Sara Roy on Gaza

Sara Roy on Gaza.

In fact, with certain limited exceptions, no construction materials or raw materials have been allowed to enter the Strip since June 14, 2007. Indeed, according to Amnesty International, only forty-one truckloads of construction materials were allowed to enter Gaza between the end of the Israeli offensive in mid-January 2009 and December 2009, although Gaza’s industrial sector presently requires 55,000 truckloads of raw materials for needed reconstruction. Furthermore, in the year since they were banned, imports of diesel and petrol from Israel into Gaza for private or commercial use were allowed in small amounts only four times (although the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, periodically receives diesel and petrol supplies). By this past August, 90 percent of Gaza’s total population was subject to scheduled electricity cuts of four to eight hours per day, while the remaining 10 percent had no access to any electricity, a reality that has remained largely unchanged.Gaza’s protracted blockade has resulted in the near total collapse of the private sector. At least 95 percent of Gaza’s industrial establishments (3,750 enterprises) were either forced to close or were destroyed over the past four years, resulting in a loss of between 100,000 and 120,000 jobs. The remaining 5 percent operate at 20-50 percent of their capacity. The vast restrictions on trade have also contributed to the continued erosion of Gaza’s agricultural sector, which was exacerbated by the destruction of 5,000 acres of agricultural land and 305 agricultural wells during the war. These losses also include the destruction of 140,965 olive trees, 136,217 citrus trees, 22,745 fruit trees, 10,365 date trees and 8,822 other trees.

The tunnels, which Israel tolerates in order to keep the siege intact, have also become an important source of income for the Hamas government and its affiliated enterprises, effectively weakening traditional and formal businesses and the rehabilitation of a viable business sector. In this way, the siege on Gaza has led to the slow but steady replacement of the formal business sector by a new, largely black-market sector that rejects registration, regulation or transparency and, tragically, has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

At least two new economic classes have emerged in Gaza, a phenomenon with precedents in the Oslo period: one has grown extremely wealthy from the black-market tunnel economy; the other consists of certain public-sector employees who are paid not to work (for the Hamas government) by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Hence, not only have many Gazan workers been forced to stop producing by external pressures, there is now a category of people who are being rewarded for their lack of productivity–a stark illustration of Gaza’s increasingly distorted reality. This in turn has led to economic disparities between the haves and have-nots that are enormous and visible, as seen in the almost perverse consumerism in restaurants and shops that are the domain of the wealthy.

Gaza’s economy is largely devoid of productive activity in favor of a desperate kind of consumption among the poor and the rich, but it is the former who are unable to meet their needs. Billions in international aid pledges have yet to materialize, so the overwhelming majority of Gazans remain impoverished. The combination of a withering private sector and stagnating economy has led to high unemployment, which ranges from 31.6 percent in Gaza City to 44.1 percent in Khan Younis. According to the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce, the de facto unemployment rate is closer to 65 percent. At least 75 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people now require humanitarian aid to meet their basic food needs, compared with around 30 percent ten years ago. The UN further reports that the number of Gazans living in abject poverty–meaning those who are totally unable to feed their families–has tripled to 300,000, or approximately 20 percent of the population.

Access to adequate amounts of food continues to be a critical problem, and appears to have grown more acute after the cessation of hostilities a year ago. Internal data from September 2009 through the beginning of January 2010, for example, reveal that Israel allows Gazans no more (and at times less) than 25 percent of needed food supplies, with levels having fallen as low as 16 percent. During the last two weeks of January, these levels declined even more. Between January 16 and January 29 an average of 24.5 trucks of food and supplies per day entered Gaza, or 171.5 trucks per week. Given that Gaza requires 400 trucks of food alone daily to sustain the population, Israel allowed in no more than 6 percent of needed food supplies during this two-week period. Because Gaza needs approximately 240,000 truckloads of food and supplies per year to “meet the needs of the population and the reconstruction effort,” according to the Palestinian Federation of Industries, current levels are, in a word, obscene. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program, “The evidence shows that the population is being sustained at the most basic or minimum humanitarian standard.” This has likely contributed to the prevalence of stunting (low height for age), an indicator of chronic malnutrition, which has been pronounced among Gaza’s children younger than 5, increasing from 8.2 percent in 1996 to 13.2 percent in 2006.

Gaza’s agony does not end there. According to Amnesty International, 90-95 percent of the water supplied by Gaza’s aquifer is “unfit for drinking.” The majority of Gaza’s groundwater supplies are contaminated with nitrates well above the acceptable WHO standard–in some areas six times that standard–or too salinated to use. Gaza no longer has any source of regular clean water. According to one donor account, “Nowhere else in the world has such a large number of people been exposed to such high levels of nitrates for such a long period of time. There is no precedent, and no studies to help us understand what happens to people over the course of years of nitrate poisoning,” which is especially threatening to children. According to Desmond Travers, a co-author of the Goldstone Report, “If these issues are not addressed, Gaza may not even be habitable by World Health Organization norms.”

It is possible that high nitrate levels have contributed to some shocking changes in the infant mortality rate (IMR) among Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. IMR, widely used as an indicator of population health, has stalled among Palestinians since the 1990s and now shows signs of increasing. This is because the leading causes of infant mortality have changed from infectious and diarrheal diseases to prematurity, low birth weight and congenital malformations. These trends are alarming (and rare in the region), because infant mortality rates have been declining in almost all developing countries, including Iraq.

The people of Gaza know they have been abandoned. Some told me the only time they felt hope was when they were being bombed, because at least then the world was paying attention. Gaza is now a place where poverty masquerades as livelihood and charity as business. Yet, despite attempts by Israel and the West to caricature Gaza as a terrorist haven, Gazans still resist. Perhaps what they resist most is surrender: not to Israel, not to Hamas, but to hate. So many people still speak of peace, of wanting to resolve the conflict and live a normal life. Yet, in Gaza today, this is not a reason for optimism but despair.


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