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Two Hours Are Enough in Gaza

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.11.2007:

By Sami Abdel Shafi

Having stepped into my fifth year in Gaza, I now realize that nothing remains the same in this place. This is where the ordinarily wonderful experience of watching the rising and setting of the sun turns into a sense of eeriness as besieged Gaza seems such a dead place. A journalist friend described his entry to Gaza through the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing point, in the northern Gaza Strip, by likening it to taking steps on the face of the moon. An Israeli army incursion demolished the Palestinian outpost there shortly after the June events. The only semblance that remains of any Palestinian authority or beginnings of sovereignty is now a lonely container, 2 by 4 metres in size, where Palestinian coordinators phone the Israeli authorities stationed on the Israeli side of the crossing to give them the ID numbers of the handful of people permitted to cross back and forth between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Nowadays, not even spending as much as a day in Gaza is needed to get a taste of what goes on here. It all becomes clear in the span of a couple of hours.

One day recently, I went to a shop on one of Gaza’s main streets to buy light bulbs. I requested and paid for them and then stood by the shop owner as I waited for them to be fetched – I eventually got 40-watt bulbs as a substitute for the 100-watt bulbs I needed but which were no longer available due to the siege imposed on Gaza. While I waited, two technicians from the telephone company stepped in and started to explain to the shop owner why his telephone was acting erratically. I could not but hear what they were saying as they described how the gentleman’s trouble was caused by large rats – the size of cats – chewing on the phone wires that stretched along the building in which his shop is located. Gaza has become infested with rodents as municipal services are frequently halted and as garbage fills the streets. Even sadder was how they suggested to the shop owner that he should put some food out for the rodents so that, maybe, they would stop chewing the wires! No one bothered to call the municipality; it has been broke for a long time.

Minutes later, I stopped by a gas station to fill up. I greeted the station’s attendant and asked for fuel but got a blank look in return. He continued to chat with a man who seemed to be visiting with him and then went on to fill the visitor’s car. It seemed as though he did not even care that someone else was waiting. In my fury over such poor treatment at a station that I have frequented for years, I drove off without any gas and called up the station’s management office to complain. It turned out that the regular attendant had brought one of his cousins – an amateur – to occupy his spot as he was busy attending to his young boy who was dying of leukaemia. He was told that Gaza’s main children’s hospital was out of the necessary medicine to treat his son and that his chances of getting him a permit to leave Gaza for treatment were slim so far.

By the time I finished my call, I got to the barber shop I frequent – already beaten up by what I had seen and heard, although the misery I had experienced was literally nothing next to the plight of other people. I felt that maybe the haircut I was about to get would make me feel better. As soon as I stepped in and asked the barber how he was doing, he complained that he had gone to all the shoe shops he knew of and could not find shoes, slippers, or sandals to buy for his sons to wear to school. I exclaimed, “Gaza is even deprived of shoes?” He nodded as he wrapped my neck with paper tissues to replace the disposable barber straps on which the nylon robe fits. He was out of those too.

While I was still at the barber shop, a news broadcast came on with reports of killing, death, and anguish in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Striking up a conversation, I asked, “When will the world be at peace again?” He replied in a split second saying, “How do you expect both heaven and hell to be filled to capacity? There is a heaven and a hell, and all that goes on in the world will ensure that both are used well.” Not a single word from me until I stepped out – looking better, I guess, but feeling even more miserable.

Among the other and better attributes of Gaza – ones that are largely muted these days – is that Gaza is a place of cynicism, tragedy, and shock all in one. By the time I ended my spin that day, I had lost hope that my day could be brighter. I first headed home and then to my office. Recently, my office has become purely electronic as I have not yet been able to find printer cartridges or paper in Gaza.

The single most important need in Gaza is that Palestinians and foreign delegations come to witness what goes on here. It is not fair that Israel imposes its neck-breaking siege on Gazans, nor is it fair for Palestinians to insist on their respective positions even when matters clearly compromise ordinary people’s lives. Silence is quickly becoming part of the issue.

As the donkey-cart driver delivered a bunch of new trees that I had recently bought to replace the ones that had died from the unusable salty water supply we get, he summed up all that he thought was going on in Gaza: “ … I have never felt as though I had completely lost any sense of gravity, but now I do. But listen … ” he passionately added, “When gravity comes back, this place will fall so hard on the heads of all those who want it to disappear. It will be a sobering call that Gaza cannot be treated the way it is today. Where is the peace that they talk about?”

Reports of several UN organizations as well as those of human rights organizations fittingly state how dire the situation is in the Gaza Strip. The statistics and reports of these organizations could not be more accurate. Trouble is, however, it seems as though much of the world still does not see how expensive it has become, both practically and in terms of morale, for ordinary people to carry on when their standard of living has been crushed.

It is no longer about the doubling of prices of flour, sugar, and every other item that is vital to people’s lives. Rather, it is how far Israel’s government, and its anti-peace camp, are willing to go in what seems to be a deliberate attempt to terminate the Palestinian ability to develop, compete, and become a productive nation alongside many others in the world.

What seems truly at stake today is the severely reduced potential of all Palestinians, especially those in the Gaza Strip, to be able to build a state whenever the time comes … if ever the time comes.

Not one day in Gaza is like the one before it or the one that follows; but all days are highlighted with stories of sadness and humiliation. The saving grace of every day here is, however, Gaza’s limitless and beautiful sea even if Gazans cannot currently sail it. Likewise, living here makes it abundantly clear that not one policy towards Gaza – not the one previously formulated nor the one that will be cooked up next – will work. The only hope is for a policy that would lead to a just peace and that would include a Gaza that is inseparable from the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Sami Abdel-Shafi is co-founder and senior partner at Emerge Consulting Group, LLC., a management consultancy in Gaza City. He can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

December 2007

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