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Under Israeli blockade of Gaza, books are a rare, cherished commodity

Israel does not explicitly ban importing books to Gaza, but the blockade makes it extraordinarily difficult to do so. The shortage amounts to a kind of censorship, Gazans say.

By Ruqaya IzzidienContributor / July 24, 2012

Palestinians play with a kite in the beach of Gaza, in this June 14 file photo. Gazan students and educators say that under the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, education is suffering.

Adel Hana/AP/File

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Gaza City, Gaza

The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip has been blamed for a multitude of problems facing the population there: malnutrition, unemployment, limited access to electricity and potable water.

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Gazan students and educators say that under the Israeli-imposed siege, education is suffering too. The blockade makes it so difficult to bring in books that they are forced to resort to bootlegging and smuggling, they say. The limited supply of original books has driven up costs, making them difficult for most Gazans to afford.

Part of the problem is that Israel does not communicate directly with Hamas, the Islamist militant party that governs Gaza, instead relying on the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) to handle issues in both of the Palestinian territories. However, Gaza is isolated from the West Bank, both geographically and politically, so the limited number of books entering Gaza via Israel are chosen by the PA, not Gazans. 

Hamas may be Israel’s target when circumventing dialogue with Gaza’s book-buyers, but Gazan students say they're the ones paying the penalty and that the shortfall in book supply amounts to an infringement on their freedom to get an education. 

Work-arounds

Book smugglers in Gaza are reluctant to disclose details on their routes, fearing ramifications from the Israeli government, which already bombs the Egypt-Gaza tunnels several times a year, and the Hamas government, which has increased its searches at the passenger-only Rafah border crossing, through with retailers also attempt to smuggle goods. The Gazan government considers the tunnels a legitimate trade route, so it allows goods to pass through there.

Gazan education officials assert that the tunnels are key to the education of Gaza’s 500,000 students. Awni Maqayyid, head of the Hamas-run Islamic University’s Central Library, says that “the education system would collapse” without the tunnel industry. 

Despite smugglers' attempts to stock Gaza’s libraries and bookstores – around 5 million textbooks are required per year – Palestinians are still frustrated by the lack of books in Gaza. They hold Israel responsible, arguing that the restrictions on book imports amounts to a censoring of their education.

One Gazan bookshop owner, who introduced himself as Mohammed Ahmed, says that it is too difficult to import books via Israel, “so we travel to Egypt, buy books, and bring them back in our bags.” Many bookshop owners tell the same story.

And although it is possible for bookshop owners to buy books from Israel, they claim that Israeli book prices are unaffordable for Gaza’s underemployed and besieged population. Smuggling books from distant countries can be less expensive than buying them from just across the Israeli border. 

A medical bookshop employee explains how he smuggles books in his luggage through Rafah, which is a passenger-only crossing: “I cross into Egypt, buy a plane ticket to London to purchase the books for medical students. This way is easier and even cheaper than it is to import the books through Israel," says the man, who introduced himself as Mahmood Bakri. Editor's note: Due to an editing error, this paragraph has been changed to correctly reflect Mr. Bakri's occupation.

Bootleg textbooks are another "solution." Osama Almassri, a lecturer at Gaza’s Ummah University, borrows textbooks from other universities and makes copies – a tactic widely and openly practiced in Gaza. "Textbooks are so few in number that some teachers even type up entire books by hand in order to produce legible textbooks," Almassri says.

The Israeli authorities are unaware of the book shortage, according to Maj. Guy Inbar, spokesman for the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority has never raised the issue, he says.

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