Mohammed Tilbani is determined to keep the ice cream and cookie factory going that he opened 41 years ago in the Gaza Strip.
The factory supports his large family and 300 employees, but in the intensifying storm of the political, economic, and humanitarian crisis sweeping across this tiny enclave, he says he is overwhelmed.
With only four to eight hours of electricity available a day, it’s difficult to keep the machines running to make the sweets, he says, and he can only afford to pay workers for 12 shifts a month.
And then there are the supermarkets who cannot refrigerate the ice cream, and the parents who have no cash to buy their children treats anyway.
“This is the worst period of my life ever, and we have had really tough times. But this time everything is hard,” says Mr. Tilbani.
“There is food here,” he adds, “but who has money to buy anything? People are eating flour and water, a little tea, and that’s it. If they can, they buy some lentils or hummus or ful [fava beans].”
Tilbani’s challenges hint at the wider problems afflicting Gaza, an impoverished coastal strip between Israel and Egypt no bigger than Manhattan, where 2 million people live in one of the most densely settled spots on the planet.
An estimated 70 percent of Gazans rely on humanitarian assistance, says Human Rights Watch. Overall unemployment is at 43 percent, the World Bank says, and that share rises to nearly 60 percent for young people, many of them college graduates with few job prospects.
Medicines are in short supply, people are relying on bottled water because there is no potable drinking water to be found, and merchants are crowding the prisons because they cannot pay their debts.
Feeling of abandonment
Analysts attribute the current crisis, in part, to the political vacuum created by stalled reconciliation talks between the local Hamas leadership and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank. But Gaza’s economy has long been strangled by a decade-long Israeli blockade – imposed when the Islamic militants of Hamas came to power – that has limited the freedom of people and goods to move in and out of the strip.
But if knowing the source of a problem can often point toward steps to solving it, the worsening plight of Gazans has not prompted any of the primary actors – Hamas, Fatah, Israel, or Egypt – to change course. Nor are the United States, Arab world, or donor nations in general reacting to the crisis with urgency, contributing to a burgeoning feeling of abandonment among Gazans.
“Is there a way to say we are going from bad to worse to a catastrophe?” asks Mkhaimar Abusada, a politics professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. He belongs to the minority of Gazans who are employed and receiving full salaries.
Meanwhile, apartment buildings and businesses, including part of Tilbani’s factory – which was hit by Israeli missiles during the most recent of a trio of wars with Hamas in the last 10 years – still lie in semi-ruins waiting for the funds and building materials needed to complete rebuilding.
The Hamas-Fatah dispute has further hobbled the fragile economy. Cash-strapped Hamas has cut the salaries of its 43,000 employees by 40 percent, while Fatah is cutting the salaries of its 60,000 Palestinian Authority (PA) workers by 30 to 50 percent. That's seen as a bid to pressure Hamas to accept its conditions for the reconciliation deal, which would see the PA take back control of Gaza.
UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov reportedly warned this month that if the PA did not take control there, “Gaza risks exploding in our face again, this time in a far more deadly and violent manner than in the past.”
Similarly, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, last week urged the Israeli cabinet to act, warning that Gaza was teetering on the edge of collapse, a potential danger to Israel.
Those inside Gaza say the best thing Israel could do to help would be to end the blockade it imposed in 2007 after Hamas pushed Fatah out of Gaza in a round of bloodletting. The fighting left deep scars and resentments between the rivals that are proving difficult to mend, despite a reconciliation deal signed this fall.
Although Israel is no longer physically present in Gaza – it withdrew its forces and settlements in 2005 – it controls the border crossings into Israel, its airspace, and territorial waters. The rationale for its blockade, which it has alternately eased and tightened over the years, is that Hamas is still bent on Israel’s destruction. Tensions over the blockade, and over periodic rocket-fire and attempted infiltrations from Gaza, have resulted in three Israel-Hamas wars that have been devastating for the strip's residents.
Miram Marmur, a spokesperson at Gisha, an Israeli non-profit that works to promote freedom of movement for Palestinians, calls the blockade “a policy of economic warfare against the strip” that she says is part of a larger Israeli goal to economically and politically cut off Gaza from the West Bank.
In 2006, in response to the kidnapping of one of its soldiers, Israel bombed Gaza’s main electricity plant. The attack crippled Gaza’s electricity infrastructure, which has never fully recovered. Since then Gaza’s electricity needs have only increased as its population has swelled, while the grid continues to deteriorate. More recently, the Palestinian Authority partially cut its payments to Israel for imported electricity for six months, leading to even more blackouts.
Egypt's focus diverted
The crisis has also been exacerbated by the breakdown of talks between Fatah and Hamas. Partially to blame, say analysts, is Egypt, which was shepherding the deal but is now absent as it focuses on fighting Islamist insurgents in Sinai and next month’s presidential election.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has taken a tough approach to Hamas, wary of its ties to radical Islamic elements inside Egypt. Egypt destroyed Hamas’ smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, which were extremely lucrative for Hamas and were a way to circumvent Israel’s blockade. Egypt’s refusal to keep its border crossing with Gaza continuously open has also been a major stranglehold on the economy.
Meanwhile the bickering between Fatah and Hamas intensifies.
“Basically there is a political vacuum so no one is taking responsibility for the hardship in Gaza,” says Professor Abusada. “Everyone is blaming one another.”
“My concern is that everyone is viewing Gaza as a kind of laboratory to see how people will react rather than treating them as human beings whose rights should be respected,” said Sari Bashi, Israel Palestine advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “Israel bears primary responsibility because it is the one controlling the borders, but also the Palestinian Authority and Hamas bear responsibility because they can and should do better.”
President Donald Trump’s threats to cut funds for the Palestinians, specifically through UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, if the Palestinians don’t return to peace talks with Israel, is also fueling anxiety.
In Brussels, at an emergency meeting of donor countries, Israel recently proposed a billion-dollar plan to help rehabilitate Gaza. According to the plan, based on the recommendations of humanitarian organizations, Israel would help build water desalination plants and fortify electricity and natural gas lines as well as help upgrade an industrial zone at Erez, Israels’ main border crossing with Gaza.
But donors to the Palestinians have been hesitant lately to donate more funds to Gaza. Many consider the crisis to be politically manufactured, by both Palestinian infighting and by Israel, says Gerald Rockenschaub, head of office of the World Health Organization in the West Bank and Gaza.
An emergency campaign for funding has been launched with the hope this might help solve the most burning humanitarian needs in the short-term.
“But only a political solution can lead to a more permanent and sustainable solution,” says Mr. Rockenschaub.
On the streets of Gaza, meanwhile, there is growing talk of a mass, peaceful demonstration along the border fence with Israel. By the tens of thousands, people would stream toward the fence with empty plates in their hands. “To symbolize their hunger,” says Abusada. “This is one of the scenarios on the table – something has to happen to end this.”