AURDIP’s Webinar by Dr. Sara Roy : “Scarcity as a Form of Control: How Does Gaza Live?”

Dr. Sara Roy, senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, gave AURDIP’s Webinar on February 2, 2021. Transcript of Dr. Sara Roy’s Webinar Scarcity….

Dr. Sara Roy, senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, gave AURDIP’s Webinar on February 2, 2021.

Transcript of Dr. Sara Roy’s Webinar

Scarcity as a Form of Control: How Does Gaza Live?[[This lecture is drawn from several of my publications, which can be found in my upcoming book, Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance, which will be published by Pluto Press in June 2021. References for the facts and quotations cited in this lecture can be found in the book and have not been included here.]]

Association of Academics for the Respect of International Law in Palestine (AURDIP)

February 2, 2021

Sara Roy, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University

I would like to begin with a story taken from fieldnotes I kept when I lived in Gaza during the first Intifada, between 1988 and 1989.

I wrote:

“On October 31, 1988, a leaflet of the Unified Command called on Israelis to vote for peace, for a secure Israeli state and a Palestinian state. The leaflet called on people to step up stone throwing and petrol bomb attacks, which are not meant to kill Jews but to protest repression and occupation.”

Two weeks later on November 15, 1988 Yasir Arafat declared the independent State of Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza—based on the 1947 Partition Plan and UNSCR 242 and 338—which had previously and overwhelmingly been adopted by the Palestinian National Council, the PLO’s legislative arm. Arafat renounced terrorism and recognized the state of Israel, calling for coexistence between an Israeli and Palestinian state. . . The majority of Gazans were exultant.”

Following Arafat’s declaration, my notes continue:

“Israel immediately placed Gaza under a tight curfew; anyone defying the curfew we were told would be shot. Yet, on this particular day defy it they did and the army for the most part did not respond. People literally danced in the streets of Gaza while Israeli soldiers looked on disbelieving the scene not far from them. In Beach Camp people poured out of their shelters, jubilant and unafraid, puncturing the thick darkness of the camp with celebration. People embraced each other and the joy was heartfelt. I had never seen such rejoicing or felt such a sense of triumph in Gaza. A middle-aged man whom I did not know approached my friends and me and said, “I will never forget my home in Palestine; it will always be in my heart. But now, all I want is a factory and a flag.”

Fast forward to the present. In a conversation with a colleague who works in an NGO in Gaza last June, she said: “People have lost hope; our demands have declined. No one talks about Jerusalem or the right of return. Past demands are meaningless. What people want is food, food security, open crossings and freedom of movement. Hope used to be alive. No longer.”

The juxtaposition of hope and hopelessness, possibility and unattainability separated by over three decades is a stark illustration of where Gaza finds itself at present.

Before addressing some of the issues that define life in Gaza, it is important to provide, at least in part, an historical and policy context for Gaza’s current reality.

Gaza, as the historical center of Palestinian resistance to the occupation, is key to the conflict and to its ultimate resolution. This has always been the case and it will remain so. Gaza’s small size belies its far greater significance. This is why Israel has worked to marginalize Gaza politically and economically in an attempt to remove it from any form of serious consideration particularly as it regards any resolution of the conflict let alone a future Palestinian state (no matter what truncated form that state may assume).

The latest iteration of this policy, which of course is directed at Palestine as a whole, is the so-called “peace” agreement signed in 2020 between Israel and two Gulf states, the UAE and Bahrain known as the Abraham Accords. While the term “peace” is a misnomer since Israel was not at war with either country, the agreements represented a diplomatic and political coup for Israel, demonstrating that it was possible to make “peace” with Arab countries and normalize relations with Israel—without ending the occupation and before the establishment of a Palestinian state. Additional agreements and understandings were subsequently signed with Morocco and Sudan. And the US was also courting Indonesia, promising it an additional $2 billion in aid if it recognizes Israel. The effect was to further normalize the occupation, which was a cornerstone of the Oslo process.

A Note on the Significance of the Oslo Process

I would like to spend a little time discussing the terms of the Oslo process, which continue to prove very damaging for Palestinians, especially in Gaza.

The normalization of the occupation occurred under the now discredited Oslo process, which was its intent. As such Oslo did not represent a watershed event that many believed would lead to the end of the occupation; rather, Oslo did the opposite, transforming the occupation from a political and legal issue with international significance into a local struggle over market access and worker permits. If anything, under the Oslo process the occupation became invisible because it became so normal.

Oslo made it possible for Israel—with almost unquestioned American and European support—to argue that it was working toward ending the occupation while pursuing policies that would ensure Israel’s continued presence and eliminate the emergence of a viable Palestinian state and economy on land Israel wished to claim as its own. The most damaging of Oslo’s policies include: the near total separation of the West Bank and Gaza, the isolation of Gaza, the internal fragmentation of the West Bank and seizure of the majority of the land by Israel, and the provision of aid largely—and in the case of Gaza, almost exclusively—for humanitarian relief. I shall explain this in more detail in a few minutes.

