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 , Contributor

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    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.
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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.

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. 

Recommended: Who is Hamas? 5 questions about the Palestinian militant group.

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.

Zeyad Thabit, deputy minister for education in Gaza, claims that the Gaza Strip has been unable to acquire school textbooks via Israel since 2007. Mr. Thabit (whose jurisdiction does not include those schools run by the United Nations refugee agency) says the requests were made but were turned down.

“We tried many times since the siege began to get textbooks in, making sure that we only ask for plain academic books.” When that failed, Thabit says, “We started printing and photocopying books. But no paper is entering Gaza from Israel to allow the Ministry of Education to print textbooks, so all paper enters via the tunnels from Egypt.”

Israel's Maj. Inbar explained that Israel transfers books to Gaza through the Palestinian Authority or, in the case of schools run by the United Nations refugee agency, via the UN. As a result, most Gazans have no influence over what books are sent to the besieged territory.

If Hamas is so bothered by the existence of Israel, “then Hamas can take their books through Rafah," Inbar says. 

Another kind of 'censorship'

But many Gazan students, unable to buy the books they want, view the lack of books as amounting to censorship, regardless of whether it is intentional or merely an unintended side effect of policies.

Rana Baker, a business student who also blogs about Palestinian social and political issues, considers the lack of political and historical books in Gaza censorship and an infringement on her right to education. 

“The books at my university are old, and it doesn’t have the kinds of books that I like to read: books that speak about Palestine, its culture, refugees, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid," she says. 

“Regardless of whether they censor books coming in or not, in a country that's not under siege, you can go into a bookshop and buy a book without having to smuggle into the country. That itself is censorship."

The Gaza branch manager of an international mail courier, who refused to give his name, insists that the lack of political books entering Gaza is deliberate.

“I’ve worked at the Karam Abu Salam (Keren Shalom) goods crossing between Gaza and Israel for ten years and I know what is prohibited,” he explained. “Books related to politics or movements are forbidden. Also forbidden are images of violence, or anything that we call ‘resistance,' but Israel deems as 'terrorism'."

However, it doesn't seem to be a blanket restriction. To test it, this reporter sent a copy of The Holocaust Industry by Norman Finklestein, which argues that Israel has exploited the issue of the Holocaust for political ends, from Egypt to the Gaza Strip via the courier Aramex in May 2012. It was not confiscated and arrived in Gaza within 20 days. 

But last year, Pam Bailey, a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., tried to mail nine books to a friend in Gaza via the shipping courier DHL. “The books were a mix of novels and histories of Palestine,” recalled Ms. Bailey. "I had been told that although some items were banned altogether, papers [and therefore books] were ok."

"Four days later, however, the package was returned as ‘not deliverable’," she says. DHL refused to offer a reason.

Inbar suggested that Gazans can request a book by ordering it from abroad and requesting it be sent to Gaza by courier, but this is not usually an option for average Gazans, 80 percent of whom live below the poverty line, according to Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. 

Jehad A., who works for a Gaza-based think tank and refused to give his full last name, believes that the inconsistent import rules, which go far beyond textbooks, are a destabilization tactic.

“If people are living in a stable situation, they will behave stable. But if their situation is unstable, that causes the attacks that you see in the streets, the recklessness and radicalization. Things here are not stable. They fluctuate and the goal is to isolate Gaza because the most critical impact of the siege is the psychological one.”

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