The Middle East Channel

Gaza’s economic mirage

GAZA CITY — A predominant, if misguided, narrative holds Gaza to be a Mediterranean secret, where food is plentiful and joy is unabated. Such statements are not exactly false. As a Gazan, I can say I have laughed, dined out (not just falafel), and been able to embrace my proclivity for consumption -- recently purchasing a 37" flat-screen TV. But this has been a product of the stubbornness and creativity of capitalism under an enforced closure (where goods flow into Gaza, but what goes out is very limited). Not to mention the sheer luck that I hail from an elite class and of the simple fact that humans, in desperate circumstances, still muster the ability to "look on the bright side of life."

Two recent developments in Gaza have propped up the "there are no problems in Gaza narrative," and will undoubtedly feature in a soon-to-be-shot promotional video by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  One is the pool-hall-cum-lounge called Carrino's; the other, Munib Al-Masri's six-star Movenpick hotel.

Carrino's is straight out of Dubai. Huge LCDs line the wall, letting customers catch up on the latest episode of House MD, lemon juice costs a whopping $4, and, of course, there's a dress code. The reality is that the clientele at Carrino's is the who's who of Gaza's NGO elite.

Even more up-market than Carrino's is the Movenpick, an old investment of Munib Al-Masri, PADICO's chairman and the West Bank's richest businessman. The hotel's occupancy rate is barely in the double digits. Fortunately, its owner is a billionaire, and it's his personal fortune that keeps the lights on. For some, the Movenpick is an oasis, but for most it's a mirage; a reminder of what the majority of Gazans will never have.

I can agree with some in the Israeli establishment who say that there is an asset bubble, or something like this, in Gaza. But it will always be Israel, armed with its $8 billion laser-sighted needle that can both pop the bubble and more significantly inflate it. In the last few months, international media have reported on Gaza's relative peace and calm. Gazans are counting themselves lucky that Israel has all but stopped its military incursions. No air strikes, no drones, no early morning beach shelling or the rare sonic boom.

In the last two weeks, however, Israel predictably responded to rockets fired from Gaza. It takes literally seconds for Gazans to be reminded who is really in control -- whether it's at the Rafah border, where Gazans' fate is decided by incompetent Egyptian border officers, or perhaps on the coast where fishermen are told by the Israeli navy where and when they can catch their living. The agency of most Gazans is reduced to which football team they choose to support. For the luckier ones, an evening at Carrino's or Movenpick offers some respite.

Yet the majority of Gazans are dependent on Israeli products: many supermarkets in Gaza are stocked with Oreos, Magnum Ice Creams, and kosher milk and butter. As such, the possibility of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is hindered by Israel's monopoly of the market and compounded by the dearth of competition from Palestinian producers. In fact, when Gazans (some, though not all) are not being tempted by delicious snacks, they are shopping in the mall. It is almost counterintuitive to think that the alleged creation of an army of modern consumers in Gaza runs opposite to Israeli interests. What better a population to do business with than a population paying homage to malls and not Mecca?

Instead, Israel chooses to instrumentalize this modicum of normality -- albeit for a minority -- in order to conceal its occupation of the territory. International media outlets often tow this line. Popular media narratives often depict positive and incremental changes in Gaza, though always glossing over the fact that Israel has been an occupying power for over six decades. The removal of this historical context leaves readers wondering what all the fuss is about. Why send boats to Gaza? They have pizza, don't they? Why do those "barbarians" insist on firing rockets? They have a pretty beach and a calming sunset.  The common meme has become that Gazans must learn to be more grateful.

A prominent Western journalist recently visited Gaza. During his meeting with young bloggers, which I attended, he took the opportunity to tell us that Gaza is not in as bad shape as Haiti. He is right; Gaza is not a humanitarian disaster on the scale of Haiti, nor is it famine-stricken like Somalia. But the issue, as one of the sharp young bloggers pointed out, is that Haiti was shaken by an earthquake; the tragedy of Gaza is man-made.

This man-made tragedy has put Gaza on a devastating trajectory. Natural water supplies are predicted to evaporate; only five percent of the wells in Gaza produce water that meets World Health Organization drinking water standards. Fifty-six thousand cubic liters of sewage pour into the sea each day. Gaza's export industry is practically non-existent.

Most of Gaza's factories were destroyed by Israel during its 2009 invasion, and Israel refuses to allow a normal flow of export goods. One exception, however, is a company that exports catchy ring-tones to the Gulf.

Education has also suffered. According to UNESCO, seven universities were damaged during the 2009 invasion, and six buildings were destroyed (and Israel has permitted few reconstruction materials to enter Gaza since). The same report highlights the lack of optimism amongst university students as 71 percent are not hopeful about their future and are very concerned by the prospect of another war. All of these issues will persist and worsen, as long as Israel allows them to do so. What will remain relatively untouched are the tiny pockets of wealth that will always exist in Gaza.

Israel has been able to strategically extricate itself from the Gaza Strip. It has the international community all but convinced that the territory's problems are Gazans' own fault. Hamas's arrival was almost too good to be true. What better a fall guy than incompetent religious fundamentalists? In the midst of the Arab-Spring, Egypt (which under Mubarak had been complicit -- and at times encouraging -- of Gaza's closure) must now answer to the Palestinians, a revitalized Egyptian population, and global activists.

Meanwhile, Israel stands back as a community teeters on the brink of humanitarian disaster. Israel's unwillingness to significantly, and sustainably, improve the situation in the Gaza Strip has created a dead zone both economically and intellectually. It does not take an expert to predict that a more virulent form of fundamentalist ideology will continue to ferment.

Israel has failed to engage with the very Palestinians who spend afternoons in the shopping mall and evenings at Movenpick. All of this begs the question: what sort of Palestinians does Israel intend to make peace with?

Wasseem El Sarraj is a researcher with the Gaza-based think tank TiDA.

AFP/Getty images

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