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.

Kamla's neighbor in the refugee camp, Um Mahmoud, 42, lives just down the alley with her husband, their three children, and her father-in-law. The family receives basic food aid from the United Nations every three months. They don't have problems eating, she explains. The problem is everything else.

They cannot fix the holes in their roof and can barely afford medication for her husband and his ailing father. They seek charity from friends and family while her husband works sporadically as a taxi driver.
 
"Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one with all these problems," she says sitting in Kamla's parlor. "My husband doesn't know what to do. When he's angry, he explodes his problems in my face. … He shouts. Sometimes he gets angry and beats me," she admits.
 
When I ask how she handles the stress, she replies simply, "I beat my children. ... I can't say anything different. It feels like it's been this way forever." She tells me she's never told this to anyone before, but everyone in the room already knows. The walls of the camp's houses are thin.

Mahmoud, her 9-year-old son, is rambunctious. "He's nervous all the time. He fights everybody and shouts all the time. He's not like other children," she says. "He's aggressive." Everyone nods in agreement.
 
Um Mahmoud and her family are not alone. Officials from the Gaza Community Mental Health Program have noted a rising incidence of domestic violence across the strip. "To be a man, to be a person dependent on humanitarian aid and asking for basic needs … it's not easy for them," says Hasan Shaban Zeyada, a psychologist at the GCMHP.
 
Zeyada says husbands take out their anxieties on the family, and wives like Um Mahmoud in turn beat their children. "It's a closed circle of violence: the father, the mother, the children. And the children will react in a violent way toward their friends in the neighborhood, in the school."

The feeling of despondency is not limited to the residents of the refugee camps. It pervades almost every conversation I have in Gaza.

I'm trying to hail a shared taxi, unmarked cars that drive around the city picking up passengers, in an upscale neighborhood in Gaza City when a vehicle pulls over. I open the back door. "I'm not a taxi," comes a shout in English from the driver's seat. I take stock of the gleaming car and clamber into the front passenger seat.
 
The driver is young. He says he is bored and is giving me a ride for the hell of it. "There are no jobs here," he tells me. He graduated with a degree in business administration a year ago, but he remains unemployed. "I just want to leave, but I can't," he trails off.
 
"In Gaza, if you have $1 million or you have $1, it is the same, you are exposed to the same bad things. … You are not allowed to travel, to get proper treatment," says Adnan Abu Hasna, Gaza's U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman.

Matthew Olsen, a part-time Gaza resident and the director of Explore Corps, a U.S.-based community development NGO, explains it another way: "The fact that it's closed changes the whole mindset of the place. Visiting Gaza is like visiting someone in prison in a way. Their life might not be that bad, they're not starving to death, or anything like that, but the knowledge that they can't leave … it really affects them."

Gaza has no functional airport, and movement through both the Israeli and Egyptian borders is severely restricted. Still, one of Gaza City's main thoroughfares boasts a Royal Jordanian Airlines * office. Sitting at the front desk, Hesham, who did not want to give his last name, says the office has been open every day of the siege. His grandfather opened it in 1965. "The people must have faith in our business," he says. "What would they think if we closed?"

But these days, they have little to offer. The office, which is an authorized representative of the airline, sells tickets on flights from Cairo to Jordan and from Jordan onward to anywhere the kingdom's carrier flies.

Gazans who purchase a ticket in the strip must first cross into Egypt and then make their way to the Cairo airport from the territory's border, a six-hour drive. As Hesham explains, if Gazans do not have a visa to travel within Egypt, but they have purchased a ticket from Cairo to Amman, they are herded onto a bus from the Rafah border crossing straight to the Cairo airport. Hustled from the bus to a crowded room in the terminal, they wait there for their onward travel.

Since Egypt eased its restrictions on civilian movement through its border crossing in early June, Hesham estimates business has improved 10 percent. "It's not a lot," he notes, "but it's better than zero."

Correction, Aug. 6, 2010: This story originally misidentified Royal Jordanian Airlines as "Jordanian Airways." (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.

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