By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 3, 2010; A01
GAZA CITY -- The ill-fated aid flotilla bound for Gaza this week bore food, medicine and toys.
What it didn't have on board were the things that Gazans say they need most: jobs, reliable electricity and a ticket out.
It has been five years since Israel pulled its soldiers and settlers from the coastal strip, and largely closed Gaza off from the world. Israel's critics say what's left is a devastated land in need of emergency assistance. Israeli officials insist Gaza's people are getting what they need to live. Neither narrative reflects the complex and dysfunctional way of life that has emerged here.
Gazans lament where they can't go more than what they can't buy. They also decry the lack of employment -- with no building supplies and few trade possibilities, joblessness is rampant. Once an exporter of fruits and other goods, Gaza has been turned into a mini-welfare state with a broken economy where food and daily goods are plentiful, but where 80 percent of the population depends on charity. Hospitals, schools, electricity systems and sewage treatment facilities are all in deep disrepair.
Yet if you walk down Gaza City's main thoroughfare -- Salah al-Din Street -- grocery stores are stocked wall-to-wall with everything from fresh Israeli yogurts and hummus to Cocoa Puffs smuggled in from Egypt. Pharmacies look as well-supplied as a typical Rite Aid in the United States.
"When Western people come, they have this certain image of Gaza," said Omar Shaban, an economist who heads Pal-Think for Strategic Studies in Gaza. "We have microwaves in our homes, not only me, everybody. If you go to a refugee camp, the house is bad, but the people and the equipment are very modern. The problem is the public infrastructure."
The Israeli blockade -- which activists were trying to pierce Monday when nine died in a melee at sea with Israeli commandos -- is designed to deny weapons to the Islamist Hamas group and weaken its authority. A vast array of items -- from concrete to coriander -- have been blocked from entering the territory, and few residents are allowed to leave.
With the exception of one border crossing that is managed -- and largely kept shut -- by Egypt, Israel controls all entry and exit points to the Gaza Strip, a narrow territory that is 25 miles long and three to seven miles wide. After Israel first imposed a closure on the territory in 2005, the blockade has intensified over the three years since Hamas seized power.
Originally, Israel hoped the closure would put enough pressure on the local economy that Gazans would grow frustrated and oust Hamas. But the group's hold on power remains firm. Israel has tried to use the closure as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, to no avail.
"The blockade policy has not proven itself in the last three years, and I don't think it will prove itself in the next three," said retired Brig. Gen. Meir Elran, a national security expert at Tel Aviv University.
It has not worked out well for Gaza's 1.5 million people, either.
The prohibition on concrete, which Israel says is necessary because Hamas can use it to build bunkers, has forced Palestinians to harvest cement and wire from buildings Israel bombed last year. If the siege were lifted tomorrow all six crossings would need to operate 24 hours a day for three years to fill Gaza's current need of 2 million tons of concrete, Shaban said. The infrastructure woes stretch beyond construction: Gaza suffers rolling blackouts and the sewage treatment facility needs repair.
The U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, Philippe Lazzarini, has urged Israel to lift agricultural restrictions and give fishermen the chance to cast their nets in less polluted waters. "The fact that this coastal population now imports fish from Israel and through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border speaks to the absurdity of the situation," Lazzarini said in a statement.
The Israeli military decides which items can be allowed in and which are prohibited. A joint forum of Israeli and international organizations meets weekly to reduce bottlenecks and address special requests "in order to give proper solutions to the needs of the Gaza population," said Guy Inbar, an army spokesman.
Some of the restrictions on consumer goods are hard to explain -- like a ban on nutmeg or coriander. Others seem designed to create as much pressure as possible.
"Margarine is permitted in small packages for household consumption, but it is banned in large buckets because it's a factory input that would allow people to have jobs and engage in economic work," said Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to protect freedom of movement of Palestinians. "The closure is explicitly designed to cripple Gaza's economy."
During a typical week in May, Israel allowed in 637 truckloads ferrying 14,069 tons of food, medicine and other supplies.
Frustrated at its inability to convince critics that there is no crisis in Gaza and no need for emergency aid, Israel tried sarcasm late last month as the flotilla went to sea.
"The Government Press Office is pleased to bring to your attention the attached menu and information for the Roots Club and Restaurant in Gaza. We have been told the beef stroganoff and cream of spinach soup are highly recommended," read a recent press release, with the elaborate menu attached.
Gazans readily admit they are not going hungry. But that, they say, is the wrong benchmark for assessing their quality of life. While Gaza has long been poor, the economy has completely crumbled over the past three years.
Gazan workers, Shaban said, "used to be earning $100 per day, smoking Marlboros and going to Egypt every two months on vacation."
Now, he said, "I see people spending 10 hours a day for [$5] digging up stones."