Oslo instituted a legal framework for Palestinian economic relations with Israel and the world that was designed to deepen Palestinian economic dependence, which was created during the first two decades of occupation. As I have examined in my earlier writings, Israel’s economic policy toward the Palestinians was deliberately designed to preclude the formation of a viable economic infrastructure and industrial base that could support structural change and sustainable economic development. This was because Israel feared that a viable and expanding economy would provide the basis for a national state to emerge. The resulting lack of domestic economic development in Gaza and the West Bank was compensated by employment inside Israel. For a time, Palestinian income levels increased due in large part to the employment of Palestinian workers in the Israeli market, making a segment of the Palestinian labor force especially from Gaza, entirely dependent on external revenues, while the Palestinian economy was weakened through a process I termed de-development.

With Oslo and the Paris Protocol specifically, the dependence on external revenue sources was solidified and formalized. The Protocol created a custom union that integrated the Palestinian economy into Israel’s in which Israel controlled the Palestinian Authority’s borders and hence, access to the world.

The Protocol was not designed to repair or rehabilitate Palestine’s underdeveloped domestic economy or stimulate economic development; rather, it focused on increasing income levels notably through: continued remittances from Palestinian laborers in Israel, clearance revenue transfers from Israel—a mechanism designed specifically under Oslo that would insure Israel’s economic and to a lesser degree, political control over the PA—and heightened levels of international aid, which in effect, transferred responsibility for Palestinian welfare from Israel as the occupying power to the international donor community. Israel maintained total control without any of the responsibility.

Consequently, income from wage earners working in Israel and foreign assistance funded a significant portion of economic activity until it couldn’t. A weakened or de-developed domestic economy, meant that external income in all its forms, over which Israel had total control, and upon which the Palestinian economy was disproportionately dependent, was largely used to fund local consumption. Nowhere was this truer than in Gaza.

Hence, rather than strengthen the Palestinian economy, Oslo resulted in the opposite: growing unemployment; low investment levels; declining per capita income; transient and fluctuating periods of growth; weakening productive sectors; and growing food insecurity and poverty levels. This is why, over time foreign assistance, especially in Gaza, assumed the role of mitigating the damaging impact of Israeli policies on the economy rather than repairing it, and why, in part, despite having received $38 billion in aid between 1994-2018, the Palestinian economy remains debilitated.

Furthermore, under Oslo, the historical contest over territory was reframed by a policy of separation, isolation and containment. Within this framework Gaza and the West Bank were separated demographically and physically. As a result, a largely isolated Gaza came to be seen as exceptional or marginal, existing outside a Palestinian state and a Palestinian nation.

The policies that have come to define Gaza as exceptional are simply extensions, albeit more extreme, of policies long used to separate and isolate Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel. In this regard Gaza’s status is part of a long and consistent policy continuum of containment, removal and erasure. As such Gaza became the model for the fragmentation of the West Bank into small, disconnected enclaves under constant assault. Hence, it is important to understand that these policies of separation and exclusion make it difficult if not impossible for Palestinians to imagine a larger sense of a collective; without that sense, exclusion becomes the defining basis for politics and policy.

The changes introduced by Oslo led to series of critical paradigm shifts that have characterized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last two decades at least. These paradigm shifts have had a damaging and defining impact on Gaza. For purposes of this discussion, I want to highlight four:

– 1. The first paradigm shift concerns the belief that occupation is reversible and should be reversed, which was largely unquestioned and uncontested and was the catalyzing force behind many social, political, and economic initiatives. This belief—that the occupation and the forces that sustain it can be stopped—has itself been reversed and is powerfully illustrated in the formalization, institutionalization and acceptance by Israel and key members of the international donor community of Palestinian territorial and demographic fragmentation and isolation. Critically, the occupation has long remained unchallenged by an international order that seems willing to legitimize it as long as there is no accepted agreement to end it.

– 2. This points to a second paradigm shift. Prior to Oslo there was a belief among Israelis and within the international community generally that peace and occupation were incompatible. The former could not be achieved in the presence of the latter. This, too, has changed. Peace and occupation are compatible, arguably, complementary, as seen most recently in the Abraham Accords.

Furthermore, more and more Israelis have benefitted from the occupation and colonization. Their lives have been facilitated by the vast settlement road network built in the West Bank where settlements are regarded as natural outgrowth, a needed constituency providing protection and security, with important familial links to Israel proper. In this way Israel has erased the Green Line.

For many if not most Israelis and several key international donors it is no longer a question of normalizing the occupation but of removing the term altogether since it no longer applies especially in light of a strong and expanding Israeli economy (pre-Covid) and the virtual cessation of Palestinian violence, notably suicide attacks, inside Israel.

In fact, silence over the occupation has become the key condition for continued international funding of the Palestinian Authority. Hence, Palestine’s effective dismemberment and the permanence of territorial fragmentation are accepted by key members of the international community as legitimate and benign and totally manageable especially with the virtual absence of any criticism from Palestinian officialdom. Separating from the Palestinians and doing what is necessary politically, economically, and militarily to insure and maintain that separation has also become increasingly routine and institutionalized.

– 3. In this way the occupation has been transformed from a political and legal issue with international legitimacy into a simple dispute over borders where the rules of war apply, rather than those of occupation. This is the third paradigm shift. This recasting from occupation to war is acutely clear and defining in Israel’s relationship with Gaza and was made easier after Hamas’s 2006 election victory and 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip, a recasting the international community has largely come to accept if not embrace. Henceforth, Gaza was identified solely with Hamas and therefore as hostile and alien.

– 4. The growing inapplicability of occupation as an analytical (and legal) framework has introduced a fourth paradigm shift regarding Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and their territories.

