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And still they run these taxis

Eva Bartlett | Inter Press Service

3 August 2009

“It cost over 1,000 dollars. Before the siege, it would have been 500 to 1000 shekels (roughly 125 to 250 dollars), at most 250 dollars. Anyway, I had to buy it; you need to maintain the car when you use it all the time.”

The father of five drives one of Gaza’s many run-down taxis, working round the clock but earning just enough to get by. “I work day and night, but only for 20 shekels (five dollars), or sometimes 50 shekels (12 dollars) per day. That’s only enough to buy food and cover my children’s needs.”

Salleh lists the other expenses his meagre salary will not cover: “I can’t afford a licence or car insurance, they’re very expensive. I’ve gone four years without them. If I have an accident, I could go to jail for not having the licence on insurance.”

Rami Dawoud, translator for Adnan Abu Oada from the Ministry of Transport says the ministry offers discounts to some people whose financial situation is dire. But a licence which costs 100 shekels, and insurance that costs 1,500 shekels or more are beyond the reach of many like Salleh who can’t make ends meet as it is.

Even though six months have passed since Israel’s brutal three-week bombardment of Gaza, Salleh, like many other Palestinians, has not been able to repair the damage. “I can’t replace the windows and doors in my house, they were broken during the war. For the most part you can’t find them in Gaza, and if they’ve been brought in through the tunnels then they’re far too expensive.”

Facing the debt of an unpaid car part, needed insurance, and daily expenses, the driver is considering other ways of making money. “Maybe I’ll have to sell my wife’s only jewellery to pay the bills. Maybe I’ll have to sell our refrigerator and television. That might bring 700 shekels (under 200 dollars).”

Salleh isn’t alone in his financial worries. “It’s not just me. All of the drivers have problems: problems getting spare parts to service our cars; problems earning enough money; even problems giving correct change. Every day I have difficulties because of change: there are almost no half-shekels in Gaza any more.”

The copper pieces equivalent to about 12 cents are indeed scarce in Gaza. This is a part of the siege-induced currency crisis which is affecting all Palestinians in Gaza. “Some customers don’t care about the change. I give others items worth half a shekel, like gum or tissues.

“But some people want the half shekel…maybe they are students, jobless, or poor, so they need it. But what can I do if I can’t find them?”

Awad Zarga has eight people in his family to care for. Two of his children are in university. “Each semester costs 400 dollars per student. My kids need 10 shekels a day to go to and from university and for their expenses.” Zarga drives a taxi which he says earns him 50 shekels on a good day. Within five minutes of driving, the car stalls twice. “It’s the Egyptian petrol,” he says. “It’s no good.” But this fuel which comes through the tunnels is cheaper, at 2.5 shekels a litre. Israeli fuel, when it’s allowed into Gaza, costs six shekels per litre.

Zarga’s route takes him over some of Gaza’s ruddier streets, pot-holed and in need of re-paving. Many of Gaza’s roads have long been in a state of disrepair, or were more recently torn apart by invading Israeli tanks and bulldozers during the war on Gaza.

Issam drives a beat-up two door car. Torn plastic sheeting replaces the rear window, the fumes of cheap gasoline permeate the car. The windshield has two large crack points, obscuring the view outside. Bits of tape are plastered on doors and surfaces, somehow holding things together, including the door panelling.

The left back passenger door must be opened from the outside. And the ignition has stopped working, meaning every time the car is turned on or off it has to be done by hot-wiring it.

“We pay rent for our house. Whatever I earn goes towards our daily needs and the rent. I dream of owning and farming my own land, but with this kind of money that’s impossible,” he says.

Under the Israeli-led siege on Gaza, import of spare parts for all types of machinery including automobiles has largely stopped, save via the tunnels. Replacements are expensive and of poor quality.

Rami Dawoud confirms that no cars, new or used, have been allowed into Gaza in the last three years. Gaza currently has around 45,000 cars, of which many are worn-down, damaged, in need of parts unavailable in Gaza, or on their last legs. According to the Ministry of Transport, 1,197 cars were damaged during the war, another 565 were completely destroyed.

“The only new vehicles we’ve gotten in the past three years have been donations from the convoys entering Gaza or other outside supporters,” said Dawoud. “We used to get spare parts for car maintenance from the West Bank, from Egypt, and from Israel. But that has stopped.”

Nabil, a central Gaza resident, drives only at night. “I can’t afford the insurance,” he says, “and I’m worried that if I drive during the day, the police will stop me and take away my car.”

Before the borders between Gaza and Israel were sealed, Nabil worked as a taxi driver in Israel. When he was relegated to finding work in Gaza’s destroyed economy, he opted like so many others to drive a taxi, one of the few remaining types of work. The 25 years old car he bought for 1,200 dollars suffices for the task, but requires upkeep.

The father of 18 struggles on the 40-50 shekels he can earn per night. From this income, Nabil must spend roughly 200 shekels per month on car maintenance and fuel.

“When I do get stopped by the police, I ask them: ‘How can I pay for the insurance? Where will I get the money? I can barely feed my kids.”

Nabil also fails to pay his water and electricity bills, and cannot afford the wheelchairs his two 18-year-old disabled twins need. Thirteen of his children are in school, and over the school year have different expenses. Four of his sons sometimes get work with fishers, if the haul is good. On such a day they might bring home another 20 shekels for the family’s needs.

If he had the choice, Nabil says he’d take any type of employment. “I just want to work without problems with police, like in construction. Work like anyone else.”

Taxi drivers in Gaza, many of whose former professions are no longer possible, can either wait for the day when borders open, or make do with the cars they have, such as they are.