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Gaza teenager runs for Palestine

May 6, 2016 | Al Jazeera

Inas Nofal aims to win medals for Palestine at international competitions, but training in Gaza presents a challenge.

MAGHAZI, GAZA - Tying the shoelaces of her bright green trainers, Inas Nofal prepares for her daily morning run. As Gaza's first and only competitive female runner, the 15-year-old makes heads turn when she races down the streets.

"Running is my life," Nofal told Al Jazeera. "Before I go to sleep, I think about which routes I'll run the next day."

Nofal started running last year with the support of a local coach, Sami Nateel al-Balad. Nofal's father, Mahmoud, tirelessly follows the two in his car, ready to intervene if his daughter faces harassment from authorities or the community. 

"Some people object to girls running and say bad things. It upsets me, but I try to hide it from Inas, because I don't want it to discourage her from her dream," Mahmoud said, noting he hopes she will help to change how society views girls and women.

Nofal hopes to win medals for Palestine at international competitions, but facilities for professional athletes are limited in Gaza. Three wars with Israel in less than a decade have caused major destruction in the small coastal enclave, leaving limited resources for sports and recreational activities.

Last month, Nofal suffered a further setback when she and dozens of other runners from Gaza were denied permits by Israel to travel to Bethlehem for the Palestine Marathon, which aims to shed light on Israeli-imposed restrictions on movement for Palestinians. 

For the full photo essay see here

Animals suffer in Gaza's cash-strapped zoos

August 24, 2015 | Al Jazeera English

Amid a crippling Israeli blockade of the Palestinian territory, zoos in Gaza cannot properly care for their animals.

RAFAH, GAZA - On a dirt road, behind tall white walls decorated with faded paintings of zebras, giraffes and lions, lies Rafah Zoo.

It is hidden away from Rafah's busy streets, but inside, hundreds of colourful birds in cages tweet loudly - almost drowning out the sound of children playing in a pool nearby.

Opened in the late 1990s by the Jumaa family, Rafah Zoo was the first amusement and leisure park for communities in the Gaza Strip.

Jihad Jumaa, a zookeeper and son of the zoo's owner, told Al Jazeera that his father's original mission had been to provide a place for Gaza's families - small children, especially - to relax and enjoy themselves.

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Gaza farmers struggle in war aftermath

Oct. 7, 2014 | Al Jazeera English

Israel's war on Gaza has taken its toll on all economic sectors, with the agriculture industry hit especially hard.

Sept. 3, 2014 ©Lena Odgaard

Sept. 3, 2014 ©Lena Odgaard

DEIR AL-BALAH, GAZA - Only days after a ceasefire was declared in Gaza, ending a 51-day bombardment by Israel, hundreds of farmers showed up at a distribution centre in al-Zawayda outside Deir al-Balah in central Gaza to receive sacks of fodder.

"We are distributing fodder and barley for all the sheep and goats in Gaza," said Ciro Fiorillo, local head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to the crowd of assembled farmers. "For every herding family, we will be able to give the fodder needed to feed each animal for a month and a half."

Funded by the Canadian government, the fodder distribution was aimed at sustaining the remaining livestock in the area. Two major Israeli military operations within the past three years have drastically reduced Gaza's number of sheep and goats: A census in 2010 registered 73,500 animals, while only 58,000 were enlisted for fodder distribution this summer.

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Hundreds of Gaza children permanently disabled by this summer’s conflict

Sept. 19, 2014 | Al Jazeera America

Operation Protective Edge left Louay, 9, with shrapnel near his heart; doctors warn him against running or playing

9-year old Louay in his home in al-Zaytoun neighbourhood in Gaza City

9-year old Louay in his home in al-Zaytoun neighbourhood in Gaza City

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — After being declared dead earlier this summer, 9-year-old Louay is fortunate to be back home with his father and older brother, Odai, 13. But with their friends back in school this month, both boys are confined to the small, dark apartment where they live in al-Zaitun, a suburb of Gaza City, dealing with permanent disabilities from their recent injuries.

This summer’s 51 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas took a heavy toll on Gaza’s children, killing 501, according to U.N. figures. It injured an additional 3,374, and though the bombs have stopped, hundreds of those children, just like Louay and Odai, face an uncertain future as disabled.

