Our 4-wheel-drive passes underneath the remains of a wedding celebration: silver streamers criss-crossed against the sky, catching the sunlight. Ahead, two boys on bicycles bend forward and race headlong into the summer wind, chasing each other along the bitumen of Gaza.
The boys on those bicycles are probably around 9 or 10 years old, which means they’ve survived 3 wars in their lifetimes, dating back to 2008, the most recent just two years ago.
This small strip of land, hemmed in by the sea and an almost decade-long blockade imposed by Israel in violation of international law, has suffered such extreme levels of violence and destruction that it is almost surreal to drive the streets and see that life goes on, in all its universality and ordinariness.
Staggering cost of occupation
A recent UN report documents the “staggering cost” of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian economy, noting that the occupation has cultivated “permanent crises of unemployment, poverty and food insecurity.” The same report found that the Palestinian economy would be at least twice as large without Israeli occupation.
Meeting farmers and fishermen in Gaza, it’s easy to imagine the extraordinary potential of the industry and economy here, if it weren’t for Israeli-imposed restrictions. These restrictions affect the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza strip, and also limit access to productive resources such as land and water within Gaza. These “Access Restricted Areas”(ARA) affect up to 35% of Gaza’s agricultural land and as much as 85% of its fishing waters.
Restrictions are compounded by the impact of recurrent conflict.
"Before my land was very productive"
Farmer Yusuf Abu Amsha (above) says his land has been destroyed six times: “Part of this was destroyed by bulldozers. Part of it was by shooting and bombing the trees.”
We’re speaking on the rooftop of a building overlooking Beit Hanoun, a town in the north of the Gaza strip, which has been devastated by repeated military operations. Yusuf points to his farmlands below, which lie within the ARA near the border with Israel, where famers are limited in their ability to access and cultivate their own land.
“Before, my land was very productive. Four families were working for me and I gave them salaries. Now, only my sons and I work on the land, I cannot cover the salaries of workers.”
“We are working, working, working and we are spending everything. We spend on our children’s education and on food. We are not saving. Any small shock, and we will suffer,” Yusuf says.
Fishermen too are subject to restrictions
Israel has been actively limiting the 20 nautical mile fishing zone, as agreed under the Oslo Peace Accords, to 10, 6 or even 3 nautical miles from Gaza beach.
Israeli naval ships that surround Gaza at sea confiscate boats that come to close to the cordon. This means that fewer fish can be caught, and those that are caught are of poorer quality and market value.
In the face of these constraints, fishermen are forced to employ innovative techniques. Some have installed powerful lights on their boats to attract fish: “They cannot go to the fish, so they get the fish to come to them,” says Mohammed Elbakri, the General Manager of the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), which provides support to fisherfolk to rehabilitate boats and improve their catches.
Fishermen are also subject to violence and arrest, with more than 90 arrested and detained this year, the highest figure in any year since records began in 2009.
Protection is what they need most, say the fishermen, as well as access to the sea. "We can't talk about development if we don't let the fishermen do their job and support themselves," Mohammed says.
Materials necessary for the repair of boats, such as fiberglass, are classified by Israel as “dual use,” meaning they could be used for either civilian or harmful purposes and are subject to import restrictions.
While the government of Israel has argued that such restrictions are necessary to protect its security interests, both Israeli and international security and political figures have disputed this.
Access to land and fishing areas is essential for Gaza’s economy, creating new jobs and providing sources of food and income, allowing Palestinians in Gaza to reduce their dependency on aid.
What next for Gaza?
The UN has famously predicted that Gaza will be unlivable by 2020. And yet Gaza is defiant in its ordinariness. Hotels line the coastline serving fresh fish and strawberry juice in jam jars. Below, the shore is full of families - the sea breeze provides respite from the cloying heat of home, where power cuts mean unreliable or non-existent air conditioning.
Children are chasing and being chased by the waves, toddlers are swinging from the arms of uncles, young women are sitting around plastic tables set into the sand, underneath multi-colored beach umbrellas.
We could be anywhere in the world, but this normal, everyday, life is extraordinary for what it has overcome.
This entry posted by Alison M. Martin, Oxfam Policy Lead for Occupied Palestinian Territory and Israel, on 21 October 2016.
Israel's blockade of Gaza keeps people poor and denies them their rights. Oxfam calls on all parties to the conflict to not allow another escalation in violence, to agree to a lasting ceasefire and an urgent end to the blockade.
All photos credit Alison Martin:
- Boys ride their bicycles in Gaza.
- Overlooking Gaza.
- A farmer points out his land in the Access Restricted Area (ARA), overlooking Beit Hanoun in the north of the Gaza strip.
- Fishing off the coast of Gaza.
- Sunset on the beach, Gaza.