It’s three years since I’ve been back to Gaza. Much has happened since my last visit. Fatah waged a failed coup and now rules only the West Bank, while Hamas is in charge of Gaza. Israel launched its deadly Cast Lead assault. Fuel shortages. Electricity crises. And so on.
I needed to regain perspective. So I walked and I talked and I listened. I went to the beach where women — skinny jeans and all — were smoking water pipes, swimming and generally having a good time, irrespective of the purported Hamas ban on women smoking sheesha.
During the eight hours of electricity we get each day, I logged on to the Internet and browsed the English-language papers. It seemed like suddenly everyone was an expert on Gaza, claiming they knew what it’s really like. Zionist sympathizers and their ilk have been providing us with the same “evidence” that Gaza is burgeoning: the markets are full of produce, fancy restaurants abound, there are pools and parks and malls … all is well in the most isolated place on earth — Gaza, the “prison camp” that is not.
If you take things at face value, and set aside for a moment the bizarre idea that the availability of such amenities precludes the existence of hardship, you’ll be inclined to believe what you read.
So, is there a humanitarian crisis or not? That seems to be the question of the hour. But it is the wrong one to be asking.
The message I’ve been hearing over and over again since I returned to Gaza is this: the siege is not a siege on foods; it is a siege on freedoms — freedom to move in and out of Gaza, freedom to fish more than three miles out at sea, freedom to learn, to work, to farm, to build, to live, to prosper.
Gaza was never a place with a quantitative food shortage; it is a place where many people lack the means to buy food and other goods because of a closure policy whose tenets are “no development, no prosperity, and no humanitarian crisis,” Gisha, the Legal Centre for the Freedom of Movement, explained in a press release.
The move from a “white list” of allowable imports to a “black list” might sound in good in theory (ie everything is banned except xyz, to only the following things are banned) but in practice only 40 percent of Gaza’s supply needs are being met, according to Gisha. The Palestinian Federation of Industries estimates that only a few hundred of Gaza’s 3,900 factories and workshops will be able to start up again under present conditions.
Sure, there are a handful of fancy restaurants in Gaza. And yes, there is a new mall (infinitely smaller and less glamorous than it has been portrayed).
As for food, it is in good supply, having found its way here either through Israeli crossings or the vast network of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Of course, this leaves aside the question of who in Gaza’s largely impoverished population (the overwhelming majority of whose income is less than $2 a day, 61 percent of whom are food insecure) can really afford mangoes at $4 a kilo or grapes at $8 a kilo. A recent trip to the grocery store revealed that meat has risen to $13 a kilo. Fish, once a cheap source of protein, goes for $15 to $35 a kilo. And so on.
Prices are on par with those of a developed country, except we are not in a developed country. We are a de-developed occupied territory.
All of the above adds up to the erasure of the market economy and its replacement with a system where everyone is turned into some kind of welfare recipient. But people don’t want handouts and uncertainty and despair; they want their dignity and their freedom, employment and prosperity and possibility.
Perhaps most significantly, they want to be able to move freely — something they still cannot do.
Let’s take the case of Fadi. His father recently had heart surgery. He wanted to seek followup care abroad, at his own expense, but he doesn’t fall into the specified categories allowed out of Gaza for travel, whether through Egypt or Israel. “He’s not considered a level-one priority,” Fadi explained. “Can you please tell me why I can’t decide when I want to travel and what hospital I can take him to?”
Even the cream of Gaza high-school students must lobby the Israeli authorities long and hard to be allowed out to complete their studies. They literally have to start a campaign in conjunction with human rights groups to raise enough awareness about their plight, and then look for local individuals to blog about their progress, explained Ibrahim, who was approached by one organization to “sponsor a student.”
I have no doubt that if journalists Stephanie Gutmann and Melanie Phillips — who devoted recent columns to disputing British Prime Minister David Cameron’s description of Gaza as a “prison camp” — lived in Gaza their principle worry would not be about “what parts of their bodies they can display,” it would be the fact that they would not be allowed out again. It would be because everything from the kind of food they would have on their plate to when they can turn on the lights to what they can clothe those bodies with and whether or not they can obtain a degree is determined by an occupying power.
Using the phrase “prison camp” to describe Gaza is not vile rhetoric. It is an understatement and even a misnomer. Prisoners are guilty of a crime, yet they are guaranteed access to certain things — electricity and water, even education — where Gazans are not. What crime did Gazans commit, except, to quote my late grandmother, “being born Palestinian?”
Ketchup and cookies may be flowing to Gaza in slightly greater quantities than before. But so bloody what? Goods for export are not flowing out. Nor, for that matter, are people. So while there may be some semblance of civil life and stability in Gaza, there is absolutely no political horizon or true markers of freedom to speak of.
And as long as freedom of movement is stifled, whether by Israel or Egypt, and export-quality goods, which account for a large portion of Gaza’s manufacturing output, are forbidden from leaving Gaza, all the malls and mangoes in the world won’t make a bit of difference.
Laila El-Haddad is a Palestinian freelance journalist, photographer and blogger (www.gazamom.com) who divides her time between Gaza and the United States. A version of this essay was originally published by the Guardian’s Comment is Free and is republished with permission.