Their story is one of two young lives changed in an instant. On July 21, Louay and Odai were at their aunt’s house preparing for iftar, the evening meal for breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Rockets suddenly hit the house, killing their mother, grandmother and aunt, who was pregnant, as well as her six daughters.

“The first rocket knocked me out, but when a second hit, I woke up, and when the third hit, I was running downstairs,” said Odai. “I saw that my little brother, Louay, was alive. I took him, and we ran together, but a canister of gas exploded and burned him.”

Their father, Zakarya Siyam, said he was preparing to go to the house when he heard on the radio that the home of his brother-in-law had been hit.

“I rushed to the house but didn’t find anyone. At the hospital I found them in pieces. Six children in small pieces of meat — also my wife and mother,” Siyam said with a blank expression in his eyes. The doctors were preparing to remove Odai’s leg because of shrapnel stuck in his knee and thigh.

“My father yelled at the doctors, ‘Don’t cut off my son’s leg,’” Odai recalled.

Although Siyam said Louay had been declared dead, he insisted he could feel a pulse. He put Louay in cold water and resuscitated him. After a week in intensive care, Louay opened his eyes. He sustained severe burns on most of his body and — more serious — pieces of shrapnel in his stomach and near his heart that doctors were unable to remove. Doctors have warned Louay against running or playing because of the risk of the shrapnel cutting his heart.

Odai, meanwhile, is in constant pain. Shrapnel crushed several bones in his leg, and he may never walk again.

Doctors told Siyam that both his sons need surgery abroad. But because Israel and Egypt have sealed all exits from Gaza, his only hope is that international organizations will facilitate and sponsor the needed treatment.

“They have already lost the most precious thing they had, their mother. I want to give them anything they ask for, but in Gaza there are no opportunities for treatment for my children. I’m an ordinary and poor man. In Gaza such people are neglected,” he said with exasperation.

Ismail Nasser is the chief pediatric surgeon at Al-Shifa, Gaza’s main hospital for trauma victims. Sitting in his office, he said most of the children he operated on during the war suffered severe injuries from shrapnel or from being trapped in collapsing houses.

According to numbers from Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, 1,064 residential houses were targeted by the Israeli army, and 17,000 were damaged or destroyed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 7. As a result, multiple family members were often killed or injured in attacks, and more than half the fatalities occurred in or near their homes. 

Like Louay and Odai, many children who sustained serious permanent injuries also lost one or both parents, Nasser said. Losing a primary caretaker, he explained, will greatly affect their futures, not only because of the psychological trauma but also because they now require extra physical care.

“If, for example, you remove the spleen of a 5-year-old, he will suffer from low immunity and it is not easy to deal with,” Nasser said. “Or a patient who has lost a lower limb, for example, will need extra help.”

Many children, like the Siyam brothers, have witnessed six military operations in Gaza in eight years, which injured more than 5,000 children and has left a disproportionately high number of disabled among Gaza’s youngest generation.

“There is a huge number of children with special needs for rehabilitation, prosthetics, surgery and medical care,” said Steve Sosebee, president of the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF). The Israeli military’s destruction of Gaza’s only rehabilitation clinic, Al-Wafa hospital, has made the situation that much more critical, he added.

“Even if we have the resources to pay for services for children who need them, the place they would go for rehabilitation doesn’t exist anymore,” he said.

The PCRF takes medical teams to Gaza, arranges treatment abroad for children and supplies children with disability aids. The organization is waiting for a shipment of about 400 wheelchairs, but Sosebee said its efforts are far outmatched by the needs.

Many disabled children will face difficulties carrying out daily activities as they return to neighborhoods where houses are severely damaged and cut off from electricity and water and roads are blocked by rubble.

In 2011 a survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics showed that more than half of Gaza’s disabled said they had difficulty performing duties outside their homes or just crossing the road. It concluded that 2 in 5 disabled people age 15 or older had never enrolled in school, leaving more than half of them illiterate and 90 percent unemployed.

Khalil Amer Jadily, who lost both his legs during an Israeli airstrike on his family’s home in the Bureij refugee camp during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, is trying to defy those statistics.

“When I woke up at the hospital, I saw my legs lying over my chest, and a person told me to pray to God for recovery,” recalled Jadily, who’s now 22. “I thought I would die. And even in this war I thought I would die.”

With help from the PCRF, he traveled to Dubai in 2010 to get prostheses. A year ago he started studying business administration at the Islamic University of Gaza and said he likes to swim whenever possible.

