Nowhere to Go for Gazans/ By Jason Mast

A story of smuggle and struggle in the world’s most densely populated box

Few people go in, even fewer go out. Ibrahim knew this, but was still unprepared for the response he would receive from Israeli officials. Working from his office in Ramallah, where he serves as a high-ranking executive for the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation, the principal media wing of the Palestinian Authority, he requested a permit to visit his critically ill mother living in the Gaza Strip.

Ibrahim, whose real name has been legally protected by Gisha, an Israeli legal advocacy group, waited months with no response. Then a phone call came; the media exec’s request, like most applications to visit the blockaded territory, had been denied.His mother, as Israeli officials calmly informed him, had been visited by doctors and was shown to not actually be in any imminent danger. Two months later, Ibrahim would be shocked to learn through relatives that his mother had passed away. The officials were wrong.

Angry and sorrowful, he requested permission to attend the funeral. Denied. It would not be for another year, 16 months since his first request to see his living mother, that Ibrahim would finally be granted access to his parent’s grave.

Ibrahim’s story is not unique. Travel into and out of Gaza has been heavily restricted since 2007, the year after Hamas won parliamentary elections in Palestine. After a failed attempt to form a steady coalition government with Fatah over Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas, a Palestinian political party whose charter’s stated goal is the destruction of the state of Israel, lost political power in the West Bank and seized complete control of the Strip.

That year, Israel issued a general closure of the territory and instituted a tight economic blockade, by land, sea, and air. In the ensuing years, the blockade has been eased, but not lifted. The Egyptian’s army recent crackdown on their border with Gaza, however, has brought to light this blockade’s travel restrictions and their economic implications for the people of Gaza.

The Israeli government has long held that such regulations – an almost complete ban on all movement into and out of the territory with the exception of some businessmen, humanitarian aid and “visits to a relative suffering from a chronic life threatening illness” – are necessary in order to meet national security concerns. Israel, the US, Canada, and the entire European Union have denounced Hamas as a terrorist organization masquerading as a political party. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, Hamas presents a serious threat to the country, firing over 8,000 rockets into Israeli territory since 2006, the year Hamas won majority control in the Palestinian Parliament.

In Israeli towns near the Gaza border, rocket fire has more than just disrupted daily life. Since 2001, 64 civilians have died as a result of missile strikes, attacks which the UN has officially condemned. In 2007, at the height of the rocket attacks, 40% of the residents in Sderot, an Israeli city located just a few miles from Gaza, were evacuated. A recent survey conducted by Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, showed that nearly half of the children in Sderot suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of these attacks.

An israeli couple sitting outside the rubble of their former home. Their house, like many others in southern Israel, has been destroyed by Hamas rockets fired from Gaza.

An israeli couple sitting outside the rubble of their former home. Their house, like many others in southern Israel, has been destroyed by Hamas rockets fired from Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian activists, however, are not agreeing with all of the IDF’s arguments. Amir Rotem, a spokesperson for Gisha, has called Israel’s procedures into question. “a respectable middle-aged man with an elderly sick mother – he’s a public figure of sorts,” Rotem said of Ibrahim,”does not seem a security risk.”  Rotem’s primary concern was not Ibrahim’s security status, but rather that despite the fact that Ibrahim followed protocol and matched the accepted criteria for entering Gaza by having a gravely sick close relative, he was denied entry.

Founded in 2005, Gisha has taken the official stance that Israel has an unfulfilled obligation to ensure freedom of travel for Gazans, and has subsequently dealt with hundreds of cases which cast Israeli regulations as seemingly arbitrary. Last year, they unsuccessfully attempted to enable a group of Gazan athletes access to the Bethlehem Marathon, which was held for the first time and is expected to become an annual event. The runners were denied entry on the basis that Palestinian national soccer players were the only athletes allowed to leave Gaza.

This past summer, Gisha attempted to organize a music summer camp in the West Bank city of Ramallah for 46 children living in Gaza. Days before the camp was set to start, Israeli officials announced that only 30 kids could attend. According to Gisha no explanation was provided, and after a series of arguments, officials banned the entire trip. It was only after a long legal and public battle that the children were granted permission – weeks after the original date.

While movement through the Israeli crossings has been restricted for years, travel and trade between Gaza and Egypt has almost flourished. Recently, though, Egypt has cracked down on the border, a move that is jeopardizing the economy of the Gaza Strip.

“A dangerous trade”

The year: 2008. It’s Greta Berlin’s first time in the tunnels. There’s a low hum and a slight breeze wafting from just above the white plastered wall; the air conditioner must be on. It’s a hot Sunday night, but it’s cool and well lit here. Down the corridor, Gazans are walking, baskets upon boxes of goods – fruits, vegetables, clothing, Kentucky Fried Chicken – in tow. Some are tired and their weariness hangs on their face; they’ve been walking for miles. From behind the usual groups of smugglers, walks a turbaned man clutching a rope. Quickly, a four-legged behemoth comes into view; this man has smuggled a cow across the border. Half a mile off, at the same depth, an Egyptian car is driving through. Welcome to the tunnels of Gaza.

