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LRB: Diary from Gaza

London Review of Books

By Louisa Waugh

‘Don’t ask me how I am,’ a colleague said to me when I arrived at the office yesterday morning. ‘You know how bad things are here now, so please don’t ask.’

Things are certainly very bad in the Gaza Strip. The fuel crisis grinds on, and though Israel has just allowed a small consignment of fuel in, nearly 90 per cent of private cars remain off the road. Bus and taxi services are overwhelmed, and since the taxis have more than doubled their rates, most of us are still walking. Black market fuel prices are extortionate, and the streets reek with gassy and oily fumes because drivers have resorted to converting their cars to use cooking gas, or even cooking oil. These crude conversions are potentially dangerous, liable to induce nausea, eye infections and asthma. The lack of industrial fuel has sparked widespread power cuts (Gaza’s sole power plant is operating at partial capacity), as well as shortages of drinking water: the electric pumps shut down when the power goes off. Up to half of Gazans only have access to drinking water at home for between four and six hours a day. Domestic cooking fuel is increasingly scarce, and on some days there are long queues for bread, because bakers have started turning off their ovens to save gas.

The fuel crisis didn’t start last week, or even last month. Israel has been steadily reducing fuel supplies since October. In February, ambulances in the city of Rafah in southern Gaza were temporarily grounded when the diesel ran out. In April, Israel permitted 152,000 litres of petrol to enter and 33,280 litres of diesel, a tiny fraction of demand.

Last week I drove from Gaza City, where I work with a British aid organisation, down to Rafah, where I talked to several ambulance drivers. Samir Abdul Akil has been driving ambulances for the Palestinian Red Crescent Society for the last five years. ‘The situation is miserable,’ he said. ‘We have to restrict our movements and can only answer emergency calls, but demand for our services has soared, because people have no other way of getting to hospital.’ People are turning up on donkeys or mule carts. Another driver, Asad Daoud, who works at the Emirates Hospital in Rafah, told me his ambulance ran out of fuel completely ten days ago. Despite having a large obstetrics unit, where up to twenty babies are born every day, the hospital can afford only one ambulance. Daoud regularly has to transfer patients to the European Hospital, seven kilometres away, but doesn’t always have enough fuel for the return journey.

The Gaza Strip is 26 miles long and six miles wide, with a total of eight commercial and pedestrian crossings: apart from the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt, they all lead into Israel. The main pedestrian crossings, at Erez in northern Gaza and Rafah in the south, have been effectively sealed since June 2006, after the abduction by Hamas of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is still being held hostage in Gaza. Hamas and the Egyptian government are now negotiating over whether to open the Rafah crossing on a regular basis, and Gazans are desperately hoping that they will. Everyone in the Strip, even children, requires a travel permit from the Israeli military in order to cross Erez, and the overwhelming majority of applications, including those from people who need emergency medical treatment, are denied on grounds of ‘security’. Over the last year, 33 Gazans, including several young children, have died after being refused a permit, or having their permits delayed. There are 1.4 million people living in the Gaza Strip, and Khalil Shaheen, a human rights activist here, estimates that less than 3 per cent of the population has freedom of movement into and out of the Strip.

The Israeli siege began in the wake of Hamas’s takeover last June, and has been steadily tightening ever since. Imports and exports are severely restricted: Israel has gradually increased the categories of food items allowed to be imported via the commercial crossings from nine to 40, but this apparent liberalisation doesn’t make much difference because the crossings are open so rarely that very little can be brought in. Other goods, including medicines, hearing aids, computers, cardboard and electrical elements, are either in short supply or are not coming in at all. Importing construction materials has been prohibited for months and, apart from small quantities smuggled through the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the border with Egypt, there is nothing to build with. Houses and streets that have been damaged, or bombed, are left as they are. Strangely, Coke is available because it is brought in through these tunnels from Egypt, but fruit juice and milk are impossible to find. The WHO produces a drug list of 480 essential items; Gaza’s largest hospital, Al-Shifa, is 90 items short, and has less than three months’ supply left of another 130. Exports, too, have been drastically curtailed: family-owned strawberry and flower farms have been ruined; the annual catch of Gaza’s fishermen is less than a sixth of what it was five years ago. The people of the Strip are now one of the most aid-dependent populations on earth.

It’s not surprising that morale is at rock bottom, and that my colleagues don’t want to make small talk about how they’re feeling. You can’t watch what’s going on without asking why Israel is so intent on destroying civilian life in Gaza. Israel does have legitimate concerns about the home-made rockets and mortars being fired towards its borders almost every day. Two Israelis have recently been killed and dozens injured; doctors are trying to save the legs of an Israeli toddler wounded in last week’s rocket attack on a clinic in the centre of Ashkelon. But Israel’s main assumptions – that the siege would force the militants to stop launching rockets, and that the Gazan people would rise up and overthrow Hamas – have proved to be false. Though the number of rockets and mortars fired from Gaza has dropped over the last three months, the targeting has become more precise, and the militants are starting to upgrade their rockets, enabling them to strike further into Israel. Hamas has consolidated its power base and is politically and financially secure. As the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report, ‘the belief by some that the siege somehow will lead to Hamas’s overthrow is an illusion.’

