Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 September 2009
Issue No. 963
Features
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hard times in Gaza

Saleh Al-Naami finds that economic deprivation reigns in the streets of Gaza this Ramadan

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'Gaza's economic situation not only affects everyday life in Ramadan, but it also poses a problem for families preparing their children for the new school year. Children need clothes, school bags and stationary, but most of these items have become unaffordable'

Since the early hours of the morning, Marwan Abd Rabbu has been standing in line waiting for the Al-Salah Society to open its doors. Al-Salah is a charity organisation that helps the poor, and Marwan, who lives in Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in Gaza, needs assistance to support his family.

Assistance from Al-Salah would help Marwan, 42 and currently unemployed, see his family of 10 through the month of Ramadan. "They give us packages of food, and without their assistance I don't know what I would have done. I wouldn't be able to feed my family come Iftar [the sunset meal] time," Marwan says.

Charity, especially that provided through organisations with Islamic leanings, as well as by the UN Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, has become a main source of income in Gaza, where 80 per cent of the population are believed to be living under the poverty line.

Some families depend on relatives who have a job with a monthly salary. Those with jobs also try to help their extended families. In Ramadan, a package containing cheese, dates and sweets can go a long way.

Families try to help each other the best they can. At the beginning of the holy month, Majed Ibrahim, a college professor, bought food products, wrapped them as a gift, and gave them to his four married sisters, for example.

However, in general hard times reign in Gaza this Ramadan. The shops are nearly empty of customers, and even those that do show up often leave empty handed if they can't find anything they can afford.

Gamal Alyan owns one of the largest food stores in central Gaza. Sweating profusely on a hot August day, he wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and looks around. His shop is one of the few that are full of customers, but he still says that many leave without buying anything, mostly because prices have gone up.

"Customers have less money to spend than they used to," Alyan says. "Most prefer to buy smuggled Egyptian products, as prices are cheaper than for those that come from Israel. High rates of tax also make much of the merchandise coming from Israel too expensive for the poor inhabitants of Gaza."

Price differences between Egyptian products and products coming from Israel can be considerable, with a kilo of Dutch cheese imported via Israel costing more than double the Egyptian equivalent.

In addition, not everyone can go shopping. Only 20 per cent of the population have regular salaries, and these people, mostly working for the government or civil society organisations, are considered the lucky ones.

The price of vegetables has also gone up this Ramadan, with shoppers in the vegetables markets complaining about the high prices of onions at six shekels a kilo ($1.7) and tomatoes at four shekels ($1.2).

The electricity in Gaza goes off every day since Israel no longer supplies the only power station with its complete fuel needs, and the company running the station is obliged to cut the power to various neighbourhoods for a few hours each day.

Abdel-Rahman Oudah, 49, who lives in Birkat Al-Wezz west of the Al-Maghazi Camp in central Gaza, says that his wife now bakes bread early in the morning before the electricity goes off. She would prefer to bake at sunset, but that would be too risky given the irregularity of the power supply.

"The electricity can go off at any time," Abdel-Rahman says. "In the morning there is usually electricity, but after 11 or 12 o'clock you never know."

Such power cuts affect the rhythm of religious life during Ramadan. While the pious naturally still go to the mosque after dusk for tarawih, a long form of prayers performed only in the holy month, because of the outages imams tend to cut the tarawih short, breaking with tradition.

However, Gaza's economic situation not only affects everyday life in Ramadan, but it also poses a problem for families preparing their children for the new school year. Children need clothes, school bags and stationary, but most of these items have become unaffordable.

Abdel-Karim Rawafaah, 41, has been all over the market at the Al-Nuseirat Camp in Central Gaza with his seven children looking for supplies, but he still goes back to the Al-Maghazi Camp where he lives empty handed. Schools open in two weeks, but he is not sure he can buy the supplies his children need.

One pair of trousers now costs 70 shekels ($20), up from 40 shekels ($12) last year, he says. Abdel-Karim, who earns around 1,000 shekels ($300) from his job with the local council, says he would need almost twice his monthly salary just to clothe his children. For now, he's hoping he'll find cheaper clothes on a later shopping expedition. Otherwise, the children will just have to wear last year's clothes, he says.

Many people in Gaza are in Abdel-Karim's situation. Because of the Israeli blockade, basic goods are often exorbitantly priced, with shopkeepers barely expecting people to buy. Walking down Omar Al-Mokhtar Street, Gaza's main thoroughfare, the shopkeepers are often to be seen chatting together or simply reading the newspapers.

Yet, the shopkeepers, too, are despondent. According to Salim Rajab, a shopkeeper, "this time of year used to be the best for us, as parents come out to buy new clothes for their children at the beginning of the school year. But this year's much-awaited boom hasn't happened."

Other shopkeepers say that clothes have become more expensive because of the many intermediaries involved in smuggling them into the Strip to beat the blockade. As every middleman takes a cut, the final product can become very expensive.

Finally, in recognition of the hard times reigning in Gaza this Ramadan, in an extraordinary move the government of Ismail Haniyeh has decided to deduct 30 per cent or more from the pay of salaried employees to give to the poor, with some ministers and top officials giving their entire pay during the holy month.

Some non-governmental organisations have done the same. The Islamic Universities Board of Trustees, for example, has deducted 50 per cent from the salaries of professors and 100 per cent from the salaries of college presidents during the month of Ramadan and distributed the money to the poor.

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