Life in the world’s largest open-air prison

An Irishwoman working for the UN in Gaza: ‘I never expected to live in a conflict zone’

Ruth Harpur is originally from Meath, but moved to Dublin in 2015. She now lives in Gaza, in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt), where she works as an Assistant Projects Officer with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

Had you asked me one year ago where I expected to be living now, an active conflict zone would definitely not have been on my list. Last year, I was signing an apartment lease in Brussels with a friend during brunch. A year later, I'm in an armoured car going to work in the world's largest open air prison.

In 2020, I graduated with a MSc in International Development from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. To be successful in international development, field experience is essential, so I was fortunate to be chosen for an Assistant Projects Officer post with UNRWA.

I moved to Gaza in November 2021 on an Irish Aid-funded contract. I wasn't sure what to expect, I was excited for the opportunity, but scared of the unknown. The media shows Gaza as shell-shocked, with little infrastructure; the distant hum of gun fire, punctuated by rockets launching in the background are similar to the images coming out of Ukraine. Honestly, that's not the Gaza I've come to know. Gaza is a thriving city, albeit overcrowded, with organised chaos describing its traffic, but it is rich with culture, generous people, and exceptional sunsets.


Gaza is a 365 square kilometre strip of land with a population of 2.1 million (1.4 million are refugees) and an unemployment rate of more than 50 per cent according to the quarterly unemployment report by the Palestinian Central Bureau. In the third quarter of 2021 (July-September), Gaza's unemployment rate was 50.2 per cent.

Surrounded by 55km of eight-metre-high walls, it was named "World's Largest Open-Air Prison" by Amnesty International. That prison is now my home.

Gaza's living conditions are challenging. I often think of getting a glass of water at home or using a water fountain at the gym. In Gaza, these simple activities are luxuries. Gaza has no functioning desalination plant as it was destroyed in the conflict, thus 98 per cent of water is undrinkable and salty. At home, I remember the hassle of power cuts during storms and how two hours without power felt like an eternity as you waited for the ESB to show up. In Gaza, power comes in blocks of eight hours on and eight hours off every day, even when winter temperatures fall to a chilly 3°. A colleague told me her family had to sleep in blankets by the fireplace then.

It also took time to adjust to security restrictions. Despite the fragile ceasefire in place since the 2021 May conflict, UN international staff’s movements are restricted and we must be transported in armoured vehicles. We have places we can and can’t go, designated walking routes and must report all movements. It is difficult having to constantly account for your whereabouts.

In addition, leaving Gaza at the Erez Crossing is fiendishly complicated. As UN staff, we cross by car through five checkpoints - two Palestinian and three Israeli. It’s a long process that can take hours. It is tougher for the very few Palestinians who occasionally have permission to leave as they might have to wait hours before going through security checks at the Israeli side. Exiting Gaza it is shocking to see the electrified barbed wire, the walls, security towers and the heavily-armed Israeli Security Forces. It’s a far cry from a weekend in Galway with friends.

Even after five months, I’m not sure when I will adjust to a Sunday to Thursday working week. I am still surprised that Saturday has become my Sunday! I see my friends back home out and about as I climb into bed at 22:30 for a 06:45 start.

Social life is very different from at home. It used to be meeting in town at a bar, now it’s in a security-cleared restaurant that serves no alcohol (alcohol is illegal here). Being the youngest expat, settling in initially proved difficult, as most UN international staff are in their mid-30s or older. However, I’ve learned a lot from their experiences. Having such an incredible team made settling in a lot easier.

Working for UNRWA is amazing. I love seeing projects, especially those in schools. I particularly enjoy trying to speak my limited Arabic with students, as they giggle at my attempts and reply in very good English. The Palestinians I work with are incredible; they all try to teach me Arabic while introducing me to Palestinian cuisine. They feel more like a little family. They even got me a cake for my birthday!

I never thought much about Palestinian cuisine, but I can now confirm Gaza has the best falafel in the world. Just recently, I mentioned never trying it and jaws dropped. I was immediately sent out by my team to get some. It was a game changer. Gaza also has fantastic clay pot tagines, incredible hummus and the delicious Arabic dessert knafeh. All things considered, I am now enjoying living in Gaza which is full of welcoming people, some of whom I have converted to Barry's Tea drinkers which is quite an achievement.

Ruth Harpur is at @memoirs_of_gaza

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