In the West Bank this shift in Israeli policy is away from occupation and colonization towards annexation and imposed sovereignty.

In Gaza, this shift in Israeli policy has moved from one that sought to control and dominate the Palestinian economy, shaping it to its own interests to one that will fracture and undermine the economy, and perhaps most striking of all, transform Palestinians—especially those in Gaza—from a people with national and political rights into a humanitarian problem for whom the international community becomes wholly responsible. This has largely been the case since 2000.

The shift from political to humanitarian priorities derives from several factors, among them:

  • The total fragmentation of the geographical base of the Palestinian economy, with the largely complete separation of Gaza and the West Bank and the cantonization of the West Bank.
  • The use of aid as a form of punishment inflicted by Israel (in the form of closure and then siege) and, critically, by the international community, a situation of punishing the occupied rather than the occupier. (This is seen in international participation in the siege on Gaza).
  • The shift from the political to the humanitarian also derives from the growing ineffectiveness of international aid particularly after 2006, as assistance—composed primarily of humanitarian relief and aid for recurrent budget support—is being provided outside any meaningful economic framework, having little if any bearing on development.

Hence, the steady imposition of Israeli imperatives unchallenged, and then actively supported by, the international community, coupled with the use of aid as a punitive weapon, gave rise to a clear change in the way some donor governments, international organizations, and aid agencies approached Israeli-Palestinian relations, particularly in Gaza. This shift, very clear after the January 2006 Palestinian elections, moved strongly away from any commitment to Palestinian self-determination toward one that emphasized relief and charity—helping people survive while they are being contained and punished and their economy disabled.

In Gaza, the paradigm shift that reduces Palestinians from a political to a humanitarian matter has been accompanied by another equally dangerous change. Since the Hamas takeover, Israel’s policy goal is no longer just the isolation of Gaza but its ruination as seen in a policy that no longer addresses the economy in some manner (whether positively or negatively) to one that dispenses with the concept of an economy altogether. That is, rather than weaken Gaza’s economy through punishing closures and other restrictions as it long had, the Israeli government has, since June 2006, imposed siege or extreme closure, which treats the economy as totally irrelevant, a disposable luxury.

This was underlined by the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision first approving fuel cuts to Gaza in October 2007 (permissible since it would not harm “essential humanitarian needs” of the population) followed in January 2008 by electricity cuts (and in May 2008 by a lowering of acceptable levels for fuel and electricity). The court stated, “We do not accept the petitioners’ argument that ‘market forces’ should be allowed to play their role in Gaza with regard to fuel consumption.” Thus, according to the Supreme Court, it is permissible to harm Palestinians and create a humanitarian crisis for political reasons. Or as Professor Darryl Li put it, “The logic of the Court’s decisions on fuel and electricity suggests that once undefined “essential humanitarian needs” are met, all other deprivation is possible.”

It is no longer—and in fact has not been for quite some time—a question of economic growth or development, change or reform, freedom or sovereignty but of essential humanitarian needs, of reducing the needs and rights of 2 million people in Gaza to an “exercise in counting calories” and truckloads of food.

Consequently, in Gaza, the occupation has deepened and assumed a particularly destructive quality. In Gaza, the occupation is meant to prevent any kind of normal environment from emerging, institutionalizing in both practical and psychological terms a form of abnormality that resists change the longer it is allowed to last and take root.

The economic ruination that has resulted also reflects the absence of sovereign laws in Gaza that obligate the ruling power to protect the people it is ruling over. Instead, the only laws that truly apply in Gaza are those of war where the sovereign power, Israel, can inflict violence without accountability or any reference to law. The withdrawal of law—and with it, justice—in Gaza combined with economic collapse, has not only necessitated humanitarian intervention but also has situated Gaza between periodic conflict and potential catastrophe, where violence is used not so much to inflict death as debility.

Israel’s objective in Gaza, therefore, is limited and contained: to avert any large-scale disaster such as starvation, a new and terrible metric. Gaza is controlled by the threat of wholesale catastrophe be it hunger, institutional destruction, or continued economic demise, where Israel rules by maintaining a liminal, indeterminate state, and where the sites of resistance are narrow and ineffective. As a colleague put it, “Israel governs by how near to the disaster threshold Gaza is allowed to go.” Within this mode of rule, Palestinians are regarded as charity cases or terrorists.

In this way Israel uses scarcity as a form of control, creating conditions that increase the need for humanitarian aid and nothing more.

The transformation of the Gaza Strip: imposed decline

The situation in Gaza is increasingly precarious. The World Bank states, “Gaza’s economy has been kept afloat in recent years by large transfers including donor aid and spending through the budget of the Palestinian Authority (PA), both of which amounted to 70-80 percent of Gaza’s GDP,” transfers which have experienced significant declines. Hence, without external aid there would be no functioning economy able to provide any form of public or private services.

The 14-year blockade—in which Egypt is a participant—is the principal factor underlying Gaza’s economic ruination and powerfully reflects the use of economic policy as a punitive measure. Yet, it should be understood that Gaza has been under varying degrees of closure since 1991, which has increasingly restricted and, at times, completely banned the movement of people and goods. The blockade is part of Israel’s closure policy, its most extreme expression, making the closure almost total and defining.

