Gaza Is Hungry - and Not Because of Ramadan

GAZA - It's Ramadan and everyone's fasting. Maybe it's the heat, the hunger and the thirst that generate the feeling that the Gaza Strip is liable to blow up at any minute. It seems that with every passing week, the distress deepens and the poverty becomes more tangible.

Only last week, Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh promised that by Ramadan some of the PA employees' salaries would be paid. But on Sunday came the announcement that this month, too, the PA did not have the money to pay its workers. The despair is visible in the people's eyes, as irritable drivers get into fights with each other at every traffic jam.

A traffic jam of a different sort blocked the area across from the main marketplace in the Jabalya refugee camp yesterday. Although donkey carts are popular here, the dozens that filled the square yesterday were not there for the regular market run, but had been rented so the lucky residents could bring home the food packages supplied by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) once every three months.

Since UNRWA only helps refugees, the rest of Gaza's residents are left without aid. The irony is that the residents of the refugee camps enjoy economic privileges that the others don't, even though today everyone needs assistance because they aren't getting paid.

But even the lucky ones still need to take action to receive the food to which their orange UNRWA coupons entitle them: a few sacks of flour, milk powder for children, rice, sugar and broad beans (ful). They gathered around the food truck and tried to get the attention of the person who mans it. Waving their hands in the air and shouting "Rajeb, Rajeb," they looked like ardent fans of a singer.

"Last year I got unemployment benefits but since the Hamas government took power, there have been no unemployment payments," said Adnan, who is eligible for the food packages. He has seven children, two of whom are studying at university, but he has no way of paying their tuition.

"Without UNRWA, Gaza would be in flames," said a porter carrying the food. "I'm carrying on my back right now a sack that, for a lot of people, is worth a million dollars."

In the market itself, the produce is cheap: a kilo of tomatoes costs NIS 2, and three kilos of cucumbers cost NIS 4. But almost no one is buying, said vegetable vendor Zuhir Dawas.

"If one of the vendors makes NIS 10 to NIS 15 a day, he can be satisfied," said Dawas. "We've reached the point where even the dogs of the Jews live better, and since Hamas won, the situation has become still worse. Only UNRWA is helping people now - the PA can't do anything."

Dawas said he and his family are going hungry, and break their daily Ramadan fast on nothing but rice and vegetables. "I don't have money anymore for meat and chicken," he said.

But while Adnan and Dawas saw the establishment of a Hamas government as a turning point for the worse, store owner Abu Mustafa al-Januni pointed the finger at Israel and the rest of the world.

"Who's responsible?" he said. "Israel is to blame, America and the international community. You're the ones who have kept food from us."

Al-Januni, who owns a store in a Gaza market selling special pancakes for Ramadan, recalled better days.

"In previous years, our store was full of people, it was impossible to move," he said. "In the past, the laborers worked in Israel, the clerks had salaries from the PA. Now everything has disappeared."

The distress of the residents of Gaza is putting the Hamas government at risk. Many of the organization's top leaders realize that thousands of their supporters are liable to turn against Hamas, leading them to reconsider the idea of a unity government and the need to compromise with Abbas. The PA chairman, for his part, is in no hurry. After all, time is working against Hamas, and the Ramadan fast isn't helping either.