Everyone is thinking for themselves
Rory McCarthy, The Guardian. May 15, 2008
Yesterday the family's main meal was eggs, bread and tea. Today Etedal Zanati, 42, has stretched to a kilogram of fish and a handful of potatoes and tomatoes for dinner, to be shared between herself, her 10 children, her mother-in-law and her brother-in-law.
The fish was a once-weekly extravagance that cost her 17 shekels (£2.50). There is a tin of coffee in the kitchen, but it is strictly reserved for guests only, and there is a half-shekel on the dressing table for each of the boys to buy a sandwich at school today.
Zanati would like to buy an oven to replace her very basic three-ring gas cooker but in the wake of Israel's economic blockade of Gaza the price has risen seven-fold and is now way out of her reach. She has borrowed a little cooking gas from her brother but has to be careful not to use too much - the price of gas has doubled in recent months and is sometimes simply unavailable. In the kitchen are the opened sacks and tins from the quarterly UN food handout that keeps them from destitution, but Zanati faces a daily battle to make the supply last.
Such are the calculations required of a diligent, widowed mother trying to keep her children fed, cleanly-dressed and alert enough to study hard at school in one of Gaza's poorest districts.
"Everything is changing," she said. "If you want to buy clothes you can find nothing for a cheap enough price. Fruit and vegetables are still available but they are expensive." The traditional networks of family and community support are beginning to fracture. "No one cares," she said. "Everyone is thinking for themselves."
Zanati's husband, Mahmoud, was killed five years ago in an Israeli air strike near their home in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza. He was a civilian, a worker on a farm, but his death brought no apology or offer of compensation from the Israeli military. The loss left the family traumatised and financially extremely vulnerable. Now she and her children - whose ages range from five to 17 - rely on a 900-shekel (£130) payment every three months from the Palestinian government, support for the families of those killed in the conflict, and on the UN, with its food handouts, schooling for the children and health and social care.
Jabaliya is one of several refugee camps in the crowded Gaza Strip, set up in 1948 to accommodate the flood of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes when Israel was created. In an area of just 1.5 sq km, the camp is home to at least 100,000 people, all living in cramped houses squeezed into narrow lanes.
The Zanatis have three main rooms, which they use for eating, sleeping and living, a small kitchen and a small bathroom. They have an open courtyard with a sink by the metal door, where their toothbrushes are jammed into a small cup, and their shoes into a plastic basket under the sink. An official from the UN Relief and Works Agency, which supports Palestinian refugees, came last autumn to discuss repairing the leaks in the roof and building an extra couple of rooms on a new upper floor. But since the blockade, the UN has had to halt most of its construction work, unable to import the concrete and other materials needed.
It is families like the Zanatis that are most acutely conscious of the economic crisis triggered by Israel's isolation policy towards Gaza. The Israeli government says it will not allow a humanitarian crisis to develop and insists that militants must stop their rocket fire into Israeli communities. Exports and most imports have been halted. UN officials say not enough aid is getting in.
Despite international criticism and warnings of "collective punishment", Israel's supreme court in January approved a government policy to cut fuel supply to Gaza.
However, the Israeli human rights group Gisha says there is now evidence that in the past five weeks fuel supplies have dropped well below even the minimum amount stipulated by the court. Just 69% of the court ordered amount of industrial diesel for the strip's one power plant has been allowed in, amounting to just 43% of Gaza's needs, and just 25% of the court ordered amount of diesel for generators, wells and transport has been allowed in, or 15% of Gaza's needs, according to Gisha. On Tuesday the rights group brought another petition to the supreme court and warned fuel supplies had been cut to "dangerous levels".
The crisis has had a profound effect on Zanati. Firstly, it has left her deeply frustrated with the Palestinian political leadership. As a conservative, religious woman she voted for Hamas in the elections two years ago and says they have never been given a chance to rule properly. However she holds both the former Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh and his rival, the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, responsible along with Israel for Gaza's current woes.
"Next time there is an election I won't even go out of the door to vote," she said. "I'm fed up with all the factions. I have a house of 10 children and who is feeding us? Hamas or Fatah? No one, of course. We are running from one place to another and nobody has knocked on our door to help."
Secondly, it has underlined for her again, if she had any doubt, just how important is her children's education. "This is my message and my life. I'm telling them to study and finish school and then they'll be able to do whatever they want. I dream of them becoming teachers, doctors, lawyers maybe." She talks proudly of their high grades at the local UN schools and is careful to warn them away from the armed groups which recruit so effectively from the families of the poor and disillusioned.
"I tell them we've already lost one person from the family and we can't lose any more. Anyway there is no aim to the fighting now. It's useless. What's it worth?"