The blockade or siege has destroyed normal trade relations (particularly exports), upon which Gaza’s small economy depends, and has paralyzed much of the economy especially private sector activity, which the Hamas authorities have done little if anything to address. Productive activity long ago gave way to a consumption-based economy supported by relief aid. The three military assaults (among others) on Gaza in 2008/09, 2012, and 2014 have been catastrophic economically. Direct economic losses resulting from the 2008/09 military operation alone (which lasted three weeks) ranged between $1.9-$2.5 billion.

The physical damage and economic losses that resulted from the 2014 hostilities amounted to an additional $3.1 billion. Of this, the most damage occurred to the infrastructure sector at $2 billion. This was followed by the damage to Gaza’s already diminished productive sector, costing just under $1 billion.

According to the UN, “The share of Gaza’s productive sectors fell from 28 to 13 per cent of GDP between 1994 and 2018; the share of manufacturing halved, to 8 percent, and that of agriculture fell from 9 to 5 per cent.” The Palestinian Authority estimated that the cost of Gaza’s reconstruction and recovery following the 2014 war was $3.9 billion.

The result has been disastrous: unprecedented levels of unemployment, food insecurity and aid dependency. In September 2018, for example, the World Bank stated that the “economy in Gaza is collapsing.” By the first quarter of 2020 (prior to the impact of the Covid crisis), according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), Gaza’s unemployment rate stood at 45.5 percent. By the second quarter of 2020, unemployment had reached 49.1 percent (this did not include the impact of additional Covid-imposed restrictions in August, which further increased unemployment levels). Compare this to an unemployment rate of 23.6 percent in 2005, still high but less than half of what it is today. By June 2020 youth (15-29) unemployment had increased to 69.9 percent (and 92 percent for young women). This is particularly alarming because three-quarters of the population are under 30 years of age and prohibited by Israel from leaving Gaza.

Consequently, by 2018, around 53 percent of Gazans—or every second person (including over 400,000 children)—lived in poverty (a dramatic increase from 38.8 percent in 2011). Additionally, 68 percent were food insecure meaning they were unable to access adequate amounts of nutritious food, a situation that has only grown worse. According to the UN in the absence of the blockade and ongoing hostilities the poverty rate could have been far lower at 15 percent. Current figures depending upon source (which include the impact of Covid) place poverty in Gaza somewhere between 56-60 percent. There is enough food in Gaza but the primary problem is weak and worsening purchasing power.

Over 80 percent of Gaza’s total population now requires humanitarian assistance despite the fact that they are desperate to work. Because of the Israeli blockade, the overwhelming majority of men, women and children have been forced into dependency on food and cash handouts.

Acquiring enough food on a daily basis is what presently consumes most families. Some people are now seeking food in rubbish piles and homelessness is a growing problem because people cannot afford to pay rent. (Furthermore, the use of advanced weaponry by Israel has also resulted in heavy metal contamination of the environment and the population, in addition to the chronic water and sanitation crisis.) It is no exaggeration to say that Gaza is now a humanitarian safe zone where survival depends disproportionately on (declining levels of) foreign assistance.

In fact, a 2020 UN report, found that “the estimated cumulative economic cost of the Israeli occupation in Gaza under the prolonged closure and severe economic and movement restrictions and military operations would amount to $16.7 billion . . . equivalent to six times the value of [Gaza’s GDP].”

There are other factors that have contributed to Gaza’s continued decline in addition to Israel’s blockade and military assaults against the territory. I would like to briefly touch upon two: internal hostilities and US policy.

Internal hostilities

Internal conflict between the Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority has resulted in several damaging policies. Since March 2017, Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president has consistently increased pressure on the Hamas government in Gaza by removing around $60 million monthly from Gaza’s economy. The reasons for this are both political and hence, punitive and also derive from mounting economic pressures on the PA.

By April 2019 this resulted, for example, in the following: 3,231 PA employees had their salaries cut; 1,700 families who had relatives killed and were receiving compensation had their compensation completely eliminated; of the 11,000 people who were receiving NIS1500 (approx. $455) per month, 112 were completely cut and the remainder received only 50 percent; and pensions were reduced by 50 percent.

These measures, among others, affected approximately 62,000 civil servants each of whom is responsible for an average of 6.0 dependents meaning that over 350,000 people were affected as was the larger economy. Furthermore, these measures, while continuous, are not static. At different points some PA employees received 75 percent of their salaries and at a later date received only 50 percent. As one colleague in Gaza told me, it is not only jobs that Palestinians urgently need but job security. This arbitrary and unpredictable policy precludes any form of rational planning, a constant feature of life in Gaza.

The uncertainty, insecurity, and social fragility that now prevail are worsened by allegations that the Hamas authorities are stealing resources, particularly fuel and medical supplies. They have also been accused of widespread corruption, nepotism and coercion and of contributing to division and isolation. I shall return to this.

Another troubling dynamic concerns the escalating violence between families in Gaza. Disputes and retaliatory attacks between families have increased, resulting in injuries and property damage.

US policy and legislative changes

US policy under the Trump administration also imposed further hardship on Palestinians and had a particularly damaging impact on the larger international assistance package for Gaza. On December 6, 2017, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing longstanding US policy and undercutting Palestinian claims to the city. Affirming this change, the US Embassy was relocated to Jerusalem on May 14, 2018, which marked the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel.

Furthermore, in an effort to punish the Palestinian Authority for what President Trump deemed its unwillingness to negotiate with Israel and for disagreements over the definition of who qualifies as a refugee (thereby attempting to delegitimize if not eliminate refugee status and refugee claims, particularly the right-of-return), the United States had, by the end of 2018, terminated all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides greatly needed education, health and social services for Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East.

