North Africa, West Asia

Gaza's dark night

Palestinians want to leave. Nothing else. All Palestinians. Because there is not even drinking water anymore in Gaza. Even the Hamas guys in charge just want to leave.

Francesca Borri
27 July 2015
Three Hamas leaders killed in the Gaza Strip. Ibrahim Khader/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Three Hamas leaders killed in the Gaza Strip. Ibrahim Khader/Demotix. All rights reserved.

No use telling him I'm not Muslim. I'm not even Palestinian. And that I've got thyphoid fever again anyway, I am sick, and so the Qur'an says I am allowed to break the Ramadan fast. And it's no use, actually, telling him anything, because the Hamas policeman I am stopped by for three hours, charged with carrying a bottle of water in my bag, wears neither a uniform nor a badge. 

I realise he is a member of Hamas only because I am in Gaza, and it's no use trying to talk to him, to explain my reasons: he doesn't talk. He dictates. And in the end, he pockets a hundred dollars and forgives my sins.

This is Hamas today. They run checkpoints just to shine a flashlight in your face and make sure the man driving is your father or your husband. They go on patrol to verify that you don't light up a cigarette, don't drink a beer while watching football on TV. They keep an eye on what you write.

In the meantime, all around, a year after the last war, it's hunger and despair. Out of 146,000 destroyed or damaged homes, not a single one has been rebuilt. There are still 100,000 displaced. At this pace, the UN estimates that it will take thirty years for Gaza to be as it was before. That is, for seventy percent of its population to be under the breadline once again.

Over 51 days, Israel dropped an amount of explosive equivalent to the Hiroshima atomic bomb on the Gaza Strip, 141 square miles each containing about 5,000 people, with an average age of fifteen. The remains of Shejaiya, the most heavily targeted area, are patched up with rags, metal sheets, cardboard. Jute. Wood planks. Or with nothing.

Palestinians continue to live in these homes broken up by artillery fire. You walk, and instead of windows, of doors, you see tables, couches, fridges: you see the inside of flats, the families with glasses of tea. They live like that, on these sloping floors, the cracked pillars, amid rubble mixed with unexploded devices and slivers of asbestos, under these ceilings that are about to collapse over their heads.

Abu Nidal, like countless others, sits on a carpet laid out on sand and dust, barefoot, his shoes tidily lined up next to the missing door, and looks out of a mortar hole, at a kid who is striving to no avail to turn a piece of paper into a kite. Abu Nidal lived here with his wife and sons—ten people in all—and after paying 2,000 dollars to rent a new house for one year, he's now broke. He doesn't have a single penny, and lives on handouts, "not on solidarity," he specifies, "I've met more journalists than NGOs."

His sons are mechanics. Their workshop was on the ground floor, and its leftovers hang from the trees, a mudguard, two tires. A battery stuck in the branches. He sits here all day, next to this flight of stairs that goes nowhere. "Should the UN come and find nobody."

And yet you walk, and some of the buildings' plaster looks instead freshly painted. Because the only vibrant sector of the economy here is the black market in cement. Palestinians are entitled to one tonne each, for 20 shekels, or 5 euros. But it's not enough for fixing it all up, and it gets quickly sold on, for about 50 euros, depending on quality.

Just over one million tonnes entered from Israel, but most valued are the 8,000 tonnes that entered from Egypt, because they are good for tunnels. There are no tunnels anymore, though. They have been destroyed mostly by Egypt, not by Israel, by General Sisi, a staunch enemy of Islamists, before the war. Ninety percent of the tunnels.

And now Hamas is in trouble: smuggling was its main source of revenue. It's somehow unfair to call it 'smuggling'. It was regulated by a supervision commission, with a complex system of fees and hundreds of tunnels, sometimes run directly by Hamas, sometimes by contractors. Each of them was worth an average of 100,000 euros per month.

Smuggling covered seventy percent of the budget of Gaza. And now Hamas has also lost many of its generous friends in the Gulf, all focused on other hot spots. On Syria, Iraq. And it has tense relations with Iran, its major backer, because of its cautious stance on Bashar al-Assad. And so it is scraping together whatever it can by imposing taxes. Because Gaza, truthfully, is now under siege only on paper. If we speak of goods movement, nearly everything is available. Even Nutella. And everything enters from Israel.

This means, however, that not only is everything purchased at high prices—at Israel's prices, rather than Turkey's, or India's—but also that everything is subject to a triple layer of taxes: Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. Since last year, in theory there has been only one government here, but, as usual, Hamas rules Gaza and Fatah the West Bank. But Hamas couldn't pay its 40,000 civil servants any longer. The result is that prices are on the rise. Hamas charges about ten percent on food, 25 percent on cars, 100 percent on cigarettes. In the end a Fiat Panda in Gaza costs almost 20,000 euros.

Even though unemployment peaked at 43 percent, and the average salary is 300 euros, even though two thirds of Palestinians live on humanitarian aid. There are jeeps with tinted windows here, or donkeys.

The true strength of Hamas has always been the weakness of Fatah. Since the West Bank opted for the UN, for negotiations with Israel, Hamas, with its rockets, turned into the hallmark of resistance. Of dignity. But it has achieved nothing but death and rubble. And three wars later, nobody here has any doubt any more: Hamas is Israel's best ally. It plays into its hands.

