Many young Gazans have lost out on educational opportunities because of the siege [EPA]

Fatma Sharif is a lawyer at Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, a non-partisan, Gaza-based NGO that has voiced sharp criticism of both Hamas and Israel.

A women's rights activist, Sharif planned to study at the West Bank's Birzeit University for a Masters in human rights and democracy, a degree unavailable in Gaza. But whether or not she could travel from Gaza to the West Bank rested in Israel's hands.

As Sharif, 29, applied for an exit permit, there was reason for hope. In 2007, the Israeli Supreme Court urged the state to let Gazans attend West Bank universities in "cases that would have positive human consequences". Sharif's work and intended course of study seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

Despite the fact that Israel has no security claim against Sharif, her application was denied. She turned to Gisha, an Israeli NGO that advocates for Palestinian freedom of movement, and the organisation filed a legal petition on her behalf.

The request was shot down by the same court that, just three years ago, suggested the easing of restrictions on student travel from Gaza to the West Bank.

Speaking from her home in the Gaza Strip, Sharif called the ruling unjust and emphasised that she is just one of many students suffering from lost educational and career opportunities due to the siege.

Her story, she added, also serves as a reminder that Gazans whose families live elsewhere and those who need medical treatment unavailable in the Strip are also presented from leaving.

In the wake of Israel's deadly raid on the Freedom Flotilla, the siege on Gaza has come under increasing scrutiny. But most of the discussion has revolved around goods going into the Strip. Palestinians and human rights organisations say that it is just as important, if not more so, for both exports and people to come out.

"We need to shift the focus of the international community to this," Sharif said.

Shifting values

Shifting values and corruption have accompanied the tunnel economy [AFP]

"If the siege lifts tomorrow entirely, the consequences will be here for years," says Omar Sha'ban, the director of Pal-Think, a Gaza-based "non-political, non-governmental, and non-sectarian think and do tank".

As the economy has ground to a near halt under the siege, 97 per cent of Gaza's factories have closed. Unemployment hovers at around 40 per cent.

Sha'ban estimates that the Strip will need at least three years to get on its feet.

To repair damages, including those caused by Operation Cast Lead, Sha'ban says: "We need three million tonnes of cement [and] more than 600,000 tonnes of steel bars. We need to build new factories, roads, and infrastructure."

Some business owners face another problem - debt.

Zachary Hijazi, a carnation farmer who used to export to Europe, has taken an annual hit of approximately $10,000 per dunam since the blockade tightened in 2007.

Not knowing when the siege would end, Hijazi and other farmers continued to cultivate produce - only to have to choose between throwing it away and feeding it to livestock.

During Operation Cast Lead, Hijazi's irrigation pipes were damaged. Repairing them was costly but, still holding on to the hope that he would be able to export his flowers, Hijazi did so. With the help of the Dutch government, Hijazi managed to get a small amount to market in 2009. But it was not enough.

Deep in debt, Hijazi's spirits have sunk. "The world has forgotten about the people in Gaza," he says.

Sha'ban says that rebuilding and reopening businesses is the easy part. Gaza will also face the difficult task of restoring confidence in both investors and workers. He says: "Who can tell [investors] that there will be no more war; no more siege; no more rockets from Gaza?"

Sha'ban estimates that some 100,000 Palestinians have left the foundering private sector to work for Hamas, the tunnels, and other industries. And as the jobs have shifted, so have values.

"The tunnel economy encourages corruption," Sha'ban says. Gaza's nouveau riche made fast fortunes in the black market. Watching their rise, youth no longer see hard work and education as paths to success.

Sha'ban emphasised that both the media and politicians have been overly focused on the passage of goods into Gaza. The economy, a backbone of society that also depends on the people it sustains, must receive greater attention.

"What we need to build is the people themselves," Sha'ban remarks. "We need social rehabilitation."

Psychological toll

The trauma of the siege and war could increase militancy among Gaza's children [AFP]

The blockade, and the accompanying educational and economic consequences, has had a devastating impact on Palestinians' psychological health. And this takes a toll on Gaza's families.

Dr. Hasan Zeyada, a psychologist at the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme [GCMHP], explains that unemployment leads to feelings of "powerlessness and hopelessness".

This is acutely felt by Gaza's men, who are the primary breadwinners.

"This puts the father in a very stressful situation. He feels disappointed and frustrated," Zeyada says. "And because he cannot express his feelings directly to the source of the problem, the occupation, this will be expressed by through his interpersonal relationships with his wife and children."

Domestic violence has increased during the blockade, spiking during and after Operation Cast Lead. Divorce has also risen in the wake of the war.

Men who repress their feelings may see them manifest physically, Zeyada says. "Headaches, neck pain - it is common here for people to express their psychological suffering through bodies."

Although the GCMHP has embarked on a public programme to raise awareness about mental health issues - which Zeyada refers to as "normal reactions to the abnormal situation here in Gaza" - a cultural taboo against discussing them remains. Those in chronic pain seek out not psychologists but physicians, who then prescribe painkillers. Habituation and drug abuse start from there.

Operation Cast Lead exacerbated the effects of the siege and continues to take its toll on the mental health of Gazans. Approximately 13 per cent of the population now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder - a condition characterised by severe anxiety, flashbacks, and sleep disturbances, amongst other symptoms.

Since the war, some parents and teachers have noticed a decline in children's academic performance. "They have problems with attention and concentration - they need more time to gain knowledge and retrieve the information," Zeyada explains. Adults who mistake this for disobedience sometimes punish the children.

Mental health professionals also observe hyperactivity and a "trend towards aggressive behaviour," Zeyada says.

Zeyada warns that the accumulated trauma of the siege and war could pave the way for increased militancy and an escalation in the conflict with Israel. 

Because the children feel that their parents have been unable to provide a stable environment, Zeyada explains, "they will find other figures to identify with". Turning to those that provide a feeling of security or protection, it is possible that they will be drawn to strong leaders who wield absolute power.

"You can imagine the future if we continue without any real hope in Gaza," Zeyada comments. "But to lift the siege, to open the borders - one political decision will change a lot of things among the people."

'Economic warfare'

Some parents and teachers have noticed a decline in academic performance [EPA]

"The last three years have been unprecedented as far as restriction," says Sari Bashi, the director of Gisha, "but it would be a mistake to view the closure as a three year phenomenon."

A "slow but intense process of de-development" of Gaza began in 1991, with restrictions on Palestinian movement.

The flow of goods was tightened in 2000 and again in 2006 after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was captured. Since Hamas took over in 2007, Israel has waged a campaign of "economic warfare," as Bashi calls it, with the aims of weakening Hamas, keeping weapons out of Gaza, and securing Shalit's release.

But, Bashi says: "The closure of Gaza is not achieving [these] goals."

"Building up the civil and economic structure is the most important thing we can do in an atmosphere of political deadlock," Bashi says, echoing the sentiment that more important than the flow of goods is the free movement of people.

"Preventing Fatma from studying in the West Bank is exactly the opposite of what [Israel] should be doing. This talented lawyer is trying to promote human rights and women's rights in Gaza. What could be more important?"

Source: Al Jazeera