22 hours in Gaza – suspend disbelief


The Britain Palestine-All Party Parliamentary Group delegation hoped to get into Gaza last Saturday, but the escalation of violence which followed Israel’s assassination of Palestinian militant leader Zuhair al-Qaisy stopped us doing so. Back in El Arish, Sinai, we tried to find out what was going on from contacts inside Gaza, from observers outside and – like so many others from the increasingly disturbing tweets and news reports that were hitting the web.

On Saturday evening, I wrote down my own thoughts in a blog which was published on the Huffington Post.

We finally entered Gaza through its Rafah border crossing with Egypt mid Sunday morning and spent the next 22 hours in the strip. As ever, Gaza was surreal. Things that logically could not sit side by side do so. To understand the place, you have to suspend disbelief. For the next 22 hours we did so.

First the danger. The biggest escalation of violence was taking place since Israel’s Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza in the winter of 2008/9. Over the weekend 25 Palestinian were killed and at least 80 wounded in a series of Israeli airstrikes. Around 110 rockets were fired into Southern Israel by militant groups over the same period. Over 90% of the rockets Israel aimed at stopping were intercepted by their Iron Dome missile defence system before landing, but one Israeli was still seriously wounded with seven others slightly hurt by rockets or incidents related to them.

As we drove towards Gaza City we heard for ourselves the whoosh of rockets and saw the vapour trails they left behind. Overhead, there was the constant hum of Israeli drones. The threat of more Israeli airstrikes ever present.

So with all this going on, presumably the people of Gaza were on lock-down, venturing out only when absolutely necessary, wondering if the next Israeli “targeted assignation” missile would hit their street? Wondering if the escalation meant another Operation Cast Lead was coming?

Suspend disbelief.

It’s not like that. Yes, all these dangers were real and they knew it, but people were going about their lives as normal. The schools were open, the markets were buzzing, and the streets were busy. Because “normality” means something different in Gaza. The situation had got more serious that weekend, but different scales of escalation happen every few months. And when you live under blockade for years on end, when you know an Israeli airstrike could come at any time anyway, then the way you balance risk and danger changes. If the airstrike comes, you’ve got no real defence against it anyway. Hardly anyone has a bomb shelter to run to if the drone overhead targets your neighbourhood. So the people of Gaza just get on with it.

What of the Israeli blockade? I was last in Gaza almost exactly three years ago – just a couple of weeks after the Israeli tanks had pulled out. Large areas had been left devastated and it was clear just looking around that the continuing blockade was leaving acute shortages in a number of essentials, ranging from fuel to medical equipment and construction materials.

Three years on and Israel’s blockade of Gaza has eased a bit but not much. The UN reports imports are still less than 40% of their pre 2007 levels with exports from Gaza’s shattered private business sectors even more massively restricted. When you pass a fuel station you still see long queues, both of vehicles and pedestrians, carrying jerry-cans.

So is Gaza 2012 a place where the shelves in the shops are bare, where there is no building going on and where a quick look suggests a people that are starving? No it isn’t. There are stocks in the shops and in parts of the strip it looks like there is something of a building boom going on.

Why? Suspend disbelief.

Tunnels under Gaza’s border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula bring huge quantities of supplies in. As we stopped near the entrance of one of those tunnels, we saw truck after truck pass by carrying cement mix, pipework, car parts, food and an array of boxes carrying household goods. You see a fair number of newish cars in Gaza and an even greater number of new motor bikes. They haven’t come in overland through the crossing that Israel directly controls or overland through the Rafah crossing with Egypt that is only for people, not freight. They don’t come in by air; Gaza’s airport was destroyed by Israel in an attack long before Hamas was in control. And they don’t come in by sea. Israeli gunboats make sure of that patrolling as close as 3km off the coast. The truckloads we saw had come through the tunnels.

