Gaza Youth Yearn For Normalcy, Haunted By War Almost three-quarters of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are younger than 30. Most have never left the tiny, Hamas-ruled coastal territory, have never met an Israeli, and have never known a time when there wasn't a conflict outside their doorstep.

Gaza Youth Yearn For Normalcy, Haunted By War

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As we just heard, one of the questions facing negotiators is what to do about the Gaza Strip. This week, we're taking a closer look at life in Gaza, from the easing of Israel's blockade to the spreading influence of Hamas. And today, youth in Gaza. The tiny coastal strip has one of the highest birthrates in the world. Almost three-quarters of the Palestinians who live there are under the age of 30. Most have never left Gaza, never met an Israeli and for the youngest, never known a time without conflict.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro introduces us to three young people living in Gaza and the underground culture that they have been nurturing.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-one-year-old Mohammed al-Jahbir feels misunderstood. Okay, so he and his friends get together to parkour - a sport which involves flipping and jumping off structures what's the big deal?

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-JAHBIR: (Through Translator) People outside think we are backward or something here. When anything new comes out in Gaza, everyone is like, oh, wow, they do parkour? Oh, wow, they surf? It should be normal that we do these things here, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the search for normality in Gaza, he says, is a never-ending quest. Like many young people here, he dreams of leaving, but he's never set foot outside of Gaza's 140 square miles. He's never interacted with an Israeli that wasn't a soldier.

Mr. AL-JAHBIR: (Through Translator) Yeah, when I was young, I used to throw rocks at them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like most of the young people NPR spoke with, Mohammed doesn't believe that Israel wants a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians. And today's disaffected youth are tomorrow's indifferent adults. The worry is that the divide between Israelis and Palestinians has grown so large that it can never be bridged, especially by a generation that was brought up in conflict.

(Soundbite of crowd)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The acrobatic twisting and jumping of parkour feels subversive somehow. But still, his neighbors gather to watch Mohammed and his two friends do back flips off a wall.

In this traditional society, Palestinians - especially the Hamas movement's security forces - don't know what to make of them. He's been questioned a few times by police.

Mr. AL-JAHBIR: (Through Translator) A lot of people look at us strangely, when they see us jumping house to house, wall to wall, and the first thing they think is we are thieves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed says their training grounds are kind of weird.

Mr. AL-JAHBIR: (Through Translator) The only places we can practice is the cemetery or the former Jewish settlements in Gaza. Most of the buildings there have been demolished, and there are lots of things to jump off of.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gaza's young population has boomed in recent years. It's not unusual here to have seven or more siblings. But there are few opportunities. Eighty percent of Gazans get food assistance. Though firm figures are hard to come by, estimates say at least half the population is unemployed.

The attempt to escape these grim statistics comes in many forms.

(Soundbite of music)

Farther down the coast, at one of the refugee camps, another group of young men has formed Camp Breakerz. Guys stand in a circle while each one takes turns break-dancing. One member of the troupe dons a hard hat and spins upside down on the floor to the cheers of his peers.

(Soundbite of cheering)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Twenty-three-year-old Ahmed Ismael is one of the founding members of Camp Breakerz. His parents are from Gaza, but he grew up in Saudi Arabia. He moved back when he was 16. He hasn't been out since.

Both Israel and Egypt have restricted travel in and out of Gaza since a mini-civil war broke out between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement in 2007. That left Hamas in control of the coastal territory.

Ahmed immediately wants to set the record straight about the misconceptions he also feels outsiders have about Gaza's young people.

Mr. AHMED ISMAEL: Let me tell you something that annoy me so much. That all the people consider Gazan people, we are from Mars, you know? They don't imagine that we are normal people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We don't all follow Hamas, he says, or Fatah or any political party.

Mr. ISMAEL: I always say (bleep) them all. I don't care about them and their sick minds, you know? But people outside don't know this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ahmed doesn't break-dance anymore because, he says, an Israeli soldier bashed his knee. But he says he believes in peace when he thinks about it, which isn't often these days.

What preoccupies him is surviving. He's educated. He works as a nurse.

Mr. ISMAEL: I get a job now in a hospital, but it's better than nothing. The medical situation here is so bad. Until now, I didn't get paid from the government. This is maybe the ninth month I didn't get paid. It make me angry, but I can't do anything.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he has enough for his smokes and food. He was in love once. But she dumped him because he didn't have prospects.

MR. ISMAEL: She focused about money, about cars, about goals, about a big house, you know, and I'm nothing. Yes, I have my mind, I have my crew, I have my brothers, I have my friends, but she don't care about all this stuff.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ahmed said he's been depressed, but he insists he hasn't let him drag him down. He spends his free time now managing the crew. He also helps give dancing lessons to young kids in his refugee camp.

But not everyone channels their energy that way. At a cafe in Gaza City, I meet an ex-drug addict who refuses to give his name. Being caught with drugs carries the death penalty here in Gaza. He's 25 with slicked-back hair and hollow, haunted eyes.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He used to work for the Fatah-dominated security forces in Gaza, he says. During the fighting with Hamas in 2007, his cousin was killed right in front of him. Filled with grief, he took it out on his fiancee and ended their engagement. Then, his father who was diabetic died.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) I felt like I had a fire burning in my brain. I couldn't hold anything in my hand it was shaking so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For this young Palestinian, life turned even worse after Israel launched a war in Gaza in 2008. For someone already filled with anger and grief, he couldn't cope any longer.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) One of my friends, when he saw me in that state, offered me a pill. I got hooked. Instead of supporting my family, I was using the money to buy more tablets.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The drug was called Tramadol, an opiate derivative. It calms you down. Many young people here take it these days. It gets smuggled in through the tunnels beneath Egypt's border with Gaza.

According to the Gaza community mental health organization, some 40 percent of Gazans still suffer from symptoms relating to post-traumatic stress disorder. The young drug addict says that he tried to get help, but in the end, he found popping pills an easier answer.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) There are many young people here who have problems, and they don't know what to do about them. I was one of them. That's why I took drugs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's been clean now for several months. But still, he says, it's a struggle. He says he feels pessimistic about his future here. His life stretches out before him, one day after another, occasionally punctuated by violence, otherwise all the same.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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