+972 Magazine / September 3, 2023
An electricity company overcharging for little power. Class gaps and struggles to find work. A seaside restricted by the blockade. How do Gazans do it ?
“Do you have a sea there, where you live?”
“Do you have a long, beautiful, and bright beach like this for free?”
“Do you occasionally have missiles overhead, and planes that drop bombs on you that light up the whole sky?”
“Do you know the feeling of a bomb that shakes the whole camp, and after the explosion you realize you weren’t killed, or that your brothers weren’t wounded?”
“And do you have anyone who still opposes the army? Refusing to surrender and giving hell to the occupiers?”
“Ma’am, we are alive and you are long gone.”
* * *
It has been almost a month since I returned from Gaza. And although I was there for less than 48 hours, to give a workshop on women’s mental health, my thoughts and feelings keep returning to what I witnessed there. In this hot and unpleasant summer, in every attempt to return to normality, I couldn’t help but ask myself: how do the people in Gaza do it?
I turn on the light at home in the evening after work, and I remember that narrow, crowded, scary street that wound its way inside Al-Shati Refugee Camp. Cubes of tin and plaster homes, and bare and crowded blocks, some of them covered with clotheslines, where small light bulbs jut out of the windows of the homes, struggling to flicker until their last moment in an abyss of darkness and silence.
Electricity in Gaza is a never-ending topic of conversation. Israel’s blockade of the strip has crippled Palestinians’ ability to obtain enough materials and goods to sustain their basic daily needs, including equipment and electrical supplies. Approximately four hours of power now comes from the Palestine Electric Company at a “regular” rate, after which private electricity suppliers offer electricity at four times the price.
One of the women I met at the camp explained how this industry puts millions into the pockets of Palestinian entrepreneurs, who essentially sell the Hamas government’s electricity supply to the residents of the strip. According to her, the government receives donations and money from Qatar to subsidize the electric company, and someone along the way makes money on the backs of the citizens.
A seller in the market told me that he owes about NIS 20,000 ($5,200) to the Palestine Electric Company and has no way to pay such a huge sum, especially when the average daily wage of a worker in Gaza is NIS 20 ($5). He buys electricity with a prepaid card, and receives electrical current according to the amount of the payment.
“The Palestine Electric Company coordinated a deal with private companies to pay off its debt, and now a citizen who charges his card with NIS 100 receives electricity for NIS 20, and NIS 80 goes to repaying the debt,” he said. “Why should I pay? Who has the money to pay 80 percent to the government? We’re better off sitting in the dark or going to the beach at night just like everyone else.”
Stories about electricity came up in every discussion with every person I met. There’s the seamstress who operates her machine according to the dictates of the electricity supply, and who loses money on a regular basis. Or the disgruntled fisherman who has a hard time selling his goods because he does not have a refrigerator to keep them in, joking that the price of ice is more expensive than the fish itself.
Our hotel had a constant stream of electricity, but one could easily tell when it came from the government company and when the big generators were switched on. When the elevator suddenly stops, an automatic announcement is activated: “We’re sorry. The electricity has been interrupted. Don’t worry, it will be restored shortly.” And indeed, after a minute or two, the noise of the generator emerges and the elevator starts working again.
* * *
On Friday evening, I was sitting in the lobby waiting for friends, and I realized that the hotel would play host to a high-class wedding. Men in suits and well-groomed and meticulously made-up women in sparkling dresses of all colors milled around the lobby, waiting for the bride’s festive exit from the decorated Mercedes parked outside. After spending an entire day in the refugee camps, the scene sent me into another reality in Gaza — one in which a tiny socioeconomic elite lives a life of luxury, which the vast majority of Gazans cannot even hope to enjoy.
That there is a small stratum of rich people in Gaza is no secret. The wealthiest families in the strip, my interlocutors told me, are getting richer by the year, whether from business inside Israel or with Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The most important thing is to be connected to the right people. This stratum enjoys private schools, private hospitals, and even private beaches.
I was particularly moved by the driver who took me to the beach, an educated man with a diploma in pharmaceutical sciences. Among young people, unemployment last year was at 63 percent, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. My driver is a father of four, and is one of the lucky few who received a work permit in Israel.
“I worked non-stop as a cleaner in Jerusalem, sometimes two shifts, and also overtime in the dark, to save money for the children,” he said. “I hardly slept, but I was satisfied that I was making a living and working hard, and that my family and I could live a little. I have children who were born into quarantine [during the COVID-19 pandemic] — they don’t know that a normal father goes to work every day and brings home money, food, and clothing. I collected every shekel, and worked during the Jewish holidays because they pay more. Then came Eid al-Adha. The contractor who hired me said I deserved four days off, so I decided to surprise my family for the holiday.”
He continued: “I made the mistake of my life and returned to Gaza with the money. Then the [Hamas] authorities came and asked me to pay a kind of income tax on the cash I brought with me. They wanted to take half. I was very angry and shouted at the officials; I really cried, and then they said, ‘You won’t pay — you won’t work,’ and took my work permit. They said that they would return it to me after the holiday, but they gave it to someone else. They erased me. I reported to the Ministry of Social Development every day until I gave up and returned to this wretched car, giving people a ride for a shekel. I should not have returned.”
* * *
The main pastime for Gazans is the seashore and its illuminated beach. This natural pedestrian area is the only refuge that 2.5 million people have. I headed to the port in the early hours of the morning to see the small ships returning with the day’s catch, where sailors offered a boat tour for five shekels.
“We eat from the sea, we hang out on its shore, and we run to it,” said an elderly man as he arranged his fish in a modest-looking stand at the port. “If Israel would only let us go out deeper into the sea, like before, these beaches could feed all of Palestine. There would be no more hungry people in Gaza.”
On the way to the Deir al-Balah refugee camp, where I was to hold the workshop, my companion — an accountant who works for two companies and earns NIS 2,000 ($520) a month — warns me about a section of the coastal road where you have to cover your nose. The road, he says, passes over “Israel’s Sewage Canal,” where waste from Jewish settlements in the southern West Bank flows to the beach in Gaza. The beach is empty of people, of course, and in the winter the waste overflows and floods the area, he explains as he pinches his nose.
At the women’s center in the camp, around 150 women were waiting in the unbearable heat with a broken ceiling fan. Sitting in a tin shed, I was ashamed to ask how I was supposed to project my presentation. I ordered all the men out of the room, to the applause of the women.
The stories began flooding in from all sides, with the women sharing the financial hardships that cause them emotional stress, the traumas and anxieties from repeated Israeli wars, and the heavy responsibility of taking care of families, children, and unemployed husbands. According to the World Health Organization, 67 percent of Palestinians suffer from mental distress under the shadow of the occupation. Just imagine what happens to women in this place.
“Why don’t we tell her about our women who have committed suicide, who could no longer live here?” one of them asked aloud. Then another woman, a martial arts instructor who trains women in self-defense, told her own story. She held one of her workshops by the sea, in the open air. One man took a photo and posted on Facebook that “she is the one who incites the women against us.” The post, which went viral, put an end to her outdoor activities. Yet she has not given up. She wants to return to the sea one day, to free herself, to free the women, to free the beach.
Samah Salaime is a feminist Palestinian activist and writer