The tunnels beneath Raffah and into Egypt have become a lifeline for the Gazan people. Cut off from most of the world by the Israeli blockade, Gaza’s economy relies on these passageways, the building of which began as early as 1982. The tunnels allow for export of goods out of Gaza since Israel blocked the majority of export through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, the gateway through which all goods moving between Gaza and Israel must pass through.

A recent report by Al-Ahram, a leading Cairo newspaper, pegged the number of tunnels at approximately 1,500 and their annual trade valued at close to $1 billion dollars. The people rely heavily on the tunnels to bring in fruits, vegetables, building materials for their homes, even fast food, which would not otherwise be available. Greta Berlin, co-founder of the pro-Palestinian activist group Free Gaza, said she was astounded by what she saw, stating that the products were primarily, “consumer goods, things that could not get in Gaza… fruits, vegetables, clothing, a cow. I was shocked.”

Perhaps most important of all has been the employment that the tunnels provide. 4,000 workers now toil daily beneath Raffah, which is a sharp increase from just a few years ago, before the Israeli blockade was put in place. Unemployment, long rampant in Gaza, has dropped from 40% in 2011 to 22% in 2012 according to CIA World Factbook. This drop, the Institute for Palestine Studies posits, was precipitated largely by the influx of trade within the tunnels.

Yet work in the tunnels cannot possibly be described as rosy.  “A dangerous trade,” Gisha’s Rotem once referred to it as. Many of the caverns are shoddy, literally makeshift holes dug into basements, and can collapse at any second, leading to approximately 200 deaths in the past year, according to Al-Ahram. That would indicate a 5% mortality rate, a number 40 times that of the US’s most dangerous trade – fishing. This past December, National Geographic ran a story chronicling the death of Yussef, a 28-year-old Gazan tunnel worker, who died when a tunnel collapse in 2011.

Built into basements, these makeshift, often dangerous, tunnels provide valuable resources for Gaza

Built into basements, these makeshift, often dangerous, tunnels provide previously unattainable resources for blockaded Gaza

Despite the dangerous nature of their job, workers in the tunnels do not always reap the reward of their labor. Hamas has levied heavy taxes on goods transported through the tunnels, as well as a 6% income tax on each individual smuggler. Much of the leftover wealth has fallen into the hands of a small circle of millionaires, as many as 1,000 entrepreneurs who own a majority of the tunnels, according to Palestinian researcher Omar Shaban of Al-Monitor, a leading news website covering the Middle East.

All this, however, may yet be rendered moot. According to reports by multiple media outlets, the Egyptian military, which claimed power in early July, has issued a mass closure of the tunnels, in what could be a crippling blow to the Gazan economy. About 80% of the tunnels have been closed so far, according to reports in The New York Times and the accounts of UN peace envoy Robert Serry. Without the tunnels, not only will thousands of Gazans be left unemployed, but a serious food, construction, and supply shortage may ensue. “The tunnels are essential,” Rotem stated unequivocally, and their closure jeopardizes every Gazan citizen. Hamas will be left without over a fifth of its tax revenue. Such an outcome will damage its capacity to buy weapons, but will also limit their ability to pay any of its 50,000 employees.

Some 60% of Gaza’s imports and virtually all of their exports pass through the tunnels, so with their closure comes the suspension of trade. This cessation of economic activity may once again shed light on the struggles of two other Gazan industries: farming and fishing.

Cuting off fishing and farming

Dawn, and a group of Gazan fishermen are headed out along the Mediterranean to catch their livelihood. As they approach 6 miles off the coast, water cannons and gunshots are fired at them, barely missing the boat. They sullenly turn back, heading for the 3-mile radius from the Gazan coast, where gunfire is rarely seen. Joining the dozens of other boats in this cramped sliver of the sea, the fishermen solemnly look at the waters. Few fish are in the sea, nothing is biting. Hours later, they return home, their nets light and their buckets empty.

The history of Gazan fishing is rich and cultured, dating back thousands of years. In recent decades, however, trade has fallen on hard times. The Oslo Accords, signed in 1993, extend Gazan fisherman the right to fish 20 miles off the coast of the Strip. However, following political upheaval, the more recent Israeli blockade has limited their range to a meager 3 miles. Anyone fishing outside that boundary can be shot at by Israeli gunboats. These limitations thwart the use of military grade missiles and explosives, which have been smuggled in through the Gazan seaport and fired into southern Israel. Avikhay Adrii, an Israeli army spokesman, said in an interview with IRIN that terrorist organizations have used Gazan fish boats themselves to carry weapons.

A Gazan fishing boat damaged by gunfire for leaving the designated fishing zone

A Gazan fishing boat damaged by gunfire for leaving the designated fishing zone (Free Gaza; 2008)

Still, the restrictions have had a devastating impact. “It’s over-fished, there are fewer and fewer fish in the sea for fishermen to make a living,” Greta Berlin noted. “The daily catch of fish has reduced 10 times since before 2005.” The best areas for fishing are over 10 miles out, according to Gazan fisherman, and the seamen simply cannot catch enough to make a living in the section allocated to them, particularly when every Gazan fisherman is required to operate only in that one small area. A recent UN report called for Israel to lift the regulations, stating that they have “reduced access to livelihoods, essential services and housing, disrupted family life, and undermined the people’s hopes for a secure and prosperous future.”

