The grim reality in Gaza

Mohammed Omer reports on shortages in Gaza from crucial medical supplies through children's winter c

Traffic in the Gaza Strip slowed to a trickle last week, and this week medical centres have scaled back treatment in the medicines and sustenance-destitute Strip.

"Israel’s decision is a death penalty: our reserve of fuel is almost zero and it may very likely run out by the end of today," said Khaled Radi, Ministry of Health spokesman for the dismissed Hamas government.

Radi spoke in reference to the 30 November Israeli Supreme Court decision to allow further fuel cutbacks, severe reductions which are crippling Gaza’s residents in all aspects of life. Prior to that ruling, as early as October Israel decided to begin limiting fuel, with Gaza soon after enduring serious cuts of over 50% of fuel needs, a dire statistic confirmed by the UN body OCHA.

At the Nahal Oz crossing, through which all fuel enters Gaza, the Palestinian petrol authority reported that Israel has delivered around only 190,000 litres of diesel a day since late October, falling short of the 350,000 litres needed by the Gaza Strip. This number plummeted on 29 November, with Israel delivering a scanty 60,000 litres, only marginally improving three days later, 2 December, with a delivery of 90,000 litres.

This week’s increased cutbacks resulted in a several day closure of Gaza’s petrol stations, owners striking in protest to the pittance of fuel allowed in–just one quarter of that normally received.

Gaza’s Association for Fuel Station Owners commented: "Petrol firms considered the amount negligible and so, in protest over the Israeli blockade, refused to accept the paltry offering which does not come close to meeting the essential needs of Gaza’s civilians."

A Gaza taxi driver related his concern: "Cutting off fuel means cutting off our lives. We use it for everything, in the place of wood or coal. It’s tragic not only that Israel is imposing this siege on Gaza, but also that some Palestinians are supporting this cruel embargo, with the naïve idea of causing the people turn against Hamas in Gaza."

Shortages of fuel have greatly affected the public transportation system, leaving students from universities in Gaza City delayed for hours standing in wait for transportation back to Khan Younies and Rafah in the south.

Trickle Effect

The fuel cuts in turn impede water access: with diesel-run pumps unable to function, leaving over 77,000 without fresh drinking water, according to Gaza’s water utility. Oxfam International has warned that soon 225,000 Gazans could suffer from inadequate water supplies, raising concerns for public health.

Ambulances and clinics suffer too, a fact reiterated by Khaled Radi, who related how fuel shortages have already brought some ambulances to a standstill: "This has affected the mobility of ambulances which are especially vital during on-going Israeli air strikes such as that of this morning."

He added that shortages further threatened to close essential clinics, which rely on back-up generators during the frequent electricity shortages in the Strip. Two first aid health centres have already been forced to suspend treatment during electricity cuts. Those that remain open suffer from want of medical supplies, with 91 of 416 essential medicines depleted, according to the WHO.

Even basic things are scarce. Residents are hard-pressed to find a piece of glass to repair a broken window, imperative in December’s cold weather, particularly in a time when electricity and gas are scarce-to-absent.

Eyad Yousef, a 31-year-old Palestinian teacher, has been waiting for cement, unavailable for the last many months, to enter Gaza. Concurrently, prices of building materials have skyrocketed, more than tripled in the worst cases. Yousef waits for any sort of building material, but he knows that will not find anything, as he has looked all over the picked-clean area. "I have a floor of my home to finish, but can’t do so yet as no sort of building materials are available in Gaza," he said. "I'm using pieces of nylon to cover my windows at home, but I can’t go on like this for long," he added, saying he hopes that the international community will put pressure on Israel to open borders and let vital products into Gaza.

Death Penalty

Yousef, at least, is luckier than the newly dead: since last month at least 31 medical patients have died in Gaza, a result of Israel’s lockdown on borders and preventing of medical access to Israeli, Egyptian and Jordanian hospitals, as well as West Bank hospitals.

Since Hamas took over power in June, this subsequent Israeli lockdown has made it virtually impossible for Palestinians to get out of Gaza. The situation then deteriorated with the closing of Karni crossing, Gaza’s only commercial crossing, only opened for the most basic food essentials. Coupled with Israel’s ground and air attacks, the situation for Palestinians worsened yet further still when Israel last October announced Gaza as a "hostile entity", further allowing Israel to justify its closed-borders policy to the international arena.

In the densely-populated region starved of medical supplies, and now facing the shutdown of clinics, Gazan citizens have been given a death sentence with Israel’s control over borders. Yahya Al Jamal 53, one case among hundreds of people, has cancer and is in serious need of medical care at well-equipped hospitals. For more than two months now he has been refused entry to Israel for treatment. His agonized father reported that his son will die in the coming days if he does not get the medication he needs, an outcome of Israel’s mass denial of the luxury of critical healthcare.

Insult upon injuries, cement – already scarce for building – is no longer available even for graves of the many recently dead.

Empty Stocks

Aid agencies like the World Food Program (WFP) reporting that food imports are only enough to meet 41 per cent of demand in the Gaza Strip.

As winter progresses, resilient citizens desperately seek to survive. In Rafah’s Saturday market, Umm Mohammed Zourub scours the stalls yet again: "I've been looking for new winter clothes for my children, but I haven't been able to find any because no materials are coming into Gaza with the closed borders," the 43 year old mother lamented.

Indeed, the cold weather has fallen quickly on an internationally-isolated and starved population. From the intense heat of summer months, where water was scarce and air conditioning a fantasy, Gazans now experience the bitter cold in the same homes unprepared for extremes, and the bitter realization that, once again, they have been left to the whims of imprisonment, Israeli air and ground attacks, and a staggering invisibility in the international realm.

Mohammed Omer
PAUL POPPER/POPPERFOTO
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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain