They say everyone in Gaza goes to the beach on hot summer nights, particularly during Ramadan. That was true not only in years when the electricity supply in the Strip was limited to four hours a day – which forced us to escape our scorching, dark homes.
But this year has been different. A few days ago, when we went to the beach after midnight, it was practically empty. Of the people who had turned out, there seemed to be fewer beachgoers than peddlers, who dotted the beachfront promenade. And people didn’t seem to be buying much from them.
One coffee vendor was standing near his cart, chatting with a friend. They paid no attention to us, even though we were only a few meters away, but I did notice one thing. Nobody was buying coffee, although it was just two shekels (55 cents) a cup.
I could chalk up our economic distress in each unsold cup to three causes: the Israeli blockade, the sanctions that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has imposed on Gaza (slashing pay for state workers and halting the payment of social welfare allowances) and the additional taxes the Hamas authorities slap on various products and services.
There’s a fine line between being a peddler and beggar. The peddlers offer bunches of fresh mint, cookies, gum and tissues. When you refuse, they plead: “Please, give me something.”
Many of the peddlers are children, who are up late in any event during Ramadan. They could be seen walking around after 1 A.M. hawking their small supply of wares.
One child, dark-skinned and with an angry face, who looked no older than 8, offered us candy that he whipped out of a backpack. I bought some for my little brother. I had just purchased hot corn on the cob for myself and my brothers, and something in his eyes prompted me to offer him one.
He took it, walked away limping on his left foot and stopped not far away. I watched him from the corner of my eye, not wanting to embarrass him. I saw him devour the corn and then resume looking for customers for his candy.
The boy is part of the poverty statistics that we are all familiar with, and which are only getting worse. In June 2018, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 53 percent of Gazans live in poverty, meaning that they have less than $4.60 a day for food, housing, clothing, health care and education. And 33.8 percent live in extreme poverty – subsisting on less than $3.60 per day, according to the agency.
What levels have these figures reached since, I asked myself on the eve of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan.
There are child beggars everywhere on the city’s streets, particularly near banks, ATMs, supermarkets, bakeries and restaurants, where they congregate in groups. Customers leaving any of these establishments are instantly pounced upon by children – and adults – who plead that they buy something.
The phenomenon surfaced in recent years. It haunts us all, making us feel like we’re in a vintage Egyptian movie. A few children beg at the entrance to Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. One of the children is particularly insistent that passersby purchase his candy. Those who refuse are even met with curses.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed the police trying to keep them out of sight, but it isn’t quite working. When a policeman approaches, the beggars and hawkers vanish, but once the cops are gone, they come right back to their “work stations.”
They have their own rules, one of them tells me. Every group has its own work area, and if another group tries to invade it, a brawl ensues, rather like the battles between Hamas and Fatah in 2007 in the Strip.