Though Jadily survived the bombs raining on Gaza this summer, his prosthetic legs didn’t. He left them and his wheelchair behind when he and his family were evacuated before the Israeli land invasion. When he returned, most of his neighborhood had been razed. He now uses an old, rusty wheelchair held together with blue tape.

He sympathizes with the many children whose lives were changed forever this summer.

“I feel sad when I think of the young children who got disabled,” Jadily said. “They will feel like they have died, but though they will never have a normal life, they will hopefully learn to live with it.” 

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Palestinians reclaim Gaza 'buffer zone'

May 5, 2014 | Al Jazeera English

Despite threats to their safety, Palestinians are farming in Gaza buffer zone as a way to regain land and livelihoods.

UMM AN-NASER, GAZA STRIP - Last year, Mahmoud Abu Madek was not a farmer. Sitting on his knees between newly planted potatoes and beans, 27-year-old Abu Madek expertly ensured that water from the irrigation system reached the seedlings. He carefully selected these two types of crops so their harvest seasons would overlap, guaranteeing him an income for a longer period.

"I haven't had a job before. This is the first opportunity I've had to work on land," Abu Madek told Al Jazeera. "For me it's a way to make an income and cover the needs of my family."

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Umm An-Naser, Palestinians work in newly established fields in the buffer zone. Nov. 5, 2013  ©Lena Odgaard

Umm An-Naser, Palestinians work in newly established fields in the buffer zone. Nov. 5, 2013  ©Lena Odgaard

Palestinians hit the right notes in Gaza

Apr. 18, 2014 | Al Jazeera English

Music school helps relieve tensions in conflict-torn Gaza Strip, but access to instruments remains a challenge.

9-year old Joanna plays piano at Edward Said Music Academy in Gaza, Nov. 10, 2013 ©Lena Odgaard

9-year old Joanna plays piano at Edward Said Music Academy in Gaza, Nov. 10, 2013 ©Lena Odgaard

GAZA CATY - From the outside, Gaza’s only music school does not look like one.

A grey-and-white cement building, it could easily pass for an office or apartment complex. But for the approximately 200 children who attend, it is not about appearance; it is about sound.

In the hallway of the Gaza Music School, classical music mixes with Eastern tones. In one room, a nine-year-old girl has one of her first piano lessons, singing with her teacher as she carefully tests the keys. In another room, two teenage girls play the violin - but they rush to close the door, giggling, when they notice someone is listening.

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What happened to Gaza's Apollo statue?

April 8, 2014 | Al Jazeera English

A precious statue vanished after its discovery in Gaza last summer and many suspect it is now a hostage to politics.

DEIR AL-BALAH, GAZA: Last summer, a life-size bronze statue of Apollo, the ancient Greek god of light and music, miraculously surfaced in Gaza. The work of art, which is 1.7 metres tall and weighs 450 kilograms, could be worth as much as $340m, according to Gaza's antiquities authority.

But it has since vanished from the public eye - and experts fear that the roughly 2,500-year-old statue could be lost or damaged forever as it has become hostage to a political dispute.

"It was a Friday and I went to fish," said fisherman Jawdat Abu Ghrab of how he discovered the statue. Standing on a cliff near the Gaza town of Deir Al-Balah, he pointed to the sea beneath him. "I discovered the area was full of rocks. I thought I would try and explore it - maybe I could find fish. But suddenly I discovered something in the water. I saw something buried in sand - one arm was raised. I was shocked because it looked like a human."

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Upsurge in Palestinian 'honour killings'

Mar. 25, 2014 | Al Jazeera English

Rights groups demand new laws to protect women from family violence after a spate of deaths.

Gaza City, Palestine - Two teenage Palestinian girls were killed in separate incidents last month in so-called "honour killings", revenge attacks carried out most often by family members against women suspected of "immoral sexual conduct".

The deaths sparked protests with more than 100 people assembling outside the general attorney's office in Gaza on March 3, demanding violence against Palestinian women come to a halt. Five women died in honour killings in the Palestinian territories in 2011. That number rose to 13 in 2012 and doubled to 26 last year.

"For the past three years, the number of women killed have increased each year," said Mariam Abu al-Atta, coordinator of the Amal Coalition to Combat Violence Against Women, at the recent demonstration. "Today we are here to stop these crimes. Criminals should be punished by law."

