The book shortage in Gaza no one is talking about

Israeli mailing restrictions in Gaza have resulted in an effective book ban for two million Palestinians.

In Gaza, Palestinian authors don’t get to read the books they write. As for the readers, they would do well to become practiced in the art of re-reading what they already have. Palestinian bookshop owners? Hardly a lucrative occupation. I spoke to one such owner about the dramatic rise in Israeli restrictions on international mail delivery to Gaza. “Only ten books may arrive in the entire city every 2-3 months,” he told me. 

“My livelihood has been collapsing because of these cruel and restrictive policies. My income is not what you might think of a bookshop owner.”

Since my early adulthood, I have been passionate about reading and writing. But I spend more time waiting for books to arrive from the outside world than I do actually reading them–which is always a short-lived affair.

As a Palestinian writer living in Gaza City, I’ve tried to use my pen to give voice to my people as they endure a merciless military siege imposed upon them by a settler-colonial regime geared towards uprooting indigenous Palestinians from their land and erasing their identity. And while the more glaring inhumanities of the blockade have been well documented, the daily absurdities of living under Israel’s security regime is often overlooked. The simple act of ordering a few books entails a tortuous procedure worthy of Kafka.

Rana Shubair, a Palestinian author and novelist living in Gaza City, decided to order a few copies of her first ever published book. “I knew I was taking a risk,” she remarks seriously, “but I was willing to do it–and to my surprise, the shipment arrived! I celebrated so much that day.”

But things didn’t always go so fortuitously for her. Last year, she ordered a number of items from an international brand in Israel. One shipment arrived, but the other went missing.  “The thing is, you can never know the reason,” Rana intimates. “The seller would apologize and offer you a refund. But when I once asked the Aramex manager what happened with my other order, he said there’s no consistency in the mail system. Sometimes shipments arrive, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they arrive late by several months.” 

Book ban for an entire population

My own story isn’t all that different from Shubair’s. Based in Gaza city, all of my work and attention throughout my adult life has been devoted to writing about the political, economic, environmental, and cultural issues that impact my home and my people, especially youth and children.  

In late 2020, I led a series of virtual delegations in Palestine with the organization Eyewitness Palestine. During the virtual meeting, I got to know three people working with Jewish Voice For Peace–Rosalind Petchesky, Esther Farmer, and Sara Sills. They were veteran human rights attorneys and internationally-syndicated authors. They offered me the opportunity to contribute to a book that came to be called A Land With A People, published by Monthly Review Press.

The book was well-received, but what I didn’t expect was that I wouldn’t ever be able to get my hands on a copy. 

The book provides a historical contextualization that charts 150 years of Palestinian and Jewish resistance to Zionism. In retrospect, the contents of the book should have indicated to me that delivering it to Gaza wouldn’t be so simple. I was shipped a special contributor copy of the book the day it was launched, and for over seven months so far, the book has been held in limbo due to false claims of antisemitism. The publisher tried to step in to get the book into Gaza–unsuccessfully.

The book’s subtitle–Palestinians and Jews Confront Zionism–may have been the culprit. It was certainly intriguing enough to motivate the shipping company to send me a diatribe of racist emails. The mere fact that a private international shipping company based in Israel would choose to respond in this way was unprofessional enough, but the contents of the correspondence took me aback.

“You’ve got to stop doing this sh–t,” one email read. 

After the initial shock, I tried to interject with a somewhat positive engagement: “Why? It’s just a book!” 

That didn’t go down very well, and the subsequent reply seemed almost gleeful: “You better be daydreaming to get your book.”

And at that exact moment, I received another email that clinically read: “We cannot move the shipment to Gaza. But you can provide an alternate address.”

The irony of the email did little to quiet my indignation. What reason did they have to mark Gaza as an unacceptable destination for shipping a book, and for security reasons no less? But what made me even angrier was that I did provide several alternate addresses, and the shipment wasn’t delivered there either. No updates have been forthcoming.

None of this is particularly new. Four years ago, I ordered some books from Amazon for my undergraduate education. None of them arrived in Gaza, and I wasn’t even able to track the shipment journey.

The simple fact of geography has had such a disproportionate impact on all of us writers and book enthusiasts. Getting a copy of a book you’ve written suddenly becomes a herculean feat. 

Any shipment is accompanied by a string of anxiety and risk, which is why many have turned to e-books in an attempt at self-appeasement—but for many, this has offered little consolation. All this means that Israel has effectively instituted a book ban on an entire population, and the unhappy victims of this draconian policy are the readers and writers.

Rationed down to the calorie

The history of this state of affairs is now fairly old, starting with the hermetic military blockade of Gaza in 2007, which has continued to this day with little reprieve. Mail delivery has been one of the many victims of this siege. The mail that does reach its intended destination will have survived a harrowing journey of digital and physical checkpoints, arriving after many months of border control purgatory. The absurdity is not lost on young people in Gaza, despite never having known anything different. 

Ostensibly, the 1993 Oslo Accords regard the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a single territorial unit between which Palestinians are supposedly allowed to move freely and trade goods. Yet the reality is that both territories are segregated from one another, each treated differently according to the political system that rules it.

These restrictions on the movement of goods and people of course predate the blockade, always under the pretext of “security” concerns. Then with the blockade in 2007, goods coming in and out of Gaza were rationed down to the calorie. Exhaustive lists describing what foodstuffs were allowed in verged on the darkly comical.

Hummus, for instance, was allowed into Gaza, while hummus topped with pine nuts was a security threat. For a while, even coffee and tea were banned before eventually being permitted, no doubt for the menacing qualities they shared with other contraband, such as tomato paste and fish preserves, which continued to be restricted for use by international organizations for some time.

When all is said and done, the vagaries of the mailing system in Gaza are one in a long list of restrictions imposed on two million Palestinians fenced off in the Strip. But while this infraction may appear relatively minor, it is part of a far more pernicious Israeli policy of strangulation and starvation.

This starvation is at once material and psychological, depriving Palestinians not only of their means to life, but also launching an assault on their cultural and intellectual existence.