Egypt's Tremors Felt in Gaza

By Bill Corcoran, president ANERA

This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post 2/8/2011

There is little doubt the events unfolding in Cairo are reverberating across the region. The impact is not just political. 

Gaza, which shares a border with Egypt, has already felt the impact.  The political upheaval next door dominates conversations and occupies the minds of many.  They worry about their security and their well-being.

Since Israel’s closure of Gaza nearly four years ago, it has been nearly impossible for Palestinians to leave the area to visit family, travel overseas, seek medical treatment or pursue their studies and business ventures. Many have looked toward Egypt as a way out after that border crossing was eased last year.  The newly tightened border control makes it even harder than usual for cancer patients to travel to Cairo for treatment or for students to return to their studies.

Israel’s four-year closure has restricted the amount of basic goods going into Gaza. That encouraged the trade in goods smuggled in through a network of tunnels built along Gaza’s border with Egypt. When the protests erupted in Tahrir Square, Egyptian security increased its presence in the Sinai and the Egyptian border town of Rafah. That disrupted the flow of trucks to the crossing where the goods eventually found their way through the tunnels into Gaza, especially fuel, cooking gas and building supplies. Reports from Gaza estimate the bulk of tunnel trade has been suspended or dwindled dramatically for lack of merchandise. The price of building supplies has doubled. Shopkeepers fear a new shortage of basic goods.    

Even before the events in Egypt, ANERA staff reported that the cost of basic items like tomatoes, potatoes and rice had jumped 30 to 50 percent in the past few months.  More than 40% of Gaza farmland remains unusable because of war destruction or inaccessible because of widened security zones along its border with Israel.  Food security has become a key concern for families. ANERA has implemented projects that range from chicken production to home gardens to help ease their concerns but more needs to be done.

Traffic in Gaza is lighter than usual as fuel that is usually smuggled through the tunnels is drying up.  Some fuel does come through Israeli checkpoints but residents say it only meets about one third of Gaza’s needs and costs two-thirds more. Hospital ambulances have no choice but to pay the extra amount. 

Dwindling supplies of fuel also translates into longer electricity cuts – from eight to 12 hours a day in some cases.  It also means less energy to run small generators that keep fresh water pumping into homes.  Deterioration of water pipelines and low water pressure have resulted in an average water loss of 20 to 30 percent. Without the ability to pump in clean water, families would be forced to buy their drinking water from distribution trucks, an added financial burden. 

Despite public statements insisting there are no shortages and urging Gaza’s 1.5 million inhabitants to remain calm, families who can afford it are starting to hoard food and fuel in case the situation worsens.

When the jobless rate averages nearly 50%, paying more for anything – from foodstuffs to fuel – becomes a major challenge. The economic hardship is taking its toll on the well-being of Gaza’s men, women and children.  World health officials say one out of ten children suffer from malnutrition. Eight out of ten Gazans still depend on foreign food aid to survive.

We cannot predict what will happen in the political arena.  But we can and must keep the supplies flowing to help ensure that a vital lifeline of food and medical relief is not disrupted for families struggling to survive.

About ANERA: For more than 40 years, ANERA has been a leading provider of development, health, education and employment programs to Palestinian communities and impoverished families throughout the Middle East.  In FY 2009, the relief and development agency delivered more than $50 million of programs to the people of the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan.