With each passing day, events in the Middle East uncover ever more headlines as the region continues to bubble with volatility.
In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces remain locked in a bloody civil war two years on, with Lebanon also tangled in the uncertainty.
In Turkey, protestors in the thousands were in a standoff against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over plans to demolish parts of Gezi Park and over excessive force used by Turkish police.
In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was toppled after just one year in office.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Palestine has markedly increased the chances for negotiations, but it comes during a period when both parties are experiencing domestic political pressures that reduce their freedom of action.
In all the chaos, and if one cares to remember, a question may arise…what is going on in Gaza?
The small coastal territory on the Mediterranean Sea remains under air, land, and sea blockade by Israel (with Egyptian acquiescence) since an upsurge in violence in 2007 following the Hamas takeover of the enclave the previous year. Gaza’s people have dealt with gas and electric shortages, a ban on construction materials, and fear of Israeli air attacks as part of the current dynamic of violence that has plagued Gaza and southern Israel for over six years.
But what many do not know is that support for OneVoice has found a foothold in Gaza.
The uptick in regional instability led OneVoice Palestine-Gaza (OVP-G) Director Ezzeldeen Masri to increase the number of town hall meetings and grassroots youth leadership trainings in the territory. Amidst talk of potential negotiations between Israel and the PLO – including assistance from Washington and potentially Amman – there is little room for ordinary Gazans, who feel cut off from their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank, to feel included in the process.
Masri, born and raised in Gaza, has worked over two years to rebuild OneVoice’s presence there after the office had to close during the intense violence of the Gaza War in 2008-09. So far, 2013 has been a stellar year for engagement. Over 10 town hall meetings have taken place throughout Gaza – including within the refugee camps that are dotted across the mere 223 square miles that make up the Strip – reaching over 400 people to date, while the territory’s first 25 youth activists will graduate from OneVoice Youth Leadership Program this month.
The latest town hall meeting was on July 2nd, this time in Rafah City, close to the Egyptian border. Rafah has been experiencing volatility since the Egyptian military intervened to seize power in their country, with the adjacent Sinai Desert experiencing an upsurge in violence—something many locals fear will have a knock-on effect within Gaza. Forty people turned out for the meeting, which was called “The Threats against the Two-State Solution,” a topic which had plenty of content for locals to mull over.
Masri, along with Rafiq Elmasry, Central Committee member of the Palestinian People’s Party (PPP), spoke to the challenges all too familiar to OneVoice’s Palestinian supporters: internal, including a lack of Palestinian unity around a vision to end the conflict; Israeli, which include the air, land, and sea blockade, settlement building beyond the Green Line, and open calls for West Bank annexation from right-wing members of the Israeli government; and regional and international, which take the form of the tumultuous events engulfing the region, as well as the United States' perceived unwavering support of Israel.
The meeting lasted two hours, though most of the participants stayed behind, including a group of young women eager to continue contact with OVP.
“This town hall meeting was different from all the political events we have attended in the past,” one young woman told Masri. “We actually gained a lot of important information about the two-state solution, and would like [OVP] to organize one for the Women’s Union of Rafah City.”
Masri accepted her request without hesitation, and hopes to tie the activity to the Women of Influence program which OneVoice Palestine is pioneering in the West Bank.
OVP-G partners with local organizations to better reach a broader audience. The Adam Center is one such group, along with the PPP. The budding relationship OVP-G has with the PPP stems from their common goal of an independent state through ending the occupation and blockade. Elmasry said that the PPP was the first to call for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders back in 1983 – pre-Oslo – in order to safeguard the national identity of the Palestinian people, which is also one of the prime motivations of OneVoice Palestine’s volunteers.
To attain this goal, however, one needs not just colorful language, but action.
At the heart of OVP’s campaign is “Shu Dorak?" or “What is your role?” a question that must be asked by every Palestinian man and woman by themselves to themselves and then acted upon. If every person has a role to play to establish an independent Palestinian state, says Masri, then popular opinion will prevail.
Masri explained to the group that as people under a foreign power, resistance is necessary, but creative yet peaceful resistance opens up the floodgates for all Palestinians to participate and cannot but be seen as entirely legitimate in the eyes of the international community.
Elmasry agreed. “Only with nonviolent popular resistance can we end Palestinian national division and the Israeli occupation,” he said.
Many more town hall meetings and trainings are planned for the rest of 2013. Masri and local partners will continue to spread OneVoice’s message to Gazans despite the territory’s lack of involvement in the peace process, and will continue to urge the Palestinian people to reconcile their differences and achieve national unity.
“You cannot ignore the voices of 1.6 million people,” said Masri. “Outsiders look at Gaza and they generalize about the people living there. That’s wrong. Gazans want to live in an independent state in peace and security as much as the next person, and have suffered due to this conflict more intensely than anybody else. The only way we Palestinians can achieve our self-determination is by ending the occupation and Israeli blockade.”