In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly — following a six-month-old request for statehood — officially recognized the State of Israel. Sixty-four years later, that same international body finally recognized Palestine as a state with U.N. observer status.
I was elated by the announcement, as was everyone I knew. It’s a step in the right direction, for sure. But when you read the small print, it’s almost like someone brought out a huge birthday cake made out of sawdust. Even after all these years of petitioning and all the bloodshed and the failed negotiations, Palestine’s observer status still only places it on equal footing with the Vatican. This means that Palestine can neither vote nor propose resolutions.
But what does it mean for the people of Gaza? Very little so far. Without an easing of the blockade, Gaza will continue to suffer from poverty and alienation. When fishermen are allowed to fish beyond three nautical miles without being shot at by Israeli military, and when the farmers near the border can access their own land (which becomes unusable in the ‘no go’ zone 550 yards from the fence), then they will celebrate. But Palestine getting observer status is irrelevant to its current existence.
I am a photojournalist living in Gaza, and I can tell you that what really matters isn’t what happens in high-level meetings on a patch of international ground in New York City, but how it affects people’s day-to-day lives here in Palestine.
In the recent military attacks between Gaza and Israel eleven of my friend’s relatives were killed in a rocket attack — including his four children. For him, Palestine being upgraded by the United Nations to observer status means nothing. He is still trying to comprehend the violence that killed more than half his family.
On the night of the ceasefire, people were out in the street celebrating that they were safe. Later that night there was a massive storm with thunder and lighting and the children ran back home believing that the fighting had begun again. In Gaza, the sound of distant thunder halts all conversation — in the shops, in the streets, at the dinner table.
The morning following the ceasefire, after the detritus and shrapnel were cleared away, children, whose schools remained standing, were allowed to return to their studies. Other schools had classrooms that were completely destroyed, and for those children, the bombed-out walls are a daily reminder of the trauma they experienced.
I am often asked what my life is actually like here. What my Gazan friends regularly tell me is that they can’t plan their life; they have to live day by day, never knowing what each nightfall will bring and how quickly everything can change. On the day the recent escalations started (a Wednesday), a long holiday weekend was about to start. In the early afternoon when word spread that Israeli forces had assassinated Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas, Gazans knew the clouds were forming. By that evening, rockets started falling and life in Gaza changed dramatically for eight days.
While the U.N. vote doesn’t change day-to-day life for people in Gaza at the moment, our new statehood does matter: It has shown Israel that Palestine does have legitimacy, and that the world is watching. Statehood, for Gazans, is a pinspot at the end of a very long tunnel.
But there’s another stumbling block in that tunnel: Palestine must now focus on the reconciliation between the two main Palestinian factions — to bond together Gaza and the West Bank. If there is one Palestine, with recognition from the international community, this could mean some real change. That is one thing that people here actually seem to have some hope for.
The current political situation, however, is that there are — in a sense — two Palestines. In the West Bank, Palestinians are dealing with settlements, checkpoints and the displacement and restriction on movement that comes with that. In Gaza people subsist on a daily basis with crippling poverty because of the blockade, as well as regular spikes in violence. The issues that affect the people from both sides of Palestine create a political and psychological chasm, to say nothing of the logistical red tape nightmares of physically attempting to travel between the West Bank and Gaza. It is, essentially, a country not only divided by enemy forces but also by itself.
For my Gazan friends and neighbors, there is no escape. Since this last escalation in violence the chatter in the tea shops and among the shopkeepers is, “We’re used to it.” It demonstrates not only the Palestinians’ resilience, but a quip to mask their fears of another attack. Parents rhetorically ask their children, “You’re not scared, are you?” When you’re Gazan, you grow up being taught to expect that violence is a part of your life and in the process you build up defenses to cope and to protect your families.
The recognition of Palestine as a state is a first step, and an important one. But not until the fisherman can cast his net without fear of being shot, and the grocery stores no longer have to stock their shelves with goods smuggled in from the illegal tunnel trade through Egypt, will Palestine truly be a state.
Until that happens, we’ll scrape up the crumbs and get by and hope that, maybe for Palestine’s first birthday next November 29th, we can have another cake to celebrate. A real one this time.