The place seemed daunting, even frightening. So Meghan Fitzgerald had to go.
During an internship with United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in Jordan in 2014, Meghan witnessed the last large-scale Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip – 51 days and 2,200 Palestinians dead. “It gave me a new perspective,” she says, “and it made me want to learn the truth of the situation.”
So the master’s student went home, finished her MPH, made connections, refined her dissertation topic for her PhD, figured out the logistics and a made plans to study the influence of political violence on intimate partner violence in tiny Gaza.
“There’s an Arabic saying that goes something like, ‘He who has his hands in the fire is different than he who has his hands in the water,’” she says. “You can’t just read about Gaza and understand the situation, especially as much of the media is biased in its coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli situation. I had to go there. The seed was planted.”
On the ground
Meghan spent two months in Gaza – a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel that is 25 miles wide, 6 miles long and home to just under 2 million people. One of the most densely populated areas of the world, Gaza is in its fiftieth year of Israeli occupation and has experienced a 10-year blockade by Israeli military. Hamas governs locally, and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) governs the West Bank and Gaza, which means that people are often pulled and pushed by political decisions from multiple parties and suffer the burden of political conflict, Meghan says.
Here’s how: The economy is crippled, 44 percent are unemployed, 40 percent live below the poverty line, and people earn 45 percent of the salary they should be earning. Since the 2014 war, only 12 percent of homes have been rebuilt, which means that many people live in damaged, unsafe structures. Food is taxed by both Hamas and the PNA, making it extremely expensive. There are fuel shortages, so many people resort to using horses and donkeys to get around. There’s an electricity crisis, so power is sporadic and often available for only about three hours, and often at night.
More than 450 children are imprisoned, many of whom are tortured and denied their rights under international law. Two-thirds of Palestinians have been detained in their lifetime. Armed drones are a common sight and sound. The only once-flowing river has been dammed and contaminated. Fishermen are harassed by the Israeli Navy. The sewage treatment facility is barely operational, and 12 million tons of waste are dumped into the sea each year. Air strikes and bombings are regular. International aid is largely stalled by blockades.
“Gaza feels like a paradox of culture, beauty, warmth and humanity superimposed on the terrible sadness that underlies everything,” Megan says.
Despite these immense challenges, Meghan found the people of Gaza to be warm and generous, resilient and in good humor. The area supports nine colleges and universities funded by international organizations, and the literacy rate is 96 percent. Graduation rates are high, although employment is low.
Family is at the center of culture, followed by food, music and religion. The latter, Meghan says, is how many can sustain such harsh conditions and remain resilient, especially women. “However,” she cautions, “we shouldn’t let their resilience distract us from the injustice of the situation. We should work to resolve the cause of current conditions in Gaza.”
And although family provides strength and support, Meghan found it can also be a barrier to women in need of help. Women may not speak up about violence in order to protect their family’s reputation. Some are silent because of fear of losing children or income – or retaliation.
“Gaza feels like a paradox of culture, beauty, warmth and humanity superimposed on the terrible sadness that underlies everything,” Meghan says.
A way forward
Women in Gaza perceive the major causes of intimate partner violence to be the economic situation and the electricity crisis, two factors directly related to the larger political situation stemming from the Israeli occupation.
“This structural violence suffered daily in Gaza, combined with increasing poor mental health and other forms of violence, are products of this protracted situation of political violence unique to Gaza and serve to exacerbate the devastation, the largest burden falling to women,” Meghan says.
“Thus, it is of utmost importance that research is carried out that highlights this pathway leading from the political context to violence within relationships and families. It’s not rocket science, but so little research on intimate partner violence in the Middle East is focusing on the effect of the larger political situation on this issue and on women’s health in general. There are many NGOs and international organizations on the ground working to provide relief to women, but these are no good if we’re not looking upstream to tackle the root causes of violence. This is the beauty of health policy research – it can provide direct evidence on the effect of policies on population health and provide the tool with which to push for political change and promote social justice.
“In order to leave the world a better place, we each have to use the skills at our disposal in the unique way that we can,” Meghan says. “Research is what I have to offer the people of Gaza, and my greatest hope is that it could someday contribute toward alleviating their tragic situation. In the least, it will elevate their voices to the academic realm, and this is certainly a start.
“OSU has my intellect, and Gaza now has my heart. I won’t stop working until dignity and well-being are restored to the Palestinians.”
She walks the talk
Meghan volunteers with the Corvallis Palestine Solidarity (CPS) group and has done so since 2014. This group raises awareness and provides education about Palestinians in the community.
Meghan was part of the Western Physicians for Social Responsibility delegation to Gaza in 2016. After, she brought the CPS and the college’s Center for Global Health together to organize a week of events called Human Dignity Worldwide. It included professors at Islamic University, public health professionals at grassroots organizations, and the director of Health Programs at UNRWA.