Until 2018, the US was the largest donor to UNRWA contributing around $300-$350 million annually or around one-third of the agency’s annual budget of approximately $1.1 billion. These cuts were particularly devastating for Gaza where UNRWA spends approximately 40 percent of its budget on a refugee population that is around 70 percent of Gaza’s total population.

In Gaza these programmatic cuts included the community mental health and job creation programs, and housing subsidies to those families who lost their homes in the 2014 war. Furthermore, and perhaps for the first time in its history, there is the possibility that UNRWA could run out of money if donations do not increase. In 2020, UNRWA was operating on a month-to-month basis, “never more than four or five weeks away from running out of funds” according to a senior official.

These deficits have increased, due, in part, to US pressure (under the Trump administration) on Arab states to reduce and, in some cases, end their support for UNRWA. In addition, the US announced in September 2018 the withdrawal of approximately $200-$230 million in US funded development projects in Gaza and the West Bank administered through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Although other donor countries have covered a percentage of the funds terminated by the US, the overall impact has been damaging, further weakening an already impoverished population. The US under the Trump administration also defunded the Palestinian Authority through specific legislation, which has had direct implications for Gaza. I shall skip over the details of the legislation in the interest of time.

Under current conditions—a small, blockaded economy that is heavily aid-dependent, with a local market characterized by high levels of unemployment and poor liquidity, and unable to export—the prospects for meaningful economic growth are nonexistent. In fact, the artificial economy that is now Gaza’s remains in a state of perpetual decline. Already, by the first quarter of 2018, Gaza’s economy was at minus 6 percent growth, a trend that has continued since under the weight of the blockade, the PA ‘s decision to reduce payments to Gaza, and the loss of US aid and US funding of UNRWA. In another analysis, the economy’s negative growth was projected to continue well into this year. For the majority of Palestinians in Gaza, it is now a question of basic survival.

In fact, although foreign aid has been vital to the local economy, it can no longer mitigate Gaza’s economic deterioration as it long has. According to the World Bank: “The economic deterioration in both Gaza and the West Bank can no longer be counteracted by foreign aid . . . nor by the private sector which remains confined by restrictions on movement, access to primary materials and trade. Moreover, the deterioration in the fiscal situation leaves the PA with limited scope to provide relief.” Without question, the most destabilizing factor in Gaza at present is economic and the absence of alternatives.

The Covid-19 crisis and its impact on Gaza: Key features

As in other parts of the world, the coronavirus has become another defining feature of Gaza’s socioeconomic reality. However, any assessment of the impact of the coronavirus on Gaza must first account for the dire conditions in both the economy and healthcare system that long predated the emergence of the virus—notably, the almost total lack of clean water (and decaying sewage treatment and sanitation infrastructure I mentioned earlier), limited and erratic supplies of fuel and electricity, a shortage of personnel, essential medicines and other needed medical supplies and equipment. This is due to both Israeli and PA policies and to counter-terrorism legislation. A further distinction needs to be made between the immediate medical needs of Covid-19 patients and the immediate economic effect on the population since the two are very different. I shall briefly focus on the latter, on the additional economic pressures imposed.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, between March and June 2020 alone, 42,900 people lost their source of income.

A report issued by Islamic Relief Worldwide in November 2020 describes the alarming economic impact of Covid-19 resulting from the ongoing blockade and lockdown: tens of thousands have lost their jobs including 80 percent of small-scale agricultural laborers; monthly incomes of workers have dropped by nearly 90 percent from $244 to $29; almost 60 percent of the population can no longer afford basic necessities including food, medicine and other essential supplies; and 82 percent suffer from mental health issues due to their inability to support their families. According to the Gaza Workers Union, the combined impact of the blockade and the Covid crisis has put overall unemployment in Gaza above 70 percent.

On April 7, 2020 Gaza’s Ministry of Labor opened registration for those directly affected by the Covid crisis: 130,000 people registered for assistance in three days but only 38,000 were deemed eligible. Of those only 10,000 people—teachers in private schools, and workers in the transportation, hotel and restaurant sectors—received just $100 (from Qatari funds). The remaining 28,000 eligible people received nothing because funds were depleted and the Qatari government, which was paying for the corona response, reportedly did not want to pay any more.

The economic and societal impact of the coronavirus on Gaza has been extremely damaging. To this one must note the following:

  1. Despite the number of people who, cumulatively, have been infected with Covid—now around 50,000 but likely an underestimate due to inadequate testing (between 2,000-3,000 tests per day, vastly insufficient to need)—the number of hospital beds has not been exhausted. This is due to the fact that Gazans are overwhelmingly young and recover. There have been just over 500 virus-related deaths as of last week.
  2. Yet, given that a majority of new active cases in the oPt are in Gaza and given Gaza’s fragile healthcare system and the lack of vaccines, the healthcare system is under enormous pressure, and the chances of survival for Covid-19 patients with chronic diseases in the Gaza Strip remain slim.
  3. In recent days the positivity rate has begun to fall, which is a welcome sign.
  4. Vaccines are desperately needed. The moral and legal issues aside for the moment, Israel cannot achieve herd immunity without vaccinating Palestinians. Full stop.

