The Guardian reports on and about Gaza throughout the day, digging beneath the headlines to find out what impact Hamas’s rule and economic and political isolation from Israel has had on Gaza’s 1.7m inhabitants
• Gaza Live editor’s note: why we are doing this • Video: Gazan children talk about their hopes for the future • Gallery: Life in Gaza
7am: This month is the fifth anniversary of Hamas securing control of the Gaza Strip and Israel tightening its blockade. The Guardian will be reporting on and about Gaza for the next 12 hours, to dig beneath the headlines to find out what the impact of Hamas rule and economic and political isolation from Israel has had on Gaza’s 1.7m people. Through text, video, audio and pictures from our correspondents on the ground, we will be telling their stories and also carrying interviews, blogposts and commentary about Gaza.
Although our correspondents and bloggers will be reporting live throughout the day, some of the material, including many of the films and some of the interviews, has been recorded in the weeks leading up to Gaza Live day.
Five years ago this month, following Palestinian legislative elections in which Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and removed Fatah officials from office, Israel and Egypt announced a heightening of the blockade of the Gaza Strip. Although some aspects of the restrictions on the flow of goods and people into Gaza have been eased by Israel and Egypt since 2010, many believe the blockade still amounts to a collective punishment of the Gazans. By live blogging a day in Gaza we are attempting to show what everyday life is like there for its 1.7 million people.
And here Harriet Sherwood, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, talks about her own experiences covering Gaza, and the reasons for this blog.
Gaza has made many headlines in the past five years. But the experiences of ordinary people trying to go about their daily business are often obscured behind the frequent rockets, bombings, shootings and demolitions.
Now, in a unique venture for a mainstream news organisation, the Guardian is attempting to redress that. Over 12 hours, we will tell the stories from Gaza on our website, which we hope will draw a picture of life behind the fences and walls. Some of this material has been gathered over recent days, but much of it will be reported and published in real time during the course of the day.
Welcome to Gaza Live.
7.20am: Among those hardest hit by the blockade are Gaza’s fishermen, who are restricted to three nautical miles from the shore. Harriet Sherwood is at the fishing port, where I’ve just spoken to her.
Good morning from Gaza, where I’m at the fish market. This used to be a thriving, bustling place but in the past five years supplies of fish have dwindled.
Munir Abu Hassira, 48, is standing over his modest display of sea bass, snapper, sardines and denis. He comes from a fishing family stretching back generations.
“Supplies have dropped by 80%,” he says. “We used to export fish to Israel. Now we can’t sell a single fish there. Instead we are importing from Egypt and Israel.”
The blockade, he said, was punishing ordinary people. “It’s hard for us to feed our families.”
Earlier, I spoke to fisherman Hussam Baker. These days, he thinks 30 boxes of fish is a good haul. But it is only a tenth of his regular catch a few years ago, and the fish are small and almost worthless.
“The income from this boat feeds 100 people,” said the 41-year-old fisherman who followed his father and grandfather out to sea as a teenager, gesturing at his trawler. But since Israel imposed a sea blockade of three nautical miles to prevent weapons being smuggled to Gaza, many are going hungry.
The permitted area – just 15% of Gaza’s waters – is being depleted of fish, and boats which venture beyond the limit are forced back by patrolling Israel gunboats. According to Oxfam, there have been 26 incidents since the beginning of this year of the Israeli navy opening fire on Gazan fishermen.
Around 3,800 fishermen were working off the Gaza coast before the blockade. This year, says Oxfam, the figure may have plummeted to 400 as the three-mile limit has been compounded by fuel shortages.
Baker gets a government fuel quota of 300 litres each week. “But that lasts a maximum of two days.” He then resorts to the black market, paying more than double the 2.5 shekel per litre official price. On top of that is the cost of maintaining his boat.
It’s a heavy outlay for vastly-reduced returns. Baker and his 20-man crew are grateful if they make 1,000 shekels (£165) between them from a fishing trip.
Under the 1993 Oslo accords, Palestinian fishermen were permitted to fish up to 20 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza. Israel imposed a limit of three nautical miles in 2007 as part of its land and sea blockade of Gaza after Hamas took control of the territory. But fishermen and aid agencies say that in practice the limit is enforced even closer to shore.
The Israeli military says there are “significant security risks along the coast” and that blockade is in accordance with international law.
7.52am: A Gaza Q&A:
What happened five years ago?
After Hamas won a majority in elections in January 2006, a shaky unity government was established with Fatah. Then five years ago this month, the rival factions fought a bloody battle for control of Gaza, which ended in victory for Hamas. Israel responded by drastically tightening its siege of the territory, blocking most imports, all exports and restricting the movement of people.
What was the impact?
The effect on Gaza’s economy was devastating. Israel allowed entry to Gaza only of goods “vital for the survival of the civilian population”. Factories and workshops closed, unemployment rose, farmers were unable to sell their produce outside Gaza, hospitals struggled to obtain drugs and equipment, aid agencies warned of a humanitarian disaster. A large-scale smuggling route, via tunnels to Egypt, sprang up, enabling Gaza to obtain most of its needs through the black market.
Didn’t Israel relax the blockade two years ago?
After Israel shot dead nine Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara, part of an international flotilla attempting to break the siege, Israel came under huge international pressure to ease its blockade. It began allowing food, consumer goods and some raw materials into Gaza, but it still bans items – such as construction materials – deemed to be of potential military use. It has continued to ban almost all exports. Around 25 trucks now leave Gaza each month, compared to an average of 2,000 trucks a month before June 2007.
Can people get in and out of Gaza?
Israel restricts passage to “exceptional humanitarian cases with an emphasis on urgent medical cases”. Around 3,000 permits are now issued each month, compared to 500,000 in September 2000. The border crossing to Egypt reopened two years ago.
Did Israel’s strategy undermine Hamas?
Many analysts say that the the siege of Gaza had the converse effect of entrenching Hamas’s grip on the territory.
Is Gaza still under occupation?
Israel has had no permanent presence inside Gaza since it withdrew troops and settlers in 2005. But it controls its borders, airspace and waters, and regularly mounts military operations in response to rocket fire. Israel says it no longer occupies Gaza, but the United Nations and European Union maintains it is still occupied territory.
What has Hamas rule been like for the people of Gaza?
Many people say internal security has improved. But Hamas has repressed political opposition, restricted free speech and the right to protest, and only allows Hamas-controlled newspapers to circulate. It has also attempted to impose Islamic mores, such as dress codes and rules on association between unrelated men and women, on an already socially-conservative culture.
What happened in the 2008-09 war?
Israel launched a three-week military onslaught on Gaza on 27 December 2008 in response to escalating rocket fire. Around 1,400 Palestinians, including many civilians, were killed and around 5,000 people wounded. Thirteen Israelis were killed (four by friendly fire). Many buildings, including homes, schools and medical facilities, were destroyed or badly damaged. Since the end of the war, from which Hamas emerged intact but weakened, the organisation has been wary of any further large-scale military confrontation with Israel.
Is Hamas still firing rockets at Israel?
Hamas has largely adhered to a ceasefire since the end of the war, but rockets continue to be fired from Gaza by other militant groups. According to the Israeli Defence Forces, more than 270 rockets have landed in Israel this year.
What happens next?
Hamas and Fatah have agreed to a reconciliation process that could lead to fresh elections some time in the future. However, many observers are deeply sceptical about whether either side really wants reconciliation. Israel says it hopes to further liberalise sanctions on Gaza but that security is the prime consideration. Some analysts say Israel is now enacting a policy of isolation and separation rather than a strict blockade.
7.55am: The start of summer means in Gaza what it does in Britain, writes Phoebe Greenwood: exam season. But for students here, the frenzy of last-minute cramming and the pressure to perform is even more acute. The stakes are higher.
It’s 10am in Gaza City and Alaa Al-Ashi, 17, has less than 24 hours until her first exam tomorrow morning: religion. This is the first of 10 exams she’ll sit in the next two weeks. She says she has been studying day and night for the past few weeks and looks pale. But she’s sacrificed 10 minutes to drink some strawberry juice and speak with me.
“I think I’m almost ready,” she says, ripping a tissue to shreds in her hands.
Because of the power cuts, Alaa has been studying at night with a torch. It’s strained her eyes but she’s managed. She comes to study during the day at her grandmother Safa’s house because she shares a room with her four younger brothers. Safa brings a constant supply of sugary tea.
“I’m most worried about English. I want to be a journalist and I need 70% to get into the course.”
The Tawjih – or leaving certificate – is an enormous deal in Gaza. The names of every student are published alongside their final marks in the paper.
“It’s like a ghost haunting all of them from the very first day of the year. For these girls, it feels as if it is the most important year of their lives – one that will determine whether they will be a success or a failure in life” says Amani Ayoub, 29, who teaches and exhausting double shift at the girls’ government secondary school in Al Nasser in Gaza City.
“Even for years before, girls come and ask me will I succeed? A few told me, their fathers had said if they don’t get high marks, they will be married off to anyone.”
