GAZA CITY, Gaza – Ziad Taramsa, 47, arrived at a United Nations aid distribution center just as he had done several times a year for almost a decade.

His donkey cart was piled high with flour, powdered milk, sugar, rice and cooking oil. Exhausted after loading the cart, Taramsa reviewed his tattered ration card to make sure all of his goods were accounted for.

“It’s very difficult,” said Taramsa, “It’s very difficult to find work.”

For Taramsa, the day’s biggest triumph was just showing up when he was supposed to. The United Nations, he said, recently began posting aid distribution schedules on the internet, which he has no idea how to use.

This aid distribution center, run out of the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, is a critical lifeline for many of Gaza’s unemployed. In 2009, the United Nations World Food Program found that about 45 percent of Gazans had no job and that 85 percent depended on some form of aid.

Increasingly, in addition to Israel, many Gazans are beginning to blame Hamas, which has controlled this tiny strip of land between Israel and Egypt since 2007, for their economic troubles, a sign that Israel’s blockade on work and goods appears to be having the desired effect.

“Before five or six years, it was much, much better — until Hamas came here,” Taramsa said.
Gaza’s unemployment woes are not based on any cyclical economic conditions. Rather, they’re based on a more intractable and worrying set of structural and political problems that threaten to push Gaza into a full-blown crisis as its population swells.

Between 1997 and 2007, according to the United Nations, the population of Gaza grew by almost 40 percent, eclipsing growth rates in the nearby West Bank and making it one of the fastest growing places on earth.

Israel used to provide a critical lifeline for the Palestinians of Gaza, allowing many of them to cross the border each day for work. Taramsa worked in Israel before his permission was revoked in 1994 — the last year he held a job.

As Israel’s relations with Hamas remain sour and tit-for-tat violence persists, Gazans are stuck in their coastal enclave with far fewer job opportunities than there are people.

Abou Khalil El Khadar, from the town of Jabaliya, worked in construction throughout Israel for 35 years. In that time, he saved enough money to build a three-story house, which included three apartments that he hoped his three young children would one day inherit.

In 2005, however, the deteriorating political situation caught up with El Khadar and he lost his job when Israel completely closed its doors to workers from Gaza.

“The artery of life was working inside Israel,” he said.

From 2005 to 2008, El Khadar ran a small supermarket out of his house, but his home, which lies within sight of the Israeli border, was destroyed during Israel’s war with Hamas in January of last year.

El Khadar has been unemployed since, and he relies on food aid from CHF International every other month to get by.

Not only is the lack of access to the Israeli job market turning support away from Hamas, he said, it is fueling radical groups in Gaza.

“More pressure on Gaza means that the number of the people going to these radical organizations will increase,” El Khadar said, noting that when jobs do become available in Gaza, they usually go to Hamas members.

Hamas officials, though, say that it is Israel’s blockade of goods, rather than its decision to close its borders to workers from Gaza, that has made so many in Gaza unemployed.

“If construction material would be allowed to cross, then it would create thousands of jobs,” said Ahmed Yousef, a top political advisor to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

“We do our best,” he added. “We are under siege. We create all the jobs we can. When people are under siege, what can they do?”

As peace talks between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority begin again, Hamas has begun a fresh offensive to derail them, launching new rounds of mortar and rocket attacks against Israel and claiming responsibility for an attack on Israelis near the West Bank town of Hebron that left four dead.

For Gazans, the latest violence paints a bleak picture for employment opportunities.

“The government here, the first thing they are looking for is to employ the people,” said El Khadar. “But getting back to Israel is our only opportunity for getting back to work, and that won’t happen soon.” 

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.

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