31 August 2007
Mike Bailey, Oxfam's Civil Society Programme Co-ordinator, reports on the current situation.
We are stuck in the tunnel. The tunnel where six hundred people waited for days without food or water two months ago, desperate to flee from Gaza and the violence of one week in June that condemned one and a half million people to a siege that is still going on. The tunnel where four people were shot to death in the confusion. Behind us, Israel's clean new passenger terminal of Erez. In front of us a steel barred gate and beyond that the walk into Gaza, into Palestine. We are waiting for someone, somewhere to open the gate, we are helpless at the hands of someone we cannot see and cannot communicate with. All we can do is wait. All one and a half million people in Gaza can do is wait.
Red lights on the gate flash, it rumbles open an inch then closes again. Then just as we are sitting down again it opens a couple of feet and we squeeze through. We walk to the end of the tunnel, along a covered walk way and into the bright sun and across Hamse, Hamse, a five hundred metre no mans' land past a post apocalyptic landscape of shattered concrete to the welcoming committee of a few yellow taxis with green Palestinian number plates. We have arrived, my Oxfam colleague and I, in Gaza at last.
Our Gaza based Oxfam driver meets us and delivers a running commentary as we drive through Beit Hanoun, past Jabaliya refugee camp and into Gaza city. The aftermath of the garbage collectors' strike still strews the roadside. The municipality workers have gone back to work on the strength of one month's pay, their first for nine months. It is a small relief, as with everything in the lives of Gaza's people, a small concession to a big problem. They are used to making do with the minimum which is just as well because that is all Israel and the international community is prepared to allow them. The name of the policy is 'No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.'
We are in Gaza to see how the work Oxfam's partners are doing with farmers and housewives is helping individual families.
In Sheikh Ejleen we meet Abu Ra'ed and his relatives. Abu Ra'ed is a naturally cheery man with an impressive moustache and a white hat tells us that the tomatoes he grows on his small plot will be bought by the project which the Ma'an Development Centre is running with Oxfam emergency funds to help poor families who are food insecure and at the same time local farmers to cover their production costs. The food that Ma'an Development centre buys from farmers will be given to poor families in the area of the Al Sha'tie refugee camp in Gaza city. He tells us that the project gives him 17 weeks of security, free from the nightmares he has had since June when the Israeli closure of Gaza caused local market prices to collapse. Never the less, his children will begin the new school year on Sunday without any books, pencils or uniform, those have to wait until the first project pay day in a month's time.
It isn't just farmers who cannot provide for their children. In the Al Sa'atie/ the Beach refugee Camp in Gaza City we sit overlooking the sea while Abu Nimer explains that the current siege is the latest in a series of setbacks he has suffered since he lost his job in Israel at the time of the first intifada in 1989. His story reminds us how long this suffocation of Gaza has been going on. He scrapes a living from odd jobs and part time fishing. He used to make rattan furniture but the import ban means he can no longer get the raw materials and anyway no one has money to buy now. Five of his children will go back to school on Sunday with nothing of what they need.
Most of the family income comes from his two eldest sons, just twelve US dollars a day to meet a daily bill of forty US dollars. He tells us that one son works sixteen hours in a coffee shop for eight US dollars. His son cannot complain because there is a queue of people anxious to get his job.
In the Southern town of Khan Younis we visit families who have made a success of farming rabbits helped by another Oxfam project funded by ECHO (European Commission Humanitarian Organisation) and implemented by a local partner, MA'AN. The rabbits have changed the families' lives because now they eat meat once a week, they have gifts for social obligations and even something to sell in the market once in a while.
Rooftops are the only space for agriculture in crowded places like Khan Younis. We sit in the shade of roof top vines and listen to Abu Wa'el's plans for expanding his impressive garden. He has peppers planted in cement blocks, herbs and even ornamental bushes. None of this comes without hard labour though, he uses 200 litres of water a day, painstakingly tending each plant but it is worth it, it all gets eaten by his family of 14.
We are heading back to Erez. The normally bustling street of Gaza are strangely subdued and orderly. Police men in day glow vests but without guns direct the traffic, even the traffic lights are working and drivers are obeying them.
It is a surreal calm, the calm of people waiting. Waiting for the factories to open again, waiting for construction to restart, waiting for jobs. Waiting for the no nonsense commercial crossing at Karni to be reopened.
The problem is that opening Karni has nothing to do with the needs of one and a half million people in Gaza or their humanitarian right to a decent life. The closure of Karni has become a weapon in the fight against Hamas. A weapon wielded in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Washington and Brussels. A blunt instrument that batters not Hamas but the one and a half million people of Gaza.