Almost 450,000 students are jammed into Gaza’s 650 schools. Years of desperately poor funding and the destruction wrought by Israeli incursions means the territory’s education system is staggering along with almost all schools operating on a double-shift system – one lot of students in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Amani starts her first shift at 7am, her second at midday and finishes the school day at 5pm. Then she gets started on her mountains of paperwork. And teachers are among the lowest paid professions in Gaza, earning around 1,200 NIS a month. “You have to love teaching otherwise you wouldn’t last a day,” she says wearily.
A major part cause of this poor performance is lack of space and a dire shortage of facilities.
On top of the 250 students and 15 teachers who were killed in Operation Cast Lead, 280 schools and 18 totally destroyed. The Israeli invasion began just as many of the students were sitting down to take exams. Seven universities and colleges were damaged – six buildings fully destroyed, according to Unesco.
But Gaza’s schools were struggling even before the blockade. In 2006, almost 80% of pupils failed to pass mathematics and more than 40% failed in Arabic.
More than 100 news schools need to be built urgently but the chronic shortage in building materials as a result of Israeli restrictions means that in 2010, only three were built. UNRWA – the UN body charged with the welfare of Palestinian refugees – is hoping to build 100 new schools in Gaza. The Israeli authorities have so far given the green-light to relax their tight control on building materials into the Gaza Strip to allow the construction of 52 of these UNRWA school projects.
For those children not in school, whose families can’t afford for them to finish their education, the outlook is particularly grim. The unemployment rate for teenagers aged 15-19 is about 72%, dropping to 66% when they hit 20. Amani says the biggest challenge for teachers is getting their pupils motivated to try.
“They say if I’m going to end up without a job even if I study hard and go to university, what’s the point? I may as well just get married early and have kids. My battle is to try and make them realise they can have both,” she says.
The UN warns that an epidemic of hopelessness among Gaza’s children is pushing the region towards desperation and extremism: “A rapidly growing society, becoming poorer, that is subject to restrictions on education will encourage extremism in its worst forms,” Maxwell Gaylard, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator here, has warned.
Most ambitious young Palestinians in Gaza dream of emigrating and many pin these dreams on the elusive foreign scholarship, to a university in Egypt, Europe and the US. With 50% unemployment, they argue -quite reasonably – that the only chance of a bright future lies outside of the Gaza Strip. For students here, pressure to do well in exams is more than just a matter of academic achievement – it’s a ticket out.
8.14am: Some facts and figures about Gaza:
Size: 360 sq km (139 square miles). Length: 40km long (25 miles). Width: 11km (at widest point).
Population: 1.7 million (43.9% under age of 14).
Life expectancy: 74.1 years.
Fertility: 4.57 children per woman.
Unemployment: 31.5% (58.9% among those aged 25-29). 86.3% of women do not participate in the workforce.
Population below the poverty line: 38% (2010).
Food aid: 62% of the total population relies on international agencies for some food.
https://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=gaza+strip&aq=&sll=31.302022,34.736023&sspn=0.542107,1.056747&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Gaza&ll=31.52256,34.453595&spn=0.541442,1.056747&t=m&z=11&output=embed View Larger Map
Sources: CIA World Factbook, Gisha, United Nations
Palestinian boys play football in front of anti-Israeli graffiti in Gaza City. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/Getty Images
Iyad al-Tom. Photograph: Hazem Balousha for the Guardian
8.48am: Farming, a mainstay of the Gazan economy, has been badly hit by the blockade, in particular the ban on exports which was in place for the three years to June 2010. Since then, Israel has permitted small quantities of strawberries and flowers to be exported to Europe – less than 5% of pre-blockade quantities. But the former markets of the West Bank and Israel remain closed to Gaza. Harriet Sherwood is at a farm near Beit Laihiya in northern Gaza.
Iyad al-Tom offers me sweet cucumbers straight from his plants. Cucumbers are relatively new on his farm, which has been in the family for three generations. They used to grow oranges, lemons and dates, exporting them to Israel.
But first the blockade brought a halt to exports five years ago. Then, during the three-week war in 2008-09, Israeli bulldozers destroyed al-Tom’s trees and the well that served them. Al-Tom replanted his fields with aubergine, peas, okra and potatoes, as well as cucumbers.
But he still can’t export his crops. “Prices are very low here in Gaza because there is so much,” he says. “We used to get three or three and a half shekels for a kilo of cucumber. Now it’s one.” The income from the farm has dropped from $10,000 (£6,477) a month before the blockade to around $1,000.
Gaza’s farming sector has suffered $1bn in direct losses, and $1.5bn in indirect losses, since 2006, according to Hamas agriculture minister Mohamed al-Agha. Around 400,000 olive trees were uprooted during the three week 2008-09 war, and 25% of prime agricultural land has been taken by the buffer zone on the Gaza side of the border with Israel.
The agriculture ministry has developed a 10-year strategy to make Gaza more self-sufficient and organic to reduce the need to import produce and materials, such as fertiliser and pesticides, from Israel.
At Byroha’a Farm, on a former Israeli settlement near Khan Younis, 12,000 date palms were planted almost four years ago in a joint public-private venture. Among its 12 permanent workers is Yusef Agha, 26, who worked on his family’s fields of cucumbers, tomatoes, guava and orange trees until 2008.
“After the blockade started, we couldn’t export anything and the local market was too full. We stopped making money, and I was forced to find paid work,” he says. On the date farm, he earns around 1,300 shekels (£216) a month. “On my land, it was not even half that.”
The export ban is not the only challenge to Gaza’s farmers. According to Oxfam, large stretches of agricultural land are drying up because of a lack of irrigation due to Gaza’s ongoing power crisis. Most of the water that is available has high salinity, and does not meet international standards. The fuel shortage also means farmers are restricting the use of tractors and equipment requiring power.
Iyad al-Tom says he blames the Gaza government for the continuing blockade, and the militants who fire rockets from nearby fields into Gaza for the Israeli military incursions. “Of course I’m angry. We never see the militants, but if we did we would throw stones at them.”
9.02am: The past five years have been difficult ones for Gaza’s five zoos. One used a tin of black paint to transform a pair of donkeys into zebras to “replace” two real specimens that starved to death during the 2008-09 war. Another, the South Forest zoo, has resorted to amateur taxidermy.
Harriet Sherwood visited the zoo earlier this week.
Tarek the tiger paces listlessly up and down his small cage, looking as though life has dealt him a bad hand. And indeed it has. Born in 2008 into a circus in Australia, he was sold to the South Forest zoo in Khan Younis as a tiny cub, shipped to Egypt, where he was passed off to the authorities as a cat, and then dragged through the tunnels to Gaza.
Tarek – not his real name, since the zoo never bothered to give him one – weighed only 2kg then. Now he’s around 275kg, an enormous beast with a shabby coat, sad eyes and a dull life. But at least it is a life. His ladyfriend, who accompanied him through the tunnels, died five months ago – as a result, claims zookeeper Mohamed Owida, of the after-effects of white phosphorous used by Israel during the war. But perhaps misery took a toll too.
Unable to replace the dead tigress, Owida did what people in Gaza do when faced with adversity: he found an creative alternative. After Googling “taxidermy”, he set about stuffing the dead tigress.
But she and her fellow stuffee, a mangy and dusty lioness, are not a pretty sight. Owida, 22, confesses he has some way to go in learning the art of taxidermy, and his efforts were hampered by the lack of correct fluids, “but I couldn’t replace them and I didn’t want to lose them”.
The South Forest zoo opened three months after Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza in 2007. All but a few of the zoo’s 36 species – which include hyenas, wolves, ostriches and chimpanzees – came through the tunnels.
As an Israeli F16 roars overhead, Owida admits that the zoo is not as successful a business venture as the family had hoped. “In the beginning we made more money. But the blockade has increased poverty in Gaza, and it’s hard for many people to find the money for the zoo.” The entrance price is three shekels (50p) per person.
The only visitors to venture up the rutted road through dusty fields during the Guardian’s tour are Tahani Abu Ghali, 35, and her five children. “Their exams are over and they asked for an outing, so I brought them here,” she says. “They are happy to see the animals. It’s like a picnic for them.”
What’s it like to live in Gaza? I get that question so often that answering it becomes tiring. But what is it really like to live in Gaza? Here, I’m going to try to answer the question in five main points.
The political and economic situation in Gaza is unbearable. With 64 years of Israeli occupation, five years under Israeli physical, political and economic siege, five years of political and geographic division between Hamas and Fatah/Gaza and the West Bank, we have enough problems to fill the world.
Simultaneously, unprovoked Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip remain relentless. I don’t have figures, but I have personal experiences. A couple of nights ago, my usual bedtime lullaby was playing – a series of loud explosions, followed by the buzzing of Israeli spying drones. The following morning’s news revealed that Israel bombed a house in one of Gaza’s refugee camps–for no apparent reason- leaving seven injuries, including four children.
