Cut Off, Gazan Economy Nears Collapse


New York Times

September 13, 2006

KHAN YUNIS, Gaza Strip — For the last week, Zidan Abu Reziq has been sleeping outside, next to his plantings on a small square of sand he expropriated.

The Abu Reziqs, like many of the large, destitute refugee families in this shrapneled, tumbledown slum, need to plant to eat. They took the land and planted it with vegetables, an investment of about $50, most of the money that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency gave them to buy school uniforms for the children.

Zidan’s wife, Tamam, admits her 51-year-old husband sleeps with his plants because he needs to protect their investment in the lawless chaos of Gaza, where his own small theft of land, 20 square yards that belongs to the government, is dwarfed by the huge expropriations by gangs and families and militia groups that have taken over much of the best land left behind when the Israelis pulled out their settlers a year ago.

It is difficult to exaggerate the economic collapse of Gaza, with the Palestinian Authority cut off from funds by Israel, the United States and the European Union after Hamas won the legislative elections on Jan. 25.

Since then, the authority has paid most of its 73,000 employees here, nearly 40 percent of Gaza’s work force, only 1.5 months’ salary, resulting in a severe economic depression and growing signs of malnutrition, especially among the poorest children.

Few here are using the United Nations grants for school. The Abu Reziqs are carefully investing the rest of their relief money. More than $20 went straight to the local grocer, Tamam said, as a down payment on the credit extended to the family, which still owes more than $200. About $11 went to buy the ingredients, including two chickens, for the couscous dish that Tamam and her daughter, Fatma, 29, are making early this morning, kneading relief agency flour in big aluminum bowls, pouring in relief agency oil, rubbing the flour over a screen to get the right consistency.

The result will serve 15 people, Tamam said. “We want to feed the people who helped us with the land,” she said, and some of their neighbors, even worse off than they.

Gaza’s situation has worsened since Palestinian gunmen, including those from Hamas, killed two Israeli soldiers and captured a third on June 25. Israel reinvaded Gaza, and has since killed more than 240 Palestinians, many of them in gun battles.

An Israeli airstrike on Gaza’s only electrical power plant means that most Gazans now get only 7 to 12 hours a day of electricity, at unpredictable hours, with running water largely dependent on electric pumps.

Fishermen, now prevented from going more than a few hundred yards from shore by the Israeli Navy, are using hand-thrown nets from the beach to catch a few sprats and sardines.

Jan Egeland, the United Nations under secretary for humanitarian affairs, said that Gaza was “a ticking time bomb.” The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development warned Tuesday that the economy could shrink next year to the level of 15 years ago, and unemployment could rise to over 50 percent. The World Bank expects gross domestic product to decline by 27 percent this year.

These pressures have forced Hamas to agree to a proposal by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, for a national unity government, led by the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya, which could allow Israel and the West to resume transferring funds and aid.

The Abu Reziqs are hopeful, like many Palestinians, that a new government will be better, but they are reluctant to blame Hamas, which, Zidan said, “was never given a chance to succeed.” Still, it is unclear whether the new government, when there is one, will be seen to meet Western demands that it recognize Israel, forswear violence and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

Hamas promised security in its victorious election campaign. But it has failed at that, said Hamdi Shaqqura of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. “There is security chaos and no respect for law,” he said, and a prime reason is the involvement of the police and security forces, many of them from Fatah, in the lawlessness, and the constant clashes with militia and gunmen affiliated with Hamas.

“People who are supposed to protect the law are the people who break it,” he said, “and no one is brought to justice.” For this chaos, he said, “I must blame the Palestinian Authority,” not Israel.

Tamam, 49, recalls a near riot here when cooking gas was in short supply and there was a delivery of canisters. The police were called, she said. “They took canisters for themselves and then left,” she said, shrugging.

Zidan used to work in the nearby Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim. But after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, he was not allowed to enter the settlement. Now, Zidan is lucky to get three days a month of casual construction work.

His son Muhammad is a Palestinian Authority policeman who is supposed to make $340 a month, but who has been paid only $500 since Feb. 1. Now, Fatma says, “he spends little time at home, because he hasn’t a shekel in his pocket, and he’s ashamed.”

The small welfare check Fatma, a divorced mother, used to get has stopped coming, and the women’s group for which she used to do embroidery has collapsed with the death of its leader.

Tamam’s son Suleiman, 20, watches television, until the electricity suddenly dies. “I’d like to have any job,” he said simply. “Any job at all.”

The United Nations is now helping to feed 830,000 people in Gaza, an increase of 100,000 since March, but to receive the relief agency’s aid they have to be classified as refugees, who make up 70 percent of Gaza’s 1.4 million people. The increase is largely refugees who work for the government and did not need assistance before.

The World Food Program helps to feed the poorest of the nonrefugees and now has 220,000 beneficiaries, an increase of 25 percent since March, which includes 136,000 people considered to be the “chronic poor,” who are not getting previous welfare benefits from the Authority.

“We have a complete deterioration of the economic situation in Gaza,” said Kirstie Campbell of the agency. “People can’t afford the basic things.” Seventy percent of Gazans now depend on the United Nations for food aid.

In northern Gaza, in Beit Lahiya, where Israeli troops fought Palestinian gunmen during July, Atemad Abu Leilah, 33, lives in a hovel with her 11 children and her handicapped husband. He used to get $68 a month from the welfare ministry, but has received nothing for four months, she said.

She is a not a refugee, so is ineligible for refugee aid and like many here, gets by on casual work and the charity of neighbors.

She taps into wires in the street to take electricity illegally, and she has not bought her children school uniforms for the new school year. “I can’t afford to buy them notebooks,” she said.

She feeds her children greens, herbs, lentils and eggplant, and sometimes gets flour given by the World Food Program. “Forget about meat,” she said. “The last time we had chicken was a month ago.’’

Her relative, Ghalia Abu Leilah, 60, came by with a pot of yogurt she bought for her husband, who is dying of cancer, with money from a neighbor, she said.

A year ago, when the Israelis left, “We were very happy,” Atemad Abu Leilah said. “I voted for Hamas, for reform and change and improvement. But now I look at my kids and I regret my vote.”

Nearby, stalls sell flour and sunflower oil given as aid by the refugee agency and the World Food Program, most of it earmarked as gifts of the European Union and the United States, and labeled “not for sale.” Iyad Baaker, who works at one stall, said that people needed cash, so sold the aid.

In Khan Yunis, Fatma Abu Reziq seemed distracted and sad, and brushed away a question about her daughter, Aya, 9. Later, she explained.

A week ago, her former husband took Aya away. He said it was easier to feed Aya himself than find the cash for child support.