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Thursday, 5 December 2013

Gaza: The tightening blockade

Fayza Al-Louh, 48, watches her son Zaid, 19, study during power outage in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip
Fayza Al-Louh, 48, watches her son Zaid, 19, study during power outage in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip

The bitter sarcasm of this remark, written by Mohamed Abu Shar, a citizen of Gaza, encapsulates the mounting despair over the lack of access to the basic necessities of life in Gaza, which has been subject to an economic blockade since 2006.

 Even the existing avenues to essential goods are being closed off. To the west and south, many of the Sinai-Gaza tunnels, the artificial arteries that had seen an unprecedented burst of activity for three years, have been closed off by the Egyptian army in order to stem the flow of smuggled arms and terrorists into Sinai and the illicit flow of Egyptian gasoline into Gaza.

The remaining supply lines are now strictly regulated. To the east and north, Israel has tightened the valves to reduce the influx of goods and materials to a trickle. The result: the Gazan private sector has been decimated and a gloom as dark as it had been before the end of the Israeli war on Gaza in 2008 prevails once again.

“Gaza is in the grips of a gradually worsening humanitarian crisis that threatens to reach catastrophic proportions in the near future,” continues Abu Shar in his account to Al-Ahram Weekly of the current situation in Gaza. “There no longer exists even a modest hope for remedying this crisis. Electricity, the chief energy source that moves the gears of every sector of daily life, is only available six hours a day, forcing people to condense most of their essential activities to those hours alone. Because of the gasoline crisis, gasoline powered generators will soon cease as an alternative energy source when the electricity goes off.

 At those times when limited supplies of gasoline are available, it is sold at double or at triple its original price. Hospitals are particularly hard hit. In addition to shortages in medicines, emergency surgeries have to be performed by candlelight.”

Echoing Abu Shar, another Palestinian youth, Amr Hijazi, told the Weekly: “My only remaining hope now is to leave Gaza to anywhere that offers the means for subsistence.” He added that his feelings were shared by thousands of other young Palestinians from the Strip where poverty and unemployment are rife. “There are no jobs because there is no industry or production. Even those who a relatively better off find nothing to buy here,” he said.
Abu Shar notes that Israel provides some consumer goods through the Karem Abu Salem crossing. “But Israel is playing the game of compelling the people of Gaza to forget the tunnels on the Egyptian side and to depend exclusively on it for their supplies so that they will be entirely at Israel’s mercy.” He adds: “We don’t have the political luxury to choose.”

Hijazi resumes: “The tunnels have been shut down. The Hamas movement and related Palestinian factions are now the object of hatred and vicious media campaigns in Egypt. But there are around 1,750,000 people living in Gaza. Let’s say that of these, 750,000 belong to those factions. What fault is that of the remaining million? Why do they have to pay the price for the actions of those others, whether right or wrong?” With a touch of irony he adds: “I think that cigarettes are all that’s being smuggled in from Egypt now, because they are easy to smuggle. You can forget about anything else, because traffic through the tunnels has come to a complete halt.”

In Hijazi’s opinion, Hamas is now paying for its loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood, which spent a year in power in Egypt. “However, it is the people who have to pay the higher price. In response to the demands to solve the crisis, Hamas officials say that everyone — the people and the government [in Gaza] — suffer from the blockade. In fact, even the privileged access to goods that members of the factions had enjoyed no longer exists, because the stockpiles of these goods have been depleted.”

Abu Shar frames the political/economic situation in different terms. “The Hamas government, with its arms, regiments and agencies, is cohesive. There are no divisions or even divergences in opinion. It is therefore difficult to presume that the movement would relinquish power in order to end the blockade.”

In Cairo, the idea has been circulating among some political and official quarters that Egypt should intervene militarily in Gaza in order to topple the Hamas government and restore the Palestinian Authority (PA) government there, thereby putting an end to a situation that has dangerous repercussions in Sinai because of jihadist groups whose networks span the Egyptian-Gaza border. Advocates of this idea argue that there is no longer any hope for inter-Palestinian reconciliation between the PA, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, and the de facto semi-autonomous government of Hamas in Gaza. In the opinion of General Alaa Ezzeddin, director of the Centre of Military Studies, the idea is “madness”.

