chAfter the worst years in memory, charities try to offer hope where there is deep despair
By Donald Mcintyre
The IndependentGAZA STRIP (Dec 16, 2006)
Maybe they are just conveniently forgetting other periods in Gaza's turbulent and blood-stained history, but most Gazans will tell you that 2006 is the worst year they can remember.
In Gaza City's deserted gold souk, people are not even coming to sell their jewellery any more.
"We just sit and drink tea," said Yasser Moteer, 35, who runs a jewellery stall. "It's worse than any time in the 20 years I've been here. It's crazy."
The gold-selling started soon after the international and Israeli boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority started to plunge Gaza's economy into collapse last March. But having long ceased to buy here, the poor have nothing left to sell.
Certainly, the 1.3 million people of this ancient coastal strip of territory, a mere 360 square kilometres, can never have experienced as intense a swing of hope to despair as they have in little more than 12 months.
Ariel Sharon's decision to withdraw Israel's settlers and troops in August 2005, for all the criticism that it was unilateral and circumscribed in both its genesis and its implementation, made many Palestinians here, almost despite themselves, hope for a better future.
It was not just the sudden freedom to travel from north to south without the endless delays at the hated Abu Houli checkpoint, or that children in the southern town of Khan Younis could run west through what were now the ruins of the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim and plunge into a Mediterranean they had only ever dreamt about, or that families could again cross the southern border at Rafah and reunite with their relatives in Egypt.
It was the sense that for the first time in five dark, stifling and dangerous years, Gaza could breathe -- psychologically and, just maybe, economically.
As 2006 nears its close, it is easy to see how cruelly those hopes have been mocked by what has happened this year.
Since Hamas and other Gaza militants seized the Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, and killed two of his comrades in late June, shells, drones and machine-gun fire from Israeli forces have killed some 400 Palestinians, including civilians -- women and children among them -- in a conflict overshadowed to a large extent by the war in Lebanon.
For five long months, electricity was cut to eight hours a day, damaging water supplies, after a surgically accurate bombing condemned by Israelis as well as foreign human rights groups as collective punishment in breach of humanitarian law.
Reaching a peak in July, the use of sonic booms, often deliberately timed as children were going to school, created misery and fear. As if that was not enough, a far lower but significant number of civilians, also including children, have been killed or wounded in the sporadic fighting between Fatah and Hamas, the two dominant factions in Palestinian politics, or in battles between extended families.
For the immediate survivors of the Israeli shells that killed 17 members of the Athamneh family as they tried to flee their home in Beit Hanoun as it was attacked, the bereavement is, if anything, harder to bear now that just over a month has elapsed since it happened.
In late afternoon sunshine recently, in the eerily peaceful alley where the carnage was perpetrated, Hayat Athamneh, 56, a strong woman who lost three adult sons, all fathers themselves, sat with their still devastated and injured brother Amjad, 31, and his wife, who lost their own son Mahmoud, 10.
"Now I feel it," said Hayat, covering her eyes as they fill with tears.
"It wasn't so bad at the beginning. There were a lot of people around. Now there is nobody."
As she reeled off the list of Palestinian and foreign dignitaries who had visited the site, her daughter-in-law Tahani, 35, said: "They all came. But nothing happened." Tahani talks about the three surviving Athamneh family members, two of them children, who lost limbs in the attack.
"We have to worry about the one who lost arms and legs now and will see the others who haven't. We have to look after them and then worry about where we are going to live."
Her brother-in-law Majdi Athamneh, who lost his 12-year-old son Saad, says that the extended-family members are afraid to go back to their shelled house because of the structural damage, but what's more, they no longer think they should live together as they had for so many years.
"When so many members of one family were killed, it is better to make sure it doesn't happen again and live apart," he said to nods from his relatives.
Eight kilometres away in Gaza City, Adeeb Zarhouk, 44, is a man used to hard work. He used to support his wife Majda and their seven children during the 20 years he was employed in Israel as a freelance metalworker and electrician, and the five years he has worked for an Israeli company in the now flattened Erez industrial zone on the northern edge of Gaza.
But this morning he apologizes for being asleep when we call.
Each day, he hopes for a request to install a satellite TV dish or do another odd job. "But the phone hasn't rung for weeks," he says. "Nobody has any money to do these things."
Zarhouk is part of the 64 per cent increase in "deep poverty" among Palestinian refugees in the last year He is naturally cheerful but, as his wife prepares a three-shekel (80-cent) family breakfast of beans, falafel and a few tomatoes, he says: "When I'm at home by myself, I start crying. When your son asks you for half a shekel and you don't have it ... ."
Zarhouk gets up to wash the tears from his eyes. Then he says that although as a refugee he earned almost $240 a month on a three-month United Nations Relief and Works Agency job program, he now owes $540 in rent and that the family eats meat only when his 20-year-old son gets an irregular $350 handout in lieu of his salary as a Palestinian Authority policeman.
Who does Zarhouk, who voted Fatah in the last election, blame? "I blame democracy," he says with a flash of sarcasm. "The whole world wanted us to have democracy and said how fair our election had been. The problem is they didn't like our results."
The world's boycott of the PA since those elections ended salaries for the PA employees on whose spending Gaza's economy disproportionately depends. The highly professional but desperately under-equipped health service is suffering.
In her bed at Shifa hospital, Intisar al Saqqa is waiting for the drug Taxoter which doctors say she needs to treat breast cancer that has spread to her lungs and her liver.
"Every week, they say it will come on Monday," says her mother, Hadra, 62. "But it doesn't. Inshallah, it will come soon." Her daughter says, "I don't blame anybody."
The agreement Condoleezza Rice persuaded Israel to sign a year ago to the free the passage of goods and people into and out of Gaza has not been implemented, as a UN report pointed out. The UN's Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Gaza's access to the outside world is "extremely limited" and that commercial trade is "negligible."
That is diplomatese for saying Gaza is a prison again. Israel refuses to take the blame, saying the boycott and closures result directly from security anxieties and from the refusal of Hamas to modify its stances on recognition and violence, and refusing -- so far -- to release the Israeli corporal.
Now, with talks between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas past collapse, there is little hope, and plenty to do for the non-governmental organizations and charities trying to keep Gaza alive.