Eva Bartlett | Inter Press Service
21 September 2009
There are few parks and green spaces in Gaza, and those that exist are crowded with people hungry for nature. Day and night, people of all ages flock to the Joondi, or the park of the Unknown Soldier, in central Gaza City.
Vendors set up, selling roasted nuts, falafels, cold drinks, tea and coffee. Further east, Gaza’s main garden park, charging one shekel (25 cents) admission, hosts some groomed shrubbery, decorative trees and flowers. It pales in comparison to arboretums elsewhere, but it is a bit of green in an otherwise grey Strip.
On Gaza’s main east-west street Omar Mukthar, the more upscale shopping area of Rimal attracts clothing, perfume, electronics and souvenir shoppers. The inventory is a sad collection of cheap fabrics and highly expensive electronics. Gazans have no other choice, save the tunnel markets in Rafah. But in the end, the majority of goods come via the same tunnels, and end up all being overly expensive.
Those with shekels to spend go to the few trendy coffee shops in Rimal or the Shifa hospital district. But the choices are basically the same: Arabic coffee, cappuccino, juices, light meals. And the entertainment is limited to use of the wireless internet, Arabic music played over the café’s loudspeakers, and chatting with friends, perhaps while smoking a water pipe.
Some choose these cafés to hold birthday celebrations to an Arabic rendition of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song. A cake costing on average 70 shekels is the highlight of the celebration.
But all this too is for the privileged few. Most of Gaza’s 1.5 million cannot afford frivolities like these, let alone consistent meals, diapers, baby milk, and school clothing and books.
For most Palestinians in Gaza, there is no escaping the constraints of a suffocating Israeli-imposed siege that, with the complicity of the Egyptian government and the international community, has tightened since June 2007 when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. The siege goes further back from that time two years ago to shortly after Hamas was elected in early 2006. Since then, Palestinians have lived under increasingly choking restrictions on what can enter and leave Gaza.
In the Rimal shopping area, a growing number of Palestinians have resorted to begging. Among them are widows trying to provide for their children, and children themselves begging to contribute to family income.
An increasing presence of children selling one-shekel items dominates most Gaza city streets. The children, as young as seven or eight years old, spend their days enticing pedestrians or drivers at stoplights to buy their trinkets.
There are few recreation options for youths. No cinema, no concerts, no nightclubs, none of the pastimes that youths around the world enjoy. Partly this is due to the conservative culture in Gaza, but mostly it is the siege, and the many Israeli military attacks on Gaza. A venue for theatre, a wood- panelled stage at the Al-Quds hospital complex, was destroyed by fire from Israeli shelling during the three-week winter war on Gaza.
The primary obstacle in any case is financial: with extreme poverty levels among 90 percent of the population according to the September 2009 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCATD) report, the majority of Palestinians in Gaza depend on food aid, and scrape by on inadequate high-carbohydrate diets, with no extra money for luxuries like school clothes and books.
Ibrahim, Mahmoud and Mahdi, teenagers from Beit Hanoun, are still finishing their final year of high school, and have not reached the state of frustration many recent university graduates feel at the scarcity of work in Gaza. For them full-time employment worries are still some years off.
They spend their free time in a few simple ways: “We play football four or five times a week,” says Mahdi. “I go swimming nearly every day,” says Mahmoud, “but I’m always afraid because of the Israeli gunboats. They have shelled the beach before.”
Ibrahim points to a motorcycle parked nearby. “If we had money for one of those, we’d cruise the coastal road,” he says.
Otherwise, men (and some women) young and old indulge in water pipes and coffee, tea, or juice in the evenings, some choosing the relatively trendy cafes in Gaza city, others favouring a local coffee shop. Yet others flock to the sea, to enjoy night air and the breeze while smoking shisha.
Despite the dangers from Israeli gunboats and the severe contamination of Gaza’s sea – with upwards of 80 million litres of sewage dumped daily into the sea for want of adequate wastewater treatment plants – many choose to swim nonetheless. They have few other options for cooling off and for recreation.
“We installed a sort of diving board off the edge of the pier,” says a coastguard. “Every day we go swimming there.” Gaza port is one of the more polluted areas, with a combination of sewage and the usual boat oils and wastes found in marinas.
Gaza’s economy is decimated – 95 percent of industries have shut down. Fishers constantly face the threat of Israeli gunboats, and struggle to provide for their families. Merchants cannot import goods via Israel as they had done for years prior, instead bringing smuggled goods in via the tunnels.
Hamsa Al-Bateran, 22, presents the face of Gaza’s extreme poverty. Living in a single room with an asbestos ceiling with his wife Iman and their three- month-old son, he is now desperate.
Before his son was born, Al-Bateran scoured the streets of Gaza for recyclable plastics, loading his findings onto a horse cart. Sometimes people would hire his horse and cart to move large items.
“My son got ill. I had to sell the horse and cart so I could pay his hospital bills. Now I have no way of earning money.”
Al-Bateran is forever thinking of finding ways to survive. Recreation is a concept he doesn’t even consider.
“I even thought of working in the tunnels. I’ll do any job, I just need to earn money to feed my wife and baby, buy milk for him,” he said. He does not hold a Palestinian refugee card, and so is not eligible for the dry food aid that most refugees in Gaza receive. Without this and with no source of income, he depends on aid from his impoverished relatives.
For a recent university graduate, prospects are not good. Ahmed works in a small convenience shop in Beit Hanoun. “I work every day, from 8 am to 6 pm,” he says. “I get about 20 shekels a day.” This is the same amount most farm labourers receive, although some working in and near the buffer zone are paid more. But they face mortal danger under Israeli soldiers’ shoot-to- kill policy.
Mahfouz Kabariti, 51, has a decorations shop in Gaza city. “I used to import from China. My business is failing because of the restrictions on imports. Now I buy poor quality, expensive items brought through the tunnels.”
Like many, he feels there is little point opening early. “I used to open my shop at 8 am. But now, I open around 11 am and close early. It’s just my son and I working in the shop now. We had to let our employees go, there was no work for them.”
Said Al-Saedi, 50, has fished for over 30 years. “In the 1980s, we used to take the boat out for six or seven days before returning. We’d sail near Libya, to Port Said in Egypt. We could easily earn 20,000 per month,” he says. “Today, I don’t fish, I can’t fish.”