It is also important to keep in mind that when the virus has been brought under control, Gaza’s economy and healthcare system will be weaker than they were before the onset of Covid-19. Therefore, containing the virus should not be equated with a mitigation let alone resolution of Gaza’s longstanding economic and healthcare exigencies. The only way to address those exigencies sustainably is by ending the blockade and allowing for freedom of movement.

The impact of continued economic decline on Gaza: Some critical changes

How have Palestinians dealt with the enormous and mounting pressures surrounding them? There are a range of responses that speak to both desperation and a lack of options and also to creative initiatives that aim to heal and rehabilitate their community.

One powerful expression was, until early 2020, the ongoing protests at Gaza’s perimeter fence with Israel known as the Great March of Return (GMR). The GMR, which began in March 2018 as an unarmed protest, has resulted in massive injuries and casualties. Israel’s use of live ammunition against nonviolent protestors has been devastating.

Between March 30, 2018 and December 30, 2019, over 36,000 Palestinians were injured the majority by live ammunition, rubber bullets, and gas inhalation. Thousands of the injured—300 reportedly required an amputation–will suffer permanent disabilities often made worse by the lack of proper medical treatment available in Gaza. Today, by one estimate, 2.4 percent of Gaza’s population suffer some form of disability (approximately 48,000 people).

Critically, an incapacitated person multiplies a family’s economic burden by a factor of five, a burden most families in Gaza cannot support. Yet, at the time, of the Great March, I was told by a colleague that young people in Gaza were prepared to incur crippling injuries such as the loss of a limb that would lead to permanent, lifelong disability because “such injuries will qualify for financial support and, in the case of one young man, allow his family to pay the rent for a few more months.”

This newly injured population places enormous pressure on Gaza’s already fragile and overwhelmed health care system. This was prior to the impact of the Covid crisis. By March 2020, however, the protests had effectively stopped. The official explanation was the Covid crisis; in reality, people stopped turning out in significant numbers.

People are also protesting in another form—civil disobedience–despite repression from the Hamas authorities. In 2019, for example, Palestinians in Gaza were protesting – across all five governorates – against ever-worsening conditions in Gaza. The protests were organic and apolitical and not directed against Hamas specifically. They were not aligned with any political faction. Their slogan was “We want to live” (“Bidna na’aish”). Depending on the source, between 3,500 and 7,000 people participated in these protests. People were protesting several (largely economic) measures, including: Gaza’s acute living conditions; inflation rates; Hamas’s tax hikes on consumer goods which were seen as excessive; the PA’s economic sanctions particularly as it concerned salary cuts; intra-Palestinian political division; and the blockade.
In July 2020 Palestinian activists tried again to organize demonstrations protesting Gaza’s deteriorating economic situation using social media platforms. They were warned by Hamas that they would be arrested and accused of collaborating with Israel. Nonetheless dozens of people appeared in front of the offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza City, chanting “We want to eat. We want to live.” The anger directed at the Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority have not stopped even though they are more sporadic and have deepened Hamas’ growing anxiety.

Another response has been emigration. Although exact numbers are difficult if not impossible to obtain, available sources such as the Hamas government, the UN and the Rafah crossing, indicate that anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people emigrated from Gaza between 2016-2019. The brain drain and capital flight are palpable.

The director of a local human rights organization put it this way: “This is a new, smarter nakba. It’s slow, but it is very much in progress. . . How did Palestinians get pushed to the point where its youth are willing to pay to leave? The whole point of our struggle used to be about coming back.”

In an ironic turn, Gazans are beginning to come back. Having lost their jobs and source of income in their destination countries due to the coronavirus, some Palestinians are returning to Gaza where they at least have a familial safety net. Yet, the return of a family member to Gaza is not only costly for it is expensive to return to Gaza, it also and more importantly means the loss to the family of an income source in the form of remittances, which increases the burden on the family. One friend in Gaza said that she believes that Gazans who return from working abroad are also doing so because the pressure of being the one person who must provide for the family was so great that it was easier to be in Gaza.

I should also add that remittances received from abroad are typically spent on education-related costs such as school fees, which is a priority. People would rather seek assistance for food and save what funds they have for education.

Given the absence of alternatives, the family unit has become a critical source of support and protection. More people are turning to fewer family members for help and this represents a key change. It is not unusual—in fact I am told that it is now quite common — for one individual with some form of income to be the sole source of support for many people both in the nuclear and extended family. One colleague said that typically one salary will support five families, which means resources including food are spread more thinly. The pressures on the family unit are immense at a time when that unit has far greater burdens and far fewer resources.

Begging has also become a widespread phenomenon—something told to me by several people–with entire families on the streets from morning until dark. This is no longer an unusual sight.

Prostitution is also a growing problem. During my last trip to Gaza in 2016 a trusted informant told me the following story: He was sitting in a restaurant and he saw a young woman try to solicit a man with her parents sitting at a nearby table. When I asked him how he explained such incomprehensible behavior especially in Gaza’s very socially conservative society, he answered: “People living in a normal environment behave in normal ways; people living in an abnormal environment do not.”

Other responses particularly since the 2014 war on Gaza, include: Drug use, domestic violence, divorce and suicide (including among children as young as 14 years); all of these terrible trends are growing and, arguably, are no longer considered exceptional. In fact, suicide and attempted suicide are growing problems among men and women and increasingly, a focus of social concern. In early July 2020, for example, two young university graduates unable to find work and a street vendor took their own lives as did a woman who tried to hang herself but failed. The number of marriages has also declined due to the simple fact that many people can no longer afford to get married.

