How the blockade affects Gazans.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Aug. 5 2010 10:04 AM

"Gaza Is Not Darfur!"

How the blockade affects Gazans.

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GAZA CITY—Aid officials in Gaza all recite the same statistics: "44 percent unemployment, 80 percent food-aid dependent, and 60 percent living on less than $2 a day." It sounds like a script they've grown tired of delivering to passing journalists. After multiple rounds of similar briefings, I'm staring at Kamla Joudah's parlor in Nuseirat refugee camp, in the middle of the Gaza Strip. The warm beige tones of the furniture reflect the heat, and the walls gleam. The frequently cut power is on today, so the fan whirls. Tea and coffee are brought out on a small tray. Kamla catches me appraising her home. "What are you looking at?" she asks, with some pique.

"Your house," I reply, "It's very nice."

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She looks at me quizzically, "This is not Darfur," she snaps. The family members in the room burst out laughing as I blush.

The oft-recited statistics paint a bleak picture of life in the territory. But Gaza is a lot more complicated than the numbers suggest.

Comments like Kamla's are common here; everyone I speak to insists the coastal enclave is nothing like Somalia, Bangladesh, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. And people are indignant that I suggested it might be in the same league as those places.

When Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, an Israeli-led, Egyptian-enforced blockade severely limited the flow of goods and people in and out of the territory. As a result, Gaza's economy crumbled.

Two months ago, Israel eased its restrictions on consumer goods entering the strip after its deadly raid on the Turkish flotilla. Now, Gaza's markets overflow with Israeli food. Although middle-class consumers are happy to see the Israeli products, the easing of restrictions on foodstuffs has done little to solve the basic problems facing the territory.

"There is food in Gaza. It's not a humanitarian crisis. There is no hunger, there is no starvation, but there is a crisis of another nature," says Mahmoud Daher, a World Health Organization official in Gaza, who was expressing his personal views, not those of his organization.

As Daher explains, the blockade has dramatically altered the standard of living for Palestinians in the territory. In three years, he assesses, Gazans have lost 20 years of economic development. And in that decline lies the root of the crisis in Gaza as he sees it.

"Inability to access quality care is a crisis, inability for people to produce and have access to jobs is a crisis, inability of people to get the quality of education that they are used to is a crisis, and above all [it is] a crisis of dignity—a crisis of humanity," Daher tells me.

Gaza's infrastructure problems are plentiful. The sewage system is busted, pumping 100 million liters of half-processed waste into the Mediterranean daily, according to a U.N. spokesman. Drinking water is not properly desalinized. The continued ban on the importation of raw materials has stymied Gaza's construction and industrial sector, contributing to unemployment. (Israel believes Hamas will use the materials to build bunkers from which to attack it.) Hospital equipment is outdated. Limits on exports have shut down large parts of the agricultural sector. The list goes on.
 
But the blockade has had a different, unseen impact. After three years, the restrictions haven't only affected the economy; they have also had a profound impact on the population's psychology. The new commercial opening has done little to ease that strain.

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