New York, April 3, 2012—Nearly two years after fleeing with his family, Ezzeldin Masri returned to Gaza in June, armed only with his convictions, to reestablish OneVoice’s presence in the besieged coastal enclave.
The reopening of the office marks a new stage in OneVoice’s history in Gaza, which began in November 2006 with the launch of its first office in the territory. Soon after, Ezzeldin began spreading OneVoice’s message, long known to Palestinians in the West Bank, to the residents of Gaza. Endeavoring to prepare the ground for a comprehensive peace, based on the notion of two states for two peoples, he began hosting town hall meetings across the major cities and in all the refugee camps to promote the two-state solution and discuss the final status issues.
Six months later, though, Gaza underwent an upheaval when Hamas wrested control from the Palestinian Authority. As Hamas cemented its rule throughout Gaza, masked gunmen broke into the OneVoice office and confiscated computers and documents. Discouraged, but not defeated, the OneVoice team continued to work with Gazan civil society and began training students from Al-Azhar University. Their efforts were dealt a final blow when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in late 2008.
"The war was a very scary experience for me,” Ezzeldin writes in letter describing his ordeal, dated June 2009. “Israeli warplanes bombarded the Gaza Strip heavily, as Israeli soldiers invaded my town of Beit Lahia. I had to take my family and flee on foot under heavy bombing toward Jabalia refugee camp. Luckily, the next day with the help of the US Embassy and OneVoice, my family and I left Gaza to Amman.”
From Jordan, it took several months to obtain approvals to move with his family to the West Bank city of Ramallah where, upon arriving, he quickly assumed the role of outreach and development director. Despite his new position, his time in Ramallah was marked by concerted efforts to return to Gaza as soon as conditions allowed. By 2011, OneVoice felt there was an opportunity to reopen the Gaza office.
As OneVoice CEO Howard Sumka explained, a unique confluence of factors provided OneVoice and Ezzeldin a narrow operating space within the changing Gaza social order:
"Although Gaza continues to suffer under the siege, symptoms of which include acute economic deprivations and military incursions, and while rockets continue to be fired into civilian centers in Israel, we took advantage of the opportunity we saw for OneVoice to reopen the dialogue about two states. Arab Spring revolutions were changing the dynamics of the region. The new regime in Egypt was less inclined to cooperate with the Israeli siege, which meant Gazans could move more freely internationally. And, as reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah progressed, Hamas changed the tone, albeit subtly, of its rhetoric regarding Israel and violence. These developments suggested that the environment might be more open to our work."
Ezzeldin reopened the office in late 2011 and has been testing the ground slowly. The results so far, he says, have been encouraging. More than 150 young people have attended informal introductory sessions and a third of them have shown interest in continuing with the OneVoice training program. Read OneVoice’s Q&A with Ezzeldin here.
He spoke with a senior Hamas official, who was receptive to OneVoice Palestine's work to end the occupation, resolve all final status issues according to international law, and establish an independent Palestinian state. He told Ezz that OneVoice's work will become easier once Hamas and Fatah reconcile. Ezzeldin also met with representatives of Fatah, the Popular Struggle Front, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Palestinian People's Party, introducing them to OneVoice's mission and programming.
Ezzeldin is building relationships with the 15 March Youth Coalition, Promising Palestinian Generation Society, Al-Azhar University professors, and other civil society members.
"Business people, NGO leaders, and others have been isolated from the outside world and have had no support," said Sumka. "OneVoice will empower them to make their voices heard and to grow their numbers. We are not naïve and understand that we operate in a narrow space defined by the authorities in Gaza. But we can engage young people and train them to be advocates for two states among the people of Gaza."