Gaza City. Our economic and political progress has hovered in the balance as Israel decrees that the crossings will remain closed until guarantees are given that their captive corporal, Gilad Shalit, is safe and sound. But since Hamas started insisting on what it calls ‘national demands' even that balance seems no longer on offer. As an independent Gazan who has lived through harrowing experiences, I confess that successive waves of Palestinians who fled to Gaza from Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars have been met with nothing but abject failure on all sides. Israel has failed to provide for its legitimate security needs by allowing the emergence of a viable Gazan economy; Hamas has failed to deliver the better life it promised would be ours once it combined its anti-corruption stance with toughness on Israel; and Fatah has completely failed to create the prototype for a Palestinian state. Many Gazans like myself, not aligned to any political faction, can only conclude that on all sides we are the victims of politics.
As daily life in Gaza steadily deteriorates, it seems inadequate to depict our conditions in a few lines on a page. A little more than two months after the Operation Cast Lead offensive launched throughout the Gaza Strip on Dec 27 2008 left some 1,300 Gazans killed and many more injured, nearly everything is worse than it was. Gazans are now facing an even tighter Israeli security cordon that has increasingly restricted exports since their ‘withdrawal'. Tons of vegetables and fruit are now rotting before reaching market. Many factories in core industries have ground to a halt. Israel is still stopping Gaza's fishermen from fishing off their coast. Gaza is not only cut off economically, but physically and socially.
Fadi N. Skaik is a 25-year-old student with a BA in English from the University of Palestine and a translation diploma from Al-Azhar University, both based in Gaza. He writes for local magazines, blogs and websites such as virtualgaza.com, and has founded three English language clubs since 2005.Meanwhile, the crisis festers and deepens. Notwithstanding the poverty induced by Israel's stringent blockade, Gazans are trying to make a living by any means they can muster. We are inventing ingenious ways of overcoming fuel shortages, for example: some old workshops are now repairing old kerosene stoves made of yellow copper, so that the residents can once again have cooked food. The 69-year-old Saleh Al-Astal who lives in Khanyounis in southern Gaza Strip and repairs these stoves, used to run his workshop once a week: but a roaring trade since the start of the blockade now prevents him from closing even at lunchtime. And when Gazans run out of kerosene, they will still have a plentiful supply of lamps, heaters and stoves. Others have tunnelled underground to survive; they smuggle heavy diesel into Gaza from Egypt, and three litres of diesel with a small spoon of salt will keep the kerosene stoves burning very effectively. This combination was discovered by our neighbour, Hamdi Al-Sousi, proud owner of a popular restaurant. Bakeries have also been using Hamdi's technique to circumvent the lack of cooking gas and flour invariably turned back at the Israeli border with Gaza. Other bakeries are using the traditional wood-fire. Tunnels are now considered as the main source of supply for animals, flowers and shoes, despite the high death rate among tunnel construction workers killed by tunnel collapses or jetfighters. There is no alternative.
I have a retail outfit for shoes in the Al-Sheikh Redwan neighbourhood of Gaza city. Daily, I receive visits from tunnel merchants who are total strangers: they became merchants overnight when many of them lost their entire livelihoods. But, they tell me, they now have a chance to make a much more decent living. Since they know nothing about the art of marketing products, they tend to make up for it by telling anecdotes about the latest hair-raising situations in the tunnels.
Children are also doing their bit for their families. One 11-year-old boy, Ibrahim Morad, whose father is jobless due to the blockade, has started burning the candle at both ends. After five hours at school, he goes to a certain factory in Gaza for two or three packets of chocolate and biscuits that are cheaper than in the supermarkets to sell on the streets. I used to stop him for my chocolate bars and eventually I gave him 2 shekels, "around $0.5" to add to his savings. He told me: "My life is packed! Every day I go to school from 7:00 am till midday, and then I make for crowded areas to sell to until it is 7:00 pm. After that, I do my homework and go and get my beauty sleep!"
Coping with devastation leaves people in the Gaza Strip relatively unconcerned about the shortage of cooking gas: they heat tea and milk on wood-burning stoves instead. But in the chilly weather it gets more difficult. Carpets have been too pricey, so people resort to rugs or mats to keep warm. When dairies and other factories have been flattened, and refrigerators fail due to electricity cuts, people start salting foods for longer storage periods. Housewives are busy rediscovering old fermentation methods that will keep their households in dairy produce.
Such primitive ways and means are far from permanently sustainable, however, since the frequent disruption of the supply of electricity and fuel undermines medical devices, refrigeration, operating-room lighting and other essential systems directly. Despite Hamas' daily calls and cautions given to any merchants who might be tempted to exploit such dilemmas for their own profit, the blockade and the siege have led to rising prices in Gaza. Hamas has set up emergency freefone numbers for people who find themselves being fleeced by profiteers to report them. However, Gazans complain that the practice is spreading day by day. They bitterly protest at shortages and rising prices in the supply of common commodities such as gasoline, salt, sugar, baby milk, cigarettes, coffee, butter, clothes, electronics and other basic life requirements. And they call for stricter measures to be taken against the ‘black marketeers'. Hamas say they are maintaining a zero tolerance approach to practices that are against Islam and its laws.
Recently, something surprising happened on my way home. It's a common assumption here that taxi drivers know Gaza's every lane like the back of their hand. However, the man I stopped didn't recognise my destination. He just muttered "Itlaa", "get in'. As we drove off, he asked me for directions. He explained that he was not originally a taxi driver but was now obliged to take on a shift with his cousin's car. He had been working as an employee in the Palestinian National Authority since 1998. Since then, he hasn't been able to access his regular salary. So, his cousin forced him to take a decision, "to be a taxi driver or not to be a taxi driver?" "I gave in," he said in disgust.
Caught between two governments, one in the Gaza Strip headed by Mr. Ismail Haneya and another in the West Bank headed by Mr. Salam Fayyad, Gazans who are on the payroll of the West Bank simply don't get paid if there is a budget deficit. Other Gazans, however, fall victim between the two governments; they live in complete penury without any aid since Israel only allows limited amounts of aid to enter the territories.
In the last days of the Egyptian-brokered-negotiations, when it seems the Islamists had hardened their stance and made extreme demands, Israel's outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that the Jewish state would not accept any terms Hamas could offer for a prisoner swap. In response to that, Ezzedine Al-Qassam, Hamas' military wing warned Israel in a statement, "We place the entire responsibility for blocking a deal on the enemy government". This only escalated the tension and led to the capture of some more high-ranking Hamas officials in the West Bank, adding yet more insult to injury. After John Ging, director of UNRWA operations in Gaza, expressed alarmed at the shortage of basic food commodities resulting from the closure of the Karni commercial crossing by the Israeli authorities, generous donations again began to flow in from European and Arab donors. Summit follows summit in Qatar or Sharm el-Sheikh. But still Israel insists on a halt to reconstruction, and the ongoing rift between Hamas and Fatah only adds to the delay. Gazans are bewildered, living from one day to the next without knowing what will happen.
Photographs by Sameh A. Habeeb
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