Hamdi Shaqqura, a senior researcher at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza City, says that ‘when we talk about a political power struggle in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, we are talking about the struggle between the governments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But there is no real opposition to Hamas here in Gaza. Hamas started to accumulate strength right after the takeover last June, and they have also institutionalised their power base; for instance, they re-established the entire police force. Hamas is now stronger than ever.’

I know many Gazans who say they hate Hamas; the huge majority, including some of those who say they support Fatah, also feel that they have been completely abandoned by the Palestinian Authority. President Abbas, recently forced to deny rumours of his own resignation, has done little to counter accusations that the PA doesn’t really care what happens inside Gaza. Instead, he remains caught up in increasingly pointless talks with the intransigent Olmert, who is once again under investigation for corruption and could be forced out of office himself. The negotiations between Hamas and Israel being brokered by the Egyptians are crucial: until Israel ends its siege, the two sides will remain locked in this ugly stalemate that is making life hellish for almost one and a half million people. The siege is illegal under international law, amounting as it does to the collective punishment of a civilian population. But Palestinian politicians also have a lot to answer for. The political and economic chasm between the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip has neutered the PA and strengthened Hamas, which, while offering a ceasefire to Israel, has continued to fire rockets over the border. There is no effective political opposition in either the West Bank or Gaza, and while Palestinians on the West Bank continue to endure humiliation at more than five hundred Israeli military checkpoints, the vast majority of Gazans are struggling to survive. Palestinians are fed up with politics, with their inept and greedy leaders, and with everything the Israelis have imposed on them.

Political divisions inside Palestine have played into Israel’s hands. Tamer Qarmout, a Gazan friend of mine who has just been accepted onto a PhD programme in the US to study conflict analysis and resolution, believes the situation has never been so bad for the Palestinians. ‘There is deep fragmentation in our society,’ he said, ‘with families divided because they belong to separate political factions. The moderate voices of Fatah and Hamas need to put their differences aside and reach a political agreement so they can work together. Basically, they need to put the national Palestinian interest above everything else.’ Any dialogue, he says, has to take place ‘outside the political influence of the US, Israel, Syria and Iran’. ‘We have a very just cause. It is very depressing to see how we’ve harmed it and given Israel a perfect excuse to manipulate their legal obligation to end the occupation.’ Whatever the sharply dressed Israeli government spokesmen say, this is not a ‘war against terrorism’. Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967; 41 years later it is still expanding its illegal settlements in the West Bank while controlling the movement of every Palestinian inside the Gaza Strip. Tamer has no idea whether he will be allowed to leave to study for his PhD.

No one – Bush, Olmert, Abbas, the Egyptians – knows what to do with the Gaza Strip. Gaza has very few friends, and people here don’t understand why the outside world seems to hate them so much, to care so little about what is happening to them. ‘We have no life here,’ Khalil Shaheen said to me last week. The Israelis ‘deprive us of everything – and then what? Our life becomes so fucking difficult that we think freedom means having enough fuel to drive our cars around Gaza, electricity in our homes, and bread in the shops. We are caged.’

Sometimes, living in Gaza is like watching a bizarre experiment in how much people can endure before they crack. Yesterday a friend of mine went to buy a pizza from his local bakery, but the baker had no flour. So he went to another bakery – but the second baker had no flour either, and no fuel. Another friend, Ehab, has not been able to buy shoes for months, because none of the shops has any left in his size. A neighbour, Aitemad, called round to tell me about the trouble she had getting her hair cut. Her hairdresser had no electricity in her shop, so she drove Aitemad to another hairdresser – but her car ran out of fuel on the way. So they had to leave the car and wait an hour for a taxi. I went to see Aitemad last night: we had a candlelit dinner because there was a power cut. Her hair looked great.

While the ceasefire negotiations between Israel and Hamas go on in Sharm El-Sheikh, I am sitting in my living-room in Gaza City with the doors and windows open for some cool air. I can hear bombing in the north; more people may be dying as I write this. The death toll is climbing on both sides, but the number of Israeli and Palestinian fatalities can’t be compared. Fourteen Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinians this year, two by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and two by snipers from inside Gaza. In the same period, 333 people in Gaza have been killed by the Israeli military, including 127 adult civilians and 56 children. More Gazan children were killed in the first four months of this year than in the whole of last year. Israel’s siege has achieved nothing but misery and bloodshed.

20 May

Louisa Waugh is the author of Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia and Selling Olga: Stories of Human Trafficking and Resistance.