There is never a guarantee of safety in Gaza, a truth that does a great job messing with our heads and stability. Not all of Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants were injured and/or suffered the pain/loss of a relative or a friend, but each and every person in Gaza is a direct victim of Israel’s unwavering psychological warfare on the Strip.
Yet, the bigger threat/problem is isolation. Israel’s policies deliberately aim at keeping the Gaza Strip physically isolated from the world, and also lagging behind in the fields of economic, industrial, educational, technological, cultural development. While the results of the latter speak for themselves, the former has dire consequences that include a blindfolded generation with almost no exposure to the outside world, and a world with no exposure to a population that it plays a major role in determining the fate of.
Conclusion? Despite everything, hope exists. There’s nothing easier than giving up on living in a place like Gaza/Palestine, but the real challenge lies in persisting, loving, and believing in Gaza. A common saying here goes: “Love Gaza and it will love you back.” To that end, my friends and I found our own way of loving Gaza collectively: Diwan Ghazza, hosted by Gaza’s only Museum (Almat’haf), we organise independent activities that we feel Gazan youth need, using ourselves as indicators. We started Gaza’s first book, film, and photography clubs, launched a contest for Palestinian bloggers, in addition to several other activities, using nothing but each other’s books, DVDs, and cameras, and the cultural thirst of no less than 200 young Gazans.
Almat’haf is part of a greater effort to save all that remains from Gaza’s glorious past led by my father, Jawdat Khoudary. An exhibition about Gaza’s history is travelling around Europe, and a book about the most important pieces in Khoudary’s collection displayed in the Museum and the Exhibition was published in Gaza last month after 5 years of research. We have also finished renovating an 800+ year old house in Gaza’s Old City and will turn it into Gaza’s first cultural heritage preservation centre. Despite everything, we will keep working towards restoring the glory that once existed in Gaza.
Kamal Abu Shebab
9.57am: Phoebe Greenwood meets Kamal Abu Shebab, who has been a driver in Gaza for more than 17 years, to discuss the effects of the fuel crisis on the territory.
The businessmen that Kamal used to drive from Erez are now driving cabs, because their industries have collapsed. The fuel crisis that has bitten deeply into the territory in the past few months has hit these men and their families hardest, he says.
“More than half of the drivers are staying at home because they can’t get fuel – or they are queuing for eight hours a day at petrol stations to get what they can. After a day sitting in a petrol station, you can get very, very frustrated,” Kamal says.
Gaza’s sole functioning power station shut down again on Wednesday having run out of fuel for the fourth time this year. After weeks of delays, 30 million litres of Qatari oil was being pumped into Gaza yesterday through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing.
“It won’t be enough, but it helps. They’ve already asked for more,” Kamal says, adding the shortages have already been less acute in the past few weeks than earlier this year.
Kamal is sitting in his beautiful garden dripping with grapes, plums and pommegranates in Beit Lahia just 500m from the border with Israel. As the sound of gunfire cracks in the near distance, he tells me that he has 1,000 litres of petrol stored at all times in case of emergencies. Isn’t this a bit of a safety concern, given the regular live fire in the area?
“I’ve kept this store since 2008. It’s dangerous but what can I do? I can’t spend eight hours queuing at a petrol station every day.”
Cars aren’t the only things that have ground to a halt. At night, the streets of Gaza city roar with electric generators powering the homes that can afford them. Shops are lit in a dim candlelight, which would be romantic if it weren’t so frustrating for the shop owners. Mobile phones have run flat across the territory. Sewage pumps have stopped working.
In 2006, an Israeli air strike destroyed six of the power station’s transformers. In 2008, Israel issued an almost total ban on imports of fuel for public sale, leaving Gaza almost entirely reliant on Egyptian petrol brought through the smuggling tunnels in the south and electricity bought from Israel and Egypt.
Around 600,000 litres of diesel and 200,000 litres of petrol for public sale have flowed into Gaza through smuggling tunnels from Egypt. But in February, a row between Hamas and the Egyptian government sparked the worst fuel shortages yet.
A shortage of petrol in Egypt, coupled with the new agenda of the new leadership, produced a demand from Cairo to Hamas that any fuel going into Gaza should be transported officially through the Israeli-run Kerem Shalom crossing.
Hamas, refused, claiming that this new arrangement would grant Israel total control of its fuel supply. It would also mean that Hamas would have pay import tax rather than charge it from the tunnel smugglers. The result was a stalemate that caused Gaza to grind to a halt.
Since February, the power plant has either been operating at one-third of its capability or not working at all, leading to blanket blackouts of up to 18 hours a day. 72% of fuel reserves in Gaza’s hospitals had been used up leaving patients on dialysis, coronary support and in intensive care dangerously precarious.
Aid agencies say drips and drops of fuel from donors across the region will not be enough to solve this ongoing crisis. Oxfam says the only thing that will truly alleviate the problem is a complete lifting of the blockade and an opening of all of Gaza’s crossings. Given these criteria, Kamal says he isn’t likely to give up his petrol stocks any time soon – “I will keep my store because no one knows what will happen in the future”.
10.16am: Emily Bell, the former director of digital content for Guardian News & Media now director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York, discusses how the internet has changed reporting from places such as Gaza.
Browsing the feeds and blogs about Gaza, it is easy to find less professional but more profound snippets of existence that add an element of intimacy to a political story. A camera phone video of a lengthy and ultimately fruitless struggle to ignite a domestic generator, and descriptions of the tedium of charging phones and laptops without a consistent electricity supply; mundane faces, biographies, interests are scattered among hashtags for hunger strikers such as #FreeSarsakAndRikhawi. It is also impossible to flick through these streams as a journalist without thinking about authentication and verification. We saw how the western press, the Guardian included, tumbled into the trap of wanting the Gay Girl In Damascus to be real so badly that it made her so, despite the numerous red flags.
It is the wrong question though to ask whether these bloggers, tweeters and activists can enrich the news cycle. They already do. The more testing question for those who are passionate about informing the world is how the alternative narratives told from the everyday perspective can be more effectively used to inform the situation.
10.24am: Israel says it imposed economic sanctions on Gaza in response to Hamas taking control of the enclave. Two years ago, it eased the restrictions. Harriet Sherwood asked government spokesman Mark Regev (left) to explain the background to Israel’s policy. Regev said:
Sanctions were not a policy, but a response to a new reality. We had a negotiated agreement in place with the Palestinian Authority, called the Movement and Access agreement. One day we woke up and saw on the other side of the crossing not PA personnel but armed Hamas personnel. That had an immediate effect on how we ran the security crossings. With the PA there was a level of trust. Hamas presented a whole series of very serious security challenges.
For example, a container comes to the border. Who checks it’s not full of explosives? The answer is Hamas.
Now there is no doubt as the Qassams [rockets fired from Gaza into Israel] increased, and then we went into the Gaza war three years ago, there was an expansion of sanctions.
But it’s also true to say that in the past two years we’ve moved to liberalise sanctions on Gaza, and indeed we’ve been praised for it. We’ve allowed products into Gaza and expanded exports from Gaza.
But in a case where you have a regime in Gaza that has declared war on every man, woman and child in Israel, whose leaders’ goal is ending [the state of] Israel, a regime in the process of a very serious arms build-up – in that sort of conflict situation, Israeli is entitled to impose economic sanctions. Is it logical to expect from Israel normal economic relations with Gaza when the regime there is so hostile to Israel?
Our goal is to try to hurt the Hamas regime, not to see the people of Gaza suffer. We don’t see the people of Gaza as our enemy. The people of Gaza, like the people of southern Israel, are the victims of this very extreme regime that rules the Gaza Strip.
The Hamas takeover happened immediately after Israel disengaged from Gaza, and the two things are connected. We pulled back to the 1967 line, we took down all the settlements, we evacuated our settlers – and did we get a quiet border and peace and stability in the south? There was supposed to be a disengagement dividend, beneficial to the people of Gaza. But the regime puts conflict and an extremist agenda above that, and sanctions were imposed in a direct response to violence and aggression.
Further liberalisation is our longer-term policy goal. But we had an attack from Gaza last weekend. The regime there is committed to armed struggle against Israel. In that framework it’s difficult to talk about normal economic relations.
Kamal Ashour Photograph: Hazem Balousha for the Guardian
11.05am: Israel’s blockade has had a devastating impact on Gaza’s economy. Last week, Filippo Grandi, head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, said the ban on exports had “completely obliterated” the economy. Harriet Sherwood is at a small business in Gaza City.
I’m with Kamal Ashour, the owner of a small knitwear factory in Gaza City. Dressed in his Friday jalabiya, he shows me around the idle knitting machines in his small unlit workshop, proudly recalling the era when he ran three shifts a day, six days a week, in order to satisfy the demand from his Israeli business partners.
“They wanted everything I could produce. The quality and finish was better than stuff from China, and the price was close. By 2006 I was employing 35-40 workers,” he says.
But then Hamas took control of Gaza and Israeli tightened its blockade of the Strip. Overnight, Ashour could not import materials from his suppliers, and nor could he send his finished garments to be sold in Israel. For three years, the factory ceased production.
