Sara Roy, London Review of Books
My last visit to Gaza had been in May 2014, just before Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, an assault that resulted in the deaths of more than two thousand Gazans – combatants and civilians – and the destruction of eighteen thousand homes. When I went back less than three years later the changes were evident everywhere. But two things struck me particularly: the now devastating impact of Gaza’s decade-long isolation from the rest of the world, and the sense that an increasing number of people are reaching the limit of what they can endure.
Gaza is in a state of humanitarian shock, due primarily to Israel’s blockade, supported by the US, the EU and Egypt and now entering its 11th year. Historically a place of trade and commerce, Gaza has relatively little production left, and the economy is now largely dependent on consumption. Although a recent easing of Israeli restrictions has led to a slight increase in agricultural exports to the West Bank and Israel – long Gaza’s principal markets – they are not nearly enough to boost its weakened productive sectors. Gaza’s debility, carefully planned and successfully executed, has left almost half the labour force without any means to earn a living. Unemployment – especially youth unemployment – is the defining feature of life. It now hovers around 42 per cent (it has been higher), but for young people (between the ages of 15 and 29) it stands at 60 per cent. Everyone is consumed by the need to find a job or some way of earning money. ‘Salaries control people’s minds,’ one resident said.
The greatest source of political tension between the Hamas government in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is the continued refusal of President Abbas, who controls the purse strings, to pay the salaries of Hamas government employees. I was consistently told that if Abbas wanted to win the support of Gaza’s people all he would have to do is pay the civil servants their salaries. Because he is unwilling to do so – he claims that the money would be funnelled to Hamas’s military wing – he bears a great deal of responsibility for Gaza’s suffering. Abbas’s refusal is all the more galling because he has been paying full salaries – generally between $500 and $1000 a month, a huge sum in Gaza today – to at least 55,000 civil servants in Gaza who worked for the PA before Hamas took control of the territory. These people are being paid not to work for the Hamas government. Paying their salaries costs the PA $45 million a month, money largely supplied by Saudi Arabia, the EU and the US. Paying people not to work has institutionalised yet another distortion in Gaza’s deeply impaired economy. However, Abbas recently cut these salaries by between 30 and 70 per cent to pressure the Hamas government into relinquishing control of Gaza. ‘Either Hamas gives us Gaza back,’ Abbas threatened, ‘or they will have to take full responsibility for its people.’ According to my colleague Brian Barber, currently in Gaza, ‘Abbas’s salary cuts have come like an earthquake.’
A New Low
Need is everywhere. But what is new is the sense of desperation, which can be felt in the boundaries people are now willing to cross, boundaries that were once inviolate. One day a well-appointed woman, her face fully covered by a niqab, arrived at the hotel where I was staying to beg. When asked politely to leave by the hotel staff, she aggressively refused and insisted on staying, obliging the hotel staff to escort her off the property with force. She wasn’t asking to beg but demanding to. I had never seen this before in Gaza. Another day a teenage boy came to our table quietly pleading for money for his family. By the time I got out my wallet, the staff had approached and gently ushered him out. He didn’t resist. He was educated and well-dressed and I kept thinking he should have been at home studying for an exam or out with his friends by the sea. Instead he was asked to leave the hotel and never return.
Perhaps the most alarming indicator of people’s desperation is the growth of prostitution – this in a traditional and conservative society. Although prostitution has always been present to a small degree in Gaza, it was always considered immoral and shameful, bringing serious social consequences for the woman and her family. As family resources disappear, this appears to be changing. A well-known and highly respected professional told me that women, many of them well-dressed, have come to his office soliciting him and ‘not for a lot of money’. (He also told me that because of the rise of prostitution, it has become harder for girls to get married – ‘no one knows who is pure.’ Families plead with him to provide a ‘safe and decent space’ for their daughters by employing them in his office.) Another friend told me that he had seen a young woman in a restaurant trying to solicit a man while her parents were sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behaviour he said: ‘People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.’
And Gaza’s environment is by most measures abnormal. At least 1.3 million out of 1.9 million people, or 70 per cent of the population (other estimates are higher), receive international humanitarian assistance, the bulk of which is food (sugar, rice, oil, milk), without which the majority could not meet their basic needs. In the middle of last year, 11,850 families, or approximately 65,000 people, remained internally displaced (down from a high of 500,000 at the height of the 2014 hostilities), of whom 7500 families or about 41,000 people were in urgent need of temporary shelter and cash assistance. I have written elsewhere about rising suicide rates in Gaza; the means are various – hanging, immolation, jumping from heights, drug overdose, ingestion of pesticides, and firearms. Gaza’s divorce rate, once just 2 per cent, now approaches 40 per cent, according to the UN and local healthcare professionals. ‘There are 2000 domestic disputes a month in Shati camp,’ an UNRWA official reported, ‘and the police cannot cope. The courts alone receive hundreds of complaints every month. The Hamas government cannot deal with the number of problems’ – problems which include increasing drug use.
