Saturday, June 5, 2010

As World Focuses On Gaza, Grim Lives Go On

A Palestinian boy sits next to bags of flour at a United Nations food aid distribution center in Shati refugee camp in Gaza City in January. More than half the population relies on food aid after Israel's three-year blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, according to the U.N.

June 4, 2010              [download English MP3]

An Irish humanitarian aid ship steamed Friday toward the Gaza Strip in the latest attempt to try to defy an Israeli naval blockade. Israel says the vessel Rachel Corrie will be stopped, and the blockade will continue as a matter of Israeli security.

On Monday, Israeli commandos raided a Turkish aid ship, an incident that left nine activists dead and reignited international debate over the blockade.

In Gaza itself, life remains difficult for the 1.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli sanctions for the past three years.

Turkish flags fly from Palestinian boats in the Gaza port as Gazans show solidarity with the Turkish activists who were killed Monday trying to break Israel's blockade.

Not far away, in the offices of the Islamist Hamas movement that runs Gaza, officials also cheered on the Turks, a nation of moderate, Western-leaning Muslims that Hamas once scorned as insufficiently faithful.

Now, Hamas official Ahmed Yousef compares Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan to Egypt's legendary pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser of the mid-20th century.

"When I look to Erdogan talking, I remember Abdel Nasser. That's the approach to gain the Arab hearts and minds: Palestine, Jerusalem, al-Aqsa. So Turkey, to the people, is like the salvation," Yousef says.

Life Of Constant Struggle

But most Gazans don't have time to sing Turkey's praises. They are too busy looking for work or standing in line for charity.

At the Zeitoun distribution center by the U.N. relief agency serving Palestinians, Samia, a tall woman in a black abaya and scarf, says most everyone she knows relies on emergency food aid.

"This is where we get the food: white flour, sugar, cooking oil, some canned meat and rice. The majority of Gazans are depending on this food, because in so many of our families no one has a job," she says.

At Gaza's central market — where songbirds provide the Muzak — there is ample evidence to support Israel's assertion that food is not lacking in Gaza. Fruit, vegetables, fish and canned goods fill the stalls on both sides of the street.

Shop owners in Gaza say there is enough food in the market but few buyers, owing to Gaza's soaring unemployment rate.

But shop owners say few Gazans can afford to buy.

Salem Abu Assef, 75, is old enough to have lived through much of the Arab-Israeli conflict, so he may be exaggerating when he says people in Gaza have never suffered like this before.

But he says what worries him most is the sense of hopelessness that is poisoning the young generation. His own clothing shop is well stocked with shirts and pants, but not because of Israeli largess.

"None of these things came from Israel. All of it was smuggled through the tunnels from Egypt," Assef says.

Other shop owners make sour jokes about how Israel is Gaza's new diet consultant. One week, pasta is banned — why, they ask, will Hamas make tiny rockets out of penne? — and the next week, coriander might be blocked as a "luxury item."

Long List Of Challenges

Christer Nordahl, deputy director of the U.N. agency in Gaza, enumerates the reasons that the United Nations believes Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis: 40 percent unemployment; 50,000 homeless; 800,000 dependent on food aid; 80 percent of the population living below a poverty line of $2 a day.

He says 100 new schools are needed urgently, with no construction materials to build them because Israel fears they could be used by Hamas for military purposes.

Nordahl argues that preventing Gazans from rebuilding their shattered infrastructure does nothing to enhance Israel's security. As for the militants, they have other means of rearming.

"The tunnels that exist between Gaza and Egypt do allow anything to be smuggled in. If somebody wants to bring in something that shouldn't be here, there is no problem for them to do that," he says.

Meanwhile, Gaza construction workers are left to pulverize rubble and rocks, trying to create enough material to rebuild a tiny fraction of what the Israeli military destroyed in past conflicts. It's back-straining work, and it leaves little time at the end of the day to wonder if this international uproar will be the one that finally changes things for the better.

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