Ashour was not alone. Gaza had an estimated 4,000 factories and workshops five years ago. Until 2007, 85% of goods produced in Gaza were sold in Israel or the West Bank, markets which were suddenly closed off. By the time Israel eased its blockade in 2010, only around 500-600 factories were still operating, and unemployment among adult males had shot up to around 40%.
“I tried to keep my workers on, paying them a reduced salary, but in the end I had to let them go,” says the 69-year-old businessman.
His savings went on feeding his family and paying a $400 (£260) per month bill for a container of supplies from Turkey stuck in an Israeli port. Over three years, it amounted to almost $15,000.
After supplies began trickling back into Gaza two years ago, Ashour restarted production for the local market, but only at 20-30% of capacity. Exports remained banned, except for small quantities of flowers and strawberries to Europe. Around 10 truckloads of agricultural produce left Gaza each month at the height of the season, compared to 2,000 per month before the blockade.
But for Ashour and his four sons, a chink of light has recently penetrated the gloom that has enveloped his family business for five years. A British parliamentarian visited the knitwear factory and took some samples home. An order for 4,000 items followed from the online retailer JD Williams, and – under pressure from the British government – the Israelis permitted the shipment of half the consignment last month.
It was a tiny order for a factory capable of turning out 400 items a day but, says Ashour, it was symbolic as the first export of clothing from Gaza for five years. The remaining 2,000 items – bearing labels saying “Made in Palestine” – are piled in the factory awaiting shipment, the cost of which is heavy for Ashour who has not yet been paid the agreed $10 per item for the first tranche. “The cost is more than the benefit so far,” he says.
What he really wants is to be able to renew his commercial relationship with Israeli retailers. “They are not my enemies and I am not theirs,” he says. “An economic connection between us would help the chances of peace. If Israel would reopen the crossings, allow imports and exports, allow Gazans to work in Israel as we used to, it would make a huge impact and reduce the pain.”
11.14am: Harriet Sherwood meets Azza Kafarneh, a 49-year-old mother of four who has spent much of her career promoting women’s rights and democracy, and is wondering why she is being treated like a threat to Israel.
She has been refused permission to enter Israel from Gaza to travel to the West Bank, firstly to complete her master’s degree in democracy and human rights, and latterly to seek treatment for cancer.
“The only reason Israel gives is ‘security concerns’,” she says at her plant-filled 14th floor home in Gaza City. “I’m curious to know what their concerns are.”
She may find out next month. The Israeli military has been given a deadline of early July by the supreme court to reconsider its ban on Azza and three other female master’s students on travelling to Birzeit university in the West Bank. All wish to embark or complete studies in gender issues, democracy and human rights.
At the earlier hearing, according to the Israeli rights organisation Gisha, the state’s lawyer acknowledged it had no security claim against the women but had rejected their applications to travel as part of a general restriction on allowing freedom of movement from Gaza.
Azza embarked on her master’s in 2000. At that time, too, she was refused permission to enter Israel, so she left Gaza through the crossing to Egypt, travelled to Cairo, flew to Amman and then drove to the border between Jordan and the West Bank and from there to Birzeit. The journey via Israel takes about two and a half hours.
But before completing her studies, she returned to her four children who had remained in Gaza. Because of her family responsibilities, she would like a permit that allows her to travel directly and repeatedly between her home and Birzeit so she could return at weekends, for example.
In the past two years, she has needed to seek treatment for cancer outside Gaza, ideally in Israel or the West Bank. “I applied many times for permission from the Israelis but was refused. So every three months I have to go to Jordan, via Egypt, for treatment. It’s very exhausting and very expensive.”
Israel is not alone in refusing Gazans permission to leave. Last year Hamas also blocked the exit of eight school students who had won scholarships to the United States.
11.47am: Harriet Sherwood has spoken to Gaza-based independent analyst Mkhaimer Abusader about the impact of five years of Hamas control and the Israeli blockade. Hamas’s position is more deeply entrenched, its control over Gaza more secure than ever, says Abusader, a political science professor at al-Azhar university. “Those who thought the policy of siege and isolation would break Hamas and break the people of Gaza” were not correct, he says.
Abusader identifies three factors that contributed to the failure of Israel’s policy. First, the tunnels through which food and goods were smuggled from Egypt to Gaza were “a lifeline for three years. They allowed us to survive.”
Second, Israel’s assault on a flotilla of aid ships attempting to reach Gaza two years ago, in which nine activists were killed, led to “enormous international pressure to ease the blockade”.
Third, the revolution in Egypt ousted the Israel-friendly former president Hosni Mubarak. In the aftermath, Egypt opened its border crossing with Gaza. “This broke the final stages of the siege. We are still not connected to the West Bank or Israel, nor allowed to travel freely, we are still suffering and not living a normal life, but we are definitely better off than four or five years ago.”
The Arab Spring has had a big influence on Hamas, says Abusader. “The successes of political Islam in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and the moderate voices of their leaders, have inspired Hamas to adopt a more moderate stance.”
Gaza’s rulers are no longer attempting to enforce some Islamic social codes, for example banning women from smoking shisha pipes in public. “People can now live as they want as long as they don’t cross red lines. Hamas has maybe learnt not to push too much in terms of Islamicising Gaza society.”
But, he points out, there are still restrictions on freedom of speech and protest.
Above all, says Abusader, Hamas wants to avoid a decisive military defeat by Israel. “Hamas after the [2008-09] war is no longer the same as it was before. It has become a much more wise political power. The lesson it learned was: any time it provokes, Israel will retaliate in a massive and disproportionate way.”
The status quo suits Hamas, he says. “Everything is perfect for Hamas in Gaza. They own the place. Order and security is good, reconstruction is under way, there is no major opposition. Their popularity is down a little, but not too much. I’m against Hamas, but you need to give them credit for surviving and succeeding.”
12.06pm: Harriet Sherwood is outside the Kenz mosque in the Rimal area of Gaza City for Friday prayers. I just spoke to her – you can hear the sound of the imam’s prayers in the background.
The mosque is full, and men are lining the surrounding streets with colourful prayer mats spread before them. Friday prayers is the big event of the week for Muslims, and many who don’t routinely pray five times each day usually make it to the mosque on Friday.
The imam’s sermon focuses on the importance of thought. He tells followers that they are accountable to God for their thoughts and actions, and that “the wise person thinks and speaks from the heart”.
“We don’t want a society of the blind, we want people with open eyes who are able to think and see,” he says. He reminds the faithful that God has been generous with his gifts, but they must be used wisely.
There was no mention of politics, which is unusual.
Gaza has not necessarily become more religious in the past five years, but there are more outward signs of faith in dress and behaviour. In the past three years, there has been a mini-boom in mosque construction – often to replace those destroyed or damaged in the three week war in 2008-09. There are around 1,000 mosques in the Gaza Strip.
Although Gaza is overwhelmingly Muslim, there is a dwindling Christian population – around 1,400 out of a total of 1.7m people. Many Christians say they face intimidation, and it is difficult to practice their faith openly.
Following Friday prayers, most head home for a big family lunch, the main meal of the week.
In a couple of weeks, if everything goes as planned, I should be in Tunis to participate in a digital workshop for Arab youth.
But when I woke up a few days ago to an Amman-Tunis flight ticket, I gasped and rubbed my face in disbelief. In order to reach Jordanian soil, I must cross into and through Israel. I instantly contacted my hosts asking them to change the route to Cairo-Tunis.
Although it has always been difficult for Gazans to set foot in the Israeli-controlled territories, it became almost impossible when Hamas took charge of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Exceptions are usually made for patients. However, students and those, like me, wishing only to pass through Israel without even staying there for a single night are constantly denied permits.
But crossing to Egypt is no less a humiliating experience. Last year, shortly after the ousting of Husni Mubarak, it was declared that the Rafah Crossing would be open for travellers permanently. Gazans felt little change. I have been trying to register my name at Gaza’s Ministry of Interior for three weeks now to no avail.
Life under siege continues to be viewed in terms of aid and power shortages in most stories and articles about Gaza. Although this is true, Palestinians in Gaza suffer a lot from the unbearable restrictions forced on their freedom of movement. Furthermore, Gazan markets are flooded with Israeli goods meant to deepen our dependence on and consumerism of Israel’s products.
Many of my non-Palestinian friends who come to Gaza for the first time are surprised how packed the shelves of our supermarkets are. “We thought you were starving!” they say. However, rarely do they notice that most of the products on the shelves are exported to us by our very occupiers.
The freedom of women under Hamas Islamist rule is also an issue that is often discussed in mainstream media. You might be a bit surprised but I’m only one of many young women who go out in the streets without a headscarf covering our heads. Although I rarely smoke hookah, many young girls smoke without provocation in different cafes and areas across the Strip.
Despite all the restrictions, the young people of Gaza continue to use their creativity to overcome the difficult political and economic conditions. Social media, online books, and ground activism have introduced “peaceful resistance” as the most powerful way to advance our cause.
