Life is hard for Muhammad.
“We have to make the bread we eat last as long as possible,” the father of five said. “We try to make sure that it doesn’t rot. Sometimes we have to moisten it with a little water.”
A resident of Beach refugee camp in Gaza City, Muhammad has not been able to pay electricity or water bills for many years.
“I cannot pay the money I owe to the supermarket,” he stated. “So I avoid walking past it.”
Muhammad was imprisoned twice during 2021.
In April, he was locked up for three days, then for six weeks beginning in October. On both occasions, court orders were issued for his arrest over unpaid debts.
Muhammad had borrowed money from someone he had worked with in the past. He needed the money to buy food, clothes and school stationery for his children.
The lender insisted that Muhammad pay back the money in full.
Under a 2005 law, Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza may be imprisoned for up to 91 days per year if they do not repay debts.
Approximately 116,000 families in Gaza had until the recent past received welfare allowances from the social development ministry of the Palestinian Authority. Around 80,000 of those families were deemed to urgently need financial assistance.
Muhammad and his family are among those who depend on these allowances. While the benefits had previously been transferred to recipients every three months, no payments have now been made for almost a year.
The allowances are mainly financed through a $165 million annual grant from the European Union. The EU did not hand over the full amount of that grant to the PA in 2021.
Aziza al-Kahlout, a spokesperson for the PA’s social development ministry, said the EU’s delays had “shattered the hopes” of the people hoping to receive the allowances last year.
Asked for a comment, the European Commission – the EU’s executive – said its “internal adoption procedure” on aid to the PA for 2021 “is still being finalized, so we are not going into more details at this stage.”
In November, the EU transferred around $17 million to the PA.
That was the first “budget support contribution” handed over last year, according to a statement issued by Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, the EU’s representative for the West Bank and Gaza, at the time. The statement blamed the delay on “lengthy administrative processes.”
While the EU’s bureaucrats offer unconvincing excuses, their delays cause real suffering for Palestinians.
Ahmad and Jamil are two brothers living in Gaza City affected by these delays.
Both work as porters in the Sheikh Radwan market for a few days each month. They have been unable to find steadier jobs for around six years now.
The welfare allowances from the PA have proven essential to the two men and their families. “These checks are like oxygen for us,” Jamil said.
After he and Ahmad were unable to pay grocery bills, two shop owners began proceedings against them.
Ahmad was imprisoned in December last year and held for 20 days.
He is worried about the long-term consequences of his imprisonment for his family.
“There is a stigma attached to having police arriving at your home,” he said. “If my sons’ friends see the police coming to arrest me, they will think I am a thief or some other type of criminal. That is what they learn at school. They do not know that people can go to jail for being poor.”
His brother Jamil was jailed in September for 15 days. Two further court orders have been issued against him since then and he could be arrested at any time.
Most days Jamil leaves his home early in the morning so that the police will not be able to find him if they call around.
“I move between the homes of my friends,” he said. “I fear that I will be sent back to jail.”
Ziad Thabet heads the Judicial Inspection Department – a body overseeing courts – in Gaza. He noted that tens of thousands of court orders are issued over unpaid debts per year.
“But only 10 percent of those orders are implemented,” he said. “Opportunities are given to pay back the debts at a later stage. And judges try to find amicable solutions [between lenders and people in debt].”
He acknowledged that the people imprisoned for debt in Gaza are often those who are poor or with modest resources.
“Some people are jailed for debts of up to $1,000,” he said. “Or $500. Or even less. Many people have lost their jobs due to the Israeli siege on Gaza and the recent Israeli war [of May 2021]. Some of them borrow in the hope they will find a new job and then repay. But conditions are getting worse in Gaza.”
The law allowing imprisonment over unpaid debts clearly hurts the poor most in a situation where levels of economic hardship are extremely high due to a complete Israeli blockade that has lasted more than 15 years.
“On a diet”
Unemployment in Gaza stood at 45 percent during the last three months of 2021, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
Having work does not always allow people to escape poverty. More than 80 percent of workers in Gaza receive less than a minimum wage worth around $200 per month.
As if things were not bad enough, social problems have been exacerbated lately by rising prices for food and drink.
During February, the price of fresh chicken rose by almost 7 percent in the West Bank and Gaza compared to the same month last year. Prices of fresh vegetables and eggs rose by more than 2 percent, while the price of soft drinks rose by 3 percent.
The senior Israeli strategist Dov Weissglas famously claimed that the reason for blockading Gaza was to put its inhabitants “on a diet but not to make them die of hunger.”
The cruelty he recommended has indeed been realized. Out of economic necessity, Gaza’s poor eat less varied diets than previously.
Mariam Daher lives in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. She prepares meals for 10 members of her extended family based on items she receives in aid packages from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees.
Her dishes usually consist of bread, rice, onions, milk and sometimes eggs. She has not cooked meat for her family in two years.
“A lot of meals have changed,” she said. “Even our breakfasts. We miss being able to have cheese, herbs and [cooking] oil in the morning. There are no jobs at the moment and the wages are low. So we can’t afford to buy basic types of food. We keep an eye on the prices of vegetables in the markets so that we can buy the cheapest ones and only cook [a substantial meal] once a week.”
Ola Mousa is an artist and writer from Gaza.
Additional reporting by David Cronin