Early Monday morning in Gaza
city: the streets are sunny and quiet. As men and women walk to
work, a smattering of cars drive through the city, but the vast
majority of Gazans are on foot. Pedestrians stroll past vehicles
that are double, even treble parked against the broken
side-walks, and the distinctive yellow Gaza taxis are few and
very far between.
Sa'ed Mohammed Al Gherbawi
runs Al Gherbawi taxis, and is already behind his desk at the
city centre taxi office. "My family has been running taxis in
Gaza for forty years, and I've been working here since 1983" he
says. "We have a good business, with fifteen cars and twenty
drivers. But we cannot operate without fuel. When the benzin
deliveries were cut in February, we started to rely on diesel;
but in the middle of April the diesel supplies were cut too, and
now we can only afford enough diesel to keep one of our cars
running full time. We manage to run another two cars on domestic
cooking gas. But that is all we have now – three cars operating
out of fifteen."
Fuel shortages are nothing new
in Gaza. Israel has been deliberately restricting fuel
deliveries to the entire Gaza Strip since October 2007. But
these latest restrictions are unprecedented. During April this
year, Israel stopped all fuel deliveries to Gaza for a total of
25 days, and permitted only miniscule deliveries during the
remaining five days of the month. In total, 152,000 litres of
benzin entered Gaza in April, less than 5% of the overall daily
need, and 33,280 litres of diesel, which is 9.5% of the overall
daily need. Fuel prices have subsequently rocketed. Diesel has
gone from 100 Shekels ($25) per twenty litres to 350 Shekels
(almost $100) in the last eight weeks, whilst benzin, which the
majority of cars run on, is now totally unavailable. Black
market fuel prices are even steeper. Across the Gaza Strip gas
stations have closed, and up to ninety percent of cars are now
off the roads, overwhelming the skeletal public transport
services, and forcing schools and universities to suspend
teaching because students and teachers can't get to their
lessons. Throughout the Gaza Strip the streets are piled with
rotting, stinking garbage, because all Gaza municipalities have
now suspended collection services due to lack of fuel.
Collective punishment of a
civilian population is illegal under international human rights
and humanitarian law, but Gazans are being forced to walk to
their work, homes, schools, hospitals, and everywhere else they
need or want to go. Sick and injured patients, including those
who need life-saving treatment, risk being stranded without
ambulances, which have now been forced to restrict their
services. Patients have sometimes been forced to ride donkeys or
mules in order to reach hospitals for emergency treatment.
weeks ago the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA),
which distributes food and medical aid across the Gaza Strip,
was forced to temporarily suspend food distribution due to lack
of fuel. UNWRA says it has been "Pushed to the brink" by the
deliberate fuel cuts, and now has just enough fuel to continue
operating for the next twenty days.
After almost two years of
living under Israeli siege, Gazans are creative with the
resources they do have. Drivers who need benzin have converted
their cars to run on domestic cooking gas, and diesel drivers
have even resorted to converting their vehicles to run on
cooking oil. But these conversions are often primitive, and
dangerous as the vehicles weren't originally manufactured for
gas or cooking oil. Cooking gas is highly volatile, whilst the
fumes from cooking oil are rank, can cause severe nausea and,
according to some doctors, are also potentially carcinogenic.
At the Gherbawi taxi office,
Sa'ed is on the phone, apologising to another customer for the
lack of taxis. One of the drivers, fifty year old Abu Khalil,
has worked with Gherbawi taxis for almost twenty five years.
"When business is good I make about 1,100 Shekels ($275) a
month" says Abu Khalil. "But I haven't worked at all for the
last five days. I've been at home, sleeping, because there is
nothing else to do. Now I walk to the taxi office hoping for
work, and then I walk home again."
Sa'ed Al Gherbawi says he now
has to turn down 90% of requests for taxis. "We have to ask
people where they want to go before we can agree to take them.
And now we are actually receiving more requests than ever,
because a lot of car owners have no gas and they need taxis
too!" But he remains defiantly hopeful that his business will
survive until fuel does eventually arrive in Gaza.
"My family has run this firm for forty years, and the important
thing is that we have a lot of long-term customers who want us
to stay open, and good drivers." he says. "For now we will
manage on diesel and cooking gas, even though I have to use the
cooking gas from my own home."
morning in Gaza city in Photos:
Students en route to school
Young Gazans waiting for supplies of domestic
Queue for gas station in Gaza city