1.06pm: Neveen Halawa crosses the garden of the al-Badia coffee shop in Gaza City wearing a short-sleeved pink T-shirt, tight green jeans and silver sandals, writes Harriet Sherwood. A long plait swings from her bare head. Two fingernails on her left hand are painted blue.
She is not a typical young woman in Gaza, although she’s not as much of a rarity as outsiders might expect. Asked if she faces criticism for the way she dresses, Neveen, 22, laughs and says: “Always.”
“In the street I face harassment. Sometimes I’m asked if I’m a Christian, and sometimes I say yes just to avoid the hassle. My father’s family are always asking me to put on a headscarf, saying, ‘Your reputation will not be good; people will talk about you.'”
Most of her friends – whom she describes as “open-minded and liberal” – decline to cover their heads. Of her immediate family, her three sisters and her mother wear the hijab, but not her grandmother. “The majority of young women in Gaza who are wearing the scarf are doing so because it’s imposed by fathers, brothers and community pressure, not from religious conviction,” she says.
Until a month ago, Neveen a public relations graduate, worked for two years for a Gaza NGO for $150 a month. Then she discovered a recent male recruit was being paid double, and she asked for a raise. “They began making obstacles, so I left.” Since then she has been unemployed.
Life for young women in Gaza is hard, she says. “The atmosphere, the way young people are treated, they try to control us. I want to be free, not controlled by others.”
Her social life revolves around coffee shops and restaurants in the company of other girls. “I’ve never been out in a mixed group. My family wouldn’t prevent me, but people would gossip and my reputation as a girl is very important. I have many friends who are boys. We speak on the phone and shake hands if we meet on the street, but we don’t hang out together.”
She concedes that although women in Gaza are socially restricted, there are good professional opportunities. “The chances of a job is better for women than men these days. Employers want women because they can pay us less.”
Lighting a cigarette – an unusual public act for a woman – she says that, despite disapproval, Hamas has “no influence on my personal life”. But then she adds that she used to dance the traditional Arabic dabka in mixed groups until Hamas banned such activity.
And, she says, there is no way of pursuing her dream of being an actor in Gaza. “Life is different elsewhere. I want to work, I want to live outside. I’m very connected to my family but I don’t want to spend my life in Gaza.”
1.39pm: Despite the privations of the past five years – and, in some cases, the disapproval of Hamas – Gaza’s musicians and artists have continued to produce impressive work, often related to the conditions in which they live. Harriet Sherwood earlier visited artist Maha al-Daya.
Unframed canvasses are piled on the floor and taped to the walls. Tubes of oil, brushes and palette knives lie jumbled on a table. Amid the typical chaos of an artist’s studio, Maha al-Daya embraces her two-year-old daughter after a four-month separation.
Al-Daya, 36, has just returned from a stint as artist-in-residence at the Cite Internationale des Arts in Paris – the first woman and the first Gazan to be offered the position. “Paris was very inspiring,” she says, but the work she produced there focused on the scenes closest to her heart: life in Gaza.
There are colourful seascapes, vibrant depictions of the beach and fishing boats – the “good side of my city”. A gloriously vivid abstract depicts washing hanging on windows. But some portray a darker side: an olive tree growing into the ground rather than towards the sky; the shape of a pregnant woman against a blood-red background; shades of grey representing the walls built by Israel.
Does she consider herself a political artist? “No. Never. I never represent politics. I paint what I see and what I feel deep inside,” she says. During the three-week war in 2008-09, she put down her brushes. “I didn’t paint any scenes from the war. I couldn’t paint at all. I couldn’t even think.”
Her work has shown in Berlin, Paris, London, Jerusalem, the cities of the West Bank – and, of course, in Gaza, although there are limited exhibition spaces. Here the public’s interest in art and culture has ebbed in the past five years, she says; “most are concentrating on feeding their families”.
During the years that the Israeli blockade was enforced most stringently, Al-Daya managed to keep up her supplies by persuading diplomats and NGOs to bring oils and canvasses to Gaza. Her husband, Ayman Issa, also an artist, regularly ferried materials back from Egypt where he was studying for a master’s degree.
She has not faced criticism for her job. “No one interferes in my artistic activity. It’s my life. But no one encourages artists here.” And she experienced some disapproval over her unusual decision to leave her husband and three small children in Gaza when she went to Paris alone.
Asked if it was hard to return to the constraints of life in Gaza, she laughs and says, in English: “Sure.” But her visceral connection to the place is evident in her work. “People in France asked me how I can paint in such bright colours when I live under siege, with war, with destruction. But the colours are there in Gaza. This is what I see.”
2.21pm: The Shifa hospital – the biggest of 13 government hospitals in the Gaza Strip – has faced huge challenges over the past five years in securing supplies of drugs and equipment, sending patients outside Gaza for treatment, and expanding its facilities to meet rising demand. Harriet Sherwood is in the emergency room.
It’s thankfully quiet in the ER at the moment, apart from the screaming of a baby girl having a cut to her arm sutured. “There are no RTAs [road traffic accidents] or bombardments,” says Dr Hani el-Shanti. “Just the regular cases – falls, cuts, burns.”
But come back later, he says, with a smile. “Friday evenings are always busy, when people start fighting each other.”
I was here a few days ago too, to speak to some senior staff. Then, Dr Ayman al Sahbani, the head of the ER, riffled through an ill-stocked cupboard as a man with a badly crushed hand grimaced while being sutured under minimal local anaesthetic. “Look how low our supplies of iodine, needles, suture thread, gloves are,” he said. A box of intubation tubes bears expiry dates of 2008 and 2009. “We sterilise them for re-use. We have to improvise.”
Near the ER, the crowded renal dialysis unit, treats 400 patients with chronic kidney failure round the clock with ageing equipment constantly at risk of breakdown, for which spare parts are routinely unavailable. “For every session of dialysis, we need fresh blood lines, saline, filters. And electricity.”
Gaza’s power cuts of up to 12 hours a day, the result of a shortage of fuel, force the Shifa and other hospitals to rely on generators – which also need fuel and spare parts to keep running. The Red Cross supplied emergency fuel to Gaza’s public hospitals after Egypt clamped down on smuggling earlier this year.
The hospital’s director general, Dr Medhat Abbas, told me he spends much of his time “rushing between international organisations, knocking on doors, begging for help”.
He fluently recited a list of problems faced by the 700-bed Shifa and other Gaza hospital and medical centres in the past five years.
“We can’t send patients out of Gaza for treatment. For example, we have 1,200 people needing heart operations. Our capacity is 250. The rest need to travel abroad.” This problem has eased, but not ended, since Egypt opened its border with Gaza.
Supplies of drugs – including analgesics, anti-inflammatory drugs, antibiotics and chemotherapy – and medical equipment are scarce. According to the World Health Organisation, 45% of drugs on an “essential” list are currently at zero stock levels. The current crisis, says the WHO, is the result of a Palestinian Authority financial crisis, compounding earlier shortfalls caused by the blockade.
“We have 5,000 pieces of medical equipment that cannot be fixed without spare parts,” Abbas said. “Sometimes it takes more than a year to get a spare part through the border.
“We need to expand to cope with increasing numbers of patients, but construction materials are banned.” Some building is under way using smuggled materials, but progress is slow.
Until the Egyptian border opened last year, “we couldn’t bring in expertise, or send staff abroad for training. Today it’s much better, but there are still restrictions.”
On top of routine medical needs, Gaza’s hospitals are stretched by treating people injured in Israeli military operations. The three-week war in 2008-09 was the worst period, Abbas told me, with at least 5,000 injuries. According to the WHO, 48% of Gaza’s health facilities were damaged or destroyed in the war.
Abbas insisted that the situation has not substantially improved in the two years since Israel loosened the siege. “Easing the blockade? That’s a big lie. Israel is still putting bureaucratic obstacles in our way. They never directly say no, but there are long, long delays.”
Back in the ER, Dr al Sahbani shook his head as medics washed blood from an open wound into an overflowing bin. “People outside Gaza say the supermarkets are full, so where is the siege? But every minute we are suffering.”
2.32pm: Phoebe Greenwood tweets:
2.38pm: Earlier this week, Harriet Sherwood went to see senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar at his home in Gaza City. Over glasses of sweet tea, he insisted that Gaza, and Hamas, were stronger now than five years ago.
The government, he said, had defeated Israel’s blockade and circumvented isolation by the west. It had survived “two big wars” – the first following the kidnap of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the second, Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2008. Hamas had made Gaza more secure internally, compared to the days when factional battles echoed on the streets. And now it was literally reconstructing Gaza using building materials smuggled through the tunnels to Egypt.
“Israel is no longer present in Gaza,” he said. “Our streets are empty of Israeli soldiers. Israel is not touching Hamas now. In Gaza, we succeeded by the armed struggle. In the West Bank, negotiation failed.”
Hamas would never renounce its right to resist. “If Israel acts against us, we must react. If they attack, we must defend.”
The Islamist organisation was “not ready to speak about a state in the West Bank and Gaza. We are not ready to accept the borders of 1967. To recognise Israel in our land? Never.”
