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Essay

Coronavirus lockdown steals Gazans' last vestiges of normal life

A photo from the top of Al-Wehda Street in Gaza City, considered the area's busiest street for traffic, is nearly empty on Aug. 25 because of the lockdown.

LOAY AYYOUB FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By HAZEM BALOUSHA | Special To The Washington Post | Published: September 12, 2020

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GAZA CITY — It was late at night in Gaza. Adam and Karam, my two little sons, were asleep. But the sound of the bombing was very loud as Israeli jets targeted Hamas military sites. My fear, as always, was that the noise would wake and scare them. But when I checked, they were asleep.

There would be nowhere to go if they did wake up. For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, all 2 million Gazans are in home quarantine to slow a growing outbreak. Our movements are always restricted within Gaza's 140 square miles, bound by the Mediterranean on one side, fenced in by the Israeli army on another. But now, as the jets strike outside for the 20th straight night, we cannot even leave our houses.

We are stuck in a lockdown within a lockdown.

For months, we'd recorded only about 100 coronavirus cases in Gaza, all among residents returning from the outside and who were immediately quarantined. But on Aug. 24, the first cases of unknown origin were reported, in the tightly packed Maghazi refugee camp, and Gaza was placed under a complete lockdown that very same night. Since then, we've recorded more than 1,400 local cases.

It is beautiful to be a parent. But in Gaza it is also especially difficult. This has been true since Adam was born 10 years ago: It was two months before I even met him because Israel's blockade of Gaza meant I couldn't be with his mother, Ruba, when she gave birth in the West Bank, where her family lives.

"Will I be able to shield him and give him a good life in besieged Gaza?" I wondered as I marveled at my tiny boy. In the decade since, the question has never gone away. The constant cycle of escalation between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that governs here, has meant frequent explosive nights and, twice, all-out war. Rockets. More recently, Hamas and other militant groups have launched incendiary balloons that cause fires in nearby Israeli communities and farms. Israel retaliates each night by blowing up Hamas facilities. It is the violent background of our lives.

The boys slept, and I turned on a light to read. We are lucky that we can afford our own solar power system that provides about 70 percent of our household needs. Many of my neighbors in Gaza City, and almost all of the 600,000 people living in Gaza's eight refugee camps, are spending the lockdown mostly in the dark.

The Israeli army destroyed Gaza's main power station in the 2006 war. In the best of times, we have only eight hours of electricity a day as blackouts rotate through the neighborhoods. But three weeks ago, as a reprisal against the balloon launches, Israel cut off fuel shipments to Gaza's last power plant. As the outbreak began to spike in late August, Gaza had only four hours of electricity a day.

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Being locked in the house while also locked in our small coastal enclave is very annoying. One of the ways to stay sane while living under siege is to move around where it's possible, to gather with your fellow Gazans at cafes, in mosques or on the beach. In the camps, social life centers on families and friends, gathering on sidewalks and apartment stoops. Now, even that connection to a normal society is cut.

Like everywhere, Gaza has been under coronavirus restrictions for months. Restaurants have been closed or limited to takeout. Mosques and churches were shut. But everyone who entered Gaza through the checkpoints was quarantined for three weeks, and the number of infections remained low.

My boys had returned to school in the second week in August, after an absence of five months. The term started early in hopes that the kids could catch up on what they had missed. They were excited to get back to school and see their classmates. They had heroic achievements to share: Karam had won his karate yellow belt and Adam had learned new soccer moves. School is one of the few places where Gazan life feels normal.

Within weeks, classes stopped again due to a sudden outbreak of new cases. The airstrikes hit every night, the pandemic was closing in and our world was shrinking once again.

The kids miss school as much as their parents do. Now most of their play is on PlayStation. Their social life is when the cousins and friends can join them online for a couple of hours of "Fortnite."

Maybe it's good they are still too young to understand the layers of conflict and pandemic pressing on them. We are able to keep them busy. When we are free to move around, we give them a life that is rich by Gaza standards, with extended family, friends, school and public places. You want to shield them. But the reality in Gaza makes that feel increasingly like a mission impossible.

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Adam and Karam get lessons every day in how their lives are different from the young people they see on their screens. They ask me when we will travel to see their grandmother in the West Bank, something that can require months to plan. Permits are needed from Israel, and sometimes from Hamas and the Palestinian Authority - all three maintain checkpoints at the one crossing into Israel for individuals. Any of them can say no, and Israel often does.

Now, even that possibility is gone.

Technology is a blessing that opens my kids' minds and expands their knowledge. But it can also be curse in besieged places like Gaza. So much of what we see, we cannot do. The places brought to us by the Internet are forever out of reach. I think of my friends who won scholarships to study abroad but could not get out of Gaza to attend.

For many Gazans, their farthest travel is the edge of the sea, where we cool ourselves in the Mediterranean breezes and look out to a world all but closed to us.

But this being Gaza, even a day on the beach is complicated by conflict. There is not enough electricity to run the waste treatment plants and we cannot swim because of the untreated sewage that is pumped into the sea.

One evening a few days before the lockdown, I took the boys to the beach. It is always a mix of pain and pleasure to sit with them, watching them play but knowing they will run to the water's edge and back, asking every five minutes if they can swim. I have to say no.

Soon after the pandemic flared up, Israel and Hamas negotiated another cease-fire, brokered by Qatar. The balloons and bombs have stopped for now; we have four more hours of electricity to light our quarantine.

We know from experience that this quiet will soon cycle back to violence. Of the two lockdowns, the one caused by the virus will be the first to be resolved. We can only pray that we can keep our children safe until it is.

When this quarantine is over, we will go back to the beach to claim one of the pleasures available to us. That is the life of a Gaza parent, a cycle of tension and relief, despair and joy. They will be happy in the sand, and I will say no to swimming, waiting as always for the day I can say yes.
 

Children look out the window of their house in Gaza City on Sept. 9, 2020, amid a lockdown imposed due to the coronavirus.
LOAY AYYOUB FOR THE WASHINGTON POST