Middle East
3:00 pm
Sat September 22, 2012

Gaza's Future Looks Bleaker Even Than Its Past

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 6:43 am

Ihab Abu Nada's family lives down a series of dark narrow alleyways in Gaza City. The house has two bedrooms for the seven people living there — the kitchen and the bathroom are in the same space, and the roof is made of tin and frequently leaks.

Still, most of the Palestinian family's income goes into paying the rent.

Ihab's picture adorns a cracked wall; it's a simple memorial. Earlier this month, after being unable to find work, the 18-year-old set himself on fire and died. The family is still in mourning.

His father, Sufian, says the economic hardships in the Gaza Strip drove his son to despair.

He killed himself because of the tough situation the family lives in, Sufian says — coming home to find no water or electricity, having no place to sleep with any privacy.

It's a very difficult life, Sufian continues. He thinks this is why he did it, he says.

Gaza's statistics make grim reading. A recent report by the United Nations says the Gaza Strip will be unlivable by 2020 if nothing is done to alleviate the situation in the tiny coastal territory.

According to the report, despite a recent pickup in the economy, by almost every indicator, Palestinians in Gaza are worse off than they were in the 1990s.

Even as the infrastructure is crumbling, the population is booming. That, coupled with dwindling resources and restrictions on trade and travel by neighbors Egypt and Israel, has meant the situation for the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in Gaza is increasingly desperate.

Hardship Begins At Birth

At the maternity ward in Gaza's main hospital, the women are crowded five or six to a room. They lie listlessly on plastic mattresses with no sheets, their newborns swaddled next to them.

Gaza has one of the highest birthrates in the world and the maternity ward can barely keep up.

Ola Manousha gave birth at 6 a.m. to a daughter she named Alaa. At 10 a.m. the same day, mother and child are being sent home. Forget birth plans and postnatal care — the hospital is so busy, it can give women only a few hours' recovery time before asking them to leave.

Manousha says there are hardly any doctors to look after the patients. She says she'd rather go home as the conditions are so terrible on the maternity ward, where a stray cat roams while women in labor scream.

The hospital's deputy director, Ahmed al-Madoun, acknowledges that the delivery room is overcrowded, dirty and in urgent need of upgrade. He points to the metal tables on which the women are giving birth. They are crusted with old blood and fluid.

"We need extra facilities in the delivery room," he says.

Heading Toward Environmental And Health Disaster

And it's not only the facilities that are dire in Gaza: There is a water crisis as well.

According to the authorities in Gaza, about 95 percent of the municipal water is undrinkable by international standards, and in any case, some 60 percent of homes don't have access to potable water on a regular basis.

Private water tankers make the rounds of Gaza City neighborhoods, and residents buy what they need to drink, cook and clean.

Monther Shoblak, who heads the water authority in Gaza, calls it a health disaster. He says the chronic electricity shortages in Gaza are only adding to the water issues.

Sewage systems, desalination plants and water pumping stations are barely working, and because there is no investment in Gaza, there are no alternatives being considered.

"Gaza is facing a real environmental and health disaster in the coming years, meaning by 2016 — not even 2020 — our aquifer will be no more capable of giving us water, even saline," Shoblak says. "Then what? Gaza will not be livable."

Economy Strangled By War, Restrictions

Industry too is stymied. According to the U.N., almost 60 percent of Gaza's youth is unemployed.

Gaza's economy has suffered particularly badly in the last five years. Israel instituted a punishing blockade on the strip after Hamas militants took over Gaza in 2007. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.

Militants launched thousand of rockets at Israeli communities, and in the winter of 2008, Israel invaded Gaza. Many homes were destroyed, and both civilians and militants were killed.

In 2010, after Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish flotilla and killed nine activists who were trying to break the blockade, Israeli restrictions on imports to Gaza from Israel were eased.

But today, Israel still stops most exports from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank. Egypt, too, has tight restrictions on trade and travel.

Kamal Ashour's textile factory shows the arc of economic activity in Gaza. Before Israel's restrictions and Hamas' takeover, he ran a thriving business that exported sweaters to Israel and the West Bank. He employed 40 people.

When Israel put its restrictions in place, his business dwindled to nothing. The factory was shuttered for years. The recent easing of imports into Gaza has meant he can now get the threads and other materials he needs to make his clothes.

But he only produces for the limited local market and now has a part-time staff of about 20 people. It's better, but he is barely making ends meet.

There is a saying in Arabic, Ashour says: What we plant in summer we eat in winter. They are just getting by, not thriving, he says.

Political Impasse

And there is no end in sight. Israel has no plans to lift its trade embargo. There is still sporadic rocket fire on Israeli communities, and the Jewish state holds Hamas responsible.

Most people in Gaza also blame Hamas for the situation; they have seen their lives get worse under the militant group.

A political impasse hasn't helped matters.

Hamas and its rival Fatah — which holds sway in the West Bank — have been trying to form a unity government for years. A brief and bloody civil war has left the two sides bitterly opposed to one another, and reconciliation talks have gone nowhere.

Ghazi Hamad, Hamas' deputy foreign minister, says there is little sign of a breakthrough.

"The atmosphere is very bad, it's very negative, it is frozen," Hamad says. "The gap is still increased between both Hamas and Fatah."

Life In Suspended Animation

As a result, says Gaza-based analyst Mkheimar Abu Saada, Hamas is looking elsewhere for help.

"Something has to be done to help the daily life of the Palestinians in Gaza," he says. "Hamas basically is not looking north; Hamas is looking southwards towards the Egyptians."

Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which swept to power after the Egyptian revolution. It has asked the leadership in Egypt to open the borders for trade and travel — though so far that hasn't happened.

