Palestinians in a makeshift, rubble-strewn home in Gaza’s Forgotten Neighborhood, an extreme example of Gaza’s poverty. More Photos »
‘Forgotten Neighborhood’ Underscores the Poverty of an Isolated Enclave
By JODI RUDOREN
GAZA CITY — In the Forgotten Neighborhood, houses have walls but no floors: people sit, eat and sleep on the sand.
One resident, Maliha Hjila, is not sending her 14-year-old twin daughters to school this year because she has no money for books or backpacks. Sameer Malaka’s 7-year-old son, Saqer, started first grade last week, but without a new shirt, pants or shoes. “There is no word to describe how difficult it is when your kid asks for something and you can’t,” said Mr. Malaka, who has not worked for years.
During Ramadan last month, several neighborhood families slaughtered a lame horse and used its meat for kebabs because they could not afford beef or lamb; some mornings, Reem al-Ghora did not wake her daughters for the predawn, prefast meal, she said, “because there was no food.”
A report issued Aug. 27 by the United Nations mission in Gaza questioned whether the 139-square-mile area will be “a livable place” in 2020, citing shortages of food, water, electricity, jobs, hospital beds and classrooms amid an exploding population in what is already one of the most densely populated patches of the planet. But for thousands of Gaza’s poorest residents, like those who live in the forlorn crop of cinder-block or rusted-zinc shacks built illegally on government land and known as the Forgotten Neighborhood, “It’s unlivable before then — even today,” as Ms. Hjila put it.
There are certainly less-livable slums in Africa, South Asia or in Delhi, India’s financial center, or Cairo, just across the desert, but here in Gaza poverty is a particular kind of political football. Some see it as a sure sign that Israeli restrictions on trade, fishing and travel make the place a concrete prison. Others say Gaza already attracts far more attention and international aid than other impoverished regions of the world, and that it is corruption, mismanagement and infighting among Palestinian factions that repress Gaza’s living standards.
The Forgotten Neighborhood, where about 40 families have settled over the past four years near a municipal slaughterhouse in southern Gaza City, is an extreme case. Much of the strip has seen a building boom since Israel eased its blockade two years ago, and the smuggling tunnels from Egypt are thriving once again after being closed briefly last month because of a terrorist attack on the border.
But despite these increased economic opportunities, the report by the United Nations office in Gaza says the situation is worse now than in the 1990s and due to deteriorate further as the population surges to 2.1 million over the next eight years. The United Nations report found that gross domestic product per capita was down (to $1,165 in 2011 from $1,327 in 1994, adjusted for inflation) and unemployment up (near 30 percent over all now, and much higher for women and young people).
Israeli officials have been harshly critical of the United Nations operation in Gaza, which they view as pro-Palestinian and hostile to Israel’s security concerns. In the 2009 Gaza war, Israeli shells killed 40 people at a United Nations-run school in Gaza, which created severe strains between Israel and the organization’s bureaucracy.
Whatever the reasons for Gaza’s economic woes, there is little doubt that some in the territory are suffering.
Last weekend, a desperate 18-year-old who could not find work beyond peddling potato chips set himself on fire outside Al Shifa Hospital and later died of his burns.
Al Shifa, the largest of Gaza’s six public hospitals, is overcrowded and lacking in resources, with 2,000 patients a day for 750 beds; chronic shortages of antibiotics, anticoagulants and even formula for premature newborns; and intubation kits that expired in November 2011. “The only thing available enough here is patients,” mused Dr. Nidal Moussa, a surgeon, during a tour the other day.
Many in the Forgotten Neighborhood and throughout Gaza blame Israel, which captured the territory in 1967 and occupied it until a unilateral withdrawal in 2005, but still controls utilities and regularly strikes people and places it suspects are connected to terrorism. But many also fault the Hamas government, which wrested control of the strip in 2007, for failing to reconcile with the Fatah faction that runs the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and for failing to address the problems that plague daily life.
Hamas itself is at a critical crossroads. Hopes for improved relations with Egypt’s new Islamist government, including a proposed free-trade zone, have yet to yield fruit. Attempts at a cease-fire with Israel are constantly thwarted by rogue militant groups. And longstanding support from Syria has disappeared amid that country’s chaos.
That the situation is not far worse is due largely to aid from overseas and, especially, the United Nations, which still providesfood aid to some 1.1 million of the 1.64 million residents who remain classified as refugees generations after their families left what became Israel in 1948.
Ms. Ghora, the woman in the Forgotten Neighborhood who did not wake her daughters during Ramadan, gets five sacks of flour and three of sugar as well as rice, oil and other staples from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency every three months. She and her husband, who is awaiting surgery for a back injury, and their 11 children — ages 7 months to 17 years — live in three rooms with roofs of palm leaves and wood planks, both of which leak in winter. They have no refrigerator.
“I live the worst days in my life,” Ms. Ghora said. “I visit my sisters. They have furniture; they have a fridge, a TV, plants — I don’t like to visit anybody anymore. When I see people who have good living I wonder, what was our fault?”
A few weeks ago, during the holy month of Ramadan, a group of her neighbors bought an injured horse for about $15. It yielded about 90 pounds of meat for kebabs or Fattah, an Egyptian rice dish, feeding a dozen families, for the price of two pounds of beef.
“I have never bought fresh chicken meat. I do not have money for that,” said Abu Ismail Hassan, who slaughtered the horse, and has 18 children from three wives. “The horse flesh is fresh, and to me, it’s better than frozen chicken.”
Eating horse is culturally taboo here, though not banned by religious law. Majdi Dhair, head of preventive care in Gaza’s Health Ministry, said the main concern was unregulated slaughtering in the streets, since the horse may bear diseases easily transmitted to humans.
Yasmine Gharaby, 26, said her husband “tricked me and told me that it was beef” until after she had finished her meal. “I vomited because I could not imagine that I had eaten horse meat,” Ms. Gharaby said. “But on the second day, we cooked some more horse meat, and it was O.K.”
The residents of the Forgotten Neighborhood live a primitive existence. Ms. Hjila, who is divorced and earns $5 a day selling candy, dumps sewage in a knee-deep hole in her courtyard. Camels and sheep are corralled adjacent to children’s quarters. Water and electricity are pirated.
Hamas sent demolition orders shortly after the families began settling there, and again five months ago, but the bulldozers have not yet arrived.
So they plod on. Mr. Malaka, whose son started first grade without new clothes, chooses between sleeping in a stifling cement room or dragging a thin mattress to the roof. At least there he can escape the sand.
“Living on sand — it’s not clean. It will be nicer for the kids when there is a floor,” said Mr. Malaka, a father of six who said he used to work in a brick factory but was sidelined by kidney problems.
“Even if I was working, I would make 40 shekels a day,” about $10, he added. “What can I do with 40 shekels? Bringing food or water — or building a floor?”
Fares Akram contributed reporting.