GAZA CITY — On a street here crammed with glittery clothing and electronic shops, Mahmoud Matar flipped through the receipt book for his appliance store, much of it blank: His lone sale that day was a $7 kettle. It was clear whom he blamed for his poor sales: Gaza’s Islamist Hamas government.
“They should close up shop and go home,” raged Mr. Matar, a chain-smoking 31-year-old with slicked-back hair. “They shouldn’t call themselves a government.”
Early optimism that global powers would intervene forcefully to rebuild the battered coastal enclave after the 50-day summer war between Gaza’s Hamas government and Israel has faded. Hamas’s claim that it won the war simply by surviving has been overwhelmed by a grinding struggle to keep the territory afloat, as living standards for its 1.8 million residents steadily worsen.
Most recently, Hamas quietly initiated new import fees in an effort to cover the salaries of about 40,000 employees who have not been paid for months, raising prices in already-depressed markets. A kilogram of meat, a little over two pounds, increased by 50 cents, black pepper by $1.50 a kilogram and shampoo by 25 cents. Incremental amounts for Western consumers, perhaps, but a blow to Palestinians already barely scraping by.
“The citizen is in the middle,” said Omar Shaban, an economist. “Ramallah doesn’t care,” he said, referring to Mr. Abbas’s government in the West Bank. “They have an interest in leaving Gaza like this.”
Pulverized buildings are still scattered along Gaza’s border areas from the last war. In the rubble of Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City, near the border with Israel, a man swung his mallet to show how he pulverized concrete chunks into rubble that he sold to mix with black-market cement, earning him $15 a day.
Nearby, a woman walked into a badly damaged house, the windows bricked over. Some residents have returned to living in wrecked homes, despairing of having them repaired. Others have received small amounts of United Nations-donated cement to repair less-damaged homes. A few thousand homeless people still live in -United Nations-run schools.
Many of the newly unemployed are former construction laborers. Desperate to find work, they turn to any sort of activity they can think of.
Abdul-Munim Omrani, 33, convinced a charity to give him a peddler’s cart. He now uses it to sell hot drinks near a beach at a cheaper price than the seaside cafes skirting the shore.
He can make around $12 a day, he said, but he was chased away by the municipal police. His rust-streaked cart, with a deflated wheel, was parked near his peeling pastel-painted home. “I felt defeated,” he said. “That man took away my livelihood.”
On a recent day at the Gaza port, men pushed children in toy cars decked with flowers and glitter, charging 50 cents a ride.
Boys work, too, making up for absent, sick or dead fathers. Mohammad al-Ahl, 13, sells polka-dot balloons for 25 cents each, cheaper than the Bugs Bunny-shaped balloons older men typically offer for a dollar. On this day, business was quiet. He sat silently by the port’s cheery blue, pink and green painted wall.
Israel places severe restrictions on the import of building materials, saying they have been used to build tunnels to conduct attacks on Israel. The Egyptian government, a bitter enemy of its homegrown Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, has taken extraordinary steps to shut down the tunnels that had been the lifeblood of the Gaza economy.
Egypt has opened its border only five times this year, part of a broader policy to punish Hamas, which aligned itself with the Brotherhood, Egypt’s former ruling party, a decision that backfired when the military seized power in mid-2013. The tunnels were Hamas’s chief source of revenue. It was their closing that set off the new import fees in May.
Visiting Gaza on Monday, the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called on Israel to ease restrictions on imports to Gaza. But he acknowledged that was unlikely to happen until Gaza was no longer “a launching pad for rockets.”
While Gaza’s unemployment rate has risen to 44 percent, the highest in the world, and many Gazan workers go unpaid, tens of thousands of employees who were hired by Mr. Abbas’s government when it controlled the territory are paid to stay home rather than work for Hamas.
“It’s not logical at all,” said Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry. “The one sitting at home is paid, but if he has a problem, he goes to a hospital to be treated by a doctor who hasn’t taken a salary.”
The family of Mr. Omrani, the would-be hawker, still squeaks by. His wife sometimes finds casual work as a physiotherapist. They live rent-free with his mother, Fathiya, 63, who shares her $60 monthly widow’s pension. They occasionally get rice and sugar from the nearby mosque, and they do not eat much, Mr. Omrani said. Recently, the World Bank reported three-quarters of all residents rely on aid this way.
But there’s not enough for Mr. Omrani to pay a bribe for the right doctor to issue a certificate for his mother to obtain treatment in Egypt or Israel. She has several ailments and cancer, he said, presenting a sheaf of medical documents. Fathiya, too weak to stand, wept in the tiny living room, partly in panic, partly from pain.
In the postwar malaise, some young men appear zombielike. Some are addicted to powerful painkillers generically called “tramal,” that promise hours of hazy escape from a place they cannot flee.
“It’s the unemployment, the lack of security, the pressure, the blockade. Imagine waiting for months to leave Gaza,” said a 24-year-old former user. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to be identified by government officials. “Imagine waiting and waiting.”
Many children, and adults, still carry the trauma inflicted during the conflict.
Hamada Zaim, 4, has already lived through two short wars, in 2012 and 2014. He wets his bed and wakes up screaming at night, said his mother, Reem. Between wars, he went bald and his head began swelling. Before Egypt tightened movement across the border, his mother took him there to see specialists. They couldn’t give her a diagnosis, and told her to return, but now it is nearly impossible.
Hamada sat on his sister Sally’s lap on a recent day, snacking on chips in the Gaza port. He pointed to a hulking, rusting boat. “Is it Jewish?” he asked. His sister asked, what does a Jewish boat look like?
“Takh!” he said. “Bang!”
Gaza’s only optimist seemed to be Musab Daher, 23, a Hamas loyalist and university student, a double amputee, one of about 3,700 Palestinians moderately to severely wounded in the last conflict.
“This is God’s will,” said Mr. Daher, smiling, in a Doctors Without Borders outpatient clinic in a Gaza City villa. He spoke of his hopes to marry; his friend, another double amputee from a previous war, now had two children.
Yet every night, he says, he relives the blast that severed his legs. He remembers the pain and his temporary deafness. He smiled. “I think that’s normal, right?”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the German foreign minister. He is Frank-Walter Steinmeier, not Stenmeier.
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(via NY Times)