Gaza-the prison camp that is not?

It’s three years since I’ve been back to Gaza. Much has happened since my last visit. Fatah waged a failed coup and now rules only the West Bank, while Hamas is in charge of Gaza. Israel launched its deadly Cast Lead assault. Fuel shortages. Electricity crises. And so on.

I needed to regain perspective. So I walked and I talked and I listened. I went to the beach where women – skinny jeans and all – were smoking water pipes, swimming and generally having a good time, irrespective of the purported Hamas ban on women smoking sheesha.

During the eight hours of electricity we get each day, I logged on to the internet and browsed the English-language papers. It seemed like suddenly everyone was an expert on Gaza, claiming they knew what it’s really like. Naysayers Zionist apologists and their ilk have been providing us with the same “evidence” that Gaza is burgeoning: the markets are full of produce, fancy restaurants abound, there are pools and parks and malls … all is well in the most isolated place on earth – Gaza, the “prison camp” that is not.

If you take things at face value, and set aside for a moment the bizarre idea that the availability of such amenities precludes the existence of hardship, you’ll be inclined to believe what you read.

So, is there a humanitarian crisis or not? That seems to be the question of the hour. But it is the wrong one to be asking.

The message I’ve been hearing over and over again since I returned to Gaza is this: the siege is not a siege on foods; it is a siege on freedoms – freedom to move in and out of Gaza, freedom to fish more than three miles out at to sea, freedom to learn, to work, to farm, to build, to live, to prosper.

Gaza was never a place with a quantitative food shortage; it is a place where many people lack the means to buy food and other goods because of a closure policy whose tenets are “no development, no prosperity, and no humanitarian crisis“, Gisha, the Legal Centre for the Freedom of Movement, explained in a press release.

The move from a “white list” of allowable imports to a “black list” might sound in good in theory (ie everything is banned except xyz, to only the following things are banned) but in practice only 40% of Gaza’s supply needs are being met, according to Gisha. The Palestinian Federation of Industries estimates that only a few hundred of Gaza’s 3,900 factories and workshops will be able to start up again under present conditions

Sure, there are a handful of fancy restaurants in Gaza. And yes, there is a new mall (infinitely smaller and less glamorous than it has been portrayed).

As for food, it is in good supply, having found its way here either through Israeli crossings or the vast network of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Of course, this leaves aside the question of who in Gaza’s largely impoverished population (the overwhelming majority of whose income is less than $2 a day, 61% of whom are food insecure) can really afford mangoes at $3 a kilo or grapes at $2 a kilo. A recent trip to the grocery store revealed that meat has risen to $13 a kilo. Fish, once a cheap source of protein, goes for $15 to $35 a kilo.

Prices are on par with those of a developed country, except we are not in a developed country. We are a de-developed occupied territory.

All of the above adds up to the erasure of the market economy and its replacement with a system where everyone is turned into some kind of welfare recipient. But people don’t want handouts and uncertainty and despair; they want their dignity and their freedom, employment and prosperity and possibility.

Perhaps most significantly, they want to be able to move freely – something they still cannot do.

Let’s take the case of Fadi. His father recently had heart surgery. He wanted to seek followup care abroad, at his own expense, but he doesn’t fall into the specified categories allowed out of Gaza for travel, whether through Egypt or Israel. “He’s not considered a level-one priority,” Fadi explained. “Can you please tell me why I can’t decide when I want to travel and what hospital I can take him to?”

Even the cream of Gazan high-school students must lobby the Israeli authorities long and hard to be allowed out to complete their studies. They literally have to start a campaign in conjunction with human rights groups to raise enough awareness about their plight, and then look for local individuals to blog about their progress, explained Ibrahim, who was approached by one organisation to “sponsor a student”.

I have no doubt that if Stephanie Gutmann and Melanie Phillips lived in Gaza their principle worry would not be about “what parts of their bodies they can display”, it would be the fact that they would not be allowed out again. It would be because everything from the kind of food they would have on their plate to when they can turn on the lights to what they can clothe those bodies with and whether or not they can obtain a degree is determined by an occupying power.

Using the phrase “prison camp” to describe Gaza, as Britain’s prime minister did, is not vile rhetoric. It is an understatement and even a misnomer. Prisoners are guilty of a crime, yet they are guaranteed access to certain things – electricity and water, even education – where Gazans are not. What crime did Gazans commit, except, to quote my late grandmother, “being born Palestinian”?

Ketchup and cookies may be flowing to Gaza in slightly greater quantities than before. But so bloody what? Goods for export are not flowing out. Nor, for that matter, are people. So while there may be some semblance of civil life and stability in Gaza, there is absolutely no political horizon or true markers of freedom to speak of.

And as long as freedom of movement is stifled, whether by Israel or Egypt, and export-quality goods, which account for a large portion of Gaza’s manufacturing output, are forbidden from leaving Gaza, all the malls and mangoes in the world won’t make a bit of difference.