While all of these phenomena can be tied to the economic situation and financial crisis, the most alarming factor is that even with the infusion of more money into the economy, these problems will not easily disappear.

But there is a more positive side, too. In Gaza today there is a burgeoning of cultural production as seen in literature–fiction, nonfiction, short stories and poetry–art, theater, photography, music and dance. A range of initiatives has emerged that attempt, in their own way, to address Gaza’s predicament. In 2017, I wrote: “Without a guiding (and functioning) central authority, these efforts are, by nature, self-contained and confined; still, they remain vibrant and persistent. They include the renewal of small-scale agriculture, human rights monitoring, mental health rehabilitation, environmental repair, and technological innovation. The last was strongly emphasized. Gaza has a highly talented, “tech-savvy” population; if ever there were peace, an American investor stated, “Gaza’s internet sector would become another India.” The number of internet users in Gaza is reportedly equal to that of Tel Aviv, and a limited number are already subcontracting for companies in India, Bangladesh, and Israel, for Google and Microsoft.” I’m told this is still the case despite increasing adversity.

The constraining factor in Gaza has never been insufficient talent.

Another change—actually it is more of an observation–regards the role of women, at least some women. Several of my colleagues in Gaza have told me that given the very high unemployment among men, their wives, daughters and sisters have in some cases become the primary breadwinner. In addition to those few who are employed as teachers or in international NGOs, businesses have apparently emerged that hire women to clean houses of the rich—something that once was considered unacceptable and shameful. When I asked if this has impacted the status of women or relations inside the home, the answer was likely not, but it has given women more autonomy outside the home to which men have acceded.

The widening of space for women outside the home and possibly in gender roles was reported in the Nation Magazine where, for the first time, a women’s and girl’s boxing program was established in Gaza. It has as many as 45 female boxers ranging in age from 7 to 21. According to the Nation, “Such a team has the capacity to build the reserves of hope and in addition smash gender norms as well as knockout the very idea of passivity.” When asked how Gaza’s larger society reacted, the male coach of the team responded, “There was a bit of a surprise. But then it became accepted, because I was training girls at the seashore, at the corniche [the beachfront], and in public places so that the idea would be accepted by Gazan society.” He also stated, “Women are equal to men and they are half of the society here in Gaza. It also helps to build strength and protect them from any danger.” Although women’s boxing is not widely accepted in Gaza, the women’s team is planning to compete in Kuwait this month as part of the Palestinian National Boxing Team.

During my last trip to Gaza four and half years ago I was told and wrote about online activism as a form of protest and expression. Then it was used to critique Hamas and the use of religion by Hamas as a coercive tool and justification for abusive behavior. Social media is safer than protesting on the streets and its use has grown, particularly with regard to the shaming of authority and as one individual stated, “putting power on the defensive.” This critique is taking place entirely on social media—Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp—beyond the control of Hamas, which is apparently very frustrated by its inability to control or extinguish the increasingly harsh commentary. According to my sources, this social media phenomenon reaches tens of thousands of followers—perhaps more– and while it should not replace physical activism and presents problems of its own, it does provide an important and empowering means of expression.

What comes next: What can Gaza expect from the Biden Administration?

Within Gaza and the West Bank there is a strong, pervasive feeling that the national project has ended. In its place are factional politics, the absence of a credible let alone charismatic leadership, authoritarianism, and the absence of a unifying project at the national and local levels. Hence, what comes next is painfully unclear, creating a deep sense of uncertainty, apathy and fear. The Covid-19 pandemic has merely deepened the sense of insecurity as have a series of retaliatory Israeli airstrikes on Gaza over the last few months. One source claims that the Israeli army carried out approximately 300 attacks on the Gaza Strip in 2020.

For Palestinians there is very little trust in, if not outright disdain for, both authorities including the Palestinian Authority and President Abbas. In Gaza, popular criticism of Hamas has long existed as I’ve mentioned, particularly with regard to its uneven government function and the Movement’s increasing and some have argued, monopolistic control over commercial and business activities.

Hamas’s role as a resistance organization was seldom challenged but over the last three years especially, this has begun to change and speaks to the lack of cohesion within and between different elements of Hamas, particularly with regard to future political strategies and goals. For many people, Hamas’s weakening resistance role derives from many issues including: the absence of resistance rhetoric from the Hamas leadership; the silencing of dissent through arrests and imprisonment or worse; and a growing popular belief that Israel is working with Hamas to keep the Islamists in power in exchange for quiet. The perception is that Hamas has become a strategic asset of Israel and a tool in maintaining its own occupation of Gaza.

Few believe in the possibility of political reconciliation. Instead, people see disunity and the absence of any meaningful strategy that would propel them forward. No organ is seen to possess any political responsibility or accountability. This includes the judiciary and the Palestinian Legislative Council, which are considered either moribund or co-opted and “a means for humiliation.” (A recent Palestine Transparency poll showed that two-thirds of Palestinians believe there is corruption in the courts and public prosecution).

Furthermore, an active PLO, which, one analyst observed, is now outside the living memory of over half the Palestinian population, also has little credibility. No faith is placed in the international community’s willingness or ability to address Palestinians’ most urgent issues. The resulting political and economic vacuum is, according to a colleague, “unprecedented in the last 60 years.” This vacuum is being filled, in part, by tribal justice, which brings its own set of critical problems. The feeling of exclusion and abandonment in Gaza is real and intensifying.

