Walking into a supermarket in Gaza might come as a great surprise for a person visiting the coastal enclave for the first time. At first glance, the visitor would be amazed by the level to which the shelves are packed with all kinds of products, ranging from basic food supplies to expensive chocolates and Coca-Cola. A father pushing a heaped stroller, or a toddler restlessly pulling her mother's hand and pointing at a lollipop, are scenes one is likely to encounter.
A closer look into the shelves, however, reveals a paradox that finds a manifestation in almost every aspect of life in Gaza. On the surface, everyone seems to be normally going about their daily lives, but even purchasing behaviors are controlled by Israel. The Israeli government brags about the truckloads it allows into the Strip through the Karem Abu Salem commercial crossing point, but it always forgets, deliberately or not, to mention that the products that enter the Strip through this very crossing are mostly marked with 729, the made-in-Israel barcode.
The same story repeats itself in the fishing sector. A broad look shows Palestinian fishing boats dotting the sea in summer evenings. But the fact is that these fishermen continue to suffer from the Israeli-imposed restrictions aimed at setting off-limits to their activity. The list of Israel's restrictive and intrusive measures is too long to be covered in a single essay.
First-time visitors are usually lured by this façade of normalcy. Many wonder how a territory under siege can have all that it has, and the supermarket example is often cited to prove that the blockade is not as bad as is often publicized in the media.
This simplistic view of the terms "siege" and "occupation" make it necessary to clear out some of the common misrepresentations of what it means to force a population of 1.6 million to live under a military siege and occupation for more than five and sixty years respectively.
First, it is important to note that life under siege does not mean that the population in question is necessarily starving. However, it necessarily means that this population constitutes a huge consumer market to its jailer — Israel in this case.
The Palestinian people in Gaza are forced to import and buy Israeli goods. With Israel's restrictions on local production and its more-than-once bombardment of Palestinian factories, it has become almost impossible for the besieged population to use available resources for local production.
Prior to Israel's deadly assault on the Turkish aid flotilla in late May 2010, Israeli products barely reached the Strip. But after a massive wave of criticism that was hailed on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he vowed to "ease" the blockade. Netanyahu fulfilled his promises. What followed was a tremendous inflow of Israeli goods that continues to be pumped in to this day.
The problem associated with consuming the goods of the occupying authority has two faces at least. Israeli products are high-priced, and, with few alternatives in place, Palestinians are forced to pay more for products that could be much cheaper if produced locally. A report released by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics on the eve of the International Population Day in November revealed a poverty rate of 38.8% among Palestinian individuals in Gaza in the first quarter of 2012.
This means that 38.8% of Gazan people cannot afford the prices charged for the goods. For them, the siege is more than whether the supermarket shelves are crammed; it is the fact that it makes them poor and causes difficult life conditions.
Due to the higher quality of Israel's exports to Gaza, combined with restrictions on domestic production, local businesses can hardly compete and rapidly lose market share to their Israeli counterparts. With limited amounts of money going for domestic production, Palestinian factory owners do little to enhance the quality of their output.
The more complex face of the problem lies in that Palestinians not only boost Israel's economy, but also make the occupation less costly. Israel, which denies the Palestinian people in the occupied territories the right to vote in the country's elections, controls what they eat and how they furnish their houses. Palestinians are made to fund the illegal settlements in the West Bank and deadly assaults such as that waged against Gaza in November, to name only two.
Mainstream media constantly ignores these facts and focuses on what it dubs as fancy resorts and hotels in the Strip. Here, it is worth noting that the five-star hotel Israel relentlessly uses to counter accusations of collective punishment was established under the auspices of the Palestinian multi-millionaire and Palestinian Authority-affiliated businessman Munib al-Masri. The hotel is mostly attended by diplomats and politicians who visit Gaza as well as an upper-middle class Gazan minority.
Living under siege does not result in a famine such as that in Somalia and other parts in Africa. It results in deteriorated living conditions and forced consumerism of the besieged population. Moreover, Israel's siege has cut Gaza off from the rest of Palestine and the world. Therefore, humanitarian and Western-funded projects help improve life conditions in the short-term only. A long-term solution can be reached when Israel abides by its obligations under international law.
Rana Baker, 21, is a student of Business Administration in Gaza. She writes for the Electronic Intifada.