Middle East

Gaza: What does the future hold for the children?

gaza beach 17 August Image copyright Jonny Hallam/BBC
Image caption The conflict is the most deadly military operation to have taken place in Gaza since the second Intifada

For children in Gaza, living through war must seem like an habitual part of life. Is it possible to imagine what the future may hold for them?

A day will come when the area around the seaside hotel we use in Gaza will be flooded with tourists, and they will marvel at the distant horrors of the past.

It has happened on the Mediterranean before - look at Sicily and Tunisia after World War Two - and one day it will happen here. But it will not be any day soon.

Tourists will find Gaza waiting. The half-finished building next door already has signs offering pizza and ice cream, even though there's no pizza, no ice cream and no-one to buy them anyway.

Nature has certainly done its bit. Nowhere is evening more beautiful. The sun smears the surface of the sea with copper-coloured light as though it had skidded across the waves and come to a halt on the horizon. It is at this time of day that the half-built building teems with life.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The United Nations says it is sheltering more than 250,000 internally displaced persons in their Gaza schools

Refugees from other parts of Gaza are living there, one family to a room. They probably calculated Israel would not bomb a building next to a hotel full of foreigners.

The adults are quietly impressive. Women scurry between the entrances to different staircases on the hot, flat roof carrying huge kettles of boiling water. At the sound of naval gunfire they barely raise an eyebrow or spill a drop.

The children fizz with energy and curiosity, singing out their names across the gap between the buildings and demanding to know ours.

They quickly learn to wait until we are on air using the balcony's portable satellite dish, before shouting across. They know that our desperate requests for quiet then have to be mimed, much to their amusement.

I find myself worrying what the future holds for them.

Gaza is cursed by history and geography as surely as it is blessed by nature.

If you are a six-year-old in Gaza, you have already lived through three separate wars - the ugly and brutal confrontations with Israel which flared in 2008, 2012 and again this year. It is as though Gaza is a kind of junction box where the dysfunctional neural wiring of the Middle East fused a long time ago.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption At present, the UN puts the current death toll of Operation Protective Edge at 1,975

British imperial forces seized Gaza from the Turks in 1917 during the closing stages of World War One, one of those victories that made the Holy Land Britain's prize - and its problem.

Gaza was first bombed from the air 97 years ago in a grim and dangerous overture to a century which is ending as it began.

Israeli tanks first appeared here in 1956 as part of the disaster of the Suez crisis. Although Israel returned the land to Egypt the following year.

In the Six Day War of 1967 Israel came back and has occupied Gaza - or controlled life inside it - ever since.

Just as Gaza appears to have bent in every hot, historical wind to blow across the deserts here, it now seems that almost every crisis elsewhere in the modern Middle East makes life a little worse.

Gaza is run by the Islamist militant organisation Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

At one point, Hamas appeared to be navigating the treacherous cross-currents of the Arab Spring effortlessly. It seemed able to count, at different points, on the support of Syria, Egypt and Iran - all powerful regional players.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption An Israel air strike that appeared to target four boys playing on a Gaza beach sparked worldwide condemnation

Now, through a combination of misjudgement and misfortune, it can count on none of them.

This is a desperate time for Hamas.

Without allies - and especially without a regime in Egypt prepared to turn a blind eye to weapons smuggling - the organisation suddenly seems friendless.

It does not have enough money to pay the salaries of government workers in Gaza and will struggle to replace the thousands of rockets it has fired at Israel in recent weeks.

In times of peace it has no diplomatic cards to play against the Israeli government. When violence flares, as it has done this month, it can at least demand concessions in return for agreeing to stop again.

These confrontations are hopelessly asymmetrical. Many of Hamas's rockets are out-of-date or home-made, compared with Israel's powerful and sophisticated weapons.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Damage to infrastructure in Gaza has been catastrophic: a power plant, schools and hospitals were hit

And yet, decisive victory seems to elude Israel, just as it eludes Hamas. The fighting will probably end in ways which are ambiguous and unsatisfactory, just as it has in the past.

That will be tough on the civilians of southern Israel, who will almost certainly find themselves running for their air-raid shelters again in future.

But it will be tougher still for those children on the roof next door. They have no air-raid shelters and very little chance of escaping to the wider world as long as Israel and Egypt maintain strict controls on all movement across Gaza's borders.

So these thoughts do not end with some neat aphorism which offers a little hope for the future. You just wonder how long it will be before those children, who have lived through three wars, find themselves living through a fourth.

And you wonder what will become of them.

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