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Big change in small pieces

July 28, 2010

Tomorrow, Public Achievement groups in Gaza will celebrate the end of the PA year with a public festival showcasing their work. We hope to feature stories from Gaza soon. In the meantime, below are excerpts from a report written by a University of Minnesota alum after her study last summer of Public Achievement in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. For a copy of the full report, please contact her through Dennis Donovan at donovan@augsburg.edu.

In Beit Hanoun, two 14-year-old members of a PA team prepare land donated for a soccer field. One of the boys lost an arm playing soccer on Beit Hanoun’s only other field when an explosive device left over from the recent war detonated.

Reduced to existence in gray areas on the margins of Israel, the Palestinians endure checkpoints, a separation wall, military siege, house demolitions, water shortages, and violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers. It can be argued that most Americans see very little of the context beneath such things from media reports on Israel and the Palestinians. The concept of Palestinian suffering is obscured and justified by the more prominent discourse of Palestinian violence and terrorism, and the fear it evokes in Western audiences. There is little encouragement to look past the alleged message that ‘Palestinian’ is synonymous with ‘terrorist.’

I spent summer 2009 in Israel/Palestine researching the effects of Public Achievement within the Palestinian Territories. Though my purpose was to interview youth active within the program and examine its ability to function under the conditions of Israel’s military occupation, my motivation was to give voices to those who have none and bring the context of their situation home with me.

“Popular Achievement”

Popular Achievement [as it is called by Palestinians] not only exists in the West Bank and Gaza, but appears to be thriving. Some of the highest praise for PA is consistently coming out of the Occupied Territories. Initially, it seemed counter intuitive to me that a program that works on sustaining healthy democracies would be able to function under military occupation. However, from visiting program sites in the West Bank and Gaza, it has become apparent that struggling communities have the most to gain from programs like PA.

In places where the citizens’ well-being is not well provided for and people are largely on their own in terms of social services, community connections take on greater value. When you are subjected to an undemocratic system, there are high incentives for you to create democracy for yourself.

“We first believed we can’t change anything [because we] don’t have any way to change. Then we learned we can change. We can’t change the occupation, but we can separate it into the smallest pieces [to act on]. We can change ourselves and can change problems in the community, really we can.”
— Popular Achievement coach

 

The Gaza Strip

Gaza, a thin strip of land only 25 miles long and scarcely four miles wide, is home to over 1.5 million people. The Gaza Strip has been in sharp decline this past decade, a decline directly attributable to the harsh economic conditions imposed by Israel’s military occupation. Israel pulled its settlements out of Gaza in 2005, but little has improved. Israel retains tight control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, trade, electricity, currency, and coastlines. Since the election of Hamas in 2006, Israel has sealed Gaza’s borders in a crippling military blockade.

The siege entails Israeli restrictions on movement of all goods and people in and out of Gaza. The rule is simple: Gazans stay in. Everyone and everything else stays out.

In Beit Hanoun, near the Israeli border, the only place for children to play soccer was along the Israeli wall. Littered with mines and undetonated explosive devices, their field was in full range of IDF (Israeli Defense Force) forces patrolling the Israeli side of the wall.

With their understanding of the dire need for a secure playing place, some Beit Hanoun boys chose this issue as their PA group’s project. They worked with community stakeholders to find a piece of land that was suitable as a playing field. Then they contacted the American owner of a parcel of land in a safer area and pitched their project to him. He donated the land to the kids of Beit Hanoun.

When I arrived, the boys were in the crowning stage of their initiative: picking up rocks and hosing down the ground. Their soon-to-be playing field was expansive. The group roamed around freely and with joy, whooping at each other from across the distance of the field. Around the perimeter was a scattering of buildings, crushed in the recent war, stricken with blows from Israeli tanks and F16s. I watched one of the boys, my eyes resting briefly on the spot where his arm had been severed from one of the undetonated explosives on the old field.

On another day, I sat in on first-aid training at a community center in Beit Hanoun. When Israel invades, it is Beit Hanoun that gets hit first. A Popular Achievement group organized the first-aid workshop to ensure that their community had the capacity to act in times of crisis. Young Gazans, even children, lined up to receive their first aid kits.

Young people who participate in PA in Gaza and the West Bank realize their ability to change their communities in spite of military occupation. A Palestinian society comprised of citizens who understand their responsibility to maintain their communities is conducive to a healthy democratic state when the time comes for a just peace.

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