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A Voice from Gaza: Coping with the Siege

by S. Jean
Gaza City

Boom! I can feel a rumble under my feet and hear the windows clatter lightly in our two-bedroom apartment. My husband and I live on the third floor of an apartment building in Rimal, regarded as a safe neighborhood in Gaza City. The Gaza Strip is tiny, only 140 square miles, and we can easily hear explosions, even those a couple towns away.

My husband, born and raised in Gaza, doesn’t even flinch at the sound of the explosion. We don’t look at each other or say anything. Even in just the six months I’ve lived in Gaza, I too have become accustomed to the sounds of bombs, heavy gunfire, missiles, Qassam rockets, F-16s, Apache helicopters. One of our friends once described a radio program he heard, where they were interviewing a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He described how Palestinians react to shelling: “A bomb was dropped [in a residential area] and when I circled back around, I saw a group of Palestinian men playing cards on the roof of a house. The bomb had fallen on their street so they got up to look at the damage. After they saw it [the damage], they went back to playing their card game.”

You name it… it’s all a normal part of our lives here in Gaza. And little stops us, and everyone else, from going about our day-to-day activities. After all, it’s only 7:30 in the morning and we are getting ready to go to work. We don’t even check the TV for news about the blast.

On our way to work, it has become increasingly difficult to find a taxi. This is a reflection of the ever-tightening siege imposed on the Gaza Strip since June 2007 by the Israeli government: a severe shortage of gasoline and cooking gas has nearly stopped taxis and private cars from running. (The Israeli government first began the siege in 2000, shortly after the start of the Second Intifada, or uprising. When Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, the siege worsened dramatically and has caused a humanitarian crisis that has crumbled forty years of development. In the coming days, the Israeli government has agreed to loosen restrictions as part of a truce agreed upon by Hamas. For more information on the siege, click here.) Since gasoline, or benzene as they call it here, was the first energy resource to become scarce, people adapted their cars to run on cooking gas. Everyone I know has a gas cylinder in the trunk of their car. If you’re lucky enough to find gas in Gaza, the black market price is 60 shekels per liter. At today’s sobering exchange rate, that equals about $18 USD per liter, or roughly $72 USD per gallon.

But now even cooking gas is becoming scarce, causing long lines at distributors. My brother-in-law recalls one of his experiences waiting in line, “One time I waited from 4am to 10pm standing in line and didn’t get gas. I left my cylinders and came back the next day. I waited the whole day, all day, and couldn’t get any [gas]. So, I came the third day and it was my turn in line. I managed to fill a few cylinders. They filled them only half way. Since the start of this crisis, they don’t fill them all the way. On top of that, it takes me three days to find enough gas in order to run my taxi for three days.”

My colleague, whose husband is a doctor, told me that a man stabbed his brother over a cylinder of cooking gas. Recently, Gazans have turned to dumping used vegetable oil in tanks to run their car engines. It’s working, but causes damage to engines and makes people sick from the fumes. My husband and I can even distinguish which cars run on oil that was used to fry fish or potatoes.

Still, few cars can run on vegetable oil and we have walk to work most days. I know that exercise is good for us. For most people here, however, the transportation crisis has stopped them from going to work or school. It has also prevented garbage collection, stopped ambulances from picking up the sick and wounded, and put taxi cab drivers out of work. Running a taxi is one of the last job opportunities left in Gaza since the siege began eroding the private sector.

Throughout the day, we experience sporadic to frequent electricity cuts, again due to the fuel crisis. Our office has a generator, but will soon run out of fuel. We had a staff meeting just last week that discussed how to work without our computers. Sometimes we hear small explosions, F-16s flying by, or gunfire in the background, but rarely anything to really worry about. During our lunch breaks, the food available in shops has become increasingly scarce, and with fewer and fewer options. Even hummus, a main staple of the Palestinian diet, cannot be found on some days. Local food manufacturers have shutdown since the blockade began because they cannot get certain goods imported. So unless the Israelis allow in some of their hummus, we cannot find it on the shelves. You can imagine how people feel about giving money to the occupier.

