Life under a Blockade: Gaza
Here follows the second part of an interview with Dalia El Massri (from Khan Younis, Gaza), this time concentrating on the living conditions in Gaza and how they are affected by the ongoing siege. (The first part, on Hamas, can be found here). All photos by Dalia El Massri taken on 05/11/2009.
Q: The siege continues unabated and we're told that economic conditions in Gaza are at an all time low, with unemployment rates up to 50 % or so. Does this affect your personal life and that of your family and friends and how?
A: Over 80 % of people in Gaza are now living below the poverty line. It was never like this any time before the siege. The blockade is literally putting the Gazan economy in a state of complete hibernation. There is absolutely nothing we can export and we can only import what Israel allows us to get through the checkpoints (which close a few days a week and during Jewish holidays and whenever the mood takes them).
So the blockade affects our lives in every conceivable aspect. The markets continually run out of all kinds of products. For instance for 2 months during last spring we had to manage without any kind of soap because Israel refused to let any in. In reality this is just a small example, more importantly are the major restrictions on all building materials. The houses that were reduced to ruins during the winter war are still in ruins today because no cement, wood, steel or glass is allowed in. All our windows, as well as the neighbours' windows are still covered with thick plastic because the glass was broken due to the heavy bombing. Now winter is approaching again, imagine having to live with this situation every hour of the day.
The blockade also goes beyond the commercial and consumables: it's applied in equal measure to people. My husband needed to cross Eretz twice to present his Ph D exam in the West Bank and he was denied passage for security reasons.
Nahed (my husband) obtained his masters back in 2000, so now he need to pass a first step exam to be accepted into the PhD program. He prepared himself for 5 months for the first time, but the IDF refused to grant him the permit to pass through Eretz, with no excuses offered. The second time he asked the Palestinian Health Ministry to coordinate his pass permit with the Israeli side, yet still they refused to give him the permit to pass, with the implied allegation that he is a menace to the Israeli security: My husband is a surgeon and has nothing to do with our or Israeli security.
A friend of mine who came from the UAE to visit her parents back in 2007 was literally denied from leaving the strip, she meant to stay for a month but thanks to the unjustified blockade she was made to stay for a whole year. She happens to be a mother which adds a whole dimension to her suffering.
Q: Apart from limited humanitarian aid coming in, there seem to be quite ridiculous restrictions on everyday items allowed into Gaza. To what extent do you think the smuggling of goods through the tunnels connecting Gaza with Egypt alleviates the situation?
A: The tunnel business as we call it here relieves the situation in many different areas as we depend on Egyptian fuel for automobiles and personal electricity generators as well as food (dairy, canned foods... etc) and clothes. But the tunnel business costs a lot of money and occasionally lives as well. Everything is triple price than what it really worth, so only people with a sound financial situation can afford what ever is brought by the tunnels and that's less than 20% of Gazans.
The tunnel business has its own special limitations in the sense anything that can not fit into the tunnel cannot enter Gaza via this route. You may find this as amusing as I did: they smuggled a complete Zoo of animals through the tunnels but only an elephant couldn't fit, so Gazan kids are still waiting to have an elephant at the first ever Zoo to be established in such conditions.
Q: Despite huge pledges made by the International Community with regards to the reconstruction of Gaza, it appears there is a near-complete ban on all construction materials being prevented from entering Gaza. Is there any reconstruction effort going on at all? If so, do the tunnels play a part in it and how?
A: Unfortunately Egypt is not willing to allow building materials in into Gaza (they will only allow reconstruction of Gaza under a unity Government), so only very small amounts of cement were illegally smuggled in but that can not and will not cover any of the huge demand to rebuild whatever have been destroyed in the last war.
Q: Did you notice the various efforts to break the siege, like the Viva Palestina! convoys organised by British MP George Galloway? Do you see these as bringing any relief at all? How are they perceived by the Gazan population?
A. All the convoys that were sent and still are very welcomed by everyone in Gaza, it gives a great boost to our spirits but sadly it has a less of a material effect. It's one million and a half who have lived here for more than 3 years under a horrifying siege, so even a 100 convoys won't make a difference, but still no one can deny and not appreciate the solidarity feelings coming from through those courageous people. The first ship that challenged the blockade was an event to be remembered in every Gazan's memory.
Q: The siege brings with it further travel restrictions I'd imagine. How do they affect your life and the lives of your loved ones?
A: Traveling is not an option under the blockade (if it was no one would stay in Gaza), only foreign passports holders, students with permits and sick people are allowed to travel, and in very awful conditions. Those people go many times to the Rafah point, stay in the sun all day and return many times till they are allowed to pass. Over 300 patients have died in the last 3 years while waiting to cross into Egypt for treatment.
Q: Hospital supplies are claimed to be in very short supply. Do you see any direct consequences of this for people you know personally?
A: The hospitals were the places that most benefit from the humanitarian aids convoys, but still we are talking 6 months ago and some medicines are running out from all healthcare centers, hospitals and even private pharmacies and shops. My husband claims that in less of one month situation will aggravate if things stays the same. The other day my son had a bad case of flu and we could not find any anti-histamine drugs in the stores and the flu season is at our doorsteps! (Here in Gaza, anti-histamines are prescribed to ease up the flu symptoms like a bad dry cough, inflammations of the respiratory system and runny nose to dilate the lung vessels and facilitate breathing)