It’s important to remember that nearly three-quarters of Gaza’s inhabitants are under thirty and remain confined to Gaza, prohibited from leaving the territory; most never have. Amid such disempowerment, young people have increasingly turned to militancy as a livelihood, joining various militant or extremist organisations simply to secure a paying job. Person after person told me that growing support for extremist factions in Gaza does not emanate from political or ideological belief – as these factions may claim – but from people’s need to feed their families. Many, perhaps most of the new recruits to Islamic State-affiliated groups are choosing to join because membership guarantees an income. At the same time, Hamas is desperate to secure enough funds to keep paying the salaries of its military wing, the al-Qassem Brigades, which is also reportedly seeing a swelling of its ranks. It seems that unemployed young men in Gaza increasingly face two options: join a military faction or give up.
‘If the Israelis were smart,’ one religious Muslim told me, ‘they would open two or three industrial zones, do a security check and find the most wanted among us and employ them. Al-Qassem would evaporate very quickly and everyone would be more secure … The mosques would be empty.’ I was told that many young men left al-Qassem after getting a place in one of Gaza’s housing projects, not wanting to turn their new home into a possible Israeli target. ‘What we need is Israeli factories and Palestinian hands,’ a local businessman said. ‘One sack of cement employs 35 people in Gaza; with one worker in Israel you have seven people in Gaza praying for Israel’s security. Imagine a “Made in Gaza” brand. We could market regionally and it would sell like hotcakes. Gaza would benefit and so would Israel. All we want are open borders for export.’ Gazans are entrepreneurial and resourceful – and desperate to work and provide for their children once again. Instead they are forced into demeaning dependency on humanitarian aid, which is given by the very same countries that contribute to their incapacity. The policy is not only morally obscene: it is also outrageously stupid.
The Marginal Advantage of Wealth
Not everyone in Gaza is poor. A small group – the number I kept hearing was 50,000 – is relatively well off, with wealth in some cases deriving from the now almost defunct tunnel trade, which once kept the economy functioning, even thriving, under the pressure of Israel’s blockade. Now that so little is produced in Gaza, the economy depends on them in a different way: the privileged fill the hotels, shopping malls and restaurants which have appeared in response to their demand – restaurants, apparently, are the one type of business still making a profit. Some people argue that this evidence of affluence shows that conditions in Gaza are much better than they are usually portrayed; others have called it a ‘welcome sign of normalcy’. But like the vast majority of Gazans, the rich are also constrained and confined, enraged and demeaned by their inability to live freely and with any sense of predictability. One of Gaza’s wealthiest and most successful businessmen spent an evening with me describing in painstaking detail the restrictions imposed on his business by Israel, which used to be an essential market. ‘The Israelis are destroying my business, my ability to work and why? They squeeze, squeeze, squeeze and towards what end?’ The monied live well but they can’t buy their freedom. This is what binds them to the rest of Gaza, though they have little other common ground with those outside their class. In Gaza the difference between wealth and poverty is very visible, but it’s also very proximate: the distance between the two can sometimes be measured in yards. One evening I went with a Swedish friend to one of Gaza’s best restaurants, packed with well-dressed families, the teenagers all playing on their iPhones. How many of them had been inside al-Shati refugee camp, a short walk from the restaurant? Many – perhaps most – never had.
The people who are really considered privileged in Gaza aren’t necessarily those with a great deal of money. They are people with a regular source of income: until recently, those salaried employees paid not to work by the PA, people working for UNRWA, international NGOs, local public and private sector institutions and those (not many) who are successfully self-employed, usually merchants. People try to help one another, but charity isn’t the simple, unencumbered act it once was. A friend from a prominent Gaza family described his dilemma: ‘After paying my taxes to Hamas, the new fees that spring up all the time, household expenses, food and helping friends, I am depleting my personal funds. Soon I will have to sell some assets to pay the bills. Yes, I am much better off than most people here and I do what I can to help others but where does it stop? The tragedy of this situation is that friends look at you as a source of money. And friendships end when you can no longer provide that money. Think of what it takes to make people behave in this way. No one seems to be considering the pressure it takes to change one’s core values. This is what we have been reduced to. This was never Gaza.’
Hamas, too, is obsessed with the question of survival. As the government’s resources have contracted over the last few years it has tried to compensate for the shortfall in public sector funds by ‘gouging people for money’, as the analyst put it, imposing a range of revenue-generating measures – new taxes, fees, penalties and price increases – that feel extorsive. The price of cigarettes has recently tripled from 8 NIS to 25 NIS; quarterly property taxes have doubled; a new ‘cleanliness tax’ is now charged for street cleaning and sanitation services, and car licences must be renewed every six months at a cost of 600 NIS – an impossible sum for most Gazans. Failure to pay can result in the confiscation of the licence followed by the car. One source explained to me that since few people have the money to pay these taxes and penalties in full, Hamas officials target those who do and have a sliding scale for those of lesser means. These measures seem to be working, at least in terms of collecting revenue. As for Hamas, ‘the pressure they are under, like all of us, is considerable,’ I was told, ‘but they will not break. Instead they have become more vicious. Hamas was not like this before. Extreme self-preservation is taking them far away from politics.’
