Haitham has spent the past eight years smuggling Marlboro cigarettes from Egypt into Gaza through the elaborate network of underground tunnels that helped keep the Palestinian economy afloat in the face of Israel’s crushing blockade.
When business was at its peak, he employed 25 staff and rarely had time to rest. Now, with his tunnel shut down and the siege tightening its grip, he spends most of his days trying to think of another source of work.
“We collected thousands of dollars in a short period of time,” he told Arab News. “In the past, smuggling goods through the tunnels was the most lucrative business.”
Tales of woe such as Haitham’s can be heard across Gaza, the impoverished coastal strip in which almost 2 million people are crammed into 141 square miles of shanty towns, refugee camps and scrubland. Cut off politically, economically and culturally from their fellow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, people here say life is harder than it has been for generations.
The situation has been deteriorating for more than a decade, and has its roots in both regional and internal politics.After Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections by a landslide in 2006, the US, EU, Russia and UN all responded with alarm.
Under international pressure, the other main Palestinian party, Fatah, refused to join the Islamist movement in a coalition.
Tensions simmered between the two factions, eventually boiling over into a bloody power struggle for control of Gaza in June 2007. After several days of violent clashes in which both sides carried out public executions of rival fighters, Hamas took control of the strip.
Israel responded with an air, sea and land blockade, but smugglers such as Haitham continued to ply their trade through the underground tunnels.
Since Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in Egypt in 2013, however, even that economic lifeline has been shut down as Cairo tries to keep Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood apart.
Unemployment levels now hover at around 40 percent and in the past year alone 42,500 Gazans were arrested by Hamas police for unpaid debts. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on food aid, while fuel shortages have left many hospitals unable to power the generators they use for electricity.
The UN has warned that Gaza faces “full collapse,” and even the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, has warned that Gaza’s infrastructure is on the verge of total breakdown.
Khalil Abu Rajab, 70, has spent most of his life working in the clothing trade, a job he inherited from his father. Unable to make ends meet, he is now thinking of closing his business.
Sitting on a wooden chair outside his shop as he waved to passers-by, he told Arab News the economic situation was worse than it had ever been.
“I have lived through various periods, from the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip to the period of Palestinian Authority control and the Hamas takeover, but I have not seen a period like this in which I cannot meet my financial obligations,” he said.
At the Al-Shati refugee camp, west of Gaza city, about 80,000 people endure cramped, squalid conditions, with limited access to fresh drinking water and sewage spilling into the streets.
Siham Kahlout lives there with her seven children in a small three-bedroom house. Until 2001 she worked in Israel, but now she relies on aid from the UN and spends most of her time sitting idle outside her home. “We live every day without knowing what will happen tomorrow,” she said.