He hoped that in the light of the Arab Spring, western governments would be more open to a dialogue with Hamas. “The west is not our enemy. We are looking to have better relations with everyone, especially the west.”
There was contact between Hamas and western government officials and ex-officials, he said. “But they ask us not to speak about it. They are testing the water.
“Islam is coming – to Morrocco, to Tunisia, to Libya, to Egypt. If the west is going to consider Islam its enemy, it is going to lose its influence in the region.”
Abu Ali and his family at Friday lunch in Gaza today
2.40pm: Friday lunch is an important event in Gaza. Phoebe Greenwood joined Abu Ali, his three wives, Najah, 46, Karima, 36 and Jawaher, 31, their 23 children and the pregnant wives of two of his sons for lunch at their home in Beit Lahia, in the north of Gaza City.
I spoke to her just after the food had been served.
There is an enormous pot of Maqlouba on the stove, chicken rice, onion and toasted nuts cooking on the floor under an olive tree. It has to be big – it’s the only meal the family can afford to cook all week. Najah is worried she hasn’t made enough.
“The rest of the week we just eat sandwiches and snacks, so we have to make a good meal on Friday,” she says, staring anxiously into the pot.
In Gaza, Friday lunch is the big event of the week in Gaza. Everyone pulls out all the stops to produce a feast. It’s a ritual.
Women get up at first light to start cooking, men wake up and head to the mosque at noon and when they come home lunch is served. In this family, the men sit on one side, women and children on the other eating from two huge metal plates. They eat carefully, ensuring there is enough left over to last.
Watching them cook and eat together, the three wives and their children seem close. “If we had money we would probably hate each other but as we have nothing, we have nothing to fight over,” Najah laughs.
Not that any of the women think the situation is ideal. “Why does he keep having children? Because he’s backward!” says Najah, while Karima says marrying was a mistake she made because she was young and naive.
Abu Ali used to drive a minibus in Israel and earned well. Around 5,000 like Abu Ali used to cross through into Israel each to work in the kibbutzim, farms and on construction sites. Abu Ali hasn’t had a job since Hamas took power and the gates of Erez slammed shut to all but a very few Gazans in 2007.
Since then, the restrictions on building material allowed through into Gaza have crippled the domestic construction industry. Farmers can’t export and fishermen are struggling to fish in 3km of water. Drivers can’t drive where there is no fuel. The result is more than 45% unemployment.
The only real way to make money is in the tunnels or working for Hamas, who pay the salaries of hundreds of thousands of households. As Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, put it: “It is hard to understand the logic of a manmade policy which deliberately impoverishes so many and condemns hundreds of thousands of potentially productive people to a life of destitution … If the aim of [Israel’s] blockade policy was to weaken the Hamas administration, the public employment numbers suggest this has failed.”
More than a million people in Gaza depend on food handouts. Abu Ali was getting food, rice mostly, up until six months when it stopped abruptly. If, for any reason, this aid should stop entirely, the region would be plunged into a food crisis that would consume 70% of the population.
The tragic irony is that there is food heaving from the shelves and market stalls in Gaza. Almost all consumer products have been allowed through from Israel since 2010 – particularly fizzy drinks and sweets – and there is a glut of homegrown vegetables that can’t be exported. People can’t afford to buy it.
Soaring unemployment has met with rising food prices. Between June 2010 and March 2011, the Word Food Programme reports that the cost of wheat flour doubled and cooking oil has rising by 40%. The average wage has dropped by a quarter since the blockade was imposed. Most households spend more than half of their income on food. They are struggling.
Abu Ali spends 1,000 shekels a week on food for his family. His wives groan as he proclaims proudly that he would love to have more children, even while he can’t afford to feed the ones he has. “My father had 19 children,” he said. “I believe that once I have a child, God is the one who is responsible for feeding it, not me.”
3.13pm: In the third of our pieces from guest bloggers, Shahd Abusalama (left) talks about representing Palestinian youth from Gaza at a five-day leadership conference sponsored by the US State Department in Jordan in March this year.
Participants attended a lecture on “democracy”. At the end, I was the first to speak as I had been eagerly awaiting the moment to share my thoughts.
“In 2006 in Palestine, we experienced this democracy,” I said with an angry voice. “We had a democratic election, in which Hamas won. But because the result of this ‘democracy’ didn’t satisfy Israel and its friend America, they imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip as a collective punishment for everyone, whether they voted for the ‘terrorist’ Hamas or not.”
The professor didn’t like what I said, but I went on speaking. “I deny that there is such thing called democracy in reality. In fact, this definition should be replaced in the dictionary with ‘hypocrisy’.”
Despite the rare opportunity Gazans get to travel, I couldn’t fully enjoy my short trip to Jordan. My thoughts were tied to people enduring difficulties caused by the siege, such as the fuel crisis which has caused blackouts for up to 12 hours a day.
High school students will be taking their final exams soon, the turning point that decides their future career. I feel sorry for them having to find a way through power cuts to study. I remember how I miraculously passed my high school year, 2008-09, studying by candlelight – not to mention the indescribable terror we lived through during “Operation Cast Lead”.
Some have burned to death as a result of generator malfunctions or because of a candle. I will never forget the tragic event of one April night, when three kids lit a candle to escape the darkness that filled their house in Al-Bureej refugee camp. As the candle burned out, the candle of their lives was extinguished, too. Nadin, Sabry, and Farah spent their last night in the blackness of Gaza. They died in a fire that turned the dark sky red, leaving their small, charred bodies behind.
Nevertheless, Palestinian people in Gaza are still as strong and determined as mountains. No matter how much Israel’s oppression escalates, their plans are bound to fail. Their inhumanity does nothing but increase our humanity. We’re ready to take the challenge and fight for what we have always deserved: justice, freedom, and equality.
3.32pm: Since Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s name for its three-week military assault on Gaza in 2008-09, it has doubled the width of the “buffer zone” – a strip of land on the Gazan side of the Israeli-Gazan border which Palestinians are forbidden to enter. It is now officially 300m (984ft) but human rights groups say in practice it often stretches more than 1km and swallows 25% of Gaza’s prime arable land. Israel says it is necessary to prevent rockets being fired across the border. Harriet Sherwood visited villagers living on the zone’s edge.
Within sight of an Israeli watchtower on the other side of the border, just 500m away, Mohamed Najjar is rebuilding his house, demolished by Israeli tanks during the 2008-09 war.
“I have no alternative,” he says. “No one will buy this land. It’s very dangerous.”
Najjar, 35, lives in the village of Khuza’a, close to the buffer zone that the Israeli military has created on the Gazan side of the border. Intended to stop militants getting within rocket-firing distance of the border, all Palestinians are at risk of being shot at by Israeli snipers if they venture into fields inside the zone.
In April, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) logged nine incursions, four bombardments and nine shooting incidents by the Israeli military. Two Palestinians were killed, and six wounded.
“Every day we hear bullets,” says Najjar, a father of six. “The older children have got used to the shooting, but when the little boys hear it, they jump and cry. Sometimes the tanks come in too.”
Najjar is a labourer, although currently unemployed. But many villagers are farmers, and he points to a pile of sacks of hay in a nearby field. “We are too scared to collect them in case we will be shot.” Two weeks ago, a 34-year-old mother of eight was hit in the head by an Israeli bullet while collecting grass, according to PCHR.
Nabeel Najjar, a neighbour and distant relative, has finished rebuilding his house, using concrete slabs instead of bricks in the hope of deflecting bullets. He has incorporated a basement bunker and is considering erecting a 3ft barrier around the house to protect his family.
“My children are programmed to run now when they hear gunshots and bullets. They run to the basement,” he told PCHR. Almost 90 olive, mango and lemon trees had been bulldozed, he added.
Children collecting rubble from demolished buildings in the buffer zone for sale as construction material have been shot at by Israeli troops across the border. According to Defence for Children International, 30 under-18s were injured by bullets in the 21 months up to December 2011.
In Khaza’a, Mohamed Najjar pins the blame for the villagers’ misfortune on “the militants. They come and fire their rockets, then go home to sleep, while we are left facing death.”
As we get in the car to leave, we hear the crack of two shots across the fields.
Ma’Amoon Dalloul, whose dairy factory has been destroyed in air strikes four times since 2009.
3.48pm: Last Sunday Ma’Amoon Dalloul’s dairy factory was targeted in an Israeli air strike and destroyed for the fourth time since Operation Cast Lead in winter 2009-09, writes Phoebe Greenwood.
Standing with me in the ruins of a building that had been rebuilt from another devastating strike just a year ago, Ma’Amoon looks into the fading afternoon light as if he still seeing the bomb site for the first time. The damage he says is around $300,000 (£194,500) worth.
This Sunday’s round of strikes by the Israeli air force were in response to a cross-border raid by a lone 22-year-old Palestinian militant who managed to cut his way through the border fence – shielded by heavy fog – and open fire on a unit of Israeli soldiers, killing a 21-year-old from the southern town of Ashqelon. They were targeting weapons factories and rocket launching sites.
