Gaza is in intensive care. To say the Strip has become an ‘open prison’ is putting it mildly. But this is the only term that can be used. For Gaza to develop and give its people a modicum of respectability, things have to start moving quickly. There should be no foot-dragging anymore — or else an even worse humanitarian disaster is likely to unfold.
We need to come out of our lethargy when we hear that the Gaza economy is on the “verge of collapse” or “very troubling” with “people in despair”, and “grim”. And what about when people say the “economy can’t survive without being connected to the world”?
All these pay reference to the economic boycott Israel imposed on Gaza since 2007 and which it continues to do so stringently today.
This is part of the deep malaise. Another is the approaching first anniversary of Israel’s 51-day war on the Strip last year, and its crippling consequences. Today Gaza stands as a wasteland.
It’s Israel that is mainly responsible for ensuring Gaza continues in a state of chaos and drudgery: Bombed-out buildings, craters, homes razed to the ground, markets destroyed, factories shut down and infrastructure left completely in ruins, with civil society brought to its knees. It did this during its war and is doing so today through its stringent military control over the Strip — over land, sea or air.
Giving the people their self-respect
But all this is shortsighted, parochial and smacks of hatred. Come what may, Gaza has to be nurtured, a semblance of civil society has to be reinstituted, markets redeveloped, an economy rebuilt and its people given back their self-respect. They should not only be able to earn a decent living but also be able to look after their families. However, this is similar to building castles in the air, despite the fact that everybody agrees Gaza needs a reconstruction relaunch— the international community, the United States, Europe, the Arab countries and even Israel itself, to an extent, agree the situation must change.
Appeals are being made by the United Nations, the refugee agency UNRWA and the World Bank for more money to pour in. But sadly, for the most part, these appeals have fallen on deaf ears — dashing hopes of a brighter tomorrow. International aid of $5.4 billion (Dh19.83 billion) promised at a donor conference held in October 2014 in Cairo is barely trickling through, with less than $1 billion given so far.
The consequences are that little is being done on the ground, with drab, grey, ramshackle structures continuing to dominate the skyline and masses upon masses of debris reminding everybody of what Israel did in July and August 2014.
Thanks to its fighter jets, tanks and bombs, over 120,000 homes were destroyed — some completely, while others lie in a shambles. One wonders if all these really harboured ‘terrorists’ and ‘troublemakers’ as Israel claims or was it just a cynical attempt by a cynical power to undermine Palestinian identity.Families who can just about live in their demolished homes and not under the open sky have to make do with what they have in structures with exposed electrical wires, heightening the risk of them being electrocuted.
But this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Numbers speak for themselves. Today, unemployment is rife standing at around 44 per cent — if not higher — and having increased by 11 per cent since 2014. The World Bank admitted that the rate is “probably the highest in the world”. Of this, youth employment stands at 60 per cent — reaching 68 per cent among the 18-24 age group. The poverty rate is 65 per cent, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
These statistics, mind-boggling as they are, mean 80 per cent of the 1.8 million population of Gaza relies on aid and handouts from the United Nations.
Put another way, four out of every five Gazans receive some kind of aid — surely an injustice to civilians.
Experts say real GDP growth now is only a few percentage points higher than what it was in 1994. However, the population has grown at a colossal 230 per cent in the same period while today’s per capita income is 31 per cent lower than it was then. It’s as if the population has gone drastically backward.
The 2014 war sent GDP falling by $460 million with construction, agriculture, manufacturing and electricity suffering the most in the wake of power outages that last an entire day.
Estimates suggest that had it not been for the war, Gaza’s GDP would have been four times higher than the above figure. Israel’s war was wanton destruction and state vandalism! Israel’s war resulted in the firing of 12,000 workers due to the destruction of industrial plants that are still waiting to be rebuilt.
The industrial sector is already in a shambles with losses exceeding $150 million, according to different estimates. Today 80 per cent of factories in Gaza are damaged or closed because of the economic blockade and/or the war contributing to the exceedingly bad economic situation
The blockade must be lifted, something which Israel promised it would do under the terms of the ceasefire negotiated with Egypt at the end of August 2014. But this didn’t happen; Israel demonstrated it was only paying lip-service and no end of the nine-year-old blockade is likely anytime soon.
Gaza today does indeed lie between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the blockade means over 200 items are banned from entering the Strip, including cement and more than 90 per cent of metals.
This may also partially explain why reconstruction is so slow. And then there is the destruction of tunnels, once a lifeline for the people of Gaza.
During the war, the Israelis destroyed as many tunnels as they could. Then Egypt followed suit. The tunnels served as an ‘economic breather’ against the Israeli blockade but they are now no more.
For how long will the blockade last, and what the consequences of that will be is for politicians including those in Hamas, the Palestine National Authority, Israel and the rest of the world to mull over. This is a tragedy that is getting deeper and deeper with no end in sight.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the United Kingdom.