 “While Egypt has acted to restore its security and sovereignty at the border, it has not forgotten the role it must play in the Palestinian cause regardless of what happens. It must continue to work to narrow the gap between the rival Palestinian camps.”

There have been some efforts to come to the Gazan people’s aid. The 15th Miles of Smiles convoy has just returned from Gaza, via the Rafah crossing, after delivering packages of medical supplies and other essential goods prepared by the Arab Doctors Federation. However, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, which received the convoy, the relief only meets 30 per cent of the needs in Gaza. Abu Shar points out that the food supplies brought in by the convoy’s 120 vehicles are barely sufficient to meet the food needs of hundreds of thousands of people for two days.

To further aggravate the plight of the people in Gaza, UNRWA is finding it difficult to perform its relief tasks under the current conditions of the blockade.

Spokesman for UNRWA in Gaza Adnan Abu Hassana told the Weekly that the crisis has become “aggravated beyond acceptable levels” in view of the unprecedented repercussions from certain shortages. “For example, the lack of electricity affects the wastewater system, which has collapsed entirely. The lack of fuel affects bakeries, which have had to stop operating, and therefore cannot supply bread. The shortages have affected the fishing industry, hospitals — everything. There is no room for survival in Gaza. Everything has ground to a complete halt. Even the municipalities are no longer able to collect garbage and clean the streets. It has become commonplace to hear that a surgery was performed by candlelight. Students have to study by candlelight.”

Abu Hassana speaks of a tertiary level of repercussions: the “negative energy” fuelled in a climate of rampant unemployment. He explains that there are no jobs in Gaza because the Israeli blockade prevents the entrance of building supplies, forcing most companies in Gaza that relied on supplies to shut their doors.

“The private sector has collapsed entirely. There are now a significant number of unemployed construction workers. To the ranks of the unemployed we can also add those who had operated and worked in the tunnels.”

Abu Hassana summed up the situation in Gaza as follows: “The blockade is tightening and appeals for help fall on deaf ears.

” He explained that UNRWA provides relief to 830,000 families in Gaza, or around 80 per cent of the population. This may be the highest number of relief recipients from any UNRWA programme. “Unless the blockade is lifted, life will become impossible,” he said. “Israel must stop these inhumane practices. It must allow in the goods and materials for industry so that Gazans can at least produce what they need and export the surplus so as to generate economic movement. At present, Gaza exports no more than one per cent of the level that was permitted in 2006. That the Karem Abu Salem crossing should remain open for a handful of consumer products, while all industry and export activity is choked off, flies in the face of all human rights laws and conventions.”

The Palestinians that spoke to the Weekly agree that Gaza was hit hard by the repercussions of political developments in Egypt. Even those who may understand why Egypt closed down the tunnels in reaction to the activities of Hamas and militia factions feel that nothing justifies perpetuating the gross human rights violations that are visited on the people of Gaza daily.

But if some Palestinians reproach other Arabs for ignoring — or even adding to — their plight, they are unanimous in blaming Israel as the chief cause.

As Abu Hassana put it: “True, the closure of the tunnels compounded the suffering in Gaza because they had offered some relief through the flow of smuggled goods and fuel from Egypt. However, Israel is primarily responsible for the plight. Under international law, Gaza is an occupied territory and the occupying power is responsible for providing the necessities for life. Israel is not doing this.”

He added: “We, in the UNRWA office, are in daily direct contact with the office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and with the Israeli side in order to get things moving to alleviate the crisis.

There have been no tangible positive results yet, and I do not see any signs of a solution in the near future.”
5 Egypt News: Gaza: The tightening blockade Fayza Al-Louh, 48, watches her son Zaid, 19, study during power outage in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip The bitter sarcasm of this r...
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