IBBY Statement Regarding the Current Situation in

Tuesday 22 July 2014

IBBY Statement Regarding the Current Situation in Gaza

The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) was established shortly after the close of World War II. IBBY’s founder, Jella Lepman, believed that books could build bridges of understanding and peace between people. The children needed to know what all good readers know: you are not alone; others have experiences, feelings and needs just like you do, and there is a whole world out there you know nothing about. The children of Gaza are trapped in a life that revolves around hate and oppression.

Since 2008 IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) has been supporting two new children’s libraries in the Gaza Strip. One library is situated in the northern community of Beit Hanoun near the Israeli border. The other is in the south in the South in the town of Rafah, close to the border crossing with Egypt. The funding for the libraries came from the great American children’s author Katherine Paterson and her family foundation. The books selected by IBBY experts in the region took months to arrive. The librarians had to be trained long distance. People from the region could not visit Gaza and the residents of the Gaza Strip were forbidden by the Israelis to travel for their training.

But they did manage to open at last. And to re-open after the invasion of Gaza, even though some of the young users were killed.

Reports from our libraries were encouraging but no one from IBBY had actually ever had the chance to visit them. Finally in that hopeful but brief moment known as the Arab Spring there was an opening. In 2013 a small IBBY delegation travelled to the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing and finally crossed over into Gaza. IBBY’s President, President of the IBBY

Foundation, the Executive Director, and the head of our Palestinian section took this exceptional opportunity of seeing those libraries with our own eyes. They exceeded our expectations.

We found Gaza a quite unexpected place. At that moment the tunnels were still operating. Qatar had provided construction materials to rebuild the smashed buildings and crippled infrastructure destroyed during the invasion. There was plenty of food on store shelves. It all seemed much better organized and less poverty-stricken than we had imagined.

But this first impression of peace and order quickly started to shred as we talked to the families and children who used the Rafah library. The older kids work in the fields after school to help to support their families. But the library loomed large in their lives. Whether after school or work children would walk often as far as a kilometre to get to the library. When they get there they have options.

Some choose to play football in a small enclosed yard that surrounds the library. Or they may go inside to read books, take turns on the sole computer, sing songs, write and illustrate stories, or just sit around chatting. When they are in the library they are safe. No one can come in and try to recruit them. They are free to choose their own books and write and say what they feel. Amazingly enough they reported that their favourite book was Cinderella! The children and their parents waited six hours for us to cross the border so that they could tell us how important this place had become for them. It was their sanctuary – the world outside the library simply wasn’t safe.

The children in Beit Hanoun in the north were less easy-going, more nervous even though their parents told us that the kids were less agitated and restless when they came to the library. They told us a lot about how frightening it was to hear drones overhead because they all knew someone who had been killed in a supposedly “surgical, targeted” strike aimed only at militants. These kids had experienced the brunt of two invasions of Gaza. They claimed the second shorter invasion was worse because they knew what was in store for them. There are no bomb shelters in Gaza. Should one stay home when bombs started to fall or go out? They had friends and neighbours who died doing both.

Today these children’s worst fears have come true. The borders are closed tight again. Bombing has resumed. Rafah is being targeted. An invasion is possible. But the people living in Gaza cannot become refugees. They have nowhere to go. Nowhere to hide their children when they are being bombed. Even Syrians, terrible though their situation might be, can flee and seek refuge. Children and their families in Gaza are locked in while war is being made upon them. And as is always in true in a war, children are dying daily in disproportionate numbers.

Gaza residents are invisible. Anything, apparently, can be done to them with impunity. There is a stated policy justifying targeted killings, firing into houses, knowing that there will be “collateral damage”. Where else in the world is this considered acceptable? Does this not qualify as a crime against humanity?

IBBY’s libraries are now closed, who knows for how long. The children who relied on them as a safe space where they could read and write and play are forced to live in fear at home. A young man that we met on the bus as we were leaving Gaza was on his way to Egypt to meet his mother for the first time in 15 years. She had gone to visit relatives and never been allowed back leaving him with an indifferent father and a not very enthusiastic stepmother. He was unbearably excited at the idea of seeing his mother again, but terrified that an arbitrary Egyptian official wouldn’t let him in. He asked us why the Israelis hated him when he had never done anything to them. One wonders where he is right now.

With this brief, but first-hand impression of Gaza and its children, I hope that you will be moved enough to urge your heads of governments to listen to IBBY. 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This offensive by the government of Israel is abhorrent to all people, especially to the children of Palestine.

Ahmad Redza Ahmad Khariruddin, President of IBBY, Malaysia.
Patricia Aldana is the President of the IBBY Foundation, member of the Order of Canada.
Jehan Helou, President of IBBY Palestine
Liz Page, IBBY Executive Director, Switzerland

11 July 2014

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