Collective punishment a daily reality in Gaza

Sulafa Najar, 45, knows what she would do if she had a bit of money.

Sulafa Najar, 45, knows what she would do if she had a bit of money. "First, I would repair the house and put in a decent kitchen," the mother of six said without hesitation. Improving the kitchen, she added, pointing to a dark and dank room that seemed to belong to another era, "is the priority". Important too, clearly, are the repairs. Thin shards of light penetrate the holes in the corrugated iron roof, constant reminders of Israel's incursion into Gaza last year, when Israeli army tanks stationed nearby discharged their shells nightly and shrapnel showered the family's home.

The constant rumble so shook the small house that a deep crack from ceiling to floor appeared in the concrete wall of the bedroom of Kefayeh, 23, and Amira, 20, the two daughters still living at the house. The roof is held down with old car tyres. These, explained Maher, 47, Mrs Najar's husband, would hurt less than bricks should the roof cave in. Again. The thin corrugated iron sheet is a replacement for the original asbestos roof that crumbled when Israeli planes bombed the home of a nearby Hamas leader in 2006.

There are no materials available in Gaza to repair the roof or the wall properly. And even if there were, the Najars have no money for repairs. Mr Najar, a plasterer by profession, has been unemployed now for more than three years. With a persistent back problem and no work to be had, he now spends most of the days walking to relatives' houses, or relief warehouses when food is distributed. Walking, he explained, helps ease his back trouble. His spine needs correcting between the fourth and fifth discs, he said, an operation he can neither afford nor would entrust to local hospitals.

"I would do the operation only in Cairo," he said. "If I could afford it and if I could travel." Mrs Najar has sold all her gold jewellery to keep her daughter Kefayeh in university, where she studies journalism. There was not enough money for Amira, who had to leave her studies after one semester of nursing school. The two younger siblings still living at home, Said, 19, and Mohammad, 15, are at government schools.

With almost no income - Mrs Najar receives US$200 (Dh734) a month from a brother who lives in the United States - the Najars rely on handouts from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for their food. It seems an almost impossible task to manage, but Mrs Najar was reluctant to talk about it. "Don't humiliate me," she said when asked whether she could always put food on the table. In the lead-up to the so-called Freedom Flotilla's attempt last week to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza, Israeli officials insisted that there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza and hence no reason for the flotilla to break the Israeli-imposed blockade. The Israeli government's press office even released a statement citing the existence of a high-end restaurant in Gaza City with a menu that includes steak and fresh fish as evidence.

None was more vocal on the matter than Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, who said Israel was dealing with Gaza in the "most humane way possible". "Let him come here," was Mr Najar's response. "Let him see for himself the empty markets, the empty construction sites, the people without jobs." Indeed, the Israeli version of life in Gaza flies in the face of international assessments of the situation.

In a report published last month, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found that while unemployment is down slightly to 40 per cent, mainly as a result of employment in the tunnel smuggling industry that the UN calls Gaza's "lifeline", Israel's blockade remains the "major obstacle" to much-needed reconstruction and any chance of economic recovery. Almost none of the 3,425 homes destroyed in the Gaza war last year has been rebuilt because of a lack of construction materials, which are banned by Israel from entering. In homes where extended families have not been able to take in relatives, the only alternative, almost 18 months after Israel's onslaught, are tents erected by international aid organisations.

The fishing industry, a vital source of food, has been all but destroyed by Israeli restrictions on Gazan boats reaching the open sea. The agriculture sector lies in tatters, with most of the infrastructure damaged or destroyed during the war, from irrigation systems to orchards, yet to be rebuilt or replanted. Crops that are grown can be delivered to the local market only since Israel has - barring a very few seasonal exceptions such as tulips for Valentine's Day - banned exports from Gaza, devastating local industry in the process.

According to Oxfam, a British charity, more than 80 per cent of Gazans rely on humanitarian aid for their survival. More than 60 per cent of households in Gaza are food insecure, according to the UN. All international assessments reach the same conclusion: there may not be outright starvation in Gaza, but people do not have the means to feed themselves. And they will not have those means until the Israeli blockade is lifted, a point the UN has made again and again.

In the UNDP report, John Holmes, the UN's emergency relief co-ordinator, denounced the Israeli blockade as "collective punishment". And in the wake of the deadly raid on the flotilla last week, Robert Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, and Filippo Grandi, the commissioner general of the UNRWA, condemned the siege as "counterproductive and unacceptable". Israel says it instituted the blockade in order to pressure Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation, and to end rocket attacks. The Islamist movement ousted Fatah-affiliated security services and took sole control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, a year and a half after winning parliamentary elections and in reaction to ever-escalating factional infighting.

In fact, however, Israel had already significantly restricted the movement of goods to and from Gaza since 2001, and long before Hamas took control. In 2005, the Middle East Quartet - the United States, the EU, the UN and Russia - mediated the Agreement on Access and Movement, in part to help determine Gaza's ability to trade and interact with the outside world ahead of Israel's withdrawal that year from its settlements in Gaza. The AMA remains the UN's benchmark for how many truckloads of goods should enter and leave Gaza. Israel has never come close to meeting those quotas.

Israel did dramatically tighten the blockade on Gaza in the wake of the Hamas takeover, but Mrs Najar, who proudly proclaims her family's Fatah ties, is in no doubt that it has little to do with Hamas and has little effect on the movement's control over Gaza. "They say they want to punish Hamas. But they are punishing everybody." The deadly raid that put a violent halt to the flotilla's attempt to reach Gaza was therefore watched closely in the Najar household, as it was throughout Gaza. Kefayeh, whose continued education is a source of obvious pride to her parents, said the activists onboard "deserve all our respect".

"But governments need to be involved," said Kefayeh, who has a habit of folding her face into a serious expression when talking, adopting a pose suitable to the career in broadcast journalism that she hopes to pursue. "Israel showed how determined it is to keep the siege, and without international help it will continue." Ending the blockade, she added, is the only remedy for Gaza's ills. "They've destroyed our lives with this siege," said Mr Najar. "I used to be a strong man, a good worker. Now, I can't feed my family. I am a beggar. End the siege and leave us alone in Gaza. We will feed ourselves."