Ramadan, the Muslim month of generosity, spirituality, and great food, is in full swing. Last year, I was fortunate to be with my family for this holy month. My initial travel arrangements were wrecked and I was never meant to be in Gaza for Ramadan, but because of the border closure, I had no alternative but to stick around in Gaza for few more months.
During the days preceding Ramadan, vendors start doubling their orders of food and supplies like kitchen ware as the month increases demand for food and kitchen ware. As you know, Gaza was still under a strict Israeli siege and not all the needed goods were allowed in. Israel does, however, allow approved charities and NGOs to bring in more food trucks. So in Gaza where the poverty rate is 80% you can imagine how high demand is for the services of these NGOs.
For example, residents of Gaza cannot buy some goods from the market but there is an NGO that is able to bring in more food. Many needy Gaza families receive aid from those organizations, and some get the help because there is no other mean of purchasing what they actually need. Take for example, baby formula. Many Gaza pharmacies faces shortages on specific kinds of baby formulas, and few NGOs working in Gaza are able to import this baby formula and give it as aid to those in need. That's what economics calls dead weightloss problem; the Israeli siege causes a market failure.
This year there are two major challenges in Gaza that make observing Ramadan a lot harder. The first one is soaring prices of fresh produce and the second is frequent and prolonged power outages. Both predicaments are real and both are troubling.
The prices of fresh produce have tripled. Gaza has limited land space so there are very few farms to grow what the local market in Gaza needs. Everything else the people of Gaza have to buy from Israel. For logistical reasons, no NGO can actually provide fresh produce to Gaza. They can give canned fruits and vegetables, but storing lettuce in hot and unplugged Gaza is impossible.
Last Ramadan, the prices of onions were so expensive that recipes had to be altered to do without them. A kilo of onions costs three dollars, which is what I pay here in Washington DC. This year prices have increased even more. For example, a kilo of potatoes is close to 2 dollars, a kilo of tomatoes is more than a dollar and a half. This year prices for other fresh vegetables necessary for making soup--an essential component of a Ramadan meal--have all increased. Those prices make many of basic food items out of reach for many Gaza families. As a result, Gaza is now completely dependent on the Israeli market to provide fruits and vegetables, thus giving Israel the upper hand the Israeli military can tell the Gaza government, "If you play nice, I will let you eat your salad."
To understand how Israel is to blame for the soaring prices of fresh produce, look no further than a recent UN report. In August 2010 the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) released a report on farming and fishing in Gaza. According to the OCHA report, the Israeli restrictions on the rich farming land adjacent to the Eastern Gaza borders causes a 50 million dollar loss for the agriculture sector in Gaza. Many Gaza farmers who own land near the border are unable to farm this land due to constant Israeli military harassment. Prior to onset of these restrictions, I was able to visit these rich farm lands where, due to low population density, Gazan farmers cultivate all sorts of produces, such as olives. Unfortunately, I am not courageous enough to visit these areas nowadays, as Israeli robots armed with machine guns are ready to shoot to kill.
The part of Gaza where Israel claims to have evacuated but still keeps off limits to residents of Gaza constitutes 17 percent of the total size of Gaza and 35 percent of the farming land of Gaza. Israel argues that their restrictions on these arable lands are to prevent further rocket attacks. While it's true that in the past this area has been used to launch homemade rockets, nowadays there is very little activity, as most resistance groups in Gaza are in an undeclared truce with Israel. Also, I know that farmers do their utmost to prevent the use of their land for activities that can bring harm to them.
Electricity is largely absent in Gaza and it has been so for a few months now. Some Gaza neighborhoods have to live their lives and celebrate the month of Ramadan with frequent power outage. Relatives who live in Gaza City have confirmed that they are now surprised if they do actually have electricity. Residents of the Gaza Strip do without power 8 to 20 hours a day. Unlike the fresh produce problem, Israel has little to do with the electricity shortage. The power outages are part of larger political problems that Gazans blame on the political gridlock between the different factions within the Palestinian leadership. Infighting is occurring between Fatah and Hamas over who gets to pay the bill and who gets to collect from users. Obviously, some residents in Gaza rarely make an effort to pay their electricity bill which makes it harder for the power companies to keep afloat. Also, forcing Gaza to go off the grid is the best option for local politicians who can say, "We are still under siege."
One of the customs of Ramadan is to visit with family and friends, but without electricity people do not like to go into other people homes because it is a burden on the hosts. So now, people like my parents, before they make a visit to one's home, have to check to see if their hosts have electricity. If the family they plan to visit does not have power, then they plan to visit others who might have power.
Lastly, last Ramadan tunnel smugglers were having the time of their lives during the stricter Israeli siege, as the higher demand in Ramadan translates into more demand on smuggled goods. These tunnel smugglers provide the Gaza market with many needed goods--this year they continue to smuggle goods, though not as many. It remains unclear whether the popularity of Egyptian cheeses, jams, and molasses is due to their low costs or due to the limited amount of goods Israel allowed in last year. There are limits on goods smuggled into Gaza when it comes to bringing in fresh produce; the tunnels are useless. For logistical reasons, tunnel operators cannot smuggle fresh produce. Of course this year, they also have to deal with the new Egyptian wall blocking them and shrinking demand on smuggled goods.
There is little my family in Gaza can do about lack of electricity on a blazing hot summer day. As for fresh produce many families have gotten into community farming. The local government is also taking initiative to turn evacuated Israeli settlements into experimental farms for growing all sorts of fresh vegetables and fruits. I'm glad my grandpa still has a small farm where he grows some of the produces my family needs and that he allows others to use the space to grow what they like. In the meantime, Ramadan Kareem.