Gaza: Life Gets Harder in the ‘Prison’

JERUSALEM – The overcrowded Gaza Strip has routinely been described as a big prison following the onset of the second Palestinian rising, the Intifadah, six years ago and the virtual closing of crossing points to and from Israel.

Life for the 1.4 million Palestinians packed into refugee camps on this thin sliver of land, one of the world’s most densely populated areas, has worsened since last August’s evacuation of Jewish settlers, observers say.

Gaza has endured a volatile mix of troubles: a lack of personal security, severe unemployment, scarce industry development, risk of infiltration by high-profile terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, and Israeli reprisals for Palestinian attacks.

These days the region has grabbed the most headlines over extra-judicial killings, or targeted assassinations of militant group members, an Israeli government policy condemned by the United Nations and humanitarian groups for its impact on innocent civilians.

The Israeli military killed two leaders of Islamic Jihad this week accused of launching Qassam rockets against Israeli settlers. The Gaza neighborhood attack also took the life of three children, and wounded others.

"We’re not talking about a computer game," said Jessica Montell, executive director of Jerusalem-based B’Tselem, an Israeli monitor of human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories. "You’re firing missiles into a city. The fact you didn’t mean to kill civilians doesn’t make it okay."

Since 2000, 329 Palestinians have been killed as a result of targeted assassinations, according to statistics gathered by B’Tselem. Only 213 were targeted members of terrorist groups.

Criticism of Israel’s lethal force does not end there. "The perimeter fence is described as a killing zone, " Montell told IPS, basing evidence on reports supplied by Israeli soldiers. The barrier, comprised of chain-link fences and concrete walls between Jerusalem and the West Bank, is being built to prevent terrorist attacks.

"The orders given to soldiers are not clear. Anyone who gets close to the fence, you shoot them."

Nine people have been killed since last summer’s disengagement, including poor Palestinians trying to sneak into Israel for work, lost children, and even an individual hunting pigeons, Montell said.

Palestinians themselves are also responsible for creating an insecure atmosphere in Gaza.

Elena Qleibo, a researcher who works with the Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Centre in Ramallah, said "children of the Intifadah" as well as extremists from the Fatah party and Islamist groups are the main culprits behind the violence wracking Gaza, including shootings and kidnappings.

But, Qleibo told IPS, the lawlessness occurs mainly between political factions and families, and usually is not random. "People (in the international community) think it’s like cowboy country."

The crime afflicting Gaza today, researchers note, is primarily due to unemployment and Israel’s pullout.

"Institutions break down after 30 years of Israeli occupation in Gaza," Qleibo said. "The only source of help and protection for a person is his family."

The heart of Israel’s historical plan for the Gaza Strip was to kill any attempt by Palestinians to acquire enough power to challenge their occupier, she explained. This meant eroding organizations such as labor unions that wanted to work within civil society.

The Strip today has an enlarged service sector, an agricultural industry and a tradition of subcontracting for Israel’s textile and shoe sectors, but for the most part it has not enjoyed much structural development.

"Gaza was never allowed to develop an industry. It would be paired up with Israel to become a labor force," said Qleibo.

Figures from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in 2005 show Gaza’s unemployment rate is 28 percent, and households living below the poverty line total 84 percent.

The Palestinian Authority has not helped ease the overall economic situation, Qleibo said, as over time it degenerated into an autocratic power rife with corruption that demoralized ordinary Palestinians.

Palestinians’ economic problems are aggravated by the impact of Israel’s arbitrary closures of the Karni crossing, the only outlet for the export and import of goods serving Gazans.

Continuous Israeli control over Palestinian crossings "lessens the chances for the Palestinian economy to revive and refresh, and results in increasing the prices of basic goods in addition to restricting medical services," Samir Zaqout, coordinator of field workers at the Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza told IPS.

Since the beginning of the year, Israel has shut Karni for more than 60 days because of fears of suspected terrorist threats via tunnels. The Palestinian Trade Center has estimated losses of several millions of dollars to Palestinian exporters.

The Palestinian Authority refused opening other routes because of concern the arrangement may become permanent and that other crossings cannot bear the trade-related traffic.

To most, this is all just another difficult aspect of Gaza life, which revolves around refugee camps in which 90 percent of the population lives. Qleibo said that although international aid groups sometimes fail to provide refugees with enough money for food, camps do provide protection, free education and health care. She said they become unbearable only during closures of economic crossings into Israel, and when parents cannot find work to feed their children..

The militant Hamas party, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections this year, has helped alleviate widespread hardship through its network of charities and health clinics that have supplied food and jobs, said Qleibo.

"I do not know why people are so afraid of Hamas, because they are really just trying to bring back a sense of rationale to a situation that was truly untenable."