By Yousef Alhelou
GAZA CITY – The Palestinian Authority has been starved of funds since Hamas was elected in January 2006. Israel has also been withholding the millions of US dollars it owes the Palestinian Authority in tax revenues. This has led to a breakdown of public services and law and order in the occupied Palestinian territories. Government ministries, hospitals, schools and the courts have all faced closure over the last year and are functioning at minimum capacity, with staff salaries withheld.
Poverty is rising in the West Bank and Gaza because of international sanctions, compounded by Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinian goods and labour related to security concerns. The Palestinian Authority (PA) cannot pay its civil servants because the international community has refused to fund the PA unless the Palestinian government, which includes Hamas, recognises Israel.
Poverty in ‘the Biggest Jail on Earth’
According to the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 84 percent of Gazans and 60 percent of West Bankers have reduced their spending; some households have already sold their assets such as land, jewelleries, electrical devices and furniture.
Thousands of laborers have not been able to find reliable long-term work inside Gaza to replace the construction or agricultural jobs they had in Israel. A small number earn food from the WFP by working on community projects in Gaza, such as road cleaning. According to the UN, one-third of Palestinians are ‘food insecure’
More than 80% of Palestinians live under the poverty line; most of those Palestinians who have been affected due to the siege imposed up on the government and the ordinary Palestinian people as a form of collective punishment live in the Gaza Strip. While the disengagement of Israel from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 was thought to represent new hope for the Gazan civilians, it has practically turned Gaza into the biggest jail on earth; the Strip has become isolated from the rest of the world because Israel still controls Gaza’s airspace, territorial water and the borders, including cargo and commercial crossings, in addition to the Rafah pedestrian terminal in the southern Gaza Strip which is the only gate for Gazans to the outside world.
The Gaza ‘Pressure Cooker’
Since Gaza is a prison for 1.4 million people and they are locked inside, it has become a pressure cooker.
As result of these circumstances, "falatan," the Arabic word which means security chaos, anarchy and lawlessness, has spread, especially in light of the security forces’ inability to enforce the law despite the fact that there are more than 85,000 Palestinian security men.
The Palestinian society, torn apart by internal feuding and infighting between the two major factions as they struggle for power, in addition to clan disputes and thugs running around with AK-47s, have became ordinary occurrences in our everyday life. On the other hand, the continued Israeli military practices in all its forms contribute to the suffering of the people.
As a Palestinian citizen living in Gaza, I can tell you that life is unbearable in Gaza; people are hopeless and frustrated, especially the thousands of university graduates who cannot find jobs due to the increasing unemployment rate. It is a serious crisis when you see educated people and intellectuals packing their stuff and leaving without even saying goodbye to their close friends. A survey published by An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus says nearly one third of Palestinians would emigrate outside the Palestinian Authority territories if they could.
It is worth mentioning that Rafah crossing, between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt, is sometimes partially open for a few days a week but this is not guaranteed. Therefore leaving Gaza and traveling abroad is a nightmare. Travelers do not know when the crossing will be open and whether they will have to queue for a long time. Sometimes, travelers even have to pay bribes in order to be one of the first to cross the border due to the crowds.
I asked some Palestinian youths about how life feels in Gaza, how they spend their spare time and if they have ever considered leaving Gaza.
Nidal Mater 26, governmental employee, said: "Life has no taste in Gaza, where the law of the jungle rules. We are suffering because of the siege imposed on us by the Quartet [comprising the UN, EU, USA and Russia]: no salaries; no security as we are suffering from internal security chaos as a result of an absence of law; we are frustrated and feel hopeless. Thank God that we have the Mediterranean Sea along Gaza’s shores so that we can breathe; it’s the only place where Gazans usually go to enjoy themselves and have fun. Also, we, as youths, are lucky that we have Internet access to communicate with the outside world as we are locked in this cursed prison which is called Gaza. I also go to the gym to release life’s stress. We, the youth, have the potential and energy but we are neglected by the local authorities. I thought many times to leave Gaza and go to Europe but I don’t have relatives or friends over there. In addition to that, it’s very difficult to obtain visas and will cost me a lot of money, and even if I go there, one day I will come back to my homeland, as they say home is home."
Azzam Al-Saqqa, 22, fresh graduate, said: "Whoever wants to commit suicide, he should come to Gaza. We need responsible leaders who care for the people, not for the sake of their factions. Gaza has become a danger zone; thugs and gangs are ruining our lives. Those irresponsible thugs who have committed crimes including the abduction of our guest Alan Johnston are known by the Palestinian security forces and they don’t take harsh action against them. We as youths are fed up and need the attention and concern from our leadership in order to improve life’s conditions and demand the international community intervenes to end the brutal siege. I usually use the Internet to read more news about the miserable situation in the Palestinian territories, which increases the psychological pressure, while youths use it in the West for entertainment. If I was offered the chance to emigrate, then I would do that in order to build my future."
Hatem Shurrab, 23, an NGO worker, said: "Life is very difficult in Gaza. We don’t feel safe in our streets; the number of robbers and criminals is increasing due to the poverty which is caused by the siege, and also the stress and psychological pressures contribute to this crisis. Unfortunately, the security forces are paralyzed because they have not received their wages for many months although they should fulfill their duty to restore order and enforce the law. Many people here are leaving and others have already left. I personally thought of leaving Gaza but I said to myself, ‘If we, the educated people, leave Gaza, then we give the abusers a chance to worsen the situation and damage our reputations and future.’ I urge our leaders to be really united and face the internal and external threats and work for the interest of the people."
Ibrahim Al-Ejlah 23, a project coordinator, said: "Gaza is hell and it feels like living in a jungle – survival of the fittest. I blame Israel in the first place for its occupation of our land and I also blame the factions who only care for their interests. I am personally willing to leave Gaza if there was a chance although I’m earning a good salary. It’s just that I’m not enjoying myself here; people are depressed around me and the ghost of security chaos persecutes us. There are mysterious elements who want to destroy our lives. The phenomenon of chaos is pushing people to migrate from Gaza, but leaving Gaza is difficult as the Palestinian authorities don’t control the crossing. I assure you that if people, especially youths, could travel freely without restrictions for vacation, then they would never think of emigrating."
Sameh Habib 22, said: "Here in Gaza the strongman kills the weakling. The social structure has become disjointed; people are suffering deeply and have been sharply affected by the siege and by the Israeli occupation force’s practices. My message to those who imposed the sanctions upon us: ‘You can destroy us but you will never defeat us!’ I never thought of leaving my Gaza and emigrating. If the border was open and running smoothly without closures, then I might go for a vacation to replace the stress of work with ease and comfort. My message to the president and the government is that you should focus on the youth, because we have potential and can make a change."
-Yousef Alhelou is a freelance Palestinian journalist based in Gaza, and a contributor to several media outlets. He also presents Gaza’s only live English program across radio stations in the Gaza Strip. He can be contacted at email@example.com