"One Big Prison" A Glimpse at Daily Misery in the Gaza Strip

The 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza strip are trapped in poverty and hopelessness. The violence between the Palestinians stems not only from political disagreements, but from deep, daily despair.

Barefoot; dressed in a long gray nightshirt; sleep in his eyes: if his uncle hadn’t banged away at the door, Ahmed Kahlout would most likely still be asleep. Instead he dragged himself out of bed at 11:30 a.m., opened the door and invited his visitor in.

Like an old man, he then sank back down onto the two mattresses serving as a sofa in his parents' house -- the only piece of furniture in the living room apart from a fake Persian carpet. He sat there and wearily told his story, one of many such stories in the Gaza Strip: A good education at a school set up by an aid organization, followed by a degree. Since then, the reality of living in Gaza City has ruined all his dreams.

"I did a degree in pedagogy, and wanted to be a teacher," the 23-year-old explained. Instead he is unemployed and spends his days sleeping. "I can't marry, because I have no money to feed a family. So I have a lot of time to kill."

And he does that sitting in semi-darkness. The streets of the Shati refugee camp in the north of Gaza City are so narrow that hardly any light shines into his family's two-room apartment. An old man is perched outside, selling moldy bread as feed for chickens and goats. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh only lives a few streets away. The Hamas leader didn’t move out of the slum following his election to the post of prime minister -- a fact that earns him great respect amongst his followers.

But Ahmed Kahlout is too apathetic to become a radical, despite things going so badly for him. In this respect he is like most of the Gaza Strip's 1.5 million inhabitants: they get on with lives that are marked by poverty and despair. They live an existence in which the bloody conflict between radical Hamas and the seemingly corrupt Fatah is just one more misfortune.

The Gaza strip is just 40 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide (25 by 6 miles) -- and for years it has been a byword for misery. This year has been even harder for its inhabitants to bear. To understand the sheer scale of the misery, one has to visit John Ging. He is the director of the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency (UNRWA), the body that has been dealing with the Palestinians since they were expelled following the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

"Living in one big prison"

The statistics that the Irishman reels off speak for themselves: 89 percent of the population is poverty-stricken, living on less than $2 a day. Over 60 percent are unemployed, and since the election of the Hamas government in January, international aid has dried up. It had been used to pay the salaries of public officials. Now, even those who have jobs have been thrown into poverty, meaning that over 860,000 people in the Gaza Strip are now living on food parcels distributed by the UNRWA. Over half of the population.

But the real drama, says Ging, is that the Palestinians are "effectively living in one big prison." After the withdrawal of Israeli troops last year, there was a feeling of optimism -- that just as quickly turned into hopelessness. "Everyone was counting on an economic upswing once the border with Egypt was open," Ging says.

Instead, trade has come to a virtual standstill as the border has remained mostly closed. Israeli pressure has ensured that the border crossing for people at Rafah is only open 14 percent of the time. And only 14 trucks get through the crossing at Kareni every day -- instead of 400 originally planned. It is the only crossing for those goods not produced in Gaza and thus have to be imported from Israel.

"According to the Dec. 5 treaty on the freedom of movement, the Rafah border can be open if European observers are present," says Ging. However, these observers live in Israel and Israel can use their discretion to prevent them from crossing into the Gaza Strip. "That's how you close a border."

Travellers are not the only ones affected. Farmers who used to export their fruit and vegetables to Israel are now stuck with them. That is the daily lunacy of the Gaza Strip: there are plenty of tomatoes in the markets, but no fish. The chunk of land is on the coast, but the fishermen are only rarely allowed to go out to sea by the Israelis. And frozen fish seldom makes it over the border from Israel.

"No one has any money"

Mahmoud Abu Djayab operates a repair shop for electrical goods in the central market, and he has more work than ever. People can't buy any new appliances, so they need to get even the most worn out cooker fixed. "But that's no use to me," complains the 51-year-old. "All that I have earned is a book full of IOUs. Everyone is living on credit. No one has any money to pay me."

Ging doesn’t blame the Israelis for everything. When he speaks about Hamas, his voice is filled with anger: "Hamas knew that the money would stop flowing if they didn’t maintain relations with the international community," he said. "But they didn’t do it anyway. That was irresponsible. The party took into account the fact that the people would suffer." He says that international donors have the right to stop their aid payments. "But then they can't act surprised when the psychological strain leads to a greater tendency towards violence." The fact that the Palestinian government was 70 percent dependent on foreign aid wasn’t considered either. "The absence of aid deliveries caused chaos."

As bad as the economic situation is for the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, the psychological strain is even worse. "In the past people hoped that the Israelis would leave. Today there is no more light at the end of the tunnel," Ging says. Morale is terribly low. People feel oppressed. Hopelessness leads to despair, which in turn leads to violence. What worries Ging is that a lost generation is growing up. "Just try inspiring a young person to learn, when he knows that after school absolutely nothing awaits him."

Ahmed Kahlout had finally woken up, and he even put on a shirt and trousers for his visitor. But he remained uncommunicative. No, he had no idea what he would be doing in five years time. No, he wasn’t political and he hadn’t bothered voting. "The civil war will eat everything up anyway," he said. To John Ging "the Palestinians' spirit isn’t broken yet, they have the will and the ability to organize their own affairs." But the UN man may be a bit too optimistic.

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