This article was originally published in the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

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  1. Eight hours of electricity we get each day

    from the Palestinian news site maan
    Officials at the Gaza Power Plant said the site’s immanent shut down on Saturday morning was caused by the refusal of the Palestinain Authority to ship sufficient fuel into the coastal enclave.
    But don’t forget to put all the blame on the Israelis, hamas are saints, the PA are saints Egypt are saints…

  2. Clearly, Alex, you do not read my blog in detail. If it satisfies you to be a troll, so be it. If you really want to understand, I suggest you take a closer look.

  3. Hello Laila, thankyou for your excellent blog. We call Melanie Phillips Mad Mel here.

    Love and solidarity from England.

  4. Well said Laila,
    Can’t say more!

  5. I see things have changed in Gaza since Israeli’s left it to Palestinians. Now Palestinians are free to rule their own lives and govern their territory. By the way, why did Israeli’s imposed the blockade? Preventing movies and cucumbers from entering Gaza is not doing anything for their reputation on the world stage. Are they getting some sort of sick satisfaction from watching innocent folks suffer?

  6. Hi Laila, this is my 1st time visit to your blog after almost 2 years I didn’t touch my blog. I named your blog in my friend’s list blog as Palestinian Mother

    When I read your entry that you’ve decided to move back to Gaza whilst previously you were in states, I was shock and thought that I openned a wrong blog.

    Well .. can’t say much, but I love your spirit to still update your blog in your 8 hours electricity and on top of that your courage to move back.

    I can’t imagine live in that situation .. be strong Laila and take care.

  7. Mariana Campos

    Why wonder when you gonna start questioning your own government. I know that Israel made and continues to make lots of mistakes and i really feel for you. But i guess you know very well that your only crime was not just being born Palestine. Maybe if your “country” had more people like you in the power it would be easier to get to a solution. I am in France now, i have 2 kids also and i really feel for you. But, i am a Brazilian, we didn’t have any money growing up, and every time we wanted changes we want to the streets and pressured our government for solutions!! Israel is out of Gaza already, i know it is not how it supposed to be, with the siege and all, but the fact is that they are out! To make the best with what you have, I guess you should stop blaming others and take some responsibility that the fact that your country is full of corruption and all the money that Europe sends to you should be used in something useful and not weapons… Wish you to continue you beautiful writing and maybe you should start something BIGGER:-)

    ps. By the way, maybe you should write something about the execution by stones of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.
    Cheers and sorry for any misspelling:-)

  8. and maybe you should right something about the lashing 39 times of a singer who performed in front of a “mixed audience” of Jewish men and women:

    Gaza is doing the best it can under its circumstances. Israel continues to control its airspace, sea space, and commercial crossings. Kind of difficult to “take responsibility” under those circumstances.

  9. “people lack the means to buy food and other good”

    Blockades seem to be the preferred weapon these days against the Middle Eastern countries resisting Western imperialism. I remember reading the same statement about Iraq; the stores there had goods to sell but nobody could afford them. There was a black market economy.

    I recently had an argument with a Palestinian from Bethleham about the degree of responsibility of the PA for the current predicament. My view was that they had rejected the results of the last Palestinian election and attempted a coup. They were not opposing the blockade on Gaza and were sacrificing the interests of Palestinians for their own benefit. My interlocutor was critical of Hamas. She felt that Hamas had unreasonable expectations of support from Fatah since they were opposing parties. She said that Hamas had rejected a recent proposal for new elections and also felt Fatah had responded appropriately to the blockade.

    What do you think about all this?

  10. I can clearly see the parallels between stoning to death sanctioned by government and flogging of a man who apparently willingly accepted the punishment from some radical rabbi. I guess the lesson would be that religious zealots are nuts. The difference is in the scale. In Israel the zealots whip other zealots asses (I bet that guy would’ve done it himself to purify his soul – he is nuts too). In Ashtiani’s case – she is to be murdered in the most barbaric and inhumane way possible to the cheers and rejoicing of the Muslim men. Valid comparison here… 🙂

    I totally understand the difficulty of “taking responsibility” under tight Israeli control. I would still like to know – why do Israelis impose such control over Gaza? Are they doing it solely for the sick pleasure of enjoying human suffering, or are there some other reasons? Like, perhaps massive arms smuggling and unending rocket attacks? May be Palestinians in Gaza could demand that the money used for weapons be used to restore high-tech green houses Palestinians have destroyed when Israelis left? Or may be they could use those money to buy electricity and otherwise support economic recovery? In the remote chance that Israelis will lift the blockade, once Palestinians prove to be a peaceful neighbor? Israel have not imposed the blockade immediately after withdrawal, as far as I can remember. Just thinking out loud here…

    All this being said – I do feel for you. It must be painful to live in such conditions and realize that there is very little you can do to change them. Taking to the streets and demanding that Hamas hands power to more reasonable fractions – is dangerous, since Hamas got all the guns and they have proven many times that they are not afraid to use them. 🙂

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