Manal Hillis, 22, lives in Sheshaiyeh, one of many neighborhoods destroyed during Israel’s 51-day attack on Gaza last July and August. The attack rained bombs on the already fragile region, where civilians have been under blockade for eight years.
Manal recounts how her family came to flee their home on a July morning:
We received warnings from the Israelis to vacate the area, but we refused. We are used to targeted attacks and killings, not random shelling. Hence, we did not give any attention to the warnings. However, on an early morning at 6 a.m. my father, mother, three brothers, and myself fled in haste under the severe sounds of bombshells. We searched for protection elsewhere because the Israeli bombs were hitting the whole neighborhood randomly.
We arrived to the shelter, a regular school run by United Nations Relief and World Agencies that was opened for civilian protection. We stayed there until the end of the war.
Toward the end, every time a cease-fire was announced for a couple of hours, we rushed back home to either get more belongings or to check out the damage done. We stayed in the school until the official cease-fire was declared.
Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” was catastrophic for Palestinians in Gaza. Nearly 30 percent of Gaza’s population was displaced, with about 273,000 people sheltering in U.N. schools. Ten thousand homes were razed; an additional 89,000 were damaged. Over 2,100 people in Gaza lost their lives, including 513 children.
In the midst of the attacks, AFSC used the hours of temporary cease-fire to carry out an early aid intervention, delivering 1,500 kits containing urgently needed personal items to displaced Palestinians shetering in U.N. schools.
This was especially critical in a time when short cease-fires made movement difficult, and larger re-lief organizations were still working to put systems in place for delivering humanitarian aid.
Neighbors helping neighbors
Though bombs stopped falling months ago, recovery efforts have only just begun. Tight restrictions on the import of goods, including construction materials, have slowed efforts at reconstruction. Some estimate that it will take a generation to rebuild.
AFSC’s work for peace in the region extends well beyond Gaza, encompassing efforts by Palestinian, Israeli, and U.S. activists working to end the Israeli occupation, uphold human rights, and promote economic activism. In Gaza, we continue to direct resources to the places they are most needed—and we are especially committed to supporting efforts by Palestinian youth like Manal who are helping their communities heal and rebuild.
As one of the local leaders carrying out early recovery projects with AFSC, Manal is part of a group of 25 young men and women from families whose houses were severely or completely destroyed in the two most hit neighborhoods of Beit Hanoun and Sheshaiyeh. Most are university students between 18 and 25 years old. Many now live with relatives or are renting apartments in other neighborhoods.
“We suffer from the lack of services, such as regular provision of electricity and water or Internet,” says Manal. This makes their work to rebuild move slowly; yet, they are making steady progress.
Manal says AFSC is one of the first organizations in Gaza to involve affected people in the process of assessing community needs. AFSC organized training sessions for the group. “I loved the training on needs assessment, especially the part where we learned how to conduct interviews with various types of people in order to identify their needs,” says Manal. These trainings have helped Manal and others gather sufficient input to make decisions about where their efforts can make a difference. The trainings also help ensure that such skills stay in the community when AFSC’s relief aid ends.
In addition to needs assessment, participants learned about statistics and disaster risk reduction. Through questionnaires and focus groups, Manal and others surveyed 360 residents and interviewed eight community leaders. They organized a public meeting to share their findings and recommendations. Now, they’re moving forward with projects they identified, including rehabilitating a medical clinic with physiotherapy equipment in Sheshaiyeh and repairing houses for people with special needs in Beit Hanoun.
Manal’s involvement with the project gives her a positive outlet for responding to her community’s dire circumstances. “I used to be relatively calm and happy, but now I live under constant emotional pressure and stress,” she says. While rumors of more war circulate around her, she does not endorse violence or extremism—instead she is asking questions about what people need to survive peacefully. ■
Since 1948, AFSC has worked in the U.S., Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territory with Palestinians, Israelis, and other committed activists to support nonviolence, challenge oppression, and (since 1970) to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory. This work is guided by AFSC’s “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace in Palestine and Israel,” which supports the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law and calls for an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory, implementation of refugees’ right of return, equality, and justice for Palestinians and Israelis.