There isn’t much more Hamas can do to strengthen its control over Gaza: in its own arena, just as with Israel, its control is already total. So its priorities, I was told, are now shifting, from the consolidation of power – itself a diminished aim, considering its earlier insistence on a robust Islamist ideology – to ‘pure survival mode’. There are rumours that tunnel construction has begun again in earnest under Gaza City’s streets. The new tunnels are said to be 150 metres deep, part of a larger, murky infrastructure that, in times of conflict, would ferry the Hamas leadership underground to relative safety. I wasn’t able to verify any of this but some of the people I know and trust in Gaza believe it to be a reality. Assuming they are correct, a conclusion naturally follows: in order to destroy the tunnels, Israel – with Hamas’s de facto consent – would have to destroy entire neighbourhoods. The Hamas leadership must hope Israel would not go to that extreme but it appears willing to take the risk. Hamas’s sense of beleaguerment may also be visible in the way its military wing appears to be an increasing presence in political decision-making and governance – a change that was made clear with the election this year of Yahya Sinwar to head Hamas’s political wing in Gaza. Sinwar, who sat in Israeli jails for more than twenty years, was a founding member of the al-Qassem Brigades. Although it is still unclear what his election will bring to Gaza and to Israel one thing is clear, an analyst said: ‘Gaza is simmering.’
But Hamas has its critics, particularly among the young. On Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp there are commentaries, followed by tens of thousands, critiquing its use of religion as a coercive tool and justification for what can otherwise be seen as misconduct. Meanwhile, volunteerism appears to be growing, and a range of initiatives have emerged that attempt to address Gaza’s predicament in their own way. Without a functioning central authority these efforts are inevitably limited but they are persistent. They include the renewal of small-scale agriculture, human rights monitoring, mental health rehabilitation, environmental repair and technological innovation. Much emphasis was always put on the last. Gaza has a talented, tech-savvy population; if ever there were peace, an American investor said, ‘Gaza’s internet sector would become another India.’ The number of internet users in Gaza is reportedly equal to that of Tel Aviv, and a small number are already subcontracting for companies in India, Bangladesh and Israel.
But the really striking feature of life in Gaza is the attenuation of ambition. Given the immense difficulties of everyday life, mundane needs – having enough food, clothing, electricity – exist for many only at the level of aspiration. People have become more inward-looking and focused, understandably, on self and family. When a friend of mine asked some of his students what they really wanted their answers included: ‘a new pair of trousers’, ‘a new shirt’ and ‘ice cream from the shop on Omar al-Mukhtar Street’. Why make plans when there is no possibility of realising them? I was also struck by how little the young but well-educated adults I met knew of the first intifada and the Oslo years, absorbed as they were by the present day. In other words, not only do they feel disconnected from a possible future, they are also cut off from their very recent past – and the many important lessons contained in it. ‘People are afraid to enter the world or they enter it defensively with weapons,’ an economist told me. ‘Our openness to the world is narrowing and more and more people are afraid of leaving Gaza because they don’t know how to cope with the world outside. People must be taught to think more broadly. Otherwise we are lost.’
‘What do the Israelis want?’ I was asked the question again and again, with each questioner looking at me searchingly, sometimes imploringly, for an answer, for some insight they clearly felt that they didn’t have. Why is Gaza being punished in so heartless a manner, and what does Israel truly hope to gain by it? One well-placed person claimed that ‘50 to 60 per cent of Hamas’ would give up any claim to Jerusalem in return for the Rafah border crossing being opened up again. Israel has exhausted all the ways it has of putting pressure on Gaza. When Gazans were allowed to work in Israel, Israel had leverage: it would seal the borders and extract whatever concessions it sought. Now even that leverage is gone, and all that remains is menace – a policy towards Gaza that emerges not from any sense or logic but from what Ehud Barak once called ‘inertia’. According to an article in Haaretz, Israel’s ‘security cabinet has not held a single meeting on Israeli policy concerning Gaza for the last four years’. At what point does menace stop working as a form of coercion? What will Israel hope to gain from its next attack on Gaza, when people there already speak about entire families being wiped out as a normal topic of conversation?
If the Israelis were thinking clearly, one person said, ‘everyone could benefit. All they must do is give us a window to live a normal life and all these extremist groups would disappear. Hamas would disappear. The community must deal with … these groups, not IDF tanks and planes. Our generation wants to make peace and it is foolish for Israel to refuse. The next generation may not be as willing as we are. Is that what Israel truly wants?’ In the first six months of 2016, the Ministry of the Interior reported that 24,138 babies were born in Gaza, averaging 132 a day. In August 2016 alone, 4961 babies were born, or 160 a day: more than six babies every hour and one baby every nine minutes. The distance between Gaza City and Tel Aviv is 44 miles. ‘What will Israel do when there are five million Palestinians living in Gaza?’
Sara Roy is based at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. The third edition of her book The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy of De-development was published last year.
Top photo: A Palestinian looks at the destruction in Gaza City’s al-Tufah neighborhood