Wasting away in the Gaza Strip

Nov. 20, 2013 | Al Jazeera English

Closure of 'lifeline' tunnels means fuel shortages, power cuts, and sewage on the streets.

AL-SABRA, GAZA STRIP - Sami Haddad waded through ankle-deep sewage after a lack of electricity caused pumps at a wastewater treatment plant to break down. Around him there was a sense of panic with men shouting at each other and children crying.

The streets were dark and people edged along the walls covering their noses with one hand and holding their mobile phones in the other, using them as torch lights to find a dry spot to step.

"We're covered in filth from the sewage. The children are scared and we do not know what to do," Haddad told Al Jazeera.

"We have asked the government to do something, but they say there is no more fuel. We ask for help from anywhere. If the pumps don't start again, the sewage seeps into people's homes and their lives are in danger."

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Gaza Women Raise Voices Online

June 18, 2013 | Al-Monitor

Female activists in Gaza have turned to social media to air their thoughts, but on-the-ground activism is still constrained by a largely male-dominated society.

Sitting in an armchair with her feet tugged up under her and a laptop in front of her, blogger Malaka Mohammed typed 140 characters and clicked "tweet." She scrolled through the most recent tweets, then went to her blog where she reviewed a post she is working on before moving on to her Facebook page, checking recent comments from her more than 5,000 followers. The 22-year-old recent English literature graduate is one of Gaza’s most prominent online activists.

"I started with Facebook, because there is no house here without Facebook. Then, a teacher told me I should start a blog because I’m a good writer. I now have thousands of readers,” Mohammed told Al-Monitor at her home in Al-Shejaia in Gaza. "Whenever I write, reply or share I always think of the result and effect. The Palestinian issue is important. When you write something as a Palestinian, the entire world will think of you as representing Palestinian women."

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Gaza Rappers Persevere Despite Hamas Ban

May 20, 2013 | Al-Monitor

The Gazan hip-hop group Palestinian Unit has been traveling across Europe, performing for a growing fan base. Although their popularity is on the rise in Spain, France and Denmark, in Gaza they are banned. According to one of the group’s members, rapper Ayman Jamal Mghames, the official excuse of the Hamas-led government is that hip-hop is too “Western.” He has no doubt, however, that it is the messages in the group's songs that the authorities find problematic.

“We are political rappers. We talk about our daily life, and since we live a daily political life, political issues are part of our music,” Mghames told Al-Monitor in Gaza City. “We criticize the government’s actions, whether here or in the West Bank. We disagree with most of the politicians’ actions, not forgetting to mention the Israeli occupation.”

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Gaza As Seen Through the Lenses Of Gaza's Cameras

May 3, 2013 | Al Monitor

The Palestine Photo-Marathon gives Gaza photographers "a chance to show how they see Palestine

Thousands of journalists and photographers from all over the world have tried to capture Gaza over the years — often showing images of war such as militants, rockets and injured or dead people. But on Wednesday, May 1, the people of Gaza got a chance to portray what Gaza looks like through their own eyes.

Around 50 Gaza men and women — mainly youths — participated in the Palestine Photo-Marathon, a photo competition arranged by Danish House in Palestine.

Looking through the lens of her digital single-lens reflex camera, 16-year-old Asmaa Alkhaldi saw birds in cages, piles of coal, shops abounding with fruits and vegetables and a horse pulling a carriage. She was standing at the entrance to the old market in Gaza City trying to capture a good scene. Alkhaldi was the first of 150 people who had signed up for the competition, which also took place in Ramallah and Nablus in the West Bank as well as in Jerusalem.

“I love to compete with others and I want to win,” she confidently told Al-Monitor, explaining that she uses photography as a way of expressing her feelings and particularly likes taking pictures of everyday street life.

But though the noisy street market could have been a typical scene from any Middle Eastern souk, Gaza is nowhere close to being a normal place. Spread around the city are huge piles of rubble from buildings bombed by Israeli rockets in November. There are bullet holes in buildings from “Operation Cast Lead” and posters of “martyrs” — people killed in the conflict with Israel — hanging everywhere. These were among the images Alkhaldi and her peers saw through the lenses of their cameras. These are images that also need to be captured, she said.

“Sometimes the conditions force you toward the subject. If you are in a war, you have to show the war: The conflict, the injured, and the dead people — it’s a part of Gaza. But on a sunny day, a normal day, I like to shoot pictures of kids and nature,” she said.