The tunnel economy is big business – for some. A few are making millions from it. You can get pretty well anything you want in that way – but only if you are able to pay. And prices are kept high by those who make money from the tunnel economy. So if you are poor, you have had it. Unemployment is over 25% and 38% of young people are without a job. For those in work, the average wage has declined by 20% in six years. The result, 38% of Gazans now live in poverty, 54% are food insecure and 75% are dependent on food and other handouts, mainly from the UN.

We met Hamad who was born 73 years ago in Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. Nobody knows for sure whether his family were deliberately expelled when Israel was created in 1948 or whether – as most families with children would – they fled the fighting at that time. Either way, they have never been allowed back. Hamad, his children and grandchildren have lived as refugees in Gaza ever since.

Hamad has never been wealthy but Gaza is a narrow strip of land alongside the Mediterranean and for decades he and his family made a reasonable living from fishing. For the past six years though, Israeli gunboats have prevented Hamad and other Gaza fishermen from fishing more than 3km off shore. As a result, the waters close to the coast are now overfished as well as being polluted by 50 to 90 million litres of partially treated sewage which is pumped into the sea each from a sewage system that doesn’t work. Hamad showed us his morning’s catch. One box of fish about the size of sardines. He told us that before the blockade, they would have brought in over a hundred. What he will get from that box won’t even cover the running costs of his boat. His family now survives on food aid from the UN.

Just off the quayside, though, there is a bustling wholesale fish market with traders bidding for boxes of fish of different shapes, sizes and breeds. The prices they will fetch are high. They have been brought in from Egypt via the tunnels.

Nobody knows exactly who the shadowy figures are that run the tunnel economy, but it is clear that Hamas get a sizeable cut from the operation. Hamad and his family can’t afford most of the domestic goods which come in but those with more money probably can, including those involved in the trade itself, with a salary from the PA or one of the NGOs, or with a position in one of the armed groups.

Away from international scrutiny, armed groups can also get their weapons through the tunnels. It’s a dangerous journey because collapses are frequent, but people can slip in and out as they like. We were told USD50 is the going rate.

Money made from, and materials brought in through, the tunnels are also fuelling a construction boom. But if you are the UN, you can’t use the tunnels. They are illegal and their proceeds are used to fund groups accused of being responsible for terrorism. So you have to use the legitimate crossings to import the materials you need to help rebuild the homes still left shattered by Israeli airstrikes. To build more classrooms for the 85% of schools that are so overcrowded that they have to teach Gaza children in shifts. But those crossings are controlled by Israel and subject to blockade. You’ll only get a fraction of what you need through and you’ll have particular problems with items that Israel deems could be diverted for terrorist purposes – like pipework for example. Probably a bit like the hundreds of pipes we saw coming in from the tunnels on the back of heavy trucks.

Even if the goods you need are approved by Israel for import, the chances are that procedure at the crossings will cause delay. The UN estimates that in Gaza today, in the legitimate economy, about one third of the items on the essential drug list are out of stock.

But all this is about what comes in and what the international community funds through aid. Why can’t Gaza have a functioning economy of its own? Because fishermen like Hamad are not allowed by Israel to fish more than 3km off shore, because 35% of Gaza’s agricultural land is designated restricted areas by Israel where those entering are liable to be shot on sight from watchtowers along the border and when virtually no exports can get through Israel-controlled crossings through to the rest of the internationally proposed Palestinian state in the West Bank.

So put together, if you are a Palestinian without money or influence with an armed group, or if you want to operate legitimately, Israel’s blockade will collectively punish you in the name of combating terrorism. If you’re not in any of those categories, you will probably get what you need through the tunnels. Of course, you may run the risk of being hit by one of Israel’s targeted airstrikes. But if you are a Gazan who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, you or your children could be hit by one of those anyway – as happened last weekend.

So go to Gaza and suspend disbelief. We were only there for 22 hours. But that was enough to understand that it’s not suspension of disbelief that the people of Gaza need. It’s the lifting of the blockade and of Israel’s apparatus of occupation. It’s what the people of Gaza have a right to expect the international community to insist on. And, by undermining the tunnel economy, it would further the cause of peace.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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