JERUSALEM/GAZA – Intense political divisions in the Gaza Strip have split people on most issues, except one: the situation has never been worse, nearly everyone agrees.
"I never remember Gaza being this bad," said one man in his early 40s. "Living here has become a game of survival." With fuel supplies nearly dry, many people no longer have cooking gas in their homes, leading some to search for alternative methods to make a meal.
"People now are starting to look through the garbage to find combustibles," a Gazan who works for a large international aid organisation told IRIN.
"Even my colleagues have begun to search the garbage bins or the sides of the roads to find wood and plastics to burn so they can cook their food at night," he said, requesting anonymity so as to not embarrass his friends.
To add to the woes of the needy, UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, has said it has been forced to stop food distribution today and is cutting back on other services it normally supplies, owing to the lack of fuel supplies. This is the second time in two weeks it has done this.
Ahmed, a taxi driver from Gaza City, said he ran out of cooking gas at home and he, his wife and their young daughter mostly eat raw vegetables and bread.
The rising cost of food has made matters worse: "Everything is more expensive, all over the world, but because of our situation of unemployment and blockade, it is even harder for us. I am afraid about how I will be able to feed my family," he said.
Lack of Spare Parts
He had to sell his taxi a few weeks ago as he could not find spare parts in Gaza to fix it. Only humanitarian aid and basic food supplies have been allowed into the coastal territory since the takeover by the Islamist group Hamas last June.
Like many others, Ahmed converted an older vehicle to run on cooking gas, as the Israeli sanctions on the enclave were not supposed to affect supplies of this fuel. However, since an attack on the Nahal Oz fuel crossing by Palestinian militants, imports have dwindled to just a trickle, and this too has run out.
"I don’t have cooking gas for my food or my car. I paid US$350 for the conversion, and I still can’t work. In the last month I have worked only three days," he said.
"My father is unemployed so I collect garbage so I can sell it and bring home some money for my family," a young boy recently said while sifting through a bin with his younger brother. Together they manage to make $1.50-$3 a day.
Those who still have jobs – not a given due to mounting unemployment – tend to set their alarms earlier and earlier: Without fuel for buses and taxis, let alone private cars, people can wait for hours before they manage to get a ride in the general direction of their destination. Bus and taxi fares have gone up two or three times what they were a few moths ago.
Some people have attached contraptions to motorcycles enabling them to carry four or five people, somewhat haphazardly. Others, particularly farmers, have rediscovered their donkeys, which can be a suitable mode of transportation when nothing else is available.
UNICEF has also reported a rise in the number of youths not attending school, apparently due to their inability to get there.
"Our chief surgeon had to walk to the hospital when he was called for an emergency. It took him 45 minutes, as he could not get a ride," Hassan Khalaf, the head of Gaza’s main Shifa hospital, told IRIN.
He has begrudgingly become accustomed to his staff showing up late and some patients saying they cannot come to the medical centre at all. Furthermore, the hospital can no longer do its laundry properly as it ran out of generator fuel to run the washing machines.
"This is slowly becoming a dangerous, unhealthy, unsanitary situation," Khalaf said.
This is also an accurate description of a recent incident in which raw sewage flooded a street in downtown Gaza City, when the pump – out of fuel – stopped working during a power cut.
Millions of litres of sewage are still being dumped into the sea daily. The Gaza Coastal Municipality Water Utilities, responsible for the sewage, has been given 60 bicycles by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and this is set to become the primary mode of transport for the staff. Even the new Hamas police officers can be seen riding around on bicycles.