Posted by: Lister | January 27, 2008

Egypt seems to have relented

This hasn’t been what Egypt wanted. They’ve tried to limit the movement of Palestinians out of Gaza by forming Human chains out of border guards. But it didn’t work. Hamas simply opened up another section of the border.

Palestinians now using cars and lorries:

They came and went in lorries and gas tankers, in flatbed trucks loaded with cattle and sheep, in coaches and mini-buses, loaded by the dozen in the backs of trucks, all shuttling across Gaza’s southern border. Four days ago they went on foot like refugees, but yesterday for the first time the trucks drove through and it felt like an unstoppable momentum had been reached.

They carried generators and goats, diesel and huge piles of carrots and cabbages. But most of all they carried the message that Israel’s long blockade of Gaza is over.

[…] So walls fall down. Not only physically, blasted down on Gaza’s border with Egypt last week with dynamite and cutting torches, but in the mind as well.

[…] What seemed on Wednesday to be a huge, but perhaps brief, phenomenon dampened by the attempt by Egyptian riot police who moved later in the week to try to reseal the border, by this weekend was taking on the impression of a seismic and unstoppable reordering of the facts of the Middle East.

The four short days since Hamas blew down the six-metre metal border wall built by Israeli soldiers before the withdrawal of Israeli settlers and troops has forged a confusing new reality on the ground. What first was being treated as a holiday from the oppressive conditions of Gaza under Israeli siege, by yesterday was taking on the attributes of an entitlement – one for long refused.

But its uncertainties – in particular what it means in the long run for Gaza – do not change a simple fundamental fact. For the first time in years Gazans feel free. And when Gazans remember the last week it will be in two halves.

What will separate it in people’s memories will be the cold and overwhelming notion of Israel’s blockade that is lifted – at least for now. What they will remember will not simply be the condition of unemployment and deprivation that have gathered pace but the slow, corrosive degradation of a society that has accelerated since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, with the closing of Israel’s labour markets to Palestinian workers.

It is something that a few brief days of ‘festival’ – as many Gazans described the extraordinary scenes last week as they poured into Egypt to shop and visit relatives – cannot solve overnight. And which they cannot fix alone.

It is exam day at al-Azhar University. In the women’s campus, a hundred or so girls sit in the chill winter morning, some still cramming from notebooks for exams that mean little in a place where a degree does not mean a future. In his office, Mkhaimar Abu Sada, a political scientist, talks about the years of the blockade. He believes Gaza’s problems cannot simply be traced to the recent tightening of the closure on Gaza by Israel two weeks ago to complete closure – ostensibly in response to an increase of attacks from home-made Qassam missiles – aimed at the nearby Israeli town of Sderot.

He believes Gaza’s problems are the consequence of a longer-lasting pattern of behaviour whose wounds and deformities are beyond transformation overnight. ‘Since September 2000 and the beginning of the second intifada the Israelis stopped using Palestinian labour. Those going to the “other side” could earn between three and five times as much as labourers in Gaza. It was hugely important to Gaza.

‘It had a huge economic impact. The figures now show that we now have unemployment running at in excess of 55 per cent, and 80 per cent of the population lives below the World Bank’s poverty level.’

But it is only part of a history of Gaza’s decline. In truth that began with the al-Nakba – ‘the Catastrophe’ – as Palestinians call the Arab-Jewish war of 1948 that saw the establishment of the state of Israel. Then, Gaza’s population of 80,000 was swollen by the influx of 200,000 refugees, whose descendants occupy Gaza’s UN-run string of camps.

Occupied by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, which seized it from Egyptian rule, the long years of direct Israeli rule ended with the Oslo peace accords that failed to see the end of Israeli settlement within the Gaza Strip. That only ended with Israeli’s unilateral ‘withdrawal’ in September 2005 that left Israel still largely in charge of access to Gaza, its airspace and access to the sea. Israel provided two-thirds of Gaza’s electricity, policed the land routes into which fuel, medicines and raw materials must pass, and controlled access of Palestinians to labour markets – Gaza’s population was in effect imprisoned.

Never wealthy, Gaza’s economic collapse was rapidly accelerated following the election in 2006 of the militant Hamas in the Palestinian elections in Gaza and the West Bank. Amid factional fighting between Hamas and the previously dominant Fatah, and a widespread breakdown in law and order, Hamas finally assumed power from Fatah in a few days of violence seven months ago. Israel’s response was to declare a Hamas-led Gaza a ‘hostile entity’, further strangling a sealed off Gaza Strip and leading to severe shortages of cement, cigarettes and other basic goods, in a move that further deepened poverty.

That noose was tightened even harder this month after a rise in rocket attacks led Israel to impose a complete closure on the Gaza Strip – relenting later to allow in some fuel and humanitarian supplies amid international horror at what was being done to Gaza as a whole. But deep and lasting damage had been inflicted, long before the events of the last week.

For the consequence of the longer-term blockade of the Gaza Strip – measuring just 40 kilometres by 10 – has been a far-reaching social fragmentation going deeper even than the political and clan violence that plagued Gaza before Hamas took power. For as the economic screw has been turned by Israel on Gaza, domestic violence, divorce and child abuse have increased to levels previously unheard of in a society where the family is a basic building block.

‘One of the main problems,’ says Sumya Habeeb, who works in marriage counselling in Gaza, ‘is that wives do not understand why their husbands are sitting around not earning any money. It is one of the major causes we are seeing both of domestic violence and wives returning to their parents. There is tremendous stress in marriages, not least for those men who worked in the Palestinian security forces before the Hamas takeover and who lost their jobs.’

Gaza’s great migration shows no signs of solving its longer-term problems. Instead, in the short term it may exacerbate its already deep economic woes if a more equitable solution to the Gaza question is not worked out.

The article above was written by Lisa, a humanitarian worker in partnership with Oxfam.

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