Gazans often call the Gaza Strip their “giant prison.” The name reflects the crowded, tense quarters where 1.1 million people live on some 360 kilometers square. The Israeli army surrounds the Strip, preventing Palestinians from leaving the area without special permits that are granted only in emergency situations.
Even within Gaza’s borders, its people are confined. Israel has divided the strip into three zones of Palestinian towns and refugees that are surrounded by Israeli military hardware. Travel between the areas is allowed only at certain times, and at the whims of the Israeli troops manning the checkpoints – very much like prison guards.
The Strip is easily divided into three areas because of the Jewish settlements embedded in its heart in the most strategic areas. There are currently 5,000 settlers living in 19 settlements across the Gaza Strip.
If the Gaza Strip is a prison, its solitary confinement area is the agricultural part of Al Mawasi, just west of Khan Younis. Al Mawasi is effectively controlled by settlers and surrounded by the settlement of Gush Katif from the east and the sea from the south. The people of Al Mawasi can neither leave their area nor distribute their agricultural produce except by special permission from the Israeli authorities.
“When harvesting season approaches, we start to panic,” says Abu Ibrahim, a farmer from Al Mawasi. “We pay a lot of money for our produce and in the end we are not allowed to bring it out into the local market. We are forced to feed it to the animals,” he laments. “Never mind the destruction periodically wrought on our crops by the settlers.”
Abu Ibrahim says all this is unbearable and humiliating. “The settler who stole my land enjoys his freedom. But I, the owner of the land, cannot even leave my house without a permit. It is the age of wonders!”
The Gaza Strip is scattered with eight refugee camps in which more than 800,000 refugees live under extremely difficult economic conditions. Like most of Gaza’s residents, rising unemployment due to the Israeli closure is now epidemic.
Twenty-six-year-old Yasser tells his story. “Two years ago, just before the Aqsa Intifada broke out, I was working in a sewing factory in Gaza. I used to make NIS90 or $20 a day, not including overtime. I was able to save up enough money to get married and have a place of my own,” he says, recalling better times.
Yasser rented an apartment and married one of his cousins. “Our house was a happy one, especially when I found out my wife was pregnant,” he says. But only a few months later, the Intifada broke out and Yasser’s troubles began. Because of the ever-tightening siege, the factory owner had to lay off half of his workers because he was not able to bring in raw materials.
“All of a sudden, I found myself out of a job. I looked everywhere, but unfortunately, I found that almost everyone was in the same boat,” says Yasser.
It was around this time that his wife was ready to give birth. Knowing he would not be able to pay the hospital bills, Yasser and his wife left their rented apartment and moved in with his parents in the Jabalya refugee camp. The meager house of four rooms is also home to his three unemployed brothers. Two of the brothers are married with children and the third is a high school student.
When things really got rough, Yasser was forced to send his wife, Amal, to her parents so her father would cover the costs of her delivery and take care of her until Yasser’s situation improved. Unfortunately, things only got worse.
On the day of Amal’s delivery, the couple was overjoyed to realize that she was having twins. “But my joy was not complete because, one, I knew I could not provide the wonderful life I had planned to give my children and two, the babies were weak and did not thrive because I could not afford to provide their mother with the vitamins the doctor prescribed for them when she was pregnant.”
Now his twin children spend much of their time in the hospital. Yasser’s father-in-law has lost his job and cannot support his own 10 children. He once had a job in Israel making more than $50 a day.
Not far from Jabalya Camp is Beach Camp. Its dejected environs are home to tens of desperate young men, loitering on the shore because they cannot find work. One landmark of the seaside is Abu Jamil’s Café, filled to capacity with unemployed Palestinians.
Abu Jihad, 36, sits in one of the café’s corners, playing cards and smoking a water pipe. “In the past, I used only to hear of Abu Jamil’s, but now I have become one of its regular customers,” he says. His other option is to stay at home, where the unfulfilled responsibilities only stack up. “So I run away all day,” Abu Jihad admits.