And so ordinary Palestinians in Gaza live in a kind of suspended animation: hoping things will get better despite predictions that they will get worse, and waiting for others to determine their fate.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

A recent report by the United Nations says the Gaza Strip will be unlivable by 2020, if nothing is done to alleviate the situation in that tiny coastal territory. A population boom, dwindling resources and restrictions on trade and travel by neighbors Egypt and Israel, have meant the situation for the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in Gaza is increasingly desperate.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Gaza City.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Ihab Abu Nada's family lives down a series of dark, narrow alleyways. Their house has two bedrooms for the seven people living there. The kitchen and the bathroom are in the same space, and the roof is made of tin and frequently leaks. Still, most of the family income goes into paying the rent.

IHAB ABU NADA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ihab's picture adorns a cracked wall here, his simple memorial. Earlier this month, after being unable to find work, the 18-year-old set himself on fire and died. The family is still in mourning. His father, Sufian, says his son was driven to despair by the economic hardships in the Gaza Strip.

NADA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He killed himself because of the tough situation we live in, Sufian says. When he came home and found that there is no water in the house, no electricity, no place to sleep with any privacy, it was too much. It's a very difficult life. I guess this is why he did it, Sufian says.

Gaza's statistics make grim reading. By almost every indicator, says a recent U.N. report, despite recent pick up in the economy, Palestinians in Gaza are worse off than they were in the 1990s. The population is booming and infrastructure is crumbling.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN INFANT AND CONVERSATIONS)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Here at the maternity ward in Gaza's main hospital, the women are crowded five or six to a room. They lay listlessly on plastic mattresses with no sheets. their newborns swaddled next to them.

Gaza has one of the highest birthrates in the world and the maternity ward here can barely keep up. Ola Manousha gave birth at 6 A.M. this morning to a daughter she named Alaa. Its 10 A.M. now and mother and child are being sent home. Forget birth plans and post-natal care. The hospital is so busy, it can only give women a few hours recovery time before asking them to leave.

OLA MANOUSHA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ola says there are hardly any doctors to look after us. She says she'd rather go home, as the conditions are so terrible here.

A stray cat roams around while women in labor scream.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SCREAMING WOMAN)

AHMED AL-MADOUN: Delivery room, most of the time overcrowded.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Deputy hospital director Ahmed al-Madoun points to the metal tables the women are giving birth on. They are crusted with old blood and fluid.

AL-MADOUN: We need extra facilities. Some dirty, maybe it needs some maintenance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's not only the facilities that are dire in Gaza. There is a water crisis here, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A private water tanker makes the rounds of the neighborhoods in Gaza City. Its distinctive jingle, a call for people to come out and buy what they need to drink, cook and clean.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to the authorities here, around 95 percent of the municipal water is undrinkable by international standards. And, in any case, only some 60 percent of homes have access to potable water on a regular basis.

MONTHER SHOBLAK: It is health disaster.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Monther Shoblak heads the water authority in Gaza. He says the chronic electricity shortages in Gaza are only adding to the water issues.

SHOBLAK: Gaza is facing a real environmental and health disaster in the coming years. Meaning, by 2016 - not even 2020 - our aquifer will be no more capable to give us more water even saline. Then what? Gaza will not be livable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Industry, too, is stymied. According to the U.N., almost 60 percent of Gaza's youth is unemployed. Gaza's economy has suffered particularly badly in the last five years.

Israel instituted a punishing blockade on the strip after Hamas militants took over Gaza in 2007. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. After Hamas took over, militants launched thousand of rockets at Israeli communities. And in the winter of 2008, Israel invaded The Strip. Many homes were destroyed and both civilians and militants were killed.

Then, in 2010, after Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish flotilla and killed nine activists who were trying to break the blockade, Israeli restrictions on imports to Gaza from Israel were eased. But today, Israel still stops most exports from Gaza to Israel and the West Bank. Egypt, too, has tight restrictions on trade and travel for Gazans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kamal Ashour's textile factory shows the arc of economic activity here. Before Israel's restrictions and Hamas' takeover, he ran a thriving business that exported sweaters to Israel and the West Bank. He employed about 40 people.

KAMAL ASHOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When Israel put its restrictions in place, his business dwindled to nothing. The factory was shuttered for years. The recent easing of imports into Gaza has meant he can now get the threads and other materials he needs to make his clothes. But he only produces for the limited local market and now has a part time staff of about 20 people. Its better, but he is barely making ends meet because he can't export to Israel and the West Bank.

ASHOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is a saying in Arabic: What we plant in summer we eat in winter, he says. We are just getting by, not thriving, Ashour says.

A political impasse hasn't helped matters. Hamas and its rival Fatah, which holds sway in the West Bank, have been trying to form a unity government for years. A brief and bloody civil war left the two sides bitterly opposed to one another. Reconciliation talks have gone nowhere.

Ghazi Hamad is Hamas's deputy foreign minister. He says there is little sign of a breakthrough.

GHAZI HAMAD: The atmosphere is very bad. It's very negative, I can't say it is frozen. The gap is still increased between both Hamas and Fatah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so says Gaza-based analyst Mkheimar Abu Saada, Hamas is looking elsewhere for help.

MKHEIMAR ABU SAADA: Something has to be done with regard to improving the daily life of the Palestinians in Gaza. Hamas basically is not looking north, Hamas is looking southwards towards the Egyptians.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which swept to power after the Egyptian Revolution. Hamas has asked the leadership in Egypt to open the borders for trade and travel, though so far that hasn't happened, and isn't likely to. And so, ordinary Palestinians in Gaza live in a kind of suspended animation, hoping things will get better despite predictions that they will get worse, waiting for others to determine their fate.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.