“If Egypt sneezes, Gaza catches a cold.” This truism has never been as cruel as it is now.
Recent developments in Egypt have led to devastating humanitarian conditions in Gaza, where two million beleaguered and impoverished Palestinians are still smarting from seven years of siege.
Thousands of Palestinians that need to travel for health, education and other reasons are still stuck at Rafah Crossing, waiting their turn to go through. Shortages of food and building materials have reached unprecedented levels. Even if the supply coming from Israel through the Karem Salem Crossing is adequate, it is too expensive to matter for most Gazans.
The tunnels, which brought nearly 40 per cent of Gaza’s needs since 2007, have been dismantled.
The Egyptian army, fighting armed criminals in Sinai, has tightened control on supplies going into Gaza, which led to shortages in nearly everything, from food to bricks.
Since Egypt began its military campaign in Sinai, Gaza has been in a bind. And when Karem Abu Salem was closed because of the Jewish holidays, life in Gaza almost came to a standstill.
The shortages are detrimental to businesses as well as government services. Construction, fishing, hospitals, bakeries, electricity stations and sewage processing stations all need fuel to operate.
Abu Wael, a taxi driver, bought Israeli diesel oil, although he can hardly afford it.
“It is hard to find diesel oil. We often have to wait for long in the line at the stations. And some of the stations sell diesel oil and gasoline at black market prices,” he says.
Abu Wael says that many drivers who work for private companies have lost their jobs.
According to the Ministry of Transport, there are nearly 70,000 vehicles in Gaza, of which many are taxis.
Gaza needs 400,000 litres of fuel every day. Most of the supply used to come from Egypt, through the tunnels. Egyptian gasoline was sold at 3.6 shekels (about $1) per litre compared to 7.1 shekels for Israeli gasoline. Egyptian diesel oil cost 3.6 shekels per litre, compared to 6.5 shekels for the Israeli equivalent.
The Palestinian Authority imports fuel from Israel in accordance with the 1994 Paris Agreement, but since Hamas took power in 2007, Gaza mainly relied on smuggled fuel from Egypt.
Mahmoud Abdallah, who owns a gas station in Gaza, says that Egyptian fuel is no longer available. He sells Israeli fuel instead, but says drivers cannot afford it because of its high price. Even businesses buy it only when they have no other choice.
Many Gazans now walk for long distances for lack of rides, and many activities, such as education, are affected.
Mahmoud Abu Koweik is a freshman in a technical college. He said he waited for a taxi for 30 minutes, then had to walk to university, two miles or so away. “I have to leave one hour early to be able to make it to class on time,” he said.
Mustafa Mokat works for the government and owns a motorbike. He said that he had about 50 litres of Egyptian gasoline stored for emergencies. Having used this store now, he doesn’t know what to do. “I am trying to find a few litres of fuel in order to do shopping for the family and make it to work,” Mokat said.
At the Jewish New Year, the Karem Abu Salem crossing was shut down, which exacerbated shortages in fuel and other necessities. With more holidays yet to come this month, shortages are likely to get worse.
Gaza has seven crossing points, one linking it to Egypt and six to Israel.
In Rafah, hundreds of travellers are waiting their turn to cross into Egypt. According to the Gaza government, nearly 10,000 are waiting for permission to pass the border.
Rafah Crossing operates six days a week, four hours per day — down from nine hours per day in the past.
Permission is only granted to foreigners, people with exit visas, and patients going for treatment abroad.
The tragic situation in Gaza was discussed in a report titled “Slow Death” released last week by the Geneva-based EuroMid Observer for Human Rights. The report documents the growing difficulties of those living in Gaza.
According to the report, Gazans are being driven to distraction by the disappearance of Egyptian food and fuel supplies from the local market.
The report notes that 57 per cent of Gazans are “insecure” about food, a figure that may reach 65 per cent if the Egyptians keep preventing supplies from going through.
Unemployment reached 35.5 per cent in August and is likely to climb to 43 per cent by the end of the year.
According to the same report, the construction business in Gaza will continue to unravel because of shortages of building materials, which are no longer coming through the tunnels.
Israel allows some building materials to go through, but imposes so many restrictions on the types of these materials that the construction industry has ceased relying on Israeli supplies.
In September, the construction sector operated at less than 15 per cent of its full capacity. Some 30,000 jobs were lost in the span of two months.
Besides, 12,000 people remain homeless because they are unable to rebuild their homes that were destroyed in the last two Israeli wars.
The report estimates the losses Gazans incurred because of the destruction of the tunnels at $460 million. The closure of the tunnels is expected to force the annual rate of GDP growth to below three per cent by the end of 2013, down from 15 per cent until last June.
Gaza businesses used to import 45 per cent of their production needs through the tunnels.
Now up to 60 per cent of industry capacity is about to go idle, which may lead to the loss of 20,000 additional jobs.
Shortages caused by reduced production will inevitably send prices rocketing in Gaza, where 70 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line.
The EuroMid Observer notes that power cuts now last for up to 12 hours a day. Because the water supply is reliant on power, nearly one-quarter of homes receive water for only four hours per day, a serious problem since 90 per cent of Gaza’s underground water is polluted.
Gaza’s only power station now operates at 68 per cent of its capacity, due to fuel shortages.
Cooking oil arriving from Israel meets only 58 per cent of Gaza’s needs.
Nearly 137 gas stations have shut down in recent weeks.
Medicine shortages are also becoming acute, with nearly 128 pharmaceutical products running out. Stocks for 78 other pharmaceutical products are down to 16 per cent of their normal level.
The EuroMid Observer called on Israel to discontinue its blockade immediately, deeming it a crime against humanity.
For its part, the UN has voiced extreme concern over recent security measures in Rafah.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), in a report on the period 27 August to 2 September, called for opening all crossing points to civilian traffic and legal trade.
Ali Al-Hayek, chairman of the Palestinian Businessmen Association, described the economic situation as the worst in recent memory. In the absence of the tunnel trade, Israel’s ban on certain types of fuel, chemical substances, and metal products coming through the Karwm Abu Salem crossing means that construction activities, chemical industries, and metal production will come to a halt.
Egypt, Al-Hayek said, is free to close the tunnels, and Palestinian businessmen have no quarrel with that. But it should open the crossing to legal trade and humanitarian aid, for there is no reason for these to stop.