The shoreline in Gaza City during strong winds on Christmas Day (Mohammed Abed-AFP-Getty Images)
Hazem Balousha and Miriam Berger, The Washington Post, January 1, 2020
GAZA CITY — Jana Tawil was born in 2012, the same year that the United Nations released an alarm-raising report on the state of the Gaza Strip: If the prevailing economic, environmental and political trends continued, the organization warned, the besieged coastal enclave sandwiched between Israel and Egypt would become unlivable by 2020.
The United Nations revised its initial rating in 2017 to warn that “de-development” was happening even faster than it first predicted.
Jana’s father, 35-year-old Mahmoud Tawil, never thought much of that assessment.
“When the U.N. report [said] that Gaza would be unlivable, I felt that Gaza was not fit for life in the same year, not in the year 2020,” he said.
That is the bleak reality facing Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents as they approach a new year and new decade: still stuck living in a place the world has already deemed uninhabitable in perhaps the most surreal of 2020 predictions.
The Tawil family lives in Gaza’s al-Shati refugee camp, or the Beach camp, where cramped and crumbling rows of homes sit adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. It is in theory a scenic view — but life here persists on a parallel plane.
The elder Tawil, a psychologist, fears the sea: It’s full of sewage, pumped in because there’s not enough electricity and infrastructure to run Gaza’s war-torn sewage system. Hospitals, schools and homes are similarly running on empty, worn down by the lack of clean water, electricity, infrastructure and jobs or money. Barely anyone has enough clean water to drink. The only local source of drinking water, the coastal aquifer, is full of dirty and salty water. By 2020 — basically, now — that damage will be irreversible, water experts have warned.
“There is no stability in work, and there is no money for people,” Tawil said. “We cannot drink water or eat vegetables safely, [as] there is a fear that it will be contaminated.”
He continued: “We need a just life, and we need hope that there is a possibility for us to live on this earth. … The various Palestinian parties do not help us in Gaza to live, just as Israel imposes a blockade on Gaza. Unfortunately, no one cares about the residents of Gaza.”
Perhaps the hardest part of it all is that, relatively speaking, none of this is new.
When the United Nations issued the 2012 report setting 2020 as the zero hour for Gaza’s unlivability, the organization knew even then that no one should be living in Gaza’s already dangerous conditions.
“From our perspective, [the report] was a useful sort of ringing the alarm bell a couple of years ago,” said Matthias Schmale, the director of operations in Gaza for the U.N. Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA), the U.N. body responsible for Palestinian refugees. “But for us it’s no longer really the issue that by 2020 it will be unlivable. … The key question is how do we prevent total collapse?”
Gazans battle daily with the same crushing question.
It has been a dark decade, and then some, in a place Palestinians liken to an open-air prison. In 2007, the extremist group Hamas seized control after ousting its rival, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Israel and Egypt in response imposed a land and sea blockade, citing security concerns and the aim of squeezing Hamas out. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, since 2009, Hamas and Israel have fought three bloody wars, alongside countless flare-ups. In the meantime, Israel flexes control via policies on who and what can enter and leave Gaza, barring most Gazans and goods from leaving. Hamas’s repressive and conservative rule has in turn caused people to feel squeezed from all sides.
Schmale cited four factors keeping Gaza afloat: Palestinian solidarity, such as businesses writing off debts; the inflow of cash sent by Palestinians abroad; Hamas’s autocratic rule, which has restricted internal unrest; and support from international bodies such as the United Nations.
All of these factors also remain subject to change. In 2018, President Trump cut aid to UNRWA and other Palestinian aid programs, threatening to topple the whole model set up in the 1950s to serve displaced Palestinians. Of Gaza’s 1.9 million residents, 1.4 million are refugees, and 1 million of them depend on UNRWA for food assistance. The rate of dependence on food aid only grows, Schmale said.
Despite the Trump administration’s much trumpeted economic-focused Middle East peace plan, no tangible progress has come out of it for Palestinians. A long-term, political solution to Gaza’s impasse (and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) remains far-off.
The depletion of Gaza’s coastal aquifer was one of the main factors in the United Nations’ “uninhabitable” calculus. According to World Health Organization standards, 97 percent of the aquifer’s water is unsuitable for human consumption: It’s been so heavily pumped that saltwater and other pollutants have poured in where groundwater was taken out.
Gazans who can afford to do so buy water from private companies using small-scale desalination projects. But the water from these sources can also become contaminated during unregulated distribution and storage in unclean tanks. One-fourth of all illnesses in Gaza are waterborne, the WHO found.
Tamer al-Aklouk, 21, is one of those water sellers finding any way to get by. He is fed up with reports making dire predictions when they’re released at fancy events while the situation on the ground remains the same or worsens.
That’s why 27-year-old Iman Ibrahim’s New Year’s wish, like so many of her generation’s, is a way out.
Ibrahim studied agricultural engineering in the hope that she would find a job. Now she’s an unemployed graduate, and she and her father, who paid her university fees, are frustrated.
Ibrahim is looking for a scholarship to leave, like many of her peers. In the last two years, Gaza has had a painful brain drain of those who can afford to pay the hefty fees and bribes to exit through Egypt. An estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people had left Gaza since mid-2018. Hamas even started preventing doctors from leaving as so few remained.
“I am trying to get a chance, but this is not easy for a girl who lives in a conservative society,” Ibrahim said.
That’s the crux of the matter: Unlike some involved in policies and programs for Gaza, Ibrahim doesn’t have the luxury of moving on.
“Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the Arabs and the United States are responsible for what is happening in Gaza, and they must work to help some people here in Gaza,” she said. “We are on the threshold of the year 2020, and Gaza has been uninhabitable for years, not next year.”