The farmers are no better off. Much of their arable land in Gaza is in the so-called “buffer zone” between Gaza and the Israeli fence that demarcates the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. A UN investigation into the matter found that 35% of farmland in Gaza has been cut off as a result of Israeli limitations, leading to millions of dollars in losses. According to Palestinian sources, many farmers were shot at by Israeli forces near border, and they fear that their crops may be wantonly bulldozed by the IDF. “The farmers on the buffer zone are attacked when going to their fields to work,” Maria Del Mar, a Palestinian activist living in Gaza, angrily reported. “They have to farm by hand, because if a tractor is used to farm, it is systematically shot and damaged.” Israel, for its part, has stated that access to the buffer zone is dependent on the cessation of Gaza missile strikes, and that the only Gazans shot were those touching or attempting to physically damage the physical border barrier, which Israel considers essential to its national security.

A Gazan farmer harvesting by hand in the buffer zone (Kabeer)

A Gazan farmer harvesting by hand in the buffer zone (Kabeer)

More crippling to the fishermen and farmers, however, is the lack of outlet for their goods. Exports through Kerem Shalom Crossing used to account for 85% of the territory’s economy, according to Amir Rotem, but now virtually no goods exit the crossing into Israel. Rotem goes on to suggest that even the products that do pass through eventually reap little profit as the cost of transport  -first through Kerem Shalom, then to an Israeli seaport, until finally the rest of the world – jeopardizes the goods’ economic viability. “It is impossible to export directly such important products,” Del Mar stated following months of investigation into the matter, “as agricultural ones either by land or sea.” The UN report concluded that “the continued ban on the transfer of produce and other goods from Gaza to its traditional markets in the West Bank and Israel has effectively prevented sustainable economic growth.”

With the closing of the tunnels by Egypt, most agricultural and fishing products will be trapped in Gaza and the workers’ income will be decimated. 

Relying on generators for power

It’s 7:00PM in Gaza City, but the densely populated metropolis is already as black as a small village after midnight; power’s out. Silence, however, does not accompany darkness, as the incessant roar of the hundreds of generators is coupled with the monotone croons of hovering Israeli F-16s and Apache Helicopters. As the night progresses, some noise dissipates as the generator’s turn off, allowing for a bit of sleep. Electricity isn’t back, but the generators have run out of fuel.

“There are eight to ten hours of lack of electricity every day in Gaza,” Del Mar reported. “The cuts affect private businesses and homes, health services, waste water treatment plants, and schools.” Amir Rotem set the number of hours at six to eight, but also noted that deep fuel shortages can render the few Gazan generators useless.

Gaza receives its power from three sources: Israel, a lone power plant in Gaza city, and some smuggled in through Egypt. The closure of the Raffah tunnels will further put strain on a population already desperate for fuel. Many of the aforementioned shops and services affected by cuts rely on generators to survive. Without fuel for power, the generators die, businesses and hospitals close, and the economy and people suffer.

More than just powering businesses, the generators are needed to heat homes when electricity runs short, and the lack of fuel from Egypt could result in deaths come wintertime. “When [electricity] cuts are in the evening, especially in winter,” Del Mar complained, “they are really crippling.” During the cuts, the generators must be used to heat homes, but the backup power is often ineffective, particularly when fuel is short. “This unsecured way of heating causes the death of people every winter,” said Del Mar.

Power shortages have also left a boldfaced mark on the Gazan health system. B’Tselem, an Israeli-run human rights watch in the occupied territories, reported in January that inadequate fuel has hampered the Strip’s already struggling health care. Hamas officially provides free health care, but due to lack of supplies the quality is poor at best. Insufficient fuel has led to a decrease in the number of ambulances, an overall decline in medical care, and, according to the B’tselem report, a lack of clean drinking water. The study goes on to note that 32 out of 56 emergency medical centers in Gaza have closed due to power stoppages and that 30% of Gazans do not receive necessary amounts of water.

Grim opportunities ahead

Gazan residents appear to be the ultimate victims of the seven yearlong state of war between Israel and Hamas, deeply affected by the blockade and closing of the tunnels. This is a territory filled with children; Gisha reports that 53% of Gazan citizens are under the age of 18. Their outlook on life has been crippled by the situation. Rotem described the morale of the people as “very low” adding that they face “very grim opportunities in life.”

A land of outcasts since the 1948 war, pro-Palestinian activists view the refugees living in Gaza, 1.1 million in number, as still fighting for their freedom. “They want freedom of movement, freedom to go to school, freedom to have medical care,” said Greta Berlin.

In 2008, Berlin tried to bring humanitarian aid into Gaza. At first she tried to send in funds, however, she was told “no” by Gazans, who wanted her and her crew to instead bring supplies through the less economic and more dangerous naval route, breaking the blockade. Their reasons were simple, encapsulating the breadth of Gazan life. “The boats give us hope,” they told Greta, “the money’s gone in a week.”

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