The IDF did not comment on the bombing of Ma’Amoon’s cheese and yoghurt factory but released a statement confirming a strike targeting “a weapons manufacturing facility”. On the same day, the Al Mezan Centre for Human rights claims a poultry and cattle farm, a water well, a carpentry workshop and a storeroom were also damaged.
In the last six months, 275 missiles fired by Islamist militants landed in civilian areas of southern Israel – that’s an average of two rockets a day. Since the beginning of the year, the Israeli air force has launched 30 air strikes on Gaza. The Palestinian population are not warned by sirens of an incoming strike nor are there any public bomb shelters.
“Terror organisations launch weapons from civilian sites, from kindergartens, mosques, it could be a dairy, it could be everything,” an Israeli military spokesperson told me earlier today.
“There is no limit to where they [militants] will store their weapons. They are not ashamed or using their own populations as human shields and launching rockets from civilian areas.”
Ma’Amoon counters that it would make no sense to hide weapons in his business when Hamas will not compensate him for the destruction of the building or the loss of income. And his family of nine children are sleeping next door.
“Officials from France, the UK, the USA have all been here and checked my factory. They know there are no weapons being produced or stored here,” he insists, adding: “I’m not even affiliated to a political faction. My brother is with Hamas but I’m a businessman – I can’t be political, I have to be able to move freely. I can’t control what the fighters do.”
Eventually, Ma’Amoon and his brothers may rebuild the factory. But in the meantime, he is using the milk deliveries that he had already agreed to pay for to make cheese the old fashioned way. He’s giving it away to his neighbours for free. He is leaving it to God, he says, to find a way to support his family.
4.15pm: Hamas has a firm grip on Gaza, but there are other militant organisations operating within the Strip, most notably Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees. These groups fire rockets into Israel, and attempt other military operations, such as the killing of an Israeli soldier last week. Earlier, Harriet Sherwood spoke to Abu Tarek Mudalel, an Islamic Jihad leader.
In an unmarked third floor office in downtown Gaza City, at which visitors are obliged to remove their shoes on entry, Abu Tarek Mudalel fingers his prayer beads as he explains Islamic Jihad’s willingness to aim its rockets at Israeli children.
“In Islam we are against killing women and children,” he says. “But the Israeli enemy does not avoid our civilians – it sees all Palestinian people as a target. So we are trying to harm the Israeli community in order to push them into pressuring their leaders to end their aggression. We reserve the right to fire rockets at schools and at children.”
Despite Hamas’s ceasefire, which Gaza’s ruling organisation has largely adhered to since the end of the war in January 2009, Islamic Jihad has continued to fire rockets across the border into Israel. Most land on open ground, but 31 Israeli civilians and security personnel have been killed in the past five years.
The ceasefire is “one of the disagreements between us and Hamas,” says Mudalel. “Hamas wants to keep its power, so is always looking for a truce. But we refuse to abide by the ceasefire because we have never believed in a free truce – we must have the right to respond.”
The most recent major escalation of rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in March, which left around 20 Palestinians dead over five days, began with Israel’s assassination of a militant leader. “It was clear that Hamas was not firing rockets, but they give us space. They don’t support, but they don’t prevent.”
But Islamic Jihad’s main disagreement with Hamas “is political, not over resistance. Hamas has accepted a [Palestinian] state within the 1967 borders. Our job is to liberate Palestine from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea.”
This stance, combined with military resistance and calls for Palestinian political unity, has won Islamic Jihad increasing support in Gaza, says Mudalel. The organisation believes the split between Hamas and rival faction Fatah has “harmed Palestinian society by dividing the community”.
He says that Islamic Jihad militants are trying to kidnap another Israeli soldier – or a civilian – following the release of Gilad Shalit last autumn in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. “This is our strategy. It’s the only way to force Israel to release prisoners.”
Mudalel refuses to be drawn on whether Islamic Jihad is receiving funds from Iran, saying only: “We will make a relationship, and receive logistical and moral support, with anyone who wants to help us. But it won’t affect our decisions.”
The organisation wants to see “the spread of Islamic measures, but we would never force this on people”. Women, he says, take a very active role in Islamic Jihad.
On the possibility of being targeted for assassination by Israel, Mudalel says: “All Palestinians are targets. But as a leader, I’m out in front. My house has been destroyed, my son spent 14 years in an Israeli prison. But I believe in God, and God will determine my end.”
The situation in the Gaza Strip has been tightening up on the residents by the day.
Six years ago, borders were open; goods were imported and exported through the Israeli-controlled borders. Thousands of Palestinians used to go to work in the occupied territories every day and come back at the end of the day, with goods they would sell in the market.
Hamas has always been the spike in Israel’s throat. The latter took advantage of this and tightened up the siege on the Gaza Strip, in the name of “self defence” and anti-terrorism acts. The Gazan border is almost always closed.
The Palestinians have had no choice but to dig tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Everything you could possibly think of is passed through these tunnels – cars, cutting edge technology, food, soap, clothes and cows to name a few.
Hamas has slowly stripped the big families in the Gaza Strip of their weapons, which has made Gaza safer by almost eliminating the murders and by making accessible streets and neighbourhoods one couldn’t enter before.
The Palestinians in Gaza are living through one crisis after another. Consequently, the unemployment rate amongst fresh graduates is almost half. In spite of this, the Strip is witnessing a constructional boom.
In spite of the events going on in Gaza, life goes on. It continues, albeit differently from what others would describe as normal.
The beach in Gaza. Photograph: Hazem Balousha for the Guardian
5.26pm: Gaza’s 40km (25 miles) of Mediterranean coastline is its greatest natural asset, and largely undeveloped since there are no tourists to fill hotel rooms. But the sea conceals a major pollution hazard. Harriet Sherwood is on the beach in Gaza City.
The beach is swarming with children, and 11-year-old Salama Shafout is doing what kids do everywhere there is sea and sand: having fun. “I love it here,” he says. “I swim, I play, I fly my kite.”
In contrast to the regimented rows of sunbeds common in other parts of the Mediterranean, the beach at Sheikh Ejleen in Gaza City this afternoon is a cheerfully chaotic jumble of children, picnicking families, umbrellas, horses, camels, hawkers, whistling lifeguards. And a fair amount of rubbish blowing in the sea breeze.
Despite a red flag, there are hundreds of people splashing in the waves, including fully-clothed women in keeping with social mores. Mahmoud Humaid, 52, has brought his family of 15 to eat watermelon and drink coffee at the water’s edge. “It’s the only place to enjoy yourself here – and you don’t have to pay,” he said, spitting pistachio shells into the sand. Sometimes they come at night when there is no electricity, he says.
The sea at Gaza City is relatively unpolluted, unlike other spots along the coast. Up to 80 million litres of raw and partially-treated sewage pumps into the sea every day, contaminating water and sand with infectious intestinal parasites, which cause skin complaints and diarrhoea among bathers.
According to a recent study by the Institute for Water and Environment at Gaza’s Al-Azhar university, parasites were present in 48.1% of samples of sea water.
The problem, says Ewash, a coalition of NGOs focusing on water and sanitation, is “reduced capacity of the existing waste-water treatment plants to cope with demand. Fuel shortages, electricity deficit and lack of construction materials, including spare parts … have all contributed to the ongoing sanitation crisis.”
Bombing during the three-week war in 2008-09 caused millions of dollars worth of damage to Gaza’s sewage plants, already straining to meet the needs of a rapidly-expanding population. Reconstruction has been hampered by Israel’s ban on the import of construction materials which it says have potential military use.
The operation of Gaza’s 40 main sewage pumping stations have also been limited by the recent power crisis.
Ebtisan Ajaleh, 38, says she worries about her children getting sick but it hasn’t stopped her bringing some of her brood of 13. “They insisted on coming,” she shrugs.
Fifteen-year-old Mahmoud abu Ala, buried up to his chest in the sand, is not letting the possibility of dirty water spoil his day on the beach. He arrived at 6am, he says, and will stay until about 8pm. “I’m happy,” he says, with a big grin.
This video shows the importance of the beach to Gaza City’s residents.
A Palestinian tunnel worker is lowered into one of the tunnels on the Egyptian border in 2010 in Rafah, Gaza. Photograph: Eman Mohammed/Getty Images
5.45pm: As soon as Israel shut down almost all imports and exports five years ago, entrepreneurs started digging tunnels to Egypt. At the peak of activity, the hundreds of tunnels became a lifeline for Gaza. Nowadays the trade is concentrated on construction materials, most of which are still banned by Israel. Harriet Sherwood went to Rafah a few days ago.
The guard in the black Hamas uniform with the AK47 slung over his shoulder peers into the car and shakes his head. “Laa,” he says. No. After a futile argument, we turn back.
It didn’t used to be like this. Rafah, close to the Egyptian border, was for a while a wild west frontier town, where men took big risks and made fast bucks, and there were no rules. Hundreds of tunnel shafts were dug into the sand between the carcasses of shelled and bulldozed apartment blocks and the border. Thirty metres down, they turned 90 degrees, ran for a few hundred metres and came up in Egypt.