And since it was a sunny day and also a public holiday, families were flocking to the beach where women sat in groups talking while children played in the water. But being also the day after the targeted assassination of Haitham Al-Mishal, a part of this “normal” day was also seeing the Israeli navy patrolling a few miles from shore and the occasional sounds of drones and sonic booms.

At a beach cafeteria, the professional Palestinian press photographer, Mohammed Baba, was enjoying the weather with his family. He said young photographers have been reflecting the day-to-day reality of the ongoing conflict with Israel.

“Can you imagine how it affects a child who sees dead people, funerals, and their family crying? Or see a targeted assassination from the window of their school bus?” he asked. Baba said the sadness seen by Gaza youth is reflected in the pictures they take and share on social media, which are often militant or gory. He said he therefore tries to encourage young journalists to also focus their cameras on other aspects of daily activity, such as culture, the environment and social life.

Baba said young photographers also face other restrictions. The political divide between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank often leads to problems if they take pictures that shed a critical light on the Hamas government. And for female photographers, the conservative norms of society mean that they will typically not be allowed to walk around alone after dark or be in places that have many men.

Alkhaldi agreed that being both a young and female photographer in Gaza is not easy. She said she has been harassed by police and usually prefers to have her father by her side. But on this day she decided to go only with her 13-year-old brother and a girlfriend; both also took part in the competition. Alkhaldi said she didn’t face any problems that day, but others were not as lucky.

A group of men and women were stopped by authorities who took a camera memory card away from one of them, Karen Nordemann of Danish House in Palestine told Al-Monitor. She spoke at the French Institute, which was headquarters for the event in Gaza. Nordemann said that despite that incident, the day had gone well. She added that people had been genuinely enthusiastic and happy and that the event seemed to have fulfilled its purpose.

“There are so many pictures taken of Palestine — mainly by people who are not from Palestine — and they often focus on violence and conflict. With this Photo-Marathon we wanted to give Palestinians a chance to show how they see Palestine,” she said.

The event was launched last year in Jerusalem and  Ramallah. Due to its popularity, the Ramallah-based organization decided to double the number of cities, which also led to there being twice as many participants. According to Nordemann, almost an equal amount of men and women registered; they ranged from age 8 to 76. After receiving a list of either six or 12 themes, such as “noise,” “decay” and “yesterday,” they had the equivalent number of hours to capture images representing their interpretation.

Nordemann emphasized the importance of including Gaza, explaining that it is often overlooked for such events due to the difficulties in getting there. But not least for Gaza residents is that the image they have of themselves and of Palestine is quite different than that presented by the international media. Nordemann explained that she was surprised to see how small a role war seemed to play.

In the coming days, a jury of professional Danish and Palestinian photographers will select the best pictures from the Photo-Marathon. The winners will be announced May 19. Until then, Alkhaldi must wait patiently and keep her fingers crossed, hoping that her pictures will stand out

For the original article see Al Monitor

Head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad Praises Relationship with Iran

Nov. 30, 2012 | Al-Monitor

In an exclusive Al-Monitor interview by Lena Odgaard, Ramadan Shallah, the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, discusses Israel's Gaza operation and his own relationship with Iran.

Head of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah ©Lena Odgaard

Head of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah ©Lena Odgaard

CAIRO — Resistance, not politics, remains the main road to achieve Palestinian independence and rights, said the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, in an exclusive interview to Al-Monitor. Though stating that he would respect the recent cease-fire deal with Israel, he predicted another intifada, or uprising, in response to the deadlocked peace talks.

“In Palestinian history, resistance was always a source of inspiration for our people to continue the struggle in order to get back our rights and homeland, Palestine,” Ramadan Shallah said in his suite at an elegant, five-star hotel in Cairo.

Though the final details of the Israel-Gaza cease-fire, including in particular the issue of border crossings, are still being discussed through Egyptian mediators, both parties have claimed victory. While Netanyahu said Hamas and other militant groups suffered a severe military blow, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the main political Gazaan factions, celebrated the cease-fire agreement, pointing to achievements such as stopping Israeli incursions and the so-called “targeted killings” of hardline militants. According to Shallah, his party — known for its radical-militant tactics and hence labelled a terrorist organization by most Western countries — will respect the new cease-fire but not rule out another round of fighting.

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