of ‘What will I do with my life?’ But in Gaza, it’s not a period . . . it’s your whole life," he says. "There are always so many questions, like ‘If I get a scholarship, will Hamas allow me to leave? Will Israel then let me through?’ Entrepreneurship is a way for me to work through these questions."
Most discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict is concerned with issues of blame and moral superiority. Which side occupies the moral high ground? Which side is more at fault for the conflict?
These are indeed worthwhile and important questions, but they are not the only questions. There are also the questions that Jouda asks, and that Bohn has asked Jouda. Is a normal life possible? What about building something meaningful? Can I get an education; can I get a visa; can I get funding? Can the obstacles of the conflict be overcome, even for just one person? What would you do if you weren't afraid?
Starting a business is difficult and risky anywhere. In Gaza, where basic tools such as construction materials or financing or even a connection to the internet are scarce, the odds stretch from long to impossible. These would-be entrepreneurs have every reason to expect that they will see their dreams crushed, and yet they're pursuing them anyway. They are trying to do exactly what the outside world so often complains Gazans don't do — make their own circumstances — and finding that the game has been rigged against them.
A common assumption in our discourse on Gazans is that whatever happens to them is their own fault, because they should be embracing peace instead of extremism; that Gazans could have a normal life tomorrow if they really wanted to. This story is, to some degree, about what happens when people actually try to do that — about regular Gazans crashing against the impossible expectations that the world sets for them.