At the end of the day, we return home and along the way watch the donkey carts transport produce from farms to the markets in the city. If we have electricity at home, we can enjoy TV, but that’s only if the reception isn’t fuzzed by the unmanned (and armed) Israeli spy drones circling in the sky. There’s not much to do for entertainment in Gaza. When we go to the market on the weekends (Friday and Saturday for people in the Middle East), we find the same vegetables and fruits every time: tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, apples, oranges, bananas, onions and a few other seasonal items. The only difference is the prices, which keep climbing due to scarcity. My husband, who loves to eat beef, can no longer buy it since the price has tripled. He has only bought two kilos since I came to Gaza six months ago.

When we hope for change in Gaza, all we can say is in’shallah, or god-willing. Hope is all but disappeared for Gazans these days. The siege has nearly collapsed the economy, put thousands out of work, left many hungry and without medical treatment, and restricted the movement of nearly all Gazans in and out of the Strip. We are blockaded in here by a wall and fence guarded by the Israeli army. It also controls the borders, exit and entry points, air space and territorial waters.

Almost everyday, they drive in bulldozers to raze farmland, uproot citrus and olive trees that whole families depend on for their livelihood, and destroy poultry farms. Tens of thousands of chickens have been exterminated in Gaza this year by these bulldozers, and the total blockade on Gaza means that chickens (and all other fresh meats) cannot be imported.

What are the 1.5 million people living here supposed to eat? What does the world think is happening in Gaza? Why is the world silent?

These are the types of questions that Palestinians ask themselves and each other everyday.

As a result of this humanitarian crisis, and impending disaster, average Gazans spend their days at home. My in-laws live in a refugee camp near Gaza City. Sometimes they have electricity. Out of the seven adults living there, only two of them have a job. One works at a pastry store, earning less than $10 USD a day, just enough to buy that day’s cigarettes and food. The other, who waits in line for gas to run his taxi, supports his wife and two children along with the rest of the family living in the house.

How do they survive? Since they are refugees, forced out of historical Palestine in 1948, they receive food aid from the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). This includes food, oil, sugar, and sometimes, dry milk. My husband has also supported them over the years. And they cannot leave Gaza to get a job.

Since the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel barred Palestinians from working in Israel. Due to the restriction on movement, also imposed by the Israeli government, Gazans cannot leave the Strip to work (or even study) in other countries. Even if they could leave, it is important to remember that they shouldn’t have to. My in-laws are already refugees and the life they have in Gaza is the only life they’ve ever known.

Despite the situation, Gazans aren’t completely depressed. My husband and I enjoy playing with our nieces and nephews, and sometimes we barbeque with friends. And people, especially my in-laws, have not lost their faith. In fact, their faith is as strong as ever. One day, in their lifetime or the next, they are sure that these hard times will pass and Gaza will become beautiful and peaceful again.

This is life in Gaza, and there are many stories to tell. I hope to shed some light on the reality here. I welcome your questions and comments and hope that those reading these articles will keep an open heart and mind.

In the next part of this series, S. Jean addresses the incredibly complex political climate in the Gaza Strip. From the internal rivalries (especially between Fatah and Hamas) to the resulting tensions and armed conflict with Israel, Part II in A Voice from Gaza will focus on the attitudes of Gazans and explore how the ongoing conflict affects their outlook on life and the prospects of peace. – Ed.

About the Author
Born in the United States, S. Jean was raised on a small family farm in North Dakota. She credits her student exchange experience in Russia as a pivotal point in her life, where she developed a love for travel, cultures, and languages. S. Jean spent a year doing national service with AmeriCorps *NCCC. She has a B.A. in Political Science from Minnesota State University Moorhead and a M.A. in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies. After completing her studies, she moved to the Gaza Strip to be with her husband, who is from Gaza. She volunteers for an NGO in Gaza and is a private research consultant on socioeconomic development.

In her exclusive series for The WIP, A Voice from Gaza, S. Jean draws
attention to how Gazans live under occupation and cope with an ever-worsening humanitarian crisis. Her contributions are written in honor of her mother’s memory, who taught her the importance of lending a hand to “our fellow sisters.”

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