20 March 2009
Oxfam's food distributions and cash-for-work programmes are helping families in Gaza get back on their feet after the recent three week war with Israel, writes Michael Robin Bailey.
"That hill behind those buildings there is in Egypt". It looks close enough to touch. I'm in Rafah. The southern end of the Gaza Strip. We are talking with local community committees about cash and work. There is not much of either in Gaza at the moment. There hasn't been for the last 20 months since the Israeli blockade began. That started when Hamas took over. The blockade killed jobs, stopped cash coming in and pushed prices up. The recent three week war raised levels of misery and cost even higher.
Sufian who is the chair of the Rafah Fishermen's Committee talks about $300,000. He explains that is what their 300 fishing families have just lost. That was the value of the boats, nets, motors, tractors, warehouse and sheds bombed where they stood on the beach. Even the plastic boxes they put the fish in are gone. Some of this community will be eligible for short term jobs. Cash for Work. Oxfam and local partner organisation Ma'an are here to start a cash-for-work scheme.
We tour the Al Mawasi area bouncing down the uneven sandy tracks between hedges of spiky cacti. These agricultural roads criss-cross the coastal area. They are used by children to get to school as well as by farmers. Our cash-for-work scheme will level 50 km and surface them with rubble. They will then be usable all year round and in all weathers. No more arriving at school muddy or covered in dust. No more being unable to get crops to market. The work will provide 20 days' income for 1,028 family breadwinners. They will be able to reduce debts they have built up during the blockade of Gaza.
We pass one school. It is a collection of blue painted metal containers. Windows and doors have been cut in their corrugated sides. They must be boiling hot in summer and freezing in winter. Even so, these have been classrooms for an entire generation. They have been here since 1987. What was once temporary has become permanent like so many inadequate things in Gaza.
The next day, I am surrounded by cauliflowers. I have missed the women on food aid distribution day in Gaza City. They came early and are already home. The men who come to collect their family food parcel don't want to stop to discuss this new experience. I talk instead to the seven men who have found temporary work here. They pack the fresh vegetables and fruit into household bundles. Three kilograms of onions, a cauliflower, five kilos of tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, cucumbers, oranges, lettuce, a kilo of frozen meat and 30 eggs in a tray on top. Ingredients here for a local favourite, Aijin - a pancake made with cauliflower, meat, potato and eggs fried with chilli.
Ahmed from Burej refugee camp tells me this is the first work he has had for more than a year. How does his family manage? They scrape by, a little help from relatives, food aid like this, running up debts. It's not easy. Raed's story is the same. His two sons have families of their own so they can't help very often. Ahmad Abu Ali tells me the food he takes home from this job is more important than the money. "It's enough for my family for the week". The irony is that Ahmad has land himself, four dunums and a greenhouse where he used to grow tomatoes and cucumber. He hasn't been able to use it for three years now. It's too close to the border. He would be shot if he went there. He tells me "I hope the job lasts long enough for me to pay off my debts". He has another eight weeks of work left.
This is Gaza now, still looking anxiously skywards at the roar of jets overhead. Making do with less because the need is much more now after the war. Isolated alongside Hamas people ask why they are being punished for rockets they do not control. Asked who would win Palestinian elections they said they doubted there would be Palestinian elections. They said it made no difference with Israel in charge of everything in their lives.