On Saturday, banks in Gaza were thronged by lines of disappointed Palestinians who were expecting to receive part of their salaries before the Eid al-Adha holiday, which begins on Monday. Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority’s appointed Prime Minister based in Ramallah, foresaw the cash crisis earlier in the week and urged Israel to allow the transfer of shekels to Gaza, citing a needed 250 million shekels ($63 million) to pay the salaries.
Palestinian sources put the last transfer of shekels to Gaza as at the end of September, when a comparatively inadequate amount of 50 million shekels ($12.5 million) was allowed in, just a fraction of what Fayyad says Gaza needs to pays its 77,000 government workers. The World Bank is warning of severe ramifications from Israel’s blockade on banknotes, citing a potential “collapse of the commercial banking system in Gaza” and “serious humanitarian implications” as some of the consequences.
Standing outside of Gaza City’s closed Palestine Bank on Saturday morning, expectant employees voiced their frustration. “I was expecting my salary today,” said 34-year-old Mahmoud Saleh, a father of two. “I was putting all my hopes on this money as Eid is coming and I’d wanted to buy clothes for my daughter. I still hope that somehow I’ll get the money before Eid. What else can I do? It’s all I can do to hope.”
Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, is an important celebration for Muslims worldwide. In Gaza, the crippling western-backed Israeli siege has already brought 80 percent of Palestinians to food aid dependency and many are saying that they will not be celebrating this year. Unemployment in Gaza stands at 65 percent, and even those Palestinians that are employed have salaries withheld.
Abu Khalil al-Helo, 67, stood among the crowd outside the bank’s closed doors, asking, “What can I do? How can I get my money?” Like most gathered outside of Gaza’s banks, he expected 1000 shekels ($250), the amount promised only days before. “Why are they holding back our money? Eid is coming, and I have four people to provide for,” al-Helo stated.
Sitting on the bank steps, Emad Abu Salama, 41, added, “I was expecting just part of my salary, 500 shekels [$125]. Every month, for the last half year, my salary has been delayed,” he explained. “We won’t have Eid, we won’t do anything. We’ll stay home.”
Yet, staying home isn’t a cozy alternative, Abu Salama added. “Everything is off, the electricity, the gas, the water. Some days we get eight hours, sometimes four hours, it changes daily. People are paying nearly 400 shekels [$100] for a canister of gas now. But our family doesn’t have any gas, we can’t afford it. We wait for when the electricity comes on, and then we cook using electric burners.”
Generators being sold on street corners go for 2,000 shekels ($500) for a four-kilogram generator, 2,500 shekels for a five kilo one, which holds 15 liters of benzene, a known carcinogen. One vendor explained that the five-kilo generator uses about 1.25 liters of benzene every two hours. These generators, used to power lights, laptops and refrigerators, among other things, are seen on sidewalks and in homes, emitting a greasy exhaust and deafening noise.
On Saturday, the World Bank stated that “The ongoing closure of Gaza and severe restrictions on the flow of goods and people continues to be a cause of grave concern.” Two weeks earlier, John Ging, Director of Operations in Gaza for the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, called the situation in Gaza “very desperate at the humanitarian level.” He added that “people have been stripped of their dignity here, it is a struggle to survive for everybody,” noting that half of Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens are children.
UNRWA, along with other relief agencies in Gaza, provides food aid to 80 percent of the Gaza population. Even UN supplies were depleted in mid-November as a result of the closed borders, which Israel has sealed since 4 November allowing only brief openings to provide minimal amounts of food aid and fuel insufficient for Gaza’s depleted stocks. Ging noted that “It was unprecedented that we ran out of food, which we did over 10 days ago. The closures are becoming more and more restrictive, the situation here is getting worse and worse.”
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced on Sunday that Gaza’s crossings would remain closed. UNRWA officials also announced that food aid supplies will last only for two or three more days if the borders remain closed. Emphasizing that Israel is merely drip-feeding Gaza, a UN official stated that “the 16 truckloads Israel allowed into the Gaza Strip last Thursday were not enough in light of the brewing humanitarian crisis.”
On Gaza’s Omar Mukthar Street, one of the Strip’s busiest thoroughfares, while some Palestinians bought last-minute Eid gifts, Abed Abu Said, 53, sat quietly with his hand out. “Thank you,” he said in clear English, receiving a small offering. “I’m from Beit Lahia,” he explained. “My wife is dead and I have 10 children to take care of. I can’t find work.”
There is no question that the grinding poverty Palestinians in Gaza have been reduced to, is a result of the closed borders, bombed and shut down factories, unattainable exit permits, and the Israel-engineered disintegration of Gaza’s economy and means of self-sufficiency. With cooking gas barred entry, sporadic electricity, and no currency remaining in Gaza banks, few hold hopes for an Eid to celebrate.
Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer who spent eight months in 2007 living in West Bank communities and four months in Cairo and at the Rafah crossing. She is currently based in Gaza, after the third successful voyage of the Free Gaza Movement to break the siege on Gaza.