GAZA CITY — Their world doesn't extend much beyond this piece of sidewalk that never seems to change. Glued to their white plastic chairs, Khaled, Mohammed and Abdel Rahman spend their time talking about everything and nothing while fiddling with their smartphones. There's no 3G coverage, so their only connection to the rest of the world depends on a router powered by a portable battery. The hairdresser's salon down the street, which is forced to turn on its generator whenever a client comes, lets them charge up during power shortages, which is most of the time. This is daily life for these three young men in the poor neighborhood of Shuja'iyya, on the east side of Gaza City: closed and dull.
"The world out there is like the future: I don't think about it," jokes the 20-year-old Khaled Sukkar, who gets by selling second-hand clothes.
Abdel Rahman says he and his friends are part of a "lost generation," and looks back on the past as if talking about a golden age. "When they were our age, our fathers and grandfathers would earn 10 times more by working for the Israelis," he says.
More than half of Gaza is under 25.
The same complaint echoes all along the narrow strip of land. More than half of the 2 million people crammed in Gaza are under 25, and most of them have never set foot outside the territory. They have been isolated by the Israeli blockade since the Islamist group Hamas prevailed in its military conflict against Fatah, in June 2007, as well as by the almost permanent closing by the Egyptian authorities of the Rafah Border Crossing, after the summer of 2013. The young here know little more than the repetition of wars, the restriction of freedoms and a shrinking economy.
Despite a remarkably high level of education, unemployment among that age group reaches a record high of 60%, with a peak of 73% for recent graduates. "With such a pool of skilled labor and a slowing birth rate, all the ingredients are there for strong economic growth in the Gaza Strip," says Anders Thomsen, the United Nations Population Fund's representative to Palestine. "But the many constraints hindering its development threaten to turn these assets into a burden."
Shayma al-Naji, 24, has her own perspective. Unlike Khaled and his friends, the young woman looked as if she was holding all the keys to a successful career. The daughter of a former high-ranking police officer, she obtained her architecture certificate from the Islamic University of Gaza in the spring of 2015, and immediately started looking for a job.
"That's when things got complicated," she says. "In Gaza, too many people have been raised with the strong belief that a woman shouldn't work — or in a low-ranking job. So the few internships I was offered all led nowhere."
Her classmates haven't been much luckier. Shayma says that most of them are unemployed, and many have resorted to work as taxi drivers so as not to be a financial burden on their families. "Being young in Gaza means first and foremost feeling useless," she says. "I wake up every morning asking myself what I could do with my day. We clean the house. We spend hours on Facebook. Then I go out with my friends and we dwell on our depression together ..."
Unlike some of her friends, who she says are hoping to bring meaning to their lives by getting married, Shayma dreams only of leaving Gaza. Coming from a rather open-minded family, it was easy for her to convince her parents to let her — successfully — apply for a grant to go and study in Hungary. "They can see that there's no future here for me," she says.
Two of her older sisters already moved to Britain. For Shayma, however, the battle isn't over yet. The Hungarian embassy in Tel Aviv recently approved her visa application, but the Israeli authorities are slow in granting her the required paperwork to leave the territory. "Unfortunately, I don't have good connections, and without that, things are very complicated here," Shamya explains.
Many young people share this urge to flee Gaza, but for the vast majority it's far out of reach. After the summer 2014 war, dozens of them risked their lives by climbing the fence that separates them from Israel, or spent all their savings to sneak into Egypt through the few smuggling tunnels still in use, in the hope of being then able to go to Europe.
People from my generation, unlike our parents, don't think the situation is going to improve.
"People from my generation, unlike our parents, don't think the situation is going to improve for Palestinians," says Ahmed Kraia, 22. He is freshly graduated from the Al-Azhar University but hasn't found a job yet. He hopes to obtain a grant to be able to continue his studies in France. In the meantime, he spends hours on Facebook, chatting with people he vaguely knows who took the plunge and moved to Europe.
"They're traveling from city to city, going to the cinema or to concerts and nothing seems to stand in their way," the young man says with a sigh. In Gaza, the last cinema closed down in 1998 and the Hamas takes a dim view of the rare concerts organized by local rap bands.
Anywhere else, such malaise might have led to a youth rebellion. Will that happen here in Gaza? Jouman Abou Jazar, 28, gives a faint, wry smile. In January, he took part in a rare demonstration to protest against power shortages. "There were more than 3,000 of us, but Hamas quickly dispersed us with their truncheons."
The violence of that reaction was enough to quiet the rebellious instincts, at least momentarily. But the despair is now expressed out loud in the streets of Gaza. "We are already dead, so to speak. What have we got to lose?" Jouman asks. "Everybody would accept to go and work in Israel without hesitation, including some members of Hamas who can't make ends meet," he adds.
Like so many other people here, Jouman started to work when he was 12 and until just a few years ago, he would earn a very decent living working in the smuggling tunnels to Egypt built by Hamas. He would dig, bring out the sand, transport flour or cigarettes ... until their sudden destruction in 2013 by the Egyptian army ruined this business. The city at the Egyptian border, Rafah is "a dead city now," he adds.
Barbed wire at the Rafah crossing — Photo: Hatem Omar/Quds Net News/ZUMA
Hamza Redouan, a 24-year-old journalist who works for a radio station affiliated with Hamas, says he dreams of studying in France, but only for a while. Afterwards he'd want to come back home. "The situation is undoubtedly more difficult now than it was 10 years ago," he says. "I remember the spirit of hope after the Israelis left. The only thing people we were thinking about then was to build a free and prosperous Palestine, liberated from the corruption of the Palestinian National Authority. But in hindsight, I wonder whether Hamas hasn't made a mistake in taking control of the government and locking itself into a fruitless power struggle with the Palestinian National Authority, rather than focusing on resisting occupation."
Negotiations in recent weeks between Hamas and the Fatah leaders of the Palestinian Authority offer signs of reconciliation on a political level, but long-term questions about the society and the economy will not go away. "According to our forecasts, a million working-age youths will enter the Palestinian job market by 2030," says Thomsen of the United Nations Population Fund. He warns that the situation could turn into a "humanitarian catastrophe" if the constraints hindering the economy in Gaza aren't removed until then.
On the sidewalk in Shuja'iyya, Khaled, Mohammed and Adel Rahman shrug. "We're sinking so quickly," one of them states matter of factly. "Why would we even look toward the future?"