A tunnel operator once said to me: “Write me a shopping list. Anything you want: cars, live sheep, washing machines, medicines, chocolate, cigarettes. You’ll have it all in 24 hours.” He didn’t mention weapons or people, but they too were – and still are – smuggled under the border.
When visits to the tunnels were possible, the men would urge me to climb on their makeshift pulleys and be winched down into the earth to see for myself, laughing at my fear.
Those who did the hard, dirty manual labour were happy to be paid well despite the risks of often-fatal tunnel collapses and Israeli air-strikes. The entrepreneurs grew rich, spending their money on flashy cars and opulent villas on the edge of town.
The tunnels saved the people of Gaza and thwarted the blockade. But the black marketeers also undermined legitimate businesses, which were collapsing under the siege. Then Hamas started levying taxes on the tunnel operators, sanctioning the trade while shoring up the faction’s finances.
Two years ago, under pressure from the international community following the flotilla debacle, Israel eased the blockade. The import of food, consumer goods and some raw materials resumed, and it looked as though the wild west days were over.
But construction materials, deemed by Israel to have potential military purposes, are still banned. These days, truckloads of cement, gravel and steel leave Rafah every hour for building sites across the Gaza Strip.
And men in black Hamas uniforms closely control access to the vast expanse of sand, inspecting and questioning the occupants of unfamiliar vehicles – an indication of how the cowboy economy has been co-opted by the de facto state.
Baby Yazan Sousi, born in Shifa hospital in Gaza today
5.57pm: Phoebe Greenwood sends this from Shifa hospital:
Yazan Sousi was born at 1am this morning. He took two and a half days to arrive and his 19-year-old mother Noor, who is lying in Shifa hospital surrounded by sweets and delighted female relatives, is exhausted.
It’s now seven in the evening and Yazan has spent most of his first day sleeping and eating. He was born 4kg and Noor says he had no problem getting to grips with the idea of feeding right away. He is her first child and she can muster just enough energy to beam with pride.
Noor, who was all the more concerned about the prospect of giving birth because she suffers from blood clots, may be delighted with her perfect baby boy but she is far from pleased with the care she is receiving at Shifa.
“I was terrified of giving birth here. The doctors are no good at all. My brother-in-law is a doctor here and he has had to call someone to come every time I need something. I fainted today and not one person came to check on me,” she says, briefly. Talking is still an obvious effort.
The Shifa maternity ward is, admittedly, very busy. Yazan is one of 39 babies born in the last 24 hours. It is the largest and best-equipped hospital in the Gaza Strip and sees an average of 1,300 babies born every month.
Mothers in Gaza do not struggle to get prompt medical attention; there is no shortage of doctors. But compared to other countries in the region, the number of babies that die in the territory in the hours and days after their birth is startlingly high, with more than 20 deaths in every 1000 births. That’s almost three times higher than the infant mortality rate in Israel and almost double the rate in the West Bank.
Dr Silvia Pivetta is an Italian paediatrician, has been working with the WHO in Gaza for eight years trying to understand why these babies are dying. Mothers too are dying in unacceptably high numbers, she says, but the figures are too hazy paint an accurate picture.
“The problem is also one of accountability. This is particularly bad at Shifa where the doctors are the elite of the elite,” she says, clearly frustrated.
“If doctors tend to be arrogant, they are the worst there and very powerful. They would never have to say, for example, this is why this uterine rupture happened. It’s been a battle to get women to stay in hospital longer than two hours simply because they are treated so shoddily they just want to get home.”
It’s this eagerness to leave the hospital that at least in part, she says, leads to the complications that claim mother’s and children’s lives, like hypertension and haemorrhaging.
Israel’s tight restrictions on who can get in and out of Gaza also mean doctors here simply aren’t exposed to the most up to date techniques and practices.
Despite the risks to mother’s and their babies, Gaza’s population is expanding at the phenomenal rate of 3% every year. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of people in Gaza almost doubled. The small enclave is already bursting at the seams, with homes, school places and jobs in desperately short supply – this unstoppable population boom is threatening to become a crippling demographic crisis.
This is not, however, Noor Sousi’s concern. She would like two boys and two girls, no more. She is more concerned about the future waiting for Yazan.
“I’ve always been worried about the conflict but now I’ve had a son, all I wish more than anything is for him is to be far away from fighting. The division between Fatah and Hamas is also having a terrible effect on the education and life of our kids. I just hope he has a good life,” she says, with a wan smile.
6.07pm: Beneath fairy lights garlanding indoor trees, six teenage girls were last night perusing the menu at Roots, one of Gaza City’s most upmarket restaurants, writes Harriet Sherwood.
They had come to have fun, they said; “this is our second home,” laughed 15-year-old Irena Louzon.
None of the girls was wearing headscarves. “We’re free to do what we want,” Irena insisted, adding that life in Gaza was “not so bad”. Their parents were relaxed about them going out in a girl-only group, and they would get taxis home at the end of the evening.
Roots was a regular destination for them, she said, but they also frequented other coffee shops and restaurants serving Gaza’s more affluent residents – the Deira, a boutique seafront hotel; the five-star ArcMed; the recently-opened Carino’s.
Roots, owned by prominent Gaza businesswoman Muna Ghalaini, is not a cheap night out. Our bill for three – chicken and meat dishes, plus a round of strawberry lemonades – came to 250 shekels (£42).
But that was not a deterrent for Aya Abu Shahla, 22, a trainee lawyer, at a nearby table with her two sisters and their babies. “We come maybe four times a week,” said Aya. “We’ve got used to it. But it would be good if we could go to the cinema or visit a big mall.”
One sister was smoking shisha from a pink, glittery pipe. Was it acceptable for women to smoke in public in socially-conservative Gaza? “As you see,” she said with a smile and a shrug.
6.16pm: Phoebe Greenwood tweets:
Children play in the park
6.21pm: The park running through the centre of the Gaza district of Rimal at night cuts through the boulevard at the heart of Gaza City. At eight yesterday evening, it was like stepping onto a Palestinian Blackpool Pier, writes Phoebe Greenwood.
Thursday is the night that Gaza City lets its collective hair down and reclaims its identity as a seaside resort town.
The leafy paths and stretches of grass running off the Unknown Solider Square are heaving with families, coy young couples and roaming packs of young men. There are stalls selling hot nuts and sweets, floating rubber-duck rings for sale, kites and balloons. Families are driven around the park in gaudily decorated, uniquely Gazan horse-drawn carriages, squealing children hanging out of the sides. The park whirs with mini-quad bikes lit up with fairy lights driven by toddlers at an alarming speed.
Every imaginable section of Gaza society seems to be represented. But then with no cinemas, naturally no nightclubs, and few families able to afford a dinner at the restaurants and cafes charging Tel Aviv prices, the options are limited – it’s either here or the beach.
Houssen Mayyat, 47, has brought his family to the park every Thursday for the past three weeks to suck in the buzz and the cool night air for four or five hours.
“There is no power at home so there is nothing to do there, no TV, no air-conditioning. The kids like it here and we get to catch up with friends. I do wish there were more places like this to come too.”
At the other end of the park, Naif Khour, 26, is slouching against a water fountain with his friend. He also comes here most nights and like Houssen, every Thursday. He may be a young single man, but he comes for similar reasons to Houssen.
“It’s central and it’s always crowded with people. And really, there is nowhere else to go,” he says.
“Honestly, we are all depressed. Sometimes we go out just to try and change our mood. People are fed up. We come here to try and forget that.”
A Gaza wedding. Photograph: Harriet Sherwood
6.46pm: Harriet Sherwood and Phoebe Greenwood have rounded off their day visiting weddings.
I spoke to Phoebe just now over the instantly recognisable sound of wedding music. Harriet sends this report:
The bride is wearing white, of course, with a veil flowing from her coiffed hair to her tiny waist. As Hadeel, 17, and her new husband, Ziyad, approach the stage, rose petals are cast on the newly-weds.
The first dance is theirs, but not theirs alone. They are joined on the stage by Hadeel’s sisters – dressed in fuschia, scarlet, deep violet and black – and the couple’s mothers, all swaying to the music.
There must be 300 women and children at this wedding party in the City Star hall in al-Rashid Street, running next to the sea. Ziyad is the only man present, as custom dictates.
On Thursday and Friday evenings, clusters of suited men can be seen outside most of the hotels along the seafront awaiting the decorated car bringing the bride and groom. There are dozens of weddings in Gaza City each week, sometimes dozens a day. In a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, a large majority of whom under 25, this is not surprising.
The newlyweds’ arrival is heralded by the beat of drums from an open-air truck blasting out music and crammed with dancing men.
In the separate parties for male and female guests, the celebration goes until late in the evening, and there will be further family gatherings in the coming days.
It’s impossible for a wedding not to lift the spirits, especially in a place like Gaza. Despite everything we have written about today, despite the enormous daily difficulties faced by the people here, there is still joy, celebration and love.
Life goes on.