A vending business in the Gaza strip is not just a shopkeeper’s job as it is in New York or Cairo. It’s much more than a breadwinning enterprise – here it means that you are in fact part of the anti-blockade movement.
Most of the stock available for sale in the Gaza strip has been delivered here thanks to the incredible effort of hundreds of people who dig tunnels for smuggling goods across the border and deliver them to those tunnels from the Egyptian side.
The Gaza Strip’s population is surviving only thanks to these efforts, and that’s no exaggeration or exercise in dramatic writing, it’s a pure fact. Official deliveries from Israel provide a total of 600 grams of all essential goods per person per day (flour, sugar, butter, water, milk, and gravel). This data is provided by the Israeli army, though they prefer to give the grand total figure in tons semiannually. Notwithstanding gravel and washing power, it is not enough for a million-and-a-half to people to survive on.
During my whole stay in the Gaza strip, not a single truck was passed through the Israeli checkpoints. None of the medications, medical equipment or spare parts which could not be delivered by land via tunnels and were carried by the Free Gaza’s ships have made it into the Gaza strip so far.
When I came to a marketplace I saw plenty of goods. Every shop owner was greeting me with the zeal of a child seeing Santa.
“They see that you’re a foreigner and they are happy they have goods on shelves for you see, not the empty shelves,” was the explanation offered to me by the first vendor I struck up a conversation with.
“Did you have empty shelves before? How long ago?” I asked him.
“We had nothing until we blew up the barrier to go looking for food and supplies in Egypt. We made many tunnels after the war and thanks to that now we have everything. But don’t be misled by this abundance – the majority of citizens simply cannot afford to buy the goods,” he replied.
Some bloggers like to post pictures of Gaza strip markets as evidence that there is in fact no blockade in place. You could just as well use pictures of flea markets in the besieged Leningrad during WWII to argue that Leningrad was never besieged.
Israel’s standpoint is that the blockade is a legal measure while Palestinians refuse to agree. Nazi Germans could have just as well considered the Siege of Leningrad a legal measure in response to Leningrad’s citizens’ choice to resist the Nazi Germany’s claim to take over and rule the USSR.
My Soviet background makes it hard for me to understand why an equalitarian approach is not used under the circumstances, when a million people are forced to starve. Why not share all the goods equally and enforce low, affordable prices in the blockade zone using the Soviet experience of surviving a blockade?
I asked this question to many Palestinians. They didn’t seem to be excited by the Soviet experience. There is obviously no Socialism and no equality in the Gaza Strip.
Supporters of Fatah believe that all the aid goes to Hamas. Supporters of the latter believe in hundreds of local of social institutions and Islamic ways of providing aid.
I can’t help seeing that the majority of population is very poor, and yet there are people who are quite well off. And New York and Cairo are only different because local vendors there won’t tell you frankly that the poorer citizens just can’t afford their goods.
But we are back to the market place. It has it all, and all of it has been smuggled in via the tunnels. The more tunnels there are, the lower the consumer prices.
I’m looking at toys on display. There are dolls, soldiers, and radio controlled cars. The latter are the joy and pride of the vendor so I spend a while gazing at them.
“RC mini cars are banned because they are afraid they can be used to make radio controlled bombs against them,” explains he.
I ask him whether he has any toothpicks. Palestinians like to make a joke saying toothpicks are banned for import as a weapon, because a ninja can kill with one.
From Israel’s viewpoint, importing anything can be banned under the security excuse. So it appears that everything is dangerous, from toys to detergents. Sellers talk on this subject eagerly: they are telling that it’s even possible to make a bomb out of sugar and fertilizers, plant it into a toy car and send such toy armies against the Israeli army, and that’s it. Some joke about toothpicks and toys, others ban them, and still others transport them via tunnels posing a life threat.
Israel has not yet made the promised list of banned goods public. That is why the former list of allowed goods is still in effect. According to sellers, it consists of several dozens of items, while people need thousands of them for normal life.
Passing by small shops I am accompanied by a deafening sound of working generators. If it was not for them, there would be neither electricity, nor fridges. A generator costs about $300-400. Only few people in Gaza, even among the successful ones, can afford it. Generators are also banned and have been brought in via tunnels.
A suit costs 250 shekels. “It used to cost 600”, says one of the sellers. Refugees cannot afford to buy such a suit, and nor can the seller, who is a refugee himself. Among the most popular goods are bread and cheap sandals at two shekels. Most people wear such sandals here.
Sandals, bread and many other things commonly used by ancient people are produced in Gaza. For example, these are clay bricks dried in the sun, or wood-burning stoves for bread baking, or homespun dresses.
There are local fruit. A melon costs five shekels, a water melon – two shekels per kilo, grapes and mango – six shekels.
“Prices are changing”, sellers say. If you have five shekels per five people a day, will you be able to buy a melon? A million of people in Gaza don’t have those five shekels.
Israel exports plums (eight shekels), cherries (nine shekels per 250 grams), peaches (12 shekels), pears and bananas (five shekels), as well American apples (six shekels).
“Israel is exporting what’s beneficial for its farmers. When they have to sell their crops somewhere, their army sometimes allows it to be brought to Gaza. We have no choice. If we refuse, we won’t be able to get it from any other place. No one else is exporting anything to us”, says one of the sellers.
“Laundry powder is sometimes brought from Israel. It’s of bad quality, but it’s cheap – 35 shekels per 7 kilos. It wasn’t the case before”, a seller says.
At a shop, which is called a “library” here, I bought a note-book at two shekels. It’s an incredible luxury for most children here, just like glue, paints, chalk and crayons. I saw handmade trinkets at orphanages and summer schools – teachers felt proud because they managed to get hold of some color paper and taught children to work without glue.
It’s hard to make the shopkeeper talk and impossible to take his picture. “Everything on the shelves came via the tunnels. All the businessmen in Israel have their containers with goods arrested. I have 12 trucks stuck there for the past three years. I have to pay 10 thousand dollars a year for them. Nothing is let in, even paper. If you take my picture, they will put me on the black list there”, he explains.
A market in Gaza is one of the most optimistic places – life here looks like normal life most of all. People go to the market every day and buy food just for one day, as most people have no generators, meaning they have no fridges to keep food there.