Just a few tables down is Abu Sufian Miqdad, 55, who supports a family of 15 children and grandchildren. His only income is fishing, which he says was once his joy, but now has become a daily tragedy.
“You cannot even imagine the difficult lives of fishermen these days,” he begins. “The siege is closing in on them and their only source of sustenance is being taken from them before their eyes. Fishing is a hard and tiring job, full of death – not like it used to be,” he remembers. “Now we are poor.”
Miqdad says his two brothers, Yousef, who supports 10 family members and Muhhedin, who supports six, are also fishermen, but have been equally stymied in their work. “I, the fisherman, have started buying frozen fish,” Miqdad says, laughing wryly.
Head of the fishermen’s union Yousef Azahhar says that while the men hunt fish, the Israeli army hunts them. “The Israeli patrol boat is constantly chasing us when we are at sea. The sea is surrounded by barbed wire and the area in which we are allowed to fish in is nothing to speak of,” he protests.
According to the Oslo Accords between Palestinians and Israelis, Gaza fishermen are supposed to be allowed to fish within a 13-kilometer radius from the shore. But Palestinians say Israel has never fully committed to the agreement and now that Palestinians and Israelis are in open confrontation, sometimes the area allowed for fishing is two kilometers, other times it is one.
“Loss, humiliation and a violation of our basic rights as humans – this is what we face every fishing trip,” says Azahhar. “Instead of making money to support your children, you find yourself defending your very life and your presence as a fisherman at sea.”
Azahhar says the Israeli authorities have confiscated many expensive dinghies, boats and motorboats. One fisherman lost the equivalent of nearly $19,000 of equipment two months ago. “He lost everything he owns in one day,” grimaces Azahhar. “Now he lives in poverty because he can’t get his things back, nor can he continue his work.”
Not far away, twelve-year-old Ammar is returning from school, sweat dripping down his face as he bends under the weight of his schoolbag. Clearly weary, he sits down by the side of the road just meters from the Israeli military check post near the Matahen junction on the Khan Younis highway.
Asked why he chooses to come to this place where there are frequent clashes, Ammar answers that he has been coming here for a long time, trying to earn a living. He explains that the Israelis do not allow lone drivers to cross on their own. “So I go with them for few shekels wage,” he says. “At the end of the day, I take the money home to my eight brothers and my mother and father. All my mother does is cry because of the pressure on us.”
Ammar says that in the face of his mother’s tears he is willing to do just about anything to keep his family from going hungry.
Um Mohammed in the Jabaliya Refugee Camp is a mother of three. After her husband was shot, his injury confining him to a wheelchair, Um Mohammed became desperate to feed her year-and-a-half old child. Feeling she had no other choice, she gave her baby, Bassam, small dosages of kerosene until he was ill enough to be hospitalized for two or three days. Care in government hospitals is free of charge for children up to 10 yeas of age. At the hospital, she knew that she and her children would be given a few meals a day. Only after some time, did the doctors realize what she was up to.
In Gaza’s southernmost regions, poverty has been augmented by homelessness. Hundreds of Rafah residents have lost everything after Israeli bulldozers came, without warning, and razed their houses to the ground. Ibrahim Qashta is one of the Rafah residents who lost his home. “My dream was to build a house for myself and my six children,” he says. “Just when I had accomplished my dream and had put my life’s savings into it, I was awakened one night by Israeli bulldozers that demolished mine and the neighbor’s home. I could barely save myself and my children.” Now Qashta has taken up camp in a makeshift Red Cross tent in the street.
Always hovering is the fear of an extensive Israeli invasion similar to that in the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip is already suffering shortages of staples like flour, milk and rice, just as the residents try to stockpile more.
Abu Karim, owner of a warehouse verifies this. “My warehouse is almost empty of the basic foodstuffs. This is because whatever we run out of, we can only bring in very little from outside.”
The Gaza Strip seems trapped in human tragedy. Its confinement breeds hopelessness, and the lack of opportunity breeds poverty. Always hanging over the heads of its residents is the fear of what more will come.