Aya* works as field researcher for a leading human rights organization. She says,

"Hamas doesn't govern. It's neither Islamic nor anything. If you are found drinking wine, you end up in jail for one month, or maybe six: there's no certainty, because there isn't the Shari'a law here, there's no law whatsoever, there's only the will of Hamas. There is only a gang that makes money with the siege—yesterday with tunnels, today with trade. Hamas claims to be broke, without a penny for its civil servants. For reconstruction. But it's no secret: the only reconstruction it cares about is that of tunnels. And of its arsenal. And for Israel this is perfect. One, two years, and it will bomb it all again. It will destroy it all again,"

"And it will all start again," she says. The last war ended with the same agreement of the previous war.

Because in the end, while the world's attention is on Gaza, Israel's attention seems to be elsewhere. "Israel aims at the land of the West Bank, not of Gaza. Quite the opposite. By getting rid of Gaza, it would get rid of 1.8 million Arabs. And it could annex the West Bank without endangering its Jewish majority. In time, we, the Palestinians, will be the settlers of an Israeli West Bank," says one of the top negotiators.

In the last years, however, Mustafa Barghouti hasn't been busy with Israel. His main task has been to mediate between Hamas and Fatah. The Legislative Council hasn't convened since 2007 and Mahmoud Abbas governs basically alone from his presidential palace. His mandate expired in 2010. And everybody agrees: only new elections can overcome this standstill.

But everybody is afraid, afraid of civil strife between Hamas and Fatah. While this is the only topic of discussion, while Fatah rounds up Hamas militants, and Hamas rounds up Fatah militants, the former security chief of the Palestinian Authority, Mohammed Dahlan, now a businessman with an estimated net worth of 120 million dollars, hands out rolls of bills. Gulf-based charities he is close to gift 5,000 dollars to newly married couples, 5,000 dollars to the war victims' families. Whoever you are, whatever you need—5,000 dollars.

And in some way, it's true, Mohammed Dahlan is new compared to Hamas and Fatah: he is the first Palestinian leader with his own militia. "Nobody here supports Hamas. But there is no political activism anymore," says M. M., one of the masterminds of the March 15 movement, that in 2011, in the footsteps of Tunisia and Egypt, filled the streets of Palestine asking for democracy. And that in a rare instance of national unity, was swept away by Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in Ramallah. 

"All our energy is dried up by survival. Also because any struggle is doomed to fail without the West Bank. And from the West Bank the only show of solidarity, during the war, was a donation of coffins." 

You won't read all this in newspapers, though. And not only because Hamas follows journalists' every step. Prevents us from moving freely, talking freely.

"You all write about the same things. The parkour kids, the surf school. Those who painted their homes with bright colours, those who carved a swimming pool out of the rubble. The best coffee of Gaza. Bullshit. You sell this idea that to exist is to resist. But it's not, at all," says Ahmed, 28, documentary maker.

"An entire generation now doesn't know anything but Gaza, but these four streets. Violence, destitution. Kids who say: I am five years and three wars old. How will they face Israel, its sophisticated means of domination?" he says. "They will fry falafel all their life, nothing more."

One of those typical stories we love is for example Tamara Abu Ramadan. She is 19, and she is studying violin via youtube tutorials. The little Paganini of Gaza, bypassing the siege. Yet she is the first to admit bluntly, "On youtube you don't really understand anything." Her story is not one of resilience. It is a story of misery.

"You come here just once, but we know each other, and we know how deeply we have changed. How we have given up. Because we see no future whatsoever. You spend your nights in the four cafés on the beach and you write that Gaza is vibrant and full of life. Here there's no life. We are empty shells. Your readers don't like sad stories, but not to ruin your readers' dinner, you keep silent, while we starve."

Palestinians want to leave. Nothing else. All Palestinians. Because there is not even drinking water anymore in Gaza, only salt water, sea water, you feel sticky all day, every days—for years. Sometimes, in reply to a rocket, Israel bombs. But amid the blood of Syria, of Yemen, it makes no headlines. It makes nothing, just a couple of tweets.

Even the Hamas guys who are in charge just want to leave. They beg for a visa to Italy. And in the evening, to forget, they get a pill of Tramadol, a painkiller for dogs used as a sort of ecstasy. And that is officially prohibited. They would arrest you.

Sharif is 36 and has four children. He once owned a small auto parts retail. But he was subject to extortions of all sorts, because he's close to Fatah. He's been jailed three times. Three times he's tried to reach Europe with a fake visa, and he's been exposed and sent back. Even though the main obstacle for Palestinians is not the visa. It's Egypt, reaching Cairo airport. In 2015, the Rafah border opened for twelve days total. There is a waiting list: the sick go first (30 percent of essential drugs in Gaza are out of stock), and so only 3,000 Palestinians out of 15,000 could cross. The solution is to pay. 3,000 euro, and a policeman calls you by name.

I ask Sharif what he dreams of Europe, he says: taking a shower.

*This person's name has been changed at their request.

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