The two-state solution is laughable particularly among young Palestinians. Instead, they call for a “life of dignity” and all relevant political parties, not just Israel, are being held to account for their failures in this regard. As one informant stated, “The international community has to shift away from ‘there is no Plan B’ when no one—not even them—thinks Plan A is practically doable.”

Yet, the Biden administration believes that Plan A is in fact doable (at least rhetorically) according to recent announcements; indeed, for them, the two-state solution is the only acceptable (and maximum) negotiating position, which doesn’t bode well for Gaza, for Palestinians or for a workable resolution to the conflict. The new US administration has also called for the restoration of assistance programs to the Palestinians and the reopening of diplomatic missions.

Although Biden does not agree with the settlements or even with the occupation, he remains an unwavering supporter of Israel and Israel’s “right to defend itself” including during the 2014 war on Gaza. There was a time, as I stated earlier, when people believed peace and occupation were incompatible and that ending the occupation was an essential prerequisite to peace. And as I argued this is no longer true and is also seen in the fact that Biden specifically removed the word “occupation” from the Democratic National Committee platform. Palestine will likely remain low on the list of US foreign policy priorities and to the extent priorities do exist they will likely focus on facilitating the distribution of humanitarian assistance, limited improvements in living conditions, and insuring and strengthening security coordination with Israel. It remains to be seen.

Some Palestinian Voices

Before concluding I would like to share with you some excerpts from interviews I have done with friends and colleagues in Gaza over the last few months. These quotes are taken from an article I am writing on life in Gaza as told to me by those who live it.

From a professional woman in her thirties and a mother: “Our greatest problem is securing enough food. People need money. They need jobs but also security, job security. . .” She emphasized that Gazans are so much more than victims but “how can you maintain your dignity . . . if you do not secure food for yourself and your children?” She told me that people are obsessed with money but not to become rich but simply to have enough to feed their families. She described several new phenomena in Gaza; one of which was asking for food on social media. One woman posted: “I have four kids and no food in the house. I am a widow. Please help me.” Said my colleague, “I know what I want from life but it is linked to so much that is beyond my control.”

One person lamented: “Change cannot go beyond individual initiative.”

A 27-year-old, highly educated man told me this: “What used to preoccupy the Palestinians after 1948 was how to return to the houses they were forced to leave during and after the Nakba. It was about how to raise and teach their children that they have cities to long for and return to.

“However, following the Oslo Accords, what has been preoccupying the Palestinians is how to build their homes in the West Bank and Gaza. What was a temporary tent in 1948 became a permanent house…

“When I was a child, I used to go out in marches to protest the occupation, violence, settlements, killings of fellow Palestinians. [Now] people take to the streets to protest unemployment, electricity outages, taxes…

When I asked him, “what do you want the world to know about Gaza and Gazans,” he said: “That Gazans are creative, determined and generous. I, as a Gazan, don’t wish the world to see me as an oppressed person who begs for the world’s sympathy but as someone who was not given the chance to prove himself as capable of not only changing himself and his society but changing the world for the better.”

When asked, “What is your wish for Gaza in the future,” another person said to be “a normal society with poverty, class differences, government inefficiency, problems that any society has.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of life in Gaza is attenuation—a narrowing of space and the certainty of that space as a place to live, and a narrowing of desire, expectation, and vision. Given the immense difficulties of everyday life—now made worse by the Covid pandemic–the particular and the mundane—having enough food, clothing, or electricity—have been elevated to an aspiration. A young man, a refugee, told me: “My dream is to see a concrete slab as my roof.” People have become inward looking and confined, focused, understandably, on self and family.

The craving is not for a homeland and the fear is not its absence. The craving is for a livelihood (no matter how meager), clean water, and sanctuary, and the fear is that they are unattainable.

A concluding thought

The pressures on the population must be removed. People need clean water, a reliable energy supply, housing, improved health and education services, medicines, and so on. Job creation is absolutely crucial but it must be tied to an end to Israel’s long-term closure or blockade, which lies at the core of Gaza’s economic misery. Without the unencumbered movement of people and goods, Gaza will be condemned to continued ruination. The UN states it thus: “The question . . . is not whether Gaza is livable, but how much longer can it exist on the life support that the UN and international partners are providing.” Some have argued that Gaza is now in a state of post-collapse.

Israel’s struggle against the Palestinian people is, in my view, fundamentally about their presence and their representation to the world. It is about diminishing if not removing their certainty by depriving them of agency and capacity and condemning them for their own privation. Palestinians have resisted. Yet, their resistance in all its forms is not enough. Palestinians, like all people in the Middle East, must be seen and understood far beyond the negative and motionless characterizations imposed upon them. They must be seen as a civil society with aspirations no different from our own. They must be seen as the solution to the problems of their region, far more effective than authoritarian rulers or military interventions.

Palestinians want to live their lives in peace, work, take care of their children, move freely and create. If Israel continues to deny these basic human rights and if the West continues to support Israel in that denial, there will be no resolution to the conflict and no possibility of real peace or stability in the region no matter how many agreements Israel signs with Arab states. As my late friend and activist, Mary Khass, told me over three decades ago, “There is no freedom if you are an occupier.”