Don's Diary: Rescuing childhoods in Gaza

February 7, 2003

Breaking news of a suicide bombing at our destination in Tel Aviv ripples down the plane. This incident interrupts a period of several weeks of relative calm in Israel. It is my first visit to Israel and Palestine since 1994, shortly after the signing of the peace agreement, and I have a sense of stepping into significant uncertainty.

Meet staff of Save the Children Fund and the Catholic Relief Services to discuss plans to develop safe play areas across the West Bank and Gaza. The idea is to provide children with respite from the all-consuming conflict. I am working with Maryanne Loughry from Oxford to evaluate the impact of these facilities on the wellbeing of children and their families. All staff are committed, but exasperated at the constraints on their movement. One worker has spent several hours making her way across numerous checkpoints from a West Bank town less than 90 unimpeded minutes away.

Considerable grappling with logistics. We are using local research partners in Bethlehem and Gaza, but cannot get them together in any location because of travel restrictions. Consider the possibility that getting them over to the UK for a day's planning meeting might be easier than finding a venue accessible to both within the country. If they were under 35, even that option would be unavailable to us as all overseas travel is banned under this age limit.

Meeting in Bethlehem is postponed because of the imposition of a curfew. Spend the day in the hotel trying to plan a flexible research strategy given current conditions.

Leave early for Gaza. Our driver drops us at the edge of the Erez border crossing. Travel across three checkpoints and 800m of barren concrete on foot without incident. Border guards, who are barely post-pubescent, remind me of my teenage children back in Edinburgh.

We are picked up in a misty no-man's land by an SCF vehicle to visit a site for a planned safe play area in Beit Hamoun. Local parents talk of their fears for the brutalisation of their children with the regular incursions by Israeli Defence Forces and the bulldozing of homes.

Freshly painted signs of youths with Kalashnikovs at the side of the road portray local martyrs to the Palestinian cause and reveal the complexity of the situation we are entering armed with our hopes for childhood resilience.

Bethlehem curfew lifted, so race across to University of Bethlehem to meet with our West Bank research partner. The university forecourt has the buzz of a lively campus.

Back in Jerusalem for our wrap-up meeting with SCF and CRS colleagues. By the end, the need for a rigorous research strategy and programming pragmatism appear to have been accommodated.

Explore the blocks of East Jerusalem nearest our hotel in the late afternoon. Have become far more confident in the past five days, so decide to take a mint tea at a roadside cafe watching the sun go down. Police vehicle screeches to halt, armed officers leap out, a loud hailer is removed from the back of the car. Confidence misplaced? Police march into the café and return shortly - not with a detainee but a tray of falafel for the local station. Some appetites are universal.

Alastair Ager is professor of applied psychology and director, Centre for International Health Studies, at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh.

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