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God, Painkillers, and Politics in Gaza

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For the past three years, my hometown in the Gaza Strip has been struggling with an international siege that limits movement and controls the flow of humanitarian aid. In deprived Gaza, the dreams of a million and a half residents on the narrow strip of land are shattered. The situation is worse than most know: 68% of those living in the Gaza Strip are UN-registered refugees, the median age in Gaza is 16.2 and 47% of the population of Gaza is younger than 14.

While politicians bicker in Gaza, Ramallah, Cairo, Tel-Aviv, and DC, my little nephew Baha still struggles with a serious water retention problem in his head. My sister, Shimaa, has been waiting for three years and counting to be reunited with her husband in Norway. My nephew Ahmad walks around with a limp for not being able to get timely medical attention. And these are just the survivors.

Mahir, a relative of mine, passed away recently due to heart and liver failure because he wasn't able to get a transfer and proper medical attention. But Mahir was an older man who had a chance to experience life. 10-year-old Ribhi Jindiyeh, a lymphoma patient, passed away in Gaza because he was not granted permission to seek medical attention -- his dad was found sobbing next to his death bed.

This unmerited and inhuman siege continues to affect and harm the entire population. The siege is intended to make life more difficult for Hamas, but it only seems to affect the destitute children and broken refugees. Unfortunately, Israel's siege is achieving the exact opposite of what it hoped. The tougher life gets, the more spiritual Gazans become, thus driving the people toward religion -- an area Hamas knows a lot about managing.

While most people in Gaza find solace in religion, some have found other ways to escape their misery. As a direct result of despair, poverty, and extremely limited movement, young men and women in Gaza have developed addictions to painkillers and other hallucinogenic drugs. The most popular painkiller in Gaza is known as "Tramadol" which is manufactured in countries like India, Pakistan, Malaysia and China. Tramadol is smuggled through the tunnels and sold dirt cheap; pharmacies now sell it under the table instead of over the counter. Initially these types of drugs were prescribed to people in extreme pain as a result of losing a limb, or suffering from severe injuries from the latest Israeli assault. But now pharmacies are selling these painkillers to high school and college age kids. The local government cracks down on those vendors as much as they can with fines and arrests, but at the end of the day there are much more urgent matters that concern them.

While the current Israeli government promises to make things "better" for the Palestinians in the here and now, they hope to be absolved from any humanitarian aid, future peace negotiations, or final status agreements. The former Israeli government promised a "better" future, but gave Gaza a hellish present. The Palestinians are then left to decide on the lesser of two evils as both offers are inadequate. Unless there is serious movement towards peace, the change in Israeli government all but guarantees that the Palestinians will have neither a peaceful present nor a bright future.

I am sure some will argue that the children are collateral damage, or hostages to a bad government, or even paying with their lives for the election of Hamas. Such cruel and heartless statements do nothing to improve life in Gaza. They do not ease the suffering of starving children, and they certainly do not heal the pain of children struggling with cancer. A sick person in Gaza has to get the approval of three entities if they attempt to seek medical attention: the Israelis who have to clear them, the Egyptians who will likely reject them, and the Palestinian government who will attempt to keep track of them.

While some beg for medical attention, all the residents of Gaza are begging to be free. Nothing of value has yet to materialize for the Palestinians in Gaza despite the US administration's best intentions. In the meantime, all the politicians (Palestinians, Arabs, Europeans, and Americans) spend their time taking credit for how hard they are working to lift the siege on the children of Gaza. Rhetoric seems to mean more to them than results.

My family has been struggling with all the other families in Gaza. They are witness to the transformation of their industrious and proud communities, to a population of unemployed, broken, and beaten people. The vindictive siege on the people of Gaza is a lot like the abuse of painkillers; wrong decisions lead to grave consequences -- a gateway to bigger evils and darker futures.

It may have been P. Diddy who coined the term "Vote or Die," but it took the world community to tell the residents of Gaza and their election of Hamas, "Vote the way we want you to vote, or die."