GAZA CITY, Gaza — Life under Israel’s blockade is hard for the vast majority who live in this hot, dusty patch of earth where 1.5 million Palestinians are crammed into refugee camps and ramshackle homes that surround some elegant high-rises and hotels, mostly populated by a small, political elite.

The majority of families live without electricity for at least eight hours a day. Most get by on basic food rations, such as flour, sugar, rice, oil and canned meat, which are provided by the United Nations. The sick are often forced to cross into Egypt, on the rare occasion that border is open to them, for medical treatment not available in Gaza. Construction materials desperately needed to repair homes damaged by the Israeli military offensive and air strikes are prohibited under the blockade and often scavenged and recycled from destroyed buildings.

Even fish, the lifeblood of this coastal community, is in short supply as fishermen are largely prevented from their trade by the Israeli naval blockade. This once thriving fishing port has reportedly been reduced to a net importer of fish.

All of this suffering has gone on for three years without the international community taking much notice.

That is, until last week when a Turkish-led flotilla of aid to Gaza was blocked by Israeli navy commandos in an raid that killed nine activists and was condemned around the world. Suddenly, the international media spotlight was focused on Gaza, much to the surprise of the people who live here.

“We mourn with the families of the flotilla heroes, and we pray the siege will be broken so we can rebuild our homes,” said Nujud Hamad, who lives with her husband and six children in an unstable, partially destroyed home that was struck by an Israeli missile during last year’s war.

Israel’s land and sea blockade on Gaza is aimed at isolating Hamas, an Islamic resistance group that violently seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, after winning a majority in Palestinian elections. Hamas supports suicide bombings and rocket attacks on civilians and has vowed the destruction of Israel.

Hamad’s husband works as a taxi driver and, for a few months after the war, the family had rented a home, but the cost proved too expensive. When the Hamads moved back into their derelict home in the spring of 2009, they took out a bank loan to buy cement smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. They used it to patch up holes in the two rooms that were still livable. Hamad’s five-year-old son pleaded not to return, fearing that the house would once again be struck by an Israeli missile.

All around the Hamads’ home is land that once supported flourishing farms of fruits, vegetables, and olive trees. Most of this farmland, as well as homes near the border, has been razed by Israeli bulldozers over many years. The Israeli government has argued that these farmlands often conceal militants who have fired thousands of crude, unguided rockets into Israel.

A 20-minute drive south of Beit Hanoun, in Gaza City’s affluent seaside neighborhood, life looks much easier. Electric generators in high-rise, elevator-equipped apartments ensure 24-hour electricity for those who can afford it. Coffee shops and some fancy restaurants cater to the elites, many of whom work for international development organizations.

One such location, the Roots Club, was recently featured in an Israeli government press release on the better-than-reported living conditions in Gaza. It highlighted the restaurant’s posh atmosphere and elaborate menu offerings. Last week, on a weekend evening at 7 p.m., only five patrons dined at the Roots Club. Co-owner Wael Al Shorafa said the restaurant has not turned a profit in four years and pays its workers “pocket money.”

Down at the Gaza City fishing port, however, signs of affluence disappear — the harbor is littered with abandoned boats but the Hamas government recently cleared war debris and installed outdoor lighting in anticipation that the aid flotilla would make it through.

Despite its once-thriving fishing industry, Gaza is now a “net fish importer,” according to the Associated Press. Fishermen who exceed the three-nautical-mile blockade in search of deeper water and better catches are fired upon by Israeli gunboats.

Mahfouz Kabariti is a former Gazan fisherman who converted his vessel into a tour boat for schoolchildren because he found it impossible to earn a decent living. He hopes his new business will bring some joy to a traumatized society. Other Palestinian entrepreneurs have opened “fishing farms” as a result of the naval blockade.

Further south down Gaza’s coastline, the overwhelming stench of raw sewage in a seaside valley impels drivers to shut their car windows even on scorching hot days. About 120 million liters of semi-treated waste water gets pumped into the Mediterranean Sea every day, in part because Israel has prohibited the importation of spare parts, pumps and equipment needed for cleaning the water.

“We had these problems before the siege, but not in the volumes we are facing now,” said Majed Ghannam, the Quality Assurance Manager at the Coastal Municipality Water Utility, which receives much of its funding from the World Bank.

Hospitals across Gaza likewise report that they lack dozens of specialized medicines for patients. Following the flotilla tragedy, the World Health Organization put out a press release listing hundreds of items waiting to enter Gaza for up to a year, including CT scanners, x-rays, fluoroscopes, infusion pumps, medical sterilization gasses, laboratory equipment, and uninterrupted power supply batteries.

Gazan patients who require medical treatment abroad must first get approval from the Fatah-controlled Ministry of Health. If this approval is granted and the treatment is arranged, the patient must either travel through Egypt, whose border is typically open only once a month, or through Israel, whose security clearance process for “nonemergency” medical cases can take months.

One such patient, a villager named Suhail Zaaneen, suffers from a serious but treatable spinal condition that is causing him to slowly lose sensation in his limbs. His condition has reached a critical point, and if he does not get emergency surgery soon, he could suffer permanent paralysis. Zaaneen has been accepted at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem, but has been waiting for Israeli security clearance for more than two months.

Nearby the sewage valley in central Gaza is the refugee camp of Deir Bala and the tin-roofed home of Mustafa Namrooti, his wife and eight children. Like almost 50 percent of Gazans, Namrooti is unemployed. Ten years ago, he used to have a “good life” working 20 to 25 days per month as a construction worker in Israel. His home, he says, used to have a refrigerator.

Now, Namrooti works once or twice a month on building projects in Gaza. Since construction materials are forbidden under the Israeli blockade, these projects typically utilize low-quality stones scavenged from Gaza’s abundant destroyed buildings combined with cement smuggled from Egypt.

In the southernmost tip of Gaza lies the city and refugee camp of Rafah, where alleyways are riddled with bullet holes — some from the first and second intifadas against the Israeli occupation, some from the 2007 civil war between Hamas and Fatah, and some from last year’s war between Israel and Hamas militants, which claimed the lives of 13 Israelis and about 1,400 Gazans.

Along Rafah’s border with Egypt, plainly visible to all, white tents cover the entrances to hundreds of smuggling tunnels, some of which are large enough to bring luxury cars into Gaza. Throughout the three-year blockade, Egypt and Israel have seemingly allowed this dangerous, illegal lifeline to proliferate, despite the likelihood that the tunnels are also bringing weapons. A subterranean barrier currently under construction by Egypt seeks to stop the tunnels once and for all.

The tunnels have attracted desperate workers from across Gaza and have become a major source of revenue for the Hamas government. Hamas charges tunnel owners an annual license fee of 10,000 shekels (about $2,600) and imposes heavy taxes on the estimated 80 percent of imports — including most foods, appliances and luxury items banned under the Israeli blockade — that come into Gaza via tunnels.

In mid-April, community activists in Rafah organized Gaza’s first ever demonstration against child labor in the smuggling tunnels. While many Gazans blame the Israeli blockade for causing economic desperation that fuels child labor, the posters carried by demonstrators called upon parents and tunnel owners to “give children back their childhoods.”

Related Worldview pieces about the Gaza blockade:

Opinion: Israeli diplomat Nadav Tamir writes for GlobalPost that the people on board the flotillas are not all peace activists.

Opinion: GlobalPost columnist Mohamad Bazzi says the Israeli blockade must end.

Analysis: GlobalPost columnist Michael Goldfarb examines how U.S. and Israeli interests diverge when it comes to the blockade.

Related Stories