I moved to the US from the West Bank in 2001, but sometimes I wonder: What would my life have been like if my family had not left?
As I stressed about what to wear to senior prom, my Palestinian friends worried about what remained of Ramallah after an Israeli invasion of the city.
When I was hearing back from American colleges about where I could go to school, many Palestinian students were unsure whether they would be able to attend college, whether roads or the Allenby Bridge would be open, and what the next stage in their lives would be.
While my younger brother was going on play-dates, swimming at the community pool, and reading Harry Potter, children in Gaza were witnessing the death of a close family member due to the conflict, being tear-gassed, or having their homes searched.
Today, I live a life of relative freedom, security, prosperity and opportunity, while most other Palestinians are living in confinement, peril, and utter poverty.
How do I reconcile the many opportunities and experiences I am able to enjoy with the reality most Palestinians live with?
If I had lived my entire life in Gaza, chances are I would not have been able to study at Georgetown, spend afternoons at a park, complain about long work hours and meet amazing people from all over the world. These opportunities have enhanced my ability to learn, develop and become a contributing member of society. For Palestinians, unfortunately these opportunities are not widely available.
If I were living in Gaza today, instead of traveling freely in the US and around the world, I would be locked in an area that is about twice the size of Washington DC.
Although Israel evacuated its illegal settlements in Gaza and the army is longer present inside, it is still the occupying power that controls airspace, entry and exit, and all trade and commerce. Gaza today is an open-air prison.
Can you imagine having family members living 25 miles away but not being able to visit them? That's the reality for Palestinians separated between the West Bank and Gaza.
Further, imagine that you don't even want to live in Gaza, but have been there for over 60 years as a refugee.
Many of the most promising Palestinian students from Gaza are accepted to colleges and universities around the world, including in the United States. However, because there is no American consular presence in Gaza, and Gazans are not allowed to travel to Israel or the West Bank, students are automatically prevented by Israel from interviewing for their visa.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said in his meeting with President Obama earlier this week: "we don't want to govern the Palestinians." Unfortunately, talk is cheap. Concrete actions count.
Today in Gaza, many Palestinian students must study under sporadically functioning streetlights to do homework at night.
Israel controls what is allowed in and out of Gaza, as determined by The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). An official list of items not allowed in is only available by phone, and is not written.
Israel has barely allowed anything to enter the coastal strip. 4000 buildings that were destroyed by Israel in January are still rubble. Since no building materials are allowed in, no reconstruction can occur.
Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass (an Israeli journalist who was recently arrested [and later released on bail] for being in Gaza) recently reported:
The few items merchants are allowed to trade in are divided into three categories: food, medicine and detergent. Everything else is forbidden -- including building materials (which are necessary to rehabilitate Gaza's ruins and rebuild its infrastructure), electric appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines, spare machine and car parts, fabrics, threads, needles, light bulbs, candles, matches, books, musical instruments, crayons, clothing, shoes, mattresses, sheets, blankets, cutlery, crockery, cups, glasses and animals. Tea, coffee, sausages, semolina, milk products in large packages and most baking products are forbidden. So are industrial commodities for manufacturing food products, chocolate, sesame seeds and nuts. The ban on toilet paper, diapers and sanitary napkins was lifted three months ago. A little more than a month ago, following a long ban, Israel permitted the import of detergents and soaps into Gaza. Even shampoo was allowed. But one merchant discovered that the bottles of shampoo he had ordered were sent back because they included conditioner, which was not on the list.
Hamas and Fatah are locked in a power struggle over Gaza, and have allowed their selfish motives and egos to trump their care for the Palestinian people. If you are a Fatah member in Gaza, above worrying about your life because of the Israeli closure, you must also worry about being attacked or targeted by Hamas because of your political beliefs or background.
I can't solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, I can say that through my experience, what has empowered me the most has been my education and the opportunities that have come from living in a place where I don't have to worry about whether pasta is banned, whether there is any more gas, and where I can be secure in knowing that that i will not be held in an open air prison. I am able to reach my potential and seek opportunities for the future. For the majority of Palestinians -- especially refugees -- this is not the case. It is crucial to empower the voices that beckon change and that wish to use education as a method of empowering the next generation of Palestinians to live in a secure and stable state.
As the "only real democracy in the Middle East," it sure is ironic that Israel locks 1.5 million people in an area twice the size of Washington DC and does not allow books or toys in. While this is done under the guise of security, it is difficult to believe that feeding a starving population and fulfilling their thirst for knowledge is an existential threat to the State of Israel.
Then again, maybe the Gazan refugee with a college degree from an American university is what Israel fears the most.