GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — In the small central Gaza town of Deir el Belah, one family has made a cottage industry out of green innovation.
“There was a period in Gaza when there was no gas or you had to wait for hours in line to get gas. So we made the oven according to our needs,” said Maher Youssef Abou Tawahina, who, along with his father, runs a hardware shop in town.
Abou Tawahina is referring to a solar-powered oven that he and his family invented two years ago. The oven, which sits in the family’s backyard, takes five minutes to heat up using electricity. Then, its glass ceiling uses the sun to continue the heating process. The oven is not quite hot enough for baking bread, he said, but it's perfect for roasting chicken.
The idea of the solar-powered oven was so well received around Deir El Belah that orders poured in from around the neighborhood. Abou Tawahina said that he and his father built over 30 of them until the insulating glass became unavailable on the market.
A dozen miles up the road, in northern Gaza City, high energy costs also drove Waseem El Khazendar to innovate for his own survival.
When gasoline in Gaza reached $4 per liter, El Khazendar said, he could hardly afford to drive his car, even within the tight confines of Gaza.
As a result, El Khazendar, who was trained as an engineer in Cairo, created Gaza’s first-ever electric car.
His innovation made waves throughout Gaza. Palestinians flocked to his office to see the car. Local news outlets, too, were fascinated.
El Khazendar, however, eventually parked his little electric Peugeot in the wrong place — a factory his family owned in north Gaza, when the war between Hamas and Israel began. The Israeli air force bombed the factory, destroying the car.
These are Gaza’s green entrepreneurs.
In this isolated and war-torn territory, however, they are few and far between. Hamas, which effectively runs Gaza, is crushing green initiatives that might contradict the group’s message that Palestinians here are suffering because of an Israeli blockade of goods along its border.
“The policy of Hamas is to show we are not developing,” said Fouad El-Harazin, a Palestinian-American who founded the National Research Center, an organization in Gaza that is trying to find the funding and supplies to kick start a solar energy project here.
“We depend on Israel with everything,” he added. “We want to depend on ourselves.”
El-Harazin, among others, said that a green Gaza could mean an independent Gaza. But while Israeli border restrictions make importing solar energy equipment difficult, it is Hamas that is actively working against green energy projects here.
“Hamas will say, ‘Why did you do that? Do you want to show we have good development? Take it down!’” El-Harazin said.
Israel enacted its blockade on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took control of the area in what amounted to a military coup. With Gaza’s other neighbor, Egypt, also participating in the blockade, few goods make it across the border, meaning that many products — including construction materials like cement — have become scarce here.
Much of the international community has condemned the blockade, saying it creates a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep political pressure on Hamas, which lists the destruction of the Jewish state among its chief priorities.
Switching to green energy and building techniques, analysts said, could help Gaza thwart Israel’s obstruction.
A recent project by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza aimed to build houses using mud instead of cement and steel, which are on the list of items Israel prohibits from entering Gaza.
New houses are essential for Palestinians to keep up with their booming population. Palestinians have also, for the most part, been unable to rebuild houses damaged or destroyed in last January’s war with Israel.
So with a local company providing the design work, the United Nations’ relief agency began its project to build mud houses.
“At first the local government encouraged using mud as alternative building material because cement and steel were not allowed to enter Gaza,” said Ahmed Mohaisen, a professor of architecture at the Islamic University of Gaza.
Quickly, though, the government had a change of heart.
“They were afraid that when the international community saw that the people had found another way to build buildings, the pressure would go down for Israel to open the gates,” Mohaisen said.
While both Hamas and Israel have all but ensured that alternative energy projects can’t progress in Gaza, some small-scale entrepreneurs have managed to achieve some small degree of success.
El Khazendar, whose green innovation became a casualty of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, isn’t sure he’ll build a new electric car, saying that he’s too devastated by the loss of the last one.
He does, however, offer words of encouragement to future Palestinian green innovators, suggesting that the common man controls the future of Gaza’s environmental movement, despite an adversarial government.
“Because you need it, you do it,” El Khazendar said. “If I do it, many people can do it.”
Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.