Gaza's war-time volunteers

Gaza's war-time volunteers
Feature: Amidst criticism of the international reaction to the Gaza war, young Palestinians stepped in to provide their communities with much needed help, at great personal risk.
6 min read
09 July, 2015
A Palestinian ambulance arrived after an airstrike in Rafah during the 2014 war [AFP]
During the Gaza war, up to 500,000 people were displaced, left without homes, and around 2,400 Palestinians were killed due to Israeli bombardments of the coastal strip. 

This humanitarian disaster was also exasperated by a blockade imposed by Egypt, during which only a minority of the injured was permitted to cross Rafah.  There was also disillusionment among Gaza's population towards the international reponse to the crisis.  

"Relief organisations didn't work during the days of the war; they waited until there was a cease-fire to help. So we tried to fill in the gaps", said Ahmed abu Rayya, a dentist 24, who established a small campaign called "lets help Gaza" in the first days of the war. 

From war stories to toy story...'volunteers beyond borders' at work [photo supplied]
Many Gazans, at great personal risk, undertook volunteering with various organizations
in order to help their community.

"At first we collected money from our families and provided basics for people who had been evacuated - we focused on displaced people in garages and public gardens, as no other organisations were helping them.. ", Ahmed said.

This often meant entering dangerous areas under bombardment, that residents themselves were fleeing, as international organizations would not enter neighbourhoods that were under attack at the time.

"Every day we were at risk of getting shelled... one time a car 15 metres behind us got hit. I remember the panic we lived through at that moment, and that wasn't the only time..."

What UNWRA didn't do...

Mohammad abu Qassem, 30, from Dier el Balah, had been living in Cyprus since his youth.  He had left Palestine after being shot and imprisoned by the Israeli military.

"I was living a comfortable life [in Cyprus]", he said.  Shortly after he returned to Gaza to visit his family, the war broke out.

"I couldn’t just stay in the home and watch…we had to do something to help people", Mohammad said.

Dima abu Saleem, 21, with the Palestinian red crescent [photo supplied]
Mohammad and his friends decided to set up an organization - "volunteers without borders". 

Like Ahmed's group, this small collective of local volunteers attempted to fill the gaps and operate where relief organizations and international aid groups could not reach.

"In the first days of the war, we had 5000 refugees who had been displaced from their homes.  In the first couple of weeks, no organization helped us…we had no resouces and no funding", he said.

As it was the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the volunteers attempted to provide two meals – iftar and suhoor to the displaced refugees.

"We started calling people in Gaza, and calling our families, asking for donations", he said.  "Some people agreed to feed ten people, some people said they could give five meals..."

Despite the organizations’ limited recourses, they managed to reach their targets and provide meals for thousands.

"I don’t know how we managed it…by the end of the war we were helping 20,000 people", he said.  

Although they started with a lack of funds, their success started to attract more donations.

"After we started this work, people wanted to build on it", Mohammad said.  "Organizations and people came forward and contributed."

Like many Gazans, Mohammad is dissillusioned with UNWRA, the UN refugee agency responsible for Palestinian refugees.

"We did what UNWRA didn't do," said Mohammad, also
     We tried to evacuate people from the schools when Israel was going to hit them…but we couldn't help the disabled people…

Mohammad abu Qassem
 criticising the token gestures of foreign visitors to Gaza.

"Emiratis would come to Gaza and give food to just 10 people! What is the use?" He said.  

Like most of Gaza’s population, Mohammad also has tragic memories of the war.

"I lost my friend in the Zuwaira area," Mohammad said.  "He was with one girl in the car, and there was an Israeli strike on it."

He also expresses regret that they could not help everyone.

"We tried to evacuate people from the schools when Israel was going to hit them…but we couldn't help the disabled people…some of them on the second floor…because they were very hard to move…" Mohammad said.

"There are some very sad stories," he said.  However, Mohammad also has some more positive memories of being able to help in small and important ways.

"There was a man on a wheelchair, who was left on the ground for days after an Israeli strike hit and his chair was damaged," Mohammad said.  "I still remember the smile on his face when we got him a new chair."

Counting the dead

Dima Abu Saleem, 21, also felt motivated to volunteer during the Gaza war, with an ambulance service, the Palestinian Red Crescent.

"I didn’t want to stay at home, just feeling scared and reading the newspaper, twitter and facebook…" she said, as the news outlets would constantly update which areas in Gaza were under attack.

"I was very worried about my friends; social media was very scary," she said.

Dima's job with the Red Crescent was to take the dead and injured from areas and houses to hospitals.

"The first day I went to an area called Zaraa city, in the middle of Gaza, because there was a martyred resistance fighter in a house and we had to take him to hospital," she said. 

The job was not without its dangers.

"There was an Israeli ship in the sea that was firing at us and a lot of bombs around," she said.

Mohammad abu Qassem during an activity with Gazan children 
[photo supplied]
"We went to the house, and there was nothing there…" Dima continued, explaining that maybe a family member had already moved the body.  "Israeli planes were going to bomb the area so we had to leave."

Dima's work also involved writing lists of the dead in every area in Gaza.

"The war was very long and hard," she said.  "It was was in Ramadan – not drinking or eating during the day was very tiring in the war, and three rockets bombed the house next to mine."

Dima also noted the contrast between the 2014 war and previous Israeli attacks.

"The war was different…in my area, there was some bombardments in previous wars, but this time it was different, there were a lot of bombs!"

After the war, many Gazans continued to volunteer for their communities, in the wake of slow reconstruction and lack of support for the strip's residents.

"Volunteering made me a new person," Mohammad said.

"We made a program called ‘from hara [alley] to hara’,  where we went from area to area to offer social support and make cultural activities, such as cinema,"  he said.

Although Mohammad’s group has managed to help many in the short term, he feels that structural change, as well as an end of occupation is necessary to improve the situation in the blocked strip.

"Gaza needs a new Gaza.  Homes are destroyed and electricity and water are very bad", Mohammad said.

"We